Theme: The City’s Unity
In this week’s lessons we learn what the earthly Jerusalem means in Scripture, and of our own need to pray for the unity of the church.
Scripture: Psalm 122:1-9
Could Psalm 122 have been written by David, as the title claims?1 Most contemporary scholars deny David’s authorship and date the psalm after the exile, as they do the other psalms in this collection. But it is quite possible that David did write Psalm 122. In fact, it is reasonable to suppose that he wrote it both to express joy in his new capital city and to encourage love for and loyalty toward it as the focal point of the nation’s political life and worship. We know that Jeroboam later tried to undermine that unity by establishing his capital at Shechem and by building alternate worship centers at Dan and Beersheba (1 Kings 12:25-33).
Psalm 122 falls into three easily identifiable parts: 1) expressions of joy upon arriving in Jerusalem (vv. 1, 2); 2) observations upon the unity of the city and its function as a center for dispensing justice (vv. 3-5); and 3) prayer for the city’s peace and prosperity (vv. 6-9).
The psalm may also be looked at in three very different ways, all with good biblical warrant. Literally, it is about earthly Jerusalem, growing out of David’s hopes or a later poet’s remembrance. Symbolically, it can be applied to the church, as the author of Hebrews does, specifically in chapter 12. Prophetically, Psalm 122 can direct our thinking to the new Jerusalem of which the earthly city is but an incomplete type.
At its best Jerusalem was only a weak type of the heavenly city to come, but it still caused joy in the heart of the arriving pilgrim, which is what the opening verses describe. We can imagine the writer standing inside the gates of the city after his long journey, looking around at the stately government buildings, the homes of the wealthy Jerusalem residents and the city’s massive walls, and marveling. He has come from the country and has never seen a real city before, let alone Jerusalem. We catch a sense of this wonder from the disciples’ later comment to Jesus when they were leaving the temple to go to the Mount of Olives: “Look, teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Sadly, Jesus warned of a time not very far off when “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (v. 2).
There were two things that impressed the psalmist as he stood joyfully inside the city’s gates and walls: first, its compact unity; and second, its importance as a center for dispensing justice.
1. Its unity (vv. 3, 4). When the psalmist refers to Jerusalem as “a city that is closely compacted together” (v. 3), there are a couple of things he could be writing about, depending on who wrote the psalm and when it was written. If it was written by David and was therefore written rather early in the history of the monarchy, the writer could be referring to the physical setting of the city. During David’s reign and for some time thereafter, Jerusalem was a small city located on the crest of Mount Zion and Mount Moriah, bounded on two sides by the steep Kidron and Tyropaeon valleys, and thus no more than half a mile in breadth. It had a dramatic setting for one approaching it from a distance, and its tight, compacted structure would have impressed anyone observing it.
On the other hand, if the psalm was written later, perhaps even after the return of the Jews from exile, the city would have been larger and the reference to its being “compacted together” would refer to the orderly rows of fine houses bordering its narrow, twisting streets. If it was written even later than this, it might refer to the way new homes had now replaced the rubble-filled lots left behind after the Babylonian desolation.
Yet the psalmist is not thinking in merely physical terms, as we might be inclined to do. He notices the physical compactness of the city, but it is merely an appropriate way of noting the role Jerusalem had played in the compacting or unifying of the nation. At one time the people had thought more in terms of their tribal identities than of their national identity. In fact, even after David had become king there was intense rivalry between the tribe of Judah, from which David came, and Benjamin, which was the tribe of his enemy and predecessor, Saul. Jebusite Jerusalem was a border town that belonged to none of the existing tribes. So by choosing it as his capital, David chose a city that would belong to the entire nation. Here people from each of the tribes could go up and know that he or she belonged to one united people—people from Judah and Benjamin, from Dan, Ephraim and Manasseh, from Reuben and Naphtali, and from all the tribes.
And what is even more important, the reason for their going up was to worship the one true God of the nation, Jehovah, who had called them into existence by his blessing upon Abraham, by his deliverance of the people from Egypt and by giving them his laws and statutes at Mount Sinai. So the unity of the nation was not merely political. In fact, the political unity fractured early on, in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor. The real unity was spiritual, for regardless of the tribal or political divisions every Jew came to Jerusalem to worship the one, true and the same God.
1Psalms 124 and 133 in this collection also bear the title “of David.”
Why is it reasonable to assume that David wrote this psalm?
List three ways the psalmist can be said to regard Jerusalem.
Why does the arriving pilgrim feel joy?
If the psalmist is David, why would the city be “closely compacted together”? For what other reasons is the city called compact?
Why was the choice of Jerusalem as a capital a unifying one?
Key Point: The real unity was spiritual, for regardless of the tribal or political divisions every Jew came to Jerusalem to worship the one, true and the same God.
Reflection: How much unity do you feel in your church? Are you able to accept those who are different from you?
Prayer: If there is disunity in your church, ask God to unify the body of believers. What can you do to promote this unity?