‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’

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.

jerusalem marketIt 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

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4 Responses to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’

  1. Thank you for this David, having had the privilege to visit Jerusalem in January, where we used the Psalms of Ascent as the centre of our worship, hat you say here all makes perfect sense, and helps me put into words what I already grasped spiritually.

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  2. andrewjohnchapman says:

    ‘That continued until the Second World War..’. No, it didn’t. If you read Martin Gilbert’s book on Jerusalem in the 19th century, you will find that the return of the Orthodox (so-called) Jews was ongoing from around 1800 if not before. The return to the land started mid-nineteenth century I think, and then there were successive waves of settlement, up to the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate, followed by large-scale immigration. The homeland for the Jews was created at San Remo 1920, and confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922.

    ‘Bullying and land-grabbing’. The Arabs kept trying to destroy the Jews by invading them. What land were they trying to ‘grab’ before the 67 war? Certainly they took land when war was forced upon them. We took land from the Germans after the Second World War.

    Israel already has Jerusalem as its capital, they don’t need to drive out the Arabs to make it so.

    ‘Those odd-ball, pro-Israeli American preachers on the God Channel who insist on a connection are hermeneutically challenged, to say the least.’ Does that include the Wesley’s, Horatius Bonar, J C Ryle, Henry Grattan Guiness; more recently Derek Prince, David Pawson, Lance Lambert etc etc? J C Ryle: said that the denial of ‘the future literal gathering of the Jewish nation, and their restoration to their own land’ .. ‘is as astonishing and incomprehensible to my own mind as the denial of the divinity of Christ.’

    Regarding καί in Galatians 6.16, here is Ellicott, perhaps the greatest of the nineteenth century commentators on the Greek New Testament: ‘.. it is doubtful whether καὶ is ever used by St. Paul in so marked an explicative force as must here be assigned.. and as it seems still more doubtful whether Christians generally could be called the ‘Israel of God’.. the simple copulative meaning seems most probable’. Likewise, Burton: ‘.. there is, in fact, no instance of [Paul] using Ἰσραήλ except of the Jewish nation or a part thereof.’

    Regarding 1 Peter 2.10, you italicise the article, but it doesn’t exist in the original. In any case, the reference is to Hosea 1, and to the northern kingdom, which was to be scattered and lost for a long time, and not to the Jews, who were to continue as a people.

    Concerning Isaiah 11.11, how can the return from Babylon be descibed as being from Egypt, and Cush, and the islands of the sea?

    As I see it, the most serious problem with your position is that there a lot of Old Testament prophecies which can hardly be read except in a literal physical way, eg Zechariah 14, the regathering of the 12 tribes in Ezekiel 48 etc etc, which you seem to be saying are not actually going to happen as God has said they will. [See Ryle, ‘Scattered Israel to be Gathered’ for a powerful appeal not to neglect the literal sense of Old Testament prophecies.]

    Andrew

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    • We’re clearly poles apart on many aspects of this issue, Andrew. Ultimately, hermeneutics is what it’s all about. I have the utmost respect for the likes of Prince, Pawson and Lambert, but believe they are deeply mistaken on this one — I’ve had more than one face-to-face discussion with Davis Pawson about it! Another problem, I guess, is that we all tend to start with an opinion and then find Bible verses and commentators’ remarks that support it! You will find that my more recent post, ‘Red Herring in Galilee’, explains my own position more fully. Every blessing to you and yours.

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  3. Great post David.
    Keep up the good work.

    Like

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