Psalm 122 is one of fifteen psalms extending from Psalms 120-134, each of which is labeled “A Song of Ascents.” The sense of that title is that these were pilgrimage songs sung by Israelites as they ascended up to Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, therefore, the terms “Jerusalem,” “Zion,” and “house of Yahweh” occur with great density and frequency in these fifteen psalms.
In Psalm 122 there is no missing the absolute specificity of the geography. This is a song about a very real city. The immediate setting appears to be the pilgrims’ arrival, as indicated by verse 2, “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.” The travelers have just now arrived and so are marveling at their initial glimpses of the city.
The psalmist marvels over the architecture of the place, specifying for us the walls, citadels, and closely compacted structure of the city. Special note is given to the halls of justice in Jerusalem as the place from which wise decisions for God’s people are issued. Because of all this, the psalm concludes with prayers for peace. Jerusalem is a place of refuge for God’s people in the midst of a hostile world. So the psalmist begs God to keep Jerusalem intact, to keep its walls strong and its gates secure so that the people living there can know also an internal shalom founded on the outer sense of living in a safe haven.
Given all of that, this must certainly be among those “songs of Zion” referred to in Psalm 137–the songs which the Babylonians sneeringly asked the Israelites to sing while in exile. But how could they sing such songs in a foreign land? How could they quote a psalm about Jerusalem’s wonderful fortifications when, as it turned out, none of them was sufficient to keep the Babylonians out? How could they sing a song celebrating Jerusalem’s walls when those walls were a smoldering heap of rubble and a haunt for jackals?
How could they celebrate Jerusalem when Jerusalem was no more? Then again, we can ask the same question of ourselves: what can we do with this psalm, how can we sing this song of Zion when we ourselves are not connected to this city? Many of us have never been to even the current Jerusalem, much less to the one Psalm 122 celebrates. The city referred to in this psalm long ago ceased to exist. Even the city Jesus knew was not the same one but a re-built Jerusalem with a new temple erected by Herod to replace Solomon’s Temple, which had been thoroughly trashed 600 years before Jesus’ birth. Today even that city is lost to us, having been replaced with the modern city of Jerusalem.
So what do we do with this psalm? Aside from being an historical curiosity or a reminder of how the Israelites once regarded their capital city, what can we Christians make of or learn from Psalm 122? I suppose it’s possible to answer that question by saying, “Not much at all.” It is possible to say that this just is one of those places in the Bible that is all about history but not at all about today. We can appreciate the poetic artistry of this psalm the same way we can admire the work of Homer from the ancient Greek tradition. But beyond such a literary study and historical lesson, there’s not much here. Perhaps, then, it would be best just to move on to Psalm 23 or something.
But even with a full recognition of this psalm’s historical specificity, I still think there are truths reflected here that stay stable across the ages. Perhaps what I am about to say will seem like a bit of a stretch, but if we believe in the unity of the Scriptures as inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, then we are allowed to look for certain themes that run throughout the entire Bible and make some connections accordingly.
So we can ask why Jerusalem was celebrated the way it was. The reason was not political, though the political viability of ancient Israel contributes at least a little to the background of Psalm 122. But politics was not the main event, and neither was nostalgia nor the sheer wonder all travelers experience when visiting some place new. No, the main spring for this psalm’s bubbling prose is the presence of Yahweh in Jerusalem. God had revealed that his peculiar dwelling on earth was, for that time at least, on Mount Zion in the Holy Temple. For that time in the wider flow of salvation history Israel was the target of the covenant–a covenant whose promises finally extended to all the nations of the earth whose future beatitude depended on the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants.
In short, God was there. God was doing something cosmic through Jerusalem. The covenant was in bloom there, replete with the global salvation it portended. This was why Jerusalem deserved its place of honor. This was why it was a worthy destination for pilgrims. Today many people go to the Holy Land to think about the past, about what happened to Jesus, to walk where Jesus walked, as in the past tense. It’s pious nostalgia that draws many. But back when Psalm 122 was written it was not only what Jerusalem had once meant in the past but what it promised for the future that was vital. God was on the move there, his Spirit was present, and he was doing a marvelous work in the sight of his people.
But with Pentecost’s outpouring of God’s Spirit onto all his children, with the revelation that we are now all temples of the Holy Spirit, the Christian tradition has over time diffused this specific sense of location or place. We do not have a single locus for our piety. Well and good. But while most of this is a natural outcome of what the New Testament reveals, is it possible we have also lost something which we should not have lost–a truth of which even so ancient a relic as Psalm 122 can remind us? Perhaps so. The “problem,” if we wish to label it thus, ties in with something that, all by itself, is not a problem at all but a true blessing; namely, the holy presence of God’s Spirit in each of our hearts as well as in every true Church of Jesus Christ on the planet.
That’s a real blessing but it tends to blunt our sense for sacred spaces and for the divine presence. How easily our minds slide from the notion that everything is truly holy to the notion that, therefore, nothing is particularly holy. If our faith did have one central, identifiable sacred shrine, we would probably venerate that place, protect it, speak gently and reverently about it. But because we have a multitude of churches each of which is regarded as similarly holy, our sense for this very holiness gets washed out. One is as good as another, or not, we think.
But how often do we make praying for God’s peace within any given congregation a priority? How often, in assessing some note we’re about to send to someone or in pondering something we want to say to the staff, the Council, the church Board, the Session, or even privately to a friend in the narthex, how often do we weigh those words against the sacred integrity of the place? How often do we ponder if what we’re doing will contribute to God’s peace within our walls or whether we are harming that shalom in any given church in ways that are only destructive and not up-building?
Our faith does not have a “Jerusalem” where we locate the full presence of God or of his advances in covenant love. What we do have, however, is the presence and work of God’s Spirit in each of our hearts as well as, collectively, in any given church. What we do have is pulpit, font, and table, each of which we believe is a dispenser and means of grace. And the fact that any given church member could, if he wished, simply pull up stakes and transfer to another, very similar congregation ought not blunt for us, or make us the less wondrous about, the work of God in all churches and in every church.
Advent reminds us that God did indeed come down to us and so can now, by the Holy Spirit, live in each of us and in each congregation. But the broadness of that claim is no reason not to have the holy fervor reflected in Psalm 122—an eagerness to go and meet with God in worship, an abiding desire for the Spirit of God to help each house of worship flourish!
Visit our special Advent Resource page for additional preaching ideas for the upcoming Season of Advent and Christmas!
It has been noted in recent decades that to the minds of many people, “church” has become just one of many social institutions that is not in any overly obvious way distinct. There is your home, your work place, your “third place” (as Starbucks used to call itself), the Rotary Club, your yoga studio or Planet Fitness, Panera, etc. And then there is also the church. We “go” to each of these places on a weekly basis and the way we feel when we hop into the car to “go to church” does not feel particularly different to us than when we get into the car to “go to Planet Fitness” for a workout.
Even architecturally some contemporary church buildings look far less like cathedrals of old and more like contemporary office complexes. Some have even tried to duplicate a Starbucks-like atmosphere replete with gourmet coffee and snacks. All of this may make it even harder to have the kind of awe over God’s presence in any given church that the psalmist reflects about God’s dwelling in Jerusalem in Psalm 122.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 27, 2022
Psalm 122 Commentary