I’ve been listening through the Psalms lately. Sometimes I listen intently. Other times I just let the words of Scripture wash over me, allowing my mind to wander without self-condemnation. While half-listening to several psalms the other day, a familiar sentence kindly retrieved my mind from a daydream: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” (Ps. 122:6).
Upon hearing this, I immediately thought of how this verse is commonly used: as an exhortation for us to pray for the political (and sometimes spiritual) peace of the modern, geopolitical nation state of Israel. While I most certainly affirm praying for the peace of Israel and its capital city, I strongly doubt that this is the primary significance that God intends for this verse to carry for Christians today. Before I explain myself, please read the entire psalm, posted here in the English Standard Version:
(ESV heading: “Let Us Go to the House of the Lord”)
A Song of Ascents. Of David.
1 I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
2 Our feet have been standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem!
3 Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together,
4 to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
5 There thrones for judgment were set,
the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
“May they be secure who love you!
7 Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers!”
8 For my brothers and companions’ sake
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.
The two most famous verses in this psalm are verses 1 and 6. It is instructive to compare how these verse are commonly used by Christians today.
Verse 1 is commonly used as a way of expressing our joy over going to church: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!'” In this usage, we identify with the “I” of the psalmist, and the “they” becomes our fellow believers, those who are urging us (“Let us go”) to gather with them at or as the church. I say “at or as” because we commonly interpret the phrase “the house of the Lord” in two ways. First, we frequently speak as if the house of the Lord is our local church building, the physical place where we gather with other believers. But if we are more careful to honor how the NT speaks of the church, we adopt a second meaning: the house or temple of the Lord is the people of God, all those who belong to Christ (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19-22; 1Pet. 2:4-5). A third understanding would also fit the NT pattern: We could understand “house of the Lord” as referring to Christ himself, who is greater than the earthly temple (Matt. 12:6), whose body is the true temple (John 2:21), and who is the foundation of the temple of the church (1 Cor. 3:11). Ultimately, we are “glad” because we can gather with fellow saints in the presence of Christ, as fellow members of the temple of his body.
None of the above is objectionable, I trust. It is both common understanding and good, new covenant thinking. It is a Christocentric (Christ-centered) and Christotelic (climaxing in Christ) reading of Scripture that affirms the original meaning for OT saints while also recognizing that God has made all things new in Christ.
So here’s my question: What would it look like to interpret verse 6 in the same Christ-centered way that we interpret verse 1?
First, it is important to interpret verse 6 carefully as an OT saint might have, in its original context. What did an ancient Israelite mean when they sang, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!”? Clearly, they longed for protection from enemy armies. They longed for security within the walls and towers of the city of Jerusalem (v. 7). And why did they care so much about the peace of Jerusalem? The psalm provides two reasons: “For my brothers and companions’ sake” and “for the sake of the house of the LORD our God” (vv. 8-9). In other words, I pray for the peace of Jerusalem because (a) I am an Israelite and I want my fellow Israelites to be safe, and (b) I don’t want the physical temple–God’s dwelling place on earth, where sacrifices are shed for my sins–to be destroyed.
It is crucial to recognize that no Christian today can read this verse in exactly the same way as an OT saint did. Jerusalem today is not protected by “walls” and “towers”; at minimum, readers today will need to read these words symbolically, as referring to missile shields and the threat of nuclear weapons. A small minority of Christians today are Jews and can truly pray for the peace and safety of their fellow Jews; others will need to read “brothers” symbolically, expanding it to include Gentiles in a way almost no ancient Israelite would ever have done. And no true Christian believes that God’s dwelling place on earth today is in a non-existent physical temple in Jerusalem, where non-existent sacrifices are shed for our sins, the sins for which Jesus has already died. (This is true no matter what you may or may not believe about a future physical temple, an idea which I’ll confess I find very unlikely. But that would be another post.)
So what implications does verse 6 have for Christians today? How can we read this verse in a way that affirms its original meaning for OT saints while also recognizing that every promise of God finds its fulfillment in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20)?
I want to underscore that we find the phrase “the house of the LORD” in both verse 1 and verse 9. I suggest that it means the same thing in both places. If it refers to the church of Christ in verse 1, as described above, then it also refers to the church of Christ in verse 9. This means that one of our reasons for praying for the peace of Jerusalem today (whatever that means), is because we don’t want the church of Christ to be destroyed. This begs the question: Will the church of Christ be destroyed if the earthly city of Jerusalem is destroyed? Was the church of Christ destroyed in AD 70 when the city of Jerusalem (with its earthly temple) was destroyed? Would the church of Christ be destroyed today should the unthinkable happen and the modern state of Israel be destroyed?
I think we will quickly begin to find the authentic contemporary significance of verse 6 if we simply follow the pattern of how we read verse 1. If the new covenant “house of the LORD” is Christ and all who belong to him by faith, then what is the new covenant “Jerusalem”? Answer: It is the church, the Bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7; 21:9-10). It includes all who are children of the promise, born according to the Spirit (Gal. 4:21-31). It includes all those who are enrolled in heaven, and even God’s holy angels (Heb. 12:22-23). An OT Israelite could refer to “the temple” and mean the whole city of which the temple was its heart. He could also refer to “Jerusalem” and be thinking primarily of the temple and all gathered around it. Likewise, the new temple and new Jerusalem of the new covenant are related terms. Jesus is the cornerstone of the true temple (Eph. 2:20), and we are gathered around him as the fullness of the temple and the heavenly New Jerusalem.
If this is the case, then to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” is to pray for the peace and security of the church of Jesus Christ! It is to pray that our brothers and sisters in Christ, our heavenly family, will be protected from all the attacks of the evil one. It is to pray that Christ and his people will not suffer dishonor and loss. It is to pray that the joy we experience as we gather together (v. 1) will not be destroyed. It is to pray that thanks will be offered to the Lord and that justice will prevail from the throne of the Son of David (vv. 4-5). It is to love Christ and his church and to say, “I will seek your good” (Ps. 122:9). It is to pray that Jesus’ own prayer for his church will be answered (John 17).
Paul tells us to pray “for all peoples, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:1-2, etc.). “All peoples” certainly includes the modern nation of Israel. So, yes, do pray for the physical peace of the earthly city of Jerusalem–especially, according to Paul, for the sake of Christians and because civil peace often facilitates the advance of the gospel (1 Tim. 2:3-5)! And set your heart and hopes on the city above, which has foundations (Heb. 11:10). The NT gives us no reason to rejoice over any earthly temple as ancient Israel did (Ps. 122:1); it would be just as wrong-headed and Christ-dishonoring today to focus our hopes for peace on the walls and towers of the earthly city of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6-7). True security, for Jew and Gentile alike, is found only in Christ and in his church. Pray for her peace, and seek her good!
I realize this post touches on a lot of questions of prophecy and eschatology that it does not answer. I don’t mean to demean those of you who have different understandings of these questions than I do. My own understandings have changed over the years and will doubtless continue to develop. I love you just like I love the changing versions of me! However, hopefully this post does prompt us to be more consistent in how we read the OT in the light of Christ.
May Christ be honored as we read his Word! Share you insights in the comments below.