How to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122)

Following the extended and passionate love song to the Torah of the Lord, the Word of the Lord, that is Psalm 119, one climbs through the Psalms of Ascent—ascent to the mountain of the Temple. Right now I am thinking about Psalm 122.

Sinai : law :: Zion : temple. Sinai stands for God’s comprehensive instruction to his people that tells them how to live. Zion stands for God’s perpetual, beneficent presence with his people, who assemble themselves regularly around that presence.

Around these two mountains—two poles—the whole of the the Hebrew scriptures may be organized and understood. (I am remembering Jon Levenson’s wonderful book Sinai and Zion, which I should reread. It has been thirty years [!] since I first read it, on a friend’s recommendation, while preparing to teach Boston College’s Biblical Heritage sequence to undergraduates.)

Zion does not abrogate and replace Sinai. There is no Zion without an antecedent and enduring Sinai. There is no presence and blessing of the Lord without the Torah of the Lord, the instruction of the Lord, the Word of the Lord, the Law. Zion is the space in which the people of the Lord live into the word of the Lord for their own good and for God’s glory. Zion is God’s promise of perpetual presence among his people, perpetual availability to them, as promised to their ancestral king, David. The temple mountain in Jerusalem is the parable and symbol of that presence.

But Zionism is a human claim to own the physical mountain, to control that territory. (Not every -ism is corrupt reduction, but we should always take “-ism” as a warning sign.) Zionism forces the hand of God, or tries or pretends to force the hand of God. Zionism grasps at the symbol and risks losing the reality to which the symbol points.

I would not presume to tell Jewish people how to read Psalm 122 and other Psalms of Ascent. I am aware that Judaism has always had its own strong critique and rejection of Zionism, and there are Jewish Zionists who reject that critique. I cannot intervene in that conversation.

But I will say this to my Christian brothers and sisters: If you reduce “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” to a divine command to Christians to offer uncritical support to the policies of the current government of the contemporary State of Israel, you are engaging in a pattern of biblical interpretation that is flat, strange, and untenable. You are holding tight the flesh and scorning the spirit. You are with those who would take Zion by force, both neglecting the lessons of Sinai and perverting the essence of Zion. You are buying a bill of goods sold by sub-Christian (and sub-Judaic, perhaps, but that’s for someone else to say) teachers who are subservient to politicians of a certain fascist-leaning stripe and who in service to that politics pull out scissors and cut the word of God into bumper stickers.

Christians should certainly “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” But they should meditate on what Jerusalem is, and why they are praying for it. They should wonder who the “brothers and companions” are for whose sake they say “Peace be within you,” and ponder the nature of “peace.” They should think about what it means to seek the good of Jerusalem for the sake of “house of the Lord our God.” They should ask themselves who the “tribes of the Lord” are, and should be prepared to rejoice in submitting to the judgments that can only be promulgated when and where God’s people gather together in God’s presence with thanksgiving. They should remember who is king there.


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