‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’

19 August 2014

With the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians showing no let-up, Christians are quoting this phrase a lot, chiefly at prayer meetings. So it might be worth a closer look.

It comes from verse 6 of Psalm 122. This psalm is one of David’s ‘Songs of Ascents’, sung by ancient Israelites as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the three annual Jewish festivals.

It is hard for us modern people to grasp the importance of Jerusalem to the Israelites. For them, their country was the centre of the world, and Jerusalem was the centre of their country—‘the city of God’. Later, in the reign of David’s son Solomon, God would establish his localised presence in the Temple at the city’s heart. But even before that, Jerusalem encapsulated the presence of God. Jerusalem was everything.

In Psalm 122 the weary pilgrims had arrived at last. The long and tiring journey behind them, they were finally within the city walls, close to the presence of God, and it was with a sigh of contentment that they exclaimed: ‘Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem’ (v2).

The notion that this city might come to harm was unthinkable. If it were to be overrun by enemies, the Israelites would be separated not only from the city and its Temple, but from their God who lived there. Because maintaining Jerusalem’s peace and prosperity was so vital, the pilgrims would exhort one another, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity’ (v6-9).

Their worst fears, alas, were realised when in 586 BC the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar sacked the city, razed the Temple to the ground and took most of the citizens off into exile in Babylon. God had not answered the prayers for the peace of Jerusalem because Israelite prayers counted for nothing when Israelite lives were marked by blatant disobedience.

Some Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile and, under Zerubbabel, helped build a smaller-scale Temple there. Later, around the time of Jesus, King Herod extended it, creating a huge Temple-complex of stunning scale and beauty. Standard Jewish worship continued there, and Jewish pilgrims still sang Psalm 122 as they made their way up to Jerusalem. Still they prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.

But once again, having rejected their peace-loving Messiah, they suffered violent disappointment. The armies of Rome destroyed both city and Temple in AD 70. Since then, while a few Jews have lived in Palestine, most have been scattered across the nations, maintaining their identity as the Diaspora.

That continued until the Second World War, when six million European Jews were gassed in Hitler’s extermination camps: the Holocaust. The western nations, conscience-smitten, took it upon themselves to exercise their imperialism by creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine in 1948—the project rubber-stamped by the UN.

This was the birth of the modern State of Israel. It was not universally welcomed. Even many Jewish leaders expressed their opposition to it. Certainly it quickly became a concern to the Palestinian Arabs who had been the majority occupants of the territory for centuries. They soon found the Israelis to be bullying and land-grabbing. When the Arabs had had enough and tried to stop it, American financial and military support for Israel ensured that they were decisively beaten—in the Six Day War of 1967—and Israeli expansionist policy moved into a higher gear. Tension and mutual suspicion multiplied, and continue to this day.

Jerusalem remains divided. The Muslim Dome of the Rock sits on the old Temple Mount. The Israeli capital is Tel Aviv, but many Israelis want to see Jerusalem take its place, which would require the Arab presence to be forcibly removed since it is hard to see it ever happening voluntarily.

Meanwhile, many Christians take upon their lips the words of the ancient Israelite pilgrims and tell us we should ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. What do they mean by that?

Some use it in its loosest sense to mean, ‘Pray that the tension and conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East will be resolved and that peace will come.’ That’s fine. We Christians need to pray for that just as we pray for peace in other troubled regions of the world. I myself pray along those lines often.

But many others use it in a sense loaded with dubious overtones. Some believe that the establishment of the modern State of Israel was a fulfilment of prophecy and that God is therefore on the Israeli side. So when they pray for the peace of Jerusalem they are really praying, ‘God, smash the Arabs. Crush the Palestinians. Drive them right out of Jerusalem so that the Israelis can have it as their capital, as you, Lord, have decreed.’

Personally, I find that appalling. For a start, having examined the Scriptures and sought to interpret them soundly, I can’t find the slightest connection between the fulfilment of prophecy and the current State of Israel. Those odd-ball, pro-Israeli American preachers on the God Channel who insist on a connection are hermeneutically challenged, to say the least. Sincere, no doubt, but sincerely up a gum tree.

But there’s worse. Some Christians mistakenly believe that a fearful conflagration in the Middle East is prophesied in Scripture. Many call it Armageddon. All of them see it spelling annihilation for the Arabs and the triumph of Jewish nationalism. If, as they believe, this is God’s declared will, then attempts to foster peace in the Middle East are working against it. So, for them, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ means, ‘God, stir up the tensions to the point that will trigger the final battle, because it’s only after this battle has taken place that peace can come.’

Is that what the Prince of Peace is really after? Never!

How the Middle East situation will work out is anybody’s guess. I don’t believe the Israelis have any right to the land based on now-superseded Old Testament promises. But they are there and we can’t turn the clock back. Every nation on earth has seen its boundaries change over the centuries, always through war, invasion and conflict. How far back do you go to establish the ‘right’ of a people to certain territory? There’s no answer to that question. One could argue forever.

What matters is the current situation and how it can be sorted out. For better or worse, the State of Israel exists, and a key ingredient for peace must surely be the acceptance of that fact by the Palestinian people in particular, and the Arabs in general, who must ditch their determination to wipe Israel off the map. At the same time, the Israelis must set aside their heavy-handed approach to defending their perceived rights and treat their Arab neighbours with a good deal more respect than they have shown so far. And those Arab neighbours, I reckon, would clearly be in a better position to negotiate if they lived in a properly-constituted and defined Palestinian state. So when I pray for the peace of Jerusalem I have something like that in mind.

More than that, I pray that both Israelis and Palestinians will turn in huge numbers to Jesus Christ, who is both Israel’s Messiah and the Lord of the whole world. Can you imagine what a massive turnaround in Arab-Israeli relations that would bring?

For me, praying for the peace of Jerusalem also requires me to widen my prayer-horizons beyond the Middle East. In one sense that tiny patch of territory has ceased to be central. It’s ‘Old Jerusalem’ stuff, whereas the New Testament shifts our focus completely onto something bigger and better: the New Jerusalem.

This is the redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’ that we call the church: the redeemed community. It counts both Jews and Gentiles among its citizens. Divided and denominationalised it might be. Its members hold a variety of views on a myriad issues, both doctrinal and practical. But the bottom line is that all are united in their commitment to Jesus Christ as Son of God, Saviour and King of the world. So I pray for the peace of that Jerusalem. I pray that the church’s influence will increase, and I believe it surely will!

I pray that its influence will touch every conflict-ridden corner of the globe—including Old Jerusalem.

For more on this, particularly in connection with biblical prophecy, see my article Red Herring In Galilee at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/sogredherring.html


Gone With The Wind? – Cremation

18 January 2014

Some Christians get worried about cremation. When their time comes they don’t want to end up at the local crem, they say, ‘because the biblical way is to be buried’.

For the record, I myself don’t give two hoots about the manner of my eventual disposal. I’ll advise my family to go with whatever is quickest and cheapest—to get the funeral over, and at the most economical price, so that they can get on with their lives. And that will doubtless mean a crem job, with atoms of my remains roaring up the chimney and out onto the breeze.

But should I be thinking differently? Is to be buried, rather than cremated, indeed ‘the biblical way’? Quite frankly, I don’t think there is  a ‘biblical way’, as any Bible dictionary will confirm. It does seem that in Israelite society burial was the norm (John 19:40). But not in a hole dug in the earth. Most commonly, bodies were placed in a cave, or in a tomb carved out to be like a cave, the entrance sealed with a large stone. So if you want to be really ‘biblical’, try proposing that to the funeral director! And maybe you should throw in your preference for it to be near a tree (e.g. Genesis 35:8). Or insist that the burial be at the spot where you died (Number 20:1; Deuteronomy 10:6)—difficult if you die on a plane.

Cremation in Bible times was not unknown, either. King Saul and his sons were cremated, then their bones interred (1 Samuel 31:12-13). Generally, though, to be burned meant that you had died in disgrace (Leviticus 21:9; Joshua 7:25). But all this varied biblical material, I’m convinced, is merely descriptive, not prescriptive.

Some Christians worry that, if they aren’t buried, their body won’t be there to be resurrected when Jesus returns (1 Thessalonians 4:16). But think about it for a moment. Given time, a buried body decomposes completely. All cremation does is speed up the process, reducing the body to dust in hours rather than decades. It’s ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ either way.

True, with burial the dust remains in one spot, whereas the ashes from the crem end up goodness knows where, but I don’t think that will be a problem for God. He is omnipotent. For him, regathering your particles of dust from wherever they are—in one spot, floating in the ocean depths following burial at sea (Revelation 20:13), or distributed by the winds to the four corners of the globe—is a walk in the park.

Paul assures us that the Lord Jesus, whose coming we await with relish, has ‘power that enables him to bring everything under his control’, and that this very power will ‘transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body’ (Philippians 3:20-21). So you have nothing to worry about. He’ll put you back together in a trice, while the strains of the last trumpet-call are still hanging on the air.

Christians shouldn’t be sentimental about dead bodies. The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) only as long as the person is alive. Once a person has died, disposal of the body is required, and the manner of it matters not.

One downside of burial, I’ve observed, is the pressure it puts on relatives to visit the grave. I met a man—not a Christian—whose wife died fifteen years ago. He has walked the mile and a half to the cemetery to ‘see her’ every single day since then. That’s desperately sad, and utterly pointless.

We Christians, by contrast, are to be future-orientated. Give the beloved one a good send-off, yes, but then get on with life. While there’s a proper place for a bit of reflection and some tearful memories on anniversaries—even a cemetery visit—we then need to turn round and crack on, because the best is yet to be!


Measuring The Unmeasurable

27 September 2011

I’m a tidy-minded sort of person. I like to see things sorted. Measured. I don’t like vagueness and loose ends.

So I welcome one of the major changes to affect schools and schoolteachers in recent times: the renewed emphasis on the measuring and tracking of pupils’ progress. Not that this approach ends with the pupils: teachers, too, must be ‘performance managed’. And then, from time to time, the whole school gets assessed and categorised according to its results. The inspectors come in, scrutinise everything and everybody, and give you the equivalent of a mark out of ten.

Having been in contact with schools for most of my life—first as a pupil, then as a teacher and most recently as a school governor—I’m happy to see this insistence on standards. It’s a welcome development from the days when too many teachers breezed through each day with barely a hint of planned lessons, and where the mark they gave a pupil at the end of the year wasn’t far from ‘think of a number’.

But there is a danger in the new passion for standards and record-keeping. It is to do with the fact that some things are more measurable than others. Give little Fiona a reading test on a set text. Count the number of mistakes she makes and deduct that from twenty, or whatever, and you have a meaningful mark. You can say with certainty whether she did better than Richard or Shania. But other areas can’t be so neatly assessed.

Richard, for instance, has a younger brother smitten with leukaemia. The whole family has been disrupted for well over a year by the upset: one parent or the other spending nights at the hospital with the sick child; the worry about whether he will come through and live to see another Christmas; related financial issues; and the focus on the sick child that inevitably sometimes robs Richard of attention.

Everyone agrees that Richard’s progress in school has been adversely affected by all this. But how do you take that into account when it comes to school tests and record-keeping? Yes, Richard would have done better with his maths and reading if he hadn’t had to cope with the trouble at home. So do you add a few percent to his actual score to take account of that? If so, how many percent? Probably you shouldn’t, say the purists; you must record only measurable achievement.

So what about the child whose parents are going through a protracted and acrimonious divorce? Home tensions are high. Nerves are jangling. What allowances, if any, do you make for that child when doing the measuring? And what about the boy whose dad, in his forties, collapsed and died of a stroke at work last month, causing the poor lad’s concentration-levels to plummet? How do you fit him into the measuring system?

Teachers, too, have their ups and downs, and there’s no less of a problem in knowing how to take account of hard-to-measure factors in assessing their progress. This year the Head of Geography is happy because she has seen 78% of pupils manage a Grade A, B or C. But after the summer break the pressure is on for her to raise the percentage next year. Indeed, her incremental pay rise may depend on it.

If the new intake proves to be a ‘good cohort’, that is, one with a high average IQ and mostly from stable homes, she can expect to improve on last year’s figures. But what if it’s a ‘bad cohort’? What if there is a high percentage of not-too-bright pupils, many of whom would never make a Grade A, B or C if they stayed in school till they were twenty? And what if, for some reason, a majority of them happen to come this year from dysfunctional families, with attendant emotional and learning difficulties?

The Head of Geography does her very best. She puts extra hours in. She maybe gives after-school tuition to the most needy students. She motivates her departmental staff as best she can. Everybody works their socks off all year but, in the end, the pass-rate at A, B or C turns out at only 61%.

The members of the Performance Management team frown at the figures before them as the Head of Geography enters the room for her annual assessment. ‘What went wrong?’ they ask. ‘This drop in standards can’t be allowed to pass without censure.’

What is the poor staff member to say? Should she tell it like it is? ‘Well, I’m afraid they were a pretty dim bunch this year—the dimmest for years, in fact. And more than half of them are from seriously screwed-up home situations. All of us in the department have worked our very hardest with them, but you can’t expect us to make a work of art out of duff materials.’

Personally, I like that. It’s honest, and it’s probably a fair assessment. Of course, the teacher would use less bald vocabulary and wrap it all up in bland education-speak. But whether you call a spade a spade or an agricultural implement doesn’t alter the basic situation. And if I were on the committee I’d be voting for the Head of Geography to be granted her incremental rise, even though the measurable results fell short of the goals set for the year. After all, this year she and her staff probably worked harder than ever precisely because of the tough materials they had to work with.

The moral of this tale, I suppose, is that while we do well to measure the measurable, common-sense dictates, at the same time, that some key factors in the educational process cannot be measured with precision. And it’s here that a little human warmth and understanding needs injecting into school stats and performance management meetings to oil the cogs in the school machine.

Without it, the system’s in for a seizure.


4 June 2011

A Toronto policeman started it all. In a health and safety talk to students he touched on the issue of sexual attacks on women and dared to say, ‘Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.’

Now, groups of women are marching across major cities in Canada and the USA to champion their right to dress how they want—provocatively or otherwise. They call the events ‘slutwalks’. The topic has crossed the Pond to British TV. One guest on the news this morning took the marchers’ side: ‘The only issue is that rape is wrong,’ she declared. ‘No-one has the right to tell women how they should dress!’

I nearly choked on my muesli, because in my view the Toronto cop deserves a medal for his insight, his reality and his disdain for political correctness.

Yes, rape is wrong. Always has been; always will be. It can never be justified. But once we move beyond that black-and-white tenet we enter a world of grey. A lot of the grey surrounds how sexual desire is triggered, which is different in men and women. I’m making some generalisations here, but women respond largely to who is making the sexual advances, to the atmospherics, to ‘romance factors’. Men, by contrast, are switched on by visual stimuli—and that’s about it.

It’s no good holding forth about how we think things should be in this respect. We need to come down to earth and face realities: this is the way things are. This is how men and women are wired, and nothing is ever going to change it.

So if a girl dresses provocatively—and I don’t need to spell out what that means—any normal guy who sees her is ‘turned on’. Whether she intends to create that effect or not is neither here nor there. It just happens. As far as the guy is concerned, her sexually provocative appearance yells, ‘Come and get me!’

Many men, of course, take control of their impulses. And so they should. But not all men do. Some will react at the most basic level and yield to them. These are the ones who will jump a girl tottering (due to high heels and too many vodkas) down the street at 3am after a clubbing session, drag her into some bushes and give her what they believe she is asking for.

Then there is an outcry. And rightly so, since rape is wrong; full stop. But some of the outcry is unjustified. It comes from indignant women who rave that they want to be treated with more respect and not just as sex objects. Fair enough. Women are more than sex objects and deserve to be treated with respect. But respect has to be earned. And there’s where our friendly Toronto cop chipped in with his advice. Ninety-nine percent of men would, if they were honest, agree with him.

Provocative dress is fine in the marital bedroom, but it doesn’t belong on the streets, or anywhere in public. To drive through any city centre late at night is to drive through a meat market, with acres of naked female flesh on display sending out just one signal to all the males in the vicinity. And women who don’t realise what that signal is—as interpreted by any typical man—need to wise up quickly.

I gather the poor policeman has been forced to apologise for his remarks. No doubt he was thinking of his job and his pension, both of which would likely have been on the line had he refused. But he really had nothing to apologise for. He was wise, he was practical. He was right.

Water on the altar

27 February 2011

I’ve never liked hype, especially in Christian things.

‘Do I hear an Amen to that?’ yells the preacher when he’s said something he thinks deserves one.

‘Amen!’ the congregation dutifully responds. But not me. Yes, I do interject the odd ‘Amen’ from time to time, but only when I feel a strong urge to do so, and so far that has never coincided with a preacher’s prompt.

In fact, any attempt to manipulate a congregation’s emotions turns me right off. A preacher may, for instance,  inject into his voice a pseudo-emotional tremble when he comes to a key sentence, especially if he’s arrived at the compulsory (for some) end-of-meeting appeal. People around me gasp and go all ‘spiritual’, but I feel like groaning, and sometimes I actually do. Or the worship-leader insists that we sing that song again for the twentieth time, but this time on our knees. We all know that endless repetition can numb the mind and produce an altered state of consciousness. It’s hype.

For me, that sort of thing tells me it’s time to exit and visit the toilet. ‘Stop messing with people!’ I want to shout. ‘If God wants to do something exceptional here he’s big enough to do it by himself. He doesn’t need your pathetic help!’ I don’t say it out loud, of course, but I’ve been sorely tempted.

I’ve come to see that the supernatural is, for the most part, delightfully ‘natural’. It happens in the midst of the normal and the routine, when no-one is hyped up or glassy-eyed. Some have even entertained angels without realising it.

So when, at the end of a meeting, I sense a reluctance in most people to rise from their seats and join the coffee-queue, I feel a strong urge to be the first to rise, wander casually to the back of the room and say, ‘All right, Fred?’ to Fred. Later, I hear people say things like, ‘What an unusual sense of God’s presence there was at the end of the meeting, wasn’t there? Nobody wanted to leave their seats.’

Nobody, it seems, except me. Because I don’t think it was really anything to do with a ‘sense of God’s presence’ at all. Maybe some were chewing over what had been preached, which is good. But it was, I think, more a social and psychological phenomenon of some kind than the Holy Spirit at work in any special way—and it could have been triggered by the pseudo-tremble in the preacher’s last sentence or two.

In the light of the above confession I was happy to find, in reading 1 Kings 18, that the great prophet Elijah had his feet firmly on the ground when it came to things supernatural. He didn’t like hype any more than I do. That chapter, of course, describes his great confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It was a contest: whoever’s god brought down fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar would be seen to be the true god.

The prophets of Baal went first. And, boy, were they into hype! They danced themselves into a semi-trance, cavorting round the altar. They cut themselves till they bled and indulged in lots of ‘frantic prophesying’. They no doubt felt ‘the presence of Baal’ in a big way. But unfortunately the fire didn’t fall; the real supernatural didn’t show up.

Then it was Elijah’s turn. You could understand it if he had tried to help God along a bit, taking a few steps to ensure a good fire. He could have chosen only the driest of wood. He could have hidden a few firelighters in among it. He could have secreted a box of matches up his sleeve. He could have stationed one of his supporters nearby with a lens to focus the sun’s rays on the tinder that he had tucked in among the sticks.

But no, he wasn’t having any such nonsense. More than that, in fact, he did everything possible to kill any hype and ensure that God would be seen to send the fire himself: he had twelve ‘large jars’ of water emptied over the sacrifice and the wood!

Water on the altar—I love that! In fact, had I been there to see it I’d probably have shouted an unsolicited ‘Amen!’

Nice U-Turn

20 February 2011

Our current coalition government, I feel, is more of a good thing than a bad one. The Tories and the Lib Dems stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum, so neither party can do all it wants, which means we get steady, middle-of-the-road legislation rather than the more extreme variety we’d get if either party had things all its own way.

Unfortunately that doesn’t stop the Labour Party, now in opposition, from trying to trash everything the coalition does. I’ve always disliked the adversarial nature of our government system, where the party in opposition feels duty bound to scorn every decision made by the party in power. Even when a decision is clearly in the nation’s general interest the opposition will find some way of making it look foolish. I’m not touting here for any party in particular; it was just the same when Labour were in power.

The proposed sale of vast tracts of publicly-owned forest is a recent case in point. It was clearly a money-making idea at a time when the government was trying to get the nation out of debt. But the universal outcry from the public showed them how deeply unpopular this proposal was, and now they assure us that the idea has been scrapped. Good.

And what was the opposition’s line in all this? When the sale proposal was first made they cried ‘Shame!’ and accused the government of sacrificing public amenities on the altar of financial gain. Fair enough. So you’d think they would have been the first to cry ‘Well done!’ when the proposal was dropped. Instead, they pointed the finger of scorn while chanting ‘Weak government’, ‘Climb-down’ and ‘U-turn’.

That’s not good enough, in my view. It tells us that the opposition’s main focus is not upholding what’s best for the nation but making the government look daft. That’s a self-serving and childish attitude, the kind of thing one expects to see in a school playground but not in the halls of Westminster.

Yes, maybe the government should have done a bit more research into public opinion before coming out with the forest-sale proposal. And yes, if a government reverses its policy too often it is going to lose the nation’s confidence and so be legitimately branded weak. But personally I’m delighted that the government had the guts to scrap this particular policy and, even better, to stand up in the House of Commons and bluntly admit, ‘We got it wrong’.

‘Well done!’ say I. When your car’s about to smash into a road-block a U-turn may be a frustrating necessity but it’s also the right and sensible thing to do. That’s what happened here and applause, not scorn, is in order.

A bit of negative confession is a good thing

22 December 2010

I just heard that a young businessman—a distant acquaintance of mine—has gone bankrupt. It has caused immense pain to him, his immediate family, and to the kind folk who, too late in the process, parted with money to help him try and avoid bankruptcy.

One telling feature of the story is that the business had been in financial problems for a very long time before he told anyone about it. Why, I ask myself, didn’t he open up at an earlier stage, in which case the worst might well have been avoided?

Part of the explanation, I’m sure, lies in the fact that he is a committed Christian.

At the start, of course, this was a huge ‘plus factor’ in the situation. His Christian standards ensured that he conducted his business with integrity. Also, it meant that divine help was available, and I don’t doubt that he called on the Lord many a time when things began going wrong.

But being a Christian also brought, I suspect, a ‘minus factor’ to the situation. In certain types of church culture there is strong pressure to be victorious, to be on top of things, to be seen to be the head and not the tail, to win success that will show the world how it’s done, to be people of faith, and generally to be up-beat about everything. And that, alas, makes many a believer reluctant to admit falling short of the ideal. When everybody else is apparently living in victory it’s doubly hard to admit defeat.

Most non-Christians in this young man’s position would probably have been a lot quicker to make the problems known and to seek advice and help early on. Unlike Christians they have no ‘faith culture’ to pressure them, no ‘I’m a winner’ reputation to maintain before their peers.

That’s why I’m all for a modified ‘victory’ culture that leaves room for vulnerability and the admission of failure. Leaders are especially responsible here. If they keep pumping out faith and victory all the time they will actually produce failures more serious than might otherwise have been the case.

Let church leaders, therefore, be judiciously frank about their own weaknesses and difficulties from time to time. A bit of negative confession can do a powerful lot of good.