‘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.

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 here.

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.

crematoriumBut 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!


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.

water on altarIn 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!’

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?

i-cantPart 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.

Yom yom

25 November 2010

No, not ‘Yum yum’. I’m not talking food here; I’m talking God’s word to me about money.

Let me explain. Yom is the Hebrew word for ‘day’, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Doubling it up to yom yom gives a phrase meaning ‘day by day’ or ‘daily’. It occurs in Psalm 68:19 – ‘Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens.’ And that is a verse especially meaningful to me.

yom yomYears ago I was thinking how nice it would be to get a huge financial windfall. I imagined a lawyer calling me to say that my Great-uncle Eustace—who I’d never known existed—had died, that he had been rich, that I was his sole heir and that a couple of million pounds was about to be deposited in my account. Brill! I’d be set up for the rest of my days.

It never happened, of course. Instead I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘Don’t expect anything like that, son. I have different plans for your financial welfare. I’ll take care of you just one day at a time—I will ‘daily bear your burdens’—so you’ll have to trust me one day at a time. Can you manage that?’

I thought I probably could. Yes, I would continue to keep a budget and manage my accounts sensibly, and I would be grateful for any occasional extras that might come my way over and above my regular income—currently my smallish pension. But that said, daily reliance on the Lord would be my bottom line.

This has been my approach to financial security ever since, and the Lord has been true to his word. He puts unexpected extras my way now and again, and I remain solvent and well provided for. Praise him!

Joyless religion

23 November 2010

‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ (Phil 4:4).

That’s an easy command for true Christians to obey. In fact it’s impossible not to rejoice when the Holy Spirit lives within convincing us of the reality of God’s love for us, our relationship with him, the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance of coming glory.

I don’t mean the pseudo-joy of a fixed cheesy grin and a ‘hallelujah’ in every sentence. I mean the deep-seated, unshakable joy that comes from knowing all is well at the level that matters. This is the joy that, when Christians meet together, spills over in heartfelt, exuberant songs of praise to our God.

No other religion knows this. There’s no joy on the faces of ayatollahs. Buddhist monks may claim some inner peace, but their religion produces few smiles. Sikhs and Hindus know how to party, but joy is nowhere to be seen in their temple rituals.

Joy is a Christian hallmark. Let it show!

‘No room in the what?’

20 November 2010

‘In the inn’, of course.

This is the Christmas story we all know and love. Joseph, with Mary at the point of giving birth, arrived in Bethlehem and ended up in a stable because the inn was full. Read it in Luke chapter 2.

The truth is in fact a little different. Biblical scholars have known this for a long time, but traditional versions of the Christmas story die hard and, next December, nativity plays all over the world will stick to the usual line. If you’re more interested in facts than sentiment, read on; otherwise, stop now.

Regarding Joseph and Mary’s accommodation in Bethlehem, consider these items for starters:

  • Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in Bethlehem, the town of his ancestors, simply because of his pedigree, especially as he was a direct descendant of King David.
  • A woman about to give birth draws sympathy and help from any group of people. The citizens of Bethlehem were no exception; no-one would have closed the door on her.
  • Even if accommodation in the town had been a problem, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth lived in a nearby village and they could have fixed to stay there with her and her husband.
  • But they didn’t, because Joseph had had plenty of time to fix accommodation. Contrary to the usual line, he and Mary had been in Bethlehem several days before she gave birth (Luke 2:6) and they were staying in the home of some friends there when her moment came.

katalymaThey were not in an ‘inn’ at all in the sense of a place offering rooms for paying guests—Greek pandocheion. They were with some friends, in their house.

A typical Middle Eastern house had one main room where the family lived and slept, plus a smaller room exclusively for guests, called in Greek the katalyma. This is where Mary and Joseph would normally have been put up but, with all the people in Bethlehem for the census, someone else was occupying it. So the family had graciously invited Mary and Joseph to share their own accommodation—the main family room.

Typically, at one end of this room was a lower-level area where the family’s cow, donkey and few sheep would be sheltered overnight. The animals could eat, if hungry, food placed in small depressions in the floor called mangers. These were at the higher level, just next to the drop to the lower level half a metre below. Sometimes they were made of wood, in which case they could be moved. It was in one of these that Mary placed the infant Jesus.

The reason Mary gave birth to Jesus in their hosts’ family room and laid him in one of the typical mangers there is because ‘there was no room in the katalyma’—the house’s guest room. That room was occupied by other guests.

So we need to revamp our understanding of the nativity account. There was no innkeeper, because this wasn’t an inn. And the birth was where the manger was: in a warm and friendly family home, not in a cold and draughty stable.

It was, however, a typical poor person’s house. The rich had separate accommodation for their animals. Jesus was born, not in a luxury villa but in the peasant-home of some commoners. And that was why, when the angel told the shepherds that they would find the infant Messiah lying in a manger, it was such good news to them. The Christ was in a peasant-home just like their own!

I don’t suppose the nativity plays will ever be re-written; tradition dies hard. But in my view the realities of the nativity just described serve to enrich the story, not to rob it of its power.

[To learn more, see Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, SPCK, 2008, p25ff]

Good old NIV

4 November 2010

With good reason the New International Version has become one of the most popular Bible versions ever: over 400 million copies in print. The NT arrived in 1973 and the OT five years later. I’ve used it ever since.

nivIt has undergone some revisions, a major one being in 1984. Also, Hodder & Stoughton produced an Anglicised edition for British folk who didn’t much care for the original American spellings and occasional odd (to us Brits) vocabulary. Then, starting in 2002 (with the OT in 2006), came the TNIV – Today’s NIV – which moved solidly towards gender-inclusive language wherever appropriate; so Paul addresses his letters to ‘brothers and sisters’, not just to ‘brothers’, because that’s what the Greek adelphoi actually infers. Not everybody liked that, but I thought it was brill and moved over to the TNIV as my ‘regular’ Bible without delay.

Now further change is upon us. The NIV translation and revision committee have most recently produced the 2011 edition. They combined the best of the TNIV and the 1984 NIV into the new version, and both the others are now no longer available. From what I’ve seen, the new version is looking good, and I’m glad I moved over to it. There’s an Anglicised edition, too.

If you’re interested in seeing how the committee approached the gender-inclusiveness issue – and also viewing their general guidelines, with some concrete examples – take a look at this article: http://www.biblegateway.com/niv/Translators-Notes.pdf

The new version continues to be called simply the NIV. I wish it well.

Halloween? No thanks.

1 November 2010

It was Halloween last night and, for once, we enjoyed a quiet evening. No rings of the doorbell at all. The chocolates on the shelf by the front door remained unclaimed.

I can’t say I’m sorry. To be honest I find the whole thing a bit sickening. Why would anybody in their right mind – especially a Christian – want to encourage a fixation with horror, ghosts, werewolves, witches, vampires, skulls and corpses? It is all thoroughly unhealthy. Yes, I know that for many kids it’s just a chance to dress up and collect a few goodies from the neighbours. But it’s potentially the thin end of the wedge, to be followed for some by more serious involvement in the occult, obsession and petrifying fear.

HalloweenThe commercial aspect stinks, too. In my childhood nobody had ever heard of Halloween. It was always bigger in America, of course, and in time British companies realised that here was another chance to make an annual killing. Today the supermarkets are laden with ghoulish costumes and other spooky haberdashery. Whole farms have gone over to pumpkin production.

The BBC couldn’t miss out either. On 31st October the TV featured news items on the rise of paganism and showed footage of modern-day witches prancing about in fields wearing cloaks, muttering to the spirits of the trees and talking about the spells they make each morning to protect their children when they send them off to school.

All this stuff lies at the opposite extreme from the glorious truth that has come to us in Jesus Christ. He is light, and life, and love. He is a million miles from the dark and scary stuff that forms the core of Halloween. Never the twain should meet. I’d like to see Halloween fizzle out completely.

But in the meantime it’s likely to be around for some time. So I suppose we’ll continue to have the chocolates handy, and we’ll hand them out with a cheerful word – and a prayer that God will bless the kids on the doorstep.

Best bliss

29 October 2010

Hymns sung in my childhood and youth regularly come back to me. I usually sang them then with little appreciation of their depth and insight, but now, in my relative old age, I see them for the gems they are. I love to take them out, polish them up and admire their beauty afresh.

Here’s the latest treasure to get this treatment:

Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,
Thou fount of life, thou light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts
We turn unfilled to thee again.

It’s that last couplet that gets me. How true it is!

I’ve been blessed with a good life and have enjoyed many moments of blissful joy and contentment. That’s right and proper—the Lord is the giver of ‘every good and perfect gift’ and he has given us ‘all things richly to enjoy’. But deep down I know full well that only Jesus himself truly satisfies.

So, ‘from the best bliss that earth imparts’ I find myself resetting my bearings to ‘turn unfilled’ once more to him.

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