Psalm 122: Holy Pilgrimage

I rejoiced with those who said to me,
    ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’
Our feet are standing
    in your gates, Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is built like a city
    that is closely compacted together.
That is where the tribes go up –
    the tribes of the Lord –
to praise the name of the Lord
    according to the statute given to Israel.
There stand the thrones for judgement,
    the thrones of the house of David.

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Psalm 122

A friend of mine who is a Church of Scotland minister posted a video on social media this morning. It showed a 12-year-old girl in tears, she was distressed and distraught. In front of her eyes her house in East Jerusalem was being ripped to pieces, demolished by a bulldozer, reduced to rubble. She is a Palestinian. It is a reminder that we dare not over-spiritualise the Psalms. We still need to pray for the peace of Jerusalem which is a holy city to Christians, Jews and Muslims. It has seen too much violence over the years.

For any follower of the Abrahamic religions today the first sight of Jerusalem is electric. This is the city they’ve heard so much about and dreamt of visiting for years. For ancient pilgrims coming in from the countryside and seeing the holy city for the first time it must have been amazing. 

The first verse of the Psalm gives voice to the would-be pilgrims longing to travel to Jerusalem. She is full of joy at the prospect of setting off on the trip with her friends. In verse 2 the journey is over and they have all arrived, safe and sound and very excited! The pilgrims take in all the new sights and sounds. There’s so much to see (v. 3) but they’re more than tourists on holiday taking snaps and picking up souvenirs. The days of pilgrimage are holy days and they have gone up to Jerusalem to join with God’s people in praising him (v. 4).

Often when you go on holiday there are specific sights that you want to see: the art galleries, the ancient ruins, the natural wonders, the museums. The psalmist perhaps surprisingly is taken by the ‘thrones for judgement’ which are in the house of David (v. 5). Maybe the modern day equivalent would be that the holidaymaker makes a beeline for the law courts. Even in the midst of pilgrimage celebrations we see the vital, central importance of justice to worshippers of YHWH. The ‘thrones for judgement’ refer to the king’s task of doing God’s will, manifesting God’s reign, doing justice. Jerusalem was to be the place where justice was administered in Israel and the prophets’ vision was that it would become the place where disputes between all nations would be settled and peace would prevail (Isaiah 2:1–4, Micah 4:1–4).

The word peace – ‘shalom’ – is the key word in verses 6–8. It occurs there three times, once in each consecutive verse. Jerusalem was the delight of the pilgrim, ‘the joy of the whole earth’ (Psalm 48:2) but as well as seeing great celebrations it is a city that has seen great sadness. The pilgrim came to Jerusalem with tears of joy in his eyes; the Gospels remind us that Jesus came to the city with tears of sorrow (Luke 19:41, 42). These verses should prompt us to pray for Jerusalem in its current troubles, but Tom Wright reflects that the city’s ‘continuing sorrows…function as a kind of symbol of the out-of-jointness of the whole world.’ So, as well as continuing to pray for the peace of Jerusalem it is a reminder to pray for other battered cities – for Baghdad, Kabul, Aleppo.  

The psalmist seeks the prosperity of Jerusalem (v. 9), not just some superficial economic boon but a rich vision of human flourishing and wellbeing, maybe not too far removed from praying ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem had become God’s home, the place where the God who could not be contained by the highest heavens decided to dwell. At the dedication of the Temple, Solomon had asked, ‘Will God really dwell on earth with human beings?’ (1 Samuel 6:18). John’s Gospel says the Word of God became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Jesus identified himself as the true Temple, where the glory of God resided and where humanity and divinity met in his very person (John 2:19–22). We are now ‘in him’ (v. 2) and are being built together as a spiritual temple where people can meet with the living God. Make it your prayer that they might share the pilgrims’ joy and excitement (Ephesians 2:21, 22; 1 Peter 2:4, 5).