with Tony W. Cartledge

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Psalm 122

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you.” – Psalm 122:6

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

If you had the power to bring peace to any one city in the world, what city would it be? One might think of American cities torn by racial strife, European cities stricken by terrorist attacks, or Middle Eastern and South Asian cities that are ravaged by war. Any of those cities would welcome the sense of safety and hopeful optimism that comes with peace.

Of all the world’s cities, however, none is more crucial to world peace than the city of Jerusalem. Modern visitors to the Old City of Jerusalem find it divided into Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian quarters. The Old City is only a small part of Jerusalem, however. The more significant divide is between West Jerusalem, controlled by the Israeli government, and East Jerusalem, historically populated by Palestinians.

Since 1949, Israelis have occupied East Jerusalem, ignoring earlier peace agreements while building Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, erecting “separation barriers,” and forcefully annexing portions of East Jerusalem. This has contributed greatly to ongoing strife, not only in Israel and the West Bank, but throughout the world: anger over perceived wrongs against Palestinians fuels much of the rage behind jihadists who bring terror to other cities.

If we should pray for the peace of any city in this hopeful Advent season, we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

A happy pilgrim(vv. 1-2)

Psalm 122 is one of 15 “Songs of Ascents,” generally associated with pilgrims from the surrounding countryside who would travel to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals. Persons living at some distance could visit Jerusalem only rarely, and each pilgrimage was a special occasion to be marked by singing and celebration.

The first verse of Psalm 122 has long been a favorite memory verse used in Sunday School or children’s sermons: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’”

Modern readers typically associate the verse with church attendance, but the original context pictures a time when town or village leaders would have organized periodic trips to Jerusalem, recruiting pilgrims like a modern minister organizing a trip to the Holy Land. Making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem involved long journeys by foot or donkey, camping out along the way. It could be a dangerous undertaking, best done in groups for protection against bandits who preyed on lone travelers.

One such pilgrim, traveling in the company of others, is the likely author of this psalm. He speaks as an individual (vv. 1, 8-9), but also references “our feet” (v. 2) and addresses his companions (v. 6). He was glad to be invited to join the communal pilgrimage, and even happier to find himself “standing within your gates, O Jerusalem” (v. 2).

To this day, pilgrims to Israel and the West Bank often weep at their first sight of Jerusalem. It is hard for a believer to visit Jerusalem and emerge unmoved.

A mighty city(vv. 3-5)

The psalmist, standing inside of the city’s impressive gates, gives voice to unadulterated joy, reciting three reasons for his love of Jerusalem. First, it is structurally impressive: “built as a city that is bound firmly together” (v. 3). The psalm likely dates to a period in the seventh or eighth century, when Jerusalem’s strong walls had been expanded and fortified by defensive towers at crucial points. The city had become prosperous as the center of government and faith, culture and commerce; the economic engine of the surrounding area.

Keep in mind that the psalmist may have hailed from a village or small town, unaccustomed to urban life. If so, the city would have seemed even more splendid to him or her, a breathtaking amalgam of broad avenues, monumental buildings, and crowded markets. Sensing a connection between the majestic city and its powerful God, the author would have resonated with the poet behind Psalm 48:12-14: “Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.”

Secondly, the psalmist – so glad to be in Jerusalem – celebrated its role as the one location to which all “the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD” (v. 4).

Early in Israel’s history, the Israelites offered worship and sacrifice in a variety of places. After the temple was built in Jerusalem, however, Hebrew theologians came to believe that the people should bring their sacrifices, celebrate their festivals, and offer their worship in Jerusalem alone. (See “The Hardest Question” online for more on this.)

This elevated the status of Jerusalem even more, making it a pilgrim site that all faithful Hebrews should visit as often as possible, especially during one or more of the three annual festivals.

Within its walls, Solomon’s temple was an impressive sight, built of skillfully cut stones and columns, gilded with gold at strategic points and gleaming in the sun from atop the temple mount. Public worship took place in the large courtyards surrounding the temple, for only priests could enter the sanctuary itself.

Jerusalem was not only an architectural marvel and host to the sacred temple, but it was also the seat of justice for the Hebrews: “there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David” (v. 5). The use of the plural for “thrones” refers to the respective thrones used by David, Solomon, and their descendants.

David was known for administering justice (2 Sam. 8:15), including a case related to his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14). Absalom, in turn, planned a coup and campaigned against his father, falsely accusing him of failing to render justice (2 Sam. 15:1-6). Solomon was famed for his wisdom pronounced in judgment (1 Kgs. 3:16-28).

Prophets such as Isaiah grew livid when they perceived that justice was not done (Isa. 1:21-26, 10:1-2, among others). Isaiah spoke hopefully of a future ruler who would “not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isa. 11:3b-4, see also Isa. 16:5).

Those who love a righteous God, by definition, also love justice. It’s no surprise that the psalmist celebrated Jerusalem as the center of both spiritual worship and the place were justice could be dispensed.

A prayer for peace(vv. 6-9)

Upon entering a home or city, Middle Easterners typically offered greetings of peace. Before David became king, while appealing to a landowner named Nabal for aid, he instructed his messengers to greet him by saying “Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have” (1 Sam. 25:6). Many years later, as Jesus sent his disciples on mission, he instructed them to find lodging with locally worthy folk. “As you enter the house,” he said, “greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you” (Matt. 10:12-13).

Filled with love for Jerusalem, the psalmist calls his companions to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers’” (vv. 6-7). The plea, in essence, is a prayer for the city to live out the meaning of its name: in Hebrew, yerushalayim means something like “foundation of peace.” The last part of the word is from shalōm, which means “peace,” “health,” or “wholeness.”

Having invited others to pray, the psalmist added his own entreaty and promise. While some believe he was fulfilling a promise to pray in behalf of friends and neighbors who could not make the journey, it is probable that his purpose is much broader: “For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good” (vv. 8-9).

The NRSV gives a wider nuance to the phrase “relatives and friends,” which literally means “brothers and neighbors.” This is appropriate, however, for the psalmist recognized the importance of Jerusalem to the entire community of faith – not just to his relatives and friends back home, but to all who looked toward “the house of the LORD our God.”

The psalmist understood that when Jerusalem experienced peace, the entire country was likely to enjoy security and rest. When the rulers practiced justice and the people sought righteousness, peace would not only prevail in Jerusalem, but pervade the towns and villages of the nation. To pray for the peace of Jerusalem was to pray for the welfare of all, but the psalmist promised to do more than pray: “I will seek your good,” he pledged.

Though much has changed since these words were written more than 2500 years ago, the central truth has not changed: indeed, it has broadened. To pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and to work for it – is not just a wish for the welfare of Israel, but a prayer for the world. NFJ

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for November 27, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Psalm 122



Parent Prep

We all dream of peace; peace in our own lives, in our children’s lives, in our community, and even in our world around us. There are times when peace feels like the furthest thing from coming to fruition. If all we do is dream of peace, it will be the furthest thing away because it won’t happen. Peace comes from action. The Beatitude “blessed are the peacemakers” tells of someone actively seeking out peace. Peace is wonderful to pray for, but you also have to do something about it. If you don’t know where to start, start by creating peace in your home. Then peace will be modeled as you leave there and go other places. If you don’t start at home, other places will be much harder to find peace.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“There Will Be Peace” from Superman IV via www.youtube.com

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Psalm 122