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 here.