Tag Archives: -Psalm 122

Reading the Psalms as Christians

A friend (and relative of a relative) raised some good questions after my last post about Psalm 122. In summary, if I understood him correctly, he wondered whether my interpretation might be another example of a flat Bible approach. Let me quote some of his questions:

Are OT scriptures sometimes just that, OT scriptures? And even though we can possibly identify with the sentiment, a passage may not have been intended to refer to us, and/or the church. Maybe some passages are more relevant to a Jew than to a Christian? Do we read things into scripture that it was never intended to mean?

As I started answering these questions in a comment, my thoughts kept growing, so I thought I’d post my reply here instead. So here it is.

Thanks for your thoughts, Wayne. I’m not surprised this post raises some questions, and I’m still thinking through some of them myself.

A few thoughts. First, I don’t think the approach I presented is a flat Bible approach, although I did think about that concept as I wrote; the topic was certainly relevant to my post. But a flat Bible approach would be to read Psalm 122 today in the same way that the ancient Israelites did. In my post I carefully distinguished between how the Israelites would have read it and how I’m suggesting we can. So that’s not a flat Bible approach.

Let me sketch some alternate approaches to mine:

(A) I think it is actually “flatter” to read vs. 6 as we often hear it–as still referring to the current earthly city of Jerusalem. This approach does not recognize the coming of Christ as making any hermeneutical difference; all the words in the psalm only and still have their original ethnic Israel referents. If we insist that vs. 6 still carries this meaning for today, then we should be consistent and conclude that no one is currently able to sing vs. 1, for there is no earthly temple at present. We could only sing a lament: “I used to be so glad back when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ But now the temple is destroyed, and we cannot go!”

(B) An approach somewhat similar to A, but avoiding the problem of a flat Bible problem, is the approach I hear you tentatively suggesting: To conclude that the psalm had an original meaning for the ancient Israelites and that, since the coming of Christ, no one can any longer read it as they did. This would mean that we should also stop thinking that vs. 1 is ours to quote, too. This is the approach of higher critical bible scholars, who take the history of religions approach and see the book of Psalms as being Israel’s hymn book, interesting for learning more about the religion of ancient Israel, but of little direct significance for us today.

(C) Or, and this is probably even closer to what you may be thinking, we could tweak B to say that, though no one can any longer sing Psalm 122, it is still useful for us today as revelation from and about God, useful for learning his character and observing his history of redemption. I like what this approach affirms (educational value of the psalm) but not what it denies (that we can no longer sing the psalm). This approach might work for 1 and 2 Chronicles, but hardly for Psalms.

In short, I think that perhaps the key reason why the approach to Psalm 122 that I sketched in my last post sounds strange to some (in part even to me) is that the modern Church has, by and large, ceased to sing the Psalms. This is an historical abnormality! The early Church sang the Psalms, the Reformers did, as did many other saints across time. How might we read the Psalms as we sing them? Are we to sing them merely as historical pieces, stepping into ancient roles as actors, rehearsing the thoughts and feelings of ancient Israel but knowing they are not our own? Or is there a way in which we can sing the Psalms from our hearts, as our own expressions of lament and praise to God? I think it is clear that the Church has done the latter.

I have a reprint of a hymnal that was originally produced in 1843. It includes 241 pages of hymns based directly on the Psalms! Included are four hymns based on Psalm 122, two of them by Isaac Watts. The interpretive approach in these hymns matches my post exactly. (I did not think to check this until now!)

Here are those two hymns, as copied from this website:

  Going to church.
   1  How pleased and blessed was I
      To hear the people cry,
         "Come, let us seek our God to-day!"
      Yes, with a cheerful zeal
      We haste to Zion's hill,
         And there our vows and honors pay.
   2  Zion, thrice happy place,
      Adorned with wondrous grace,
         And walls of strength embrace thee round;
      In thee our tribes appear
      To pray, and praise, and hear
         The sacred gospel's joyful sound.
   3  There David's greater Son
      Has fixed his royal throne,
         He sits for grace and judgment there:
      He bids the saint be glad,
      He makes the sinner sad,
         And humble souls rejoice with fear.
   4  May peace attend thy gate,
      And joy within thee wait
         To bless the soul of ev'ry guest!
      The man that seeks thy peace,
      And wishes thine increase,
         A thousand blessings on him rest!
   5  My tongue repeats her vows,
      "Peace to this sacred house!"
         For there my friends and kindred dwell;
      And since my glorious God
      Makes thee his blessed abode,
         My soul shall ever love thee well.
  Going to church.
   1  How did my heart rejoice to hear
         My friends devoutly say,
      "In Zion let us all appear,
         And keep the solemn day!"
   2  I love her gates, I love the road;
         The church, adorned with grace,
      Stands like a palace built for God,
         To show his milder face.
   3  Up to her courts with joys unknown
         The holy tribes repair;
      The Son of David holds his throne,
         And sits in judgment there.
   4  He hears our praises and complaints;
         And while his awful voice
      Divides the sinners from the saints,
         We tremble and rejoice.
   5  Peace be within this sacred place,
         And joy a constant guest,
      With holy gifts and heav'nly grace
         Be her attendants blessed!
   6  My soul shall pray for Zion still,
         While life or breath remains;
      There my best friends, my kindred dwell,
         There God my Savior reigns.

I think that if we reject the interpretation I suggested in my post, then we will need to reject these hymns, along with many hymns in our current hymnals, including favorites like “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” based in part on Psalm 87.

Clearly it is possible to jump too quickly from OT to NT. For example, the promises made to Israel were first made to Israel; when they apply also to us, it is often only in a varied form, as fulfilled in Christ (“The meek shall inherit the earth,” for example). I think we should be very careful to never hastily draw 100% equivalence between ancient Israel and the Church. Israel is a type of the Church, and types contain differences as well as similarities; they do not match in every detail, and sometimes, in fact, they are mirror opposites in some respects. We need to first read the OT, including the Psalms, in their original historical and covenantal contexts.

At the end of the day, however, when I ask myself what a psalm like Psalm 122 means, I need to ask: Why, in the first place, did God instruct Israel to build the tabernacle? Why did he choose Jerusalem? What did these mean at the deepest level from the very beginning? Where they not intended from the start to prepare the way for Christ, to provide images and patterns that would never be fully realized until Christ appeared? So, reading the Bible “backward,” starting with Christ, we can see what things truly meant all along at the deepest level. Thus we sometimes see things in the OT that the original earthly authors either never grasped at all or only partially, as prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12; 1Cor. 13:9-10). What we see is not at odds with what they saw, for sure, and our new insight does not mean that their understandings were wrong. Rather, it is like they were painting by candlelight and we can now view the same Scriptures in the full light of the Sun.

The foundation for this approach to reading the OT, I believe, is Jesus himself. He read the OT in ways that none of his own contemporaries imagined. (Seeing himself as the Son of Man from Daniel 7 is just one example of a new interpretive move.) The apostles, trained by Christ and guided by the Spirit, continued this new hermeneutical approach. Many psalms were among the texts that they reread in convincing ways that astounded their Jewish hearers.

It would be fun to dig into multiple examples from the NT of reading the OT (including psalms) in just the kind of way I’ve suggested. But I’ll end by mentioning two books that have helped me start to see these realities: [amazon text=According to the Scriptures&asin=B001AH04SA], by C.H. Dodd (currently out of print), and [amazon text=Jesus and the Old Testament&asin=1573830062], by R.T. France. Both are technical, but both are extremely helpful and oft-cited books that are guaranteed to help you read Scripture with sharper vision.

Finally, let me repeat that I am still learning. I feel like I’m wading on the edge of the ocean! May God help us learn together, to the glory of Christ, the one to whom the Scriptures point.

Feel free to share your insights in the comments below. And God give you joy as you gather with his people this Lord’s Day!

“Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem!”

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:

Psalm 122
(ESV heading: “Let Us Go to the House of the Lord”)

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
Our feet have been standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together,
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.
There thrones for judgment were set,
    the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
    “May they be secure who love you!
Peace be within your walls
    and security within your towers!”
For my brothers and companions’ sake
    I will say, “Peace be within you!”
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.