I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to the House of the Lord.
It is a shame in my day that going to church is viewed as an obligation or drudgery. For certain, there were those in the days of Israel that felt the same about going to Jerusalem.
“What a hassle and expense it is to make such an uncomfortable and risky trip. I have to close the business for weeks, and hope to heaven that when I return my managers haven’t ruined the place or even worse embezzled me for all I’m worth. We have local holy places where we can have festivals. We don’t need to go all the way to the big city just to be overcharged by every tourist trap on the way. Besides, this is just a scam by that crackpot king in Jerusalem to feed his coffers with my hard earned money.”
There were those in Israel’s day who like today didn’t see the vision and weren’t able or willing to dream the dream. They sat in the distance and complained about that dancing fool of a king. With pointed finger, they mocked, accused, and scorned those making the trip, those who somehow and somewhere smell wisps of salty mist from the lapping shores of the Reed Sea and ever so faintly hear Miriam’s tambourine rattle as voices begin to sing: I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously. The horse and rider thrown into the sea! (Ex 15:1-3). Unlike the childhood rant that “words shall never hurt me,” the taunts of those detractors pierce with deadly force. They cut to the very marrow of one’s bones. The songs of Israel are full of such bitter experiences. We have had more than enough of contempt. Long enough have we endured the scorn of the complacent, the contempt of the haughty (Ps 123:4).
For those who believed that the dream was true, the announcement to go up was an occasion for inspiration and joy. Forgive me for the crude comparison, but it might be similar to parents saying to their children: “Kids, we’re going to Disneyland!” Such joy, such anticipation, such longing energized by the hope of realization.
Our feet have been standing within your gates, Jerusalem
The verb tense here has created problems for interpreters, and this is largely due to how the translator views the historical/setting of the Songs of Ascents. Our traveling entourage sings as though they have been to the Temple before. They reminisce as though it was only last year that all the tribes gathered with David or Solomon for a glorious celebration of the Kingship of Yahweh. They recall the heart-pumping exuberance as the memory of their tedious and perilous journey is being erased with each step as they approach the very gates of Jerusalem as they walk through the gates with heads cocked one way and then the other. Their eyes look upward in wide-eyed wonder as a seemingly endless stream of diverse people solemnly yet joyfully ascend in one chorus of thanksgiving.
It is at this juncture in the ascent of these songs that a certain tension is accented, and it is a tension that we, even today, are engaged in. It is the same tension that pulled at wandering Abraham, the Hebrews in the wilderness, of David as he dreamed of building a kingdom of righteousness, and of the Jews of Jesus’ day as they were awaiting the complete restoration of “the kingdom of David.” Even to this day, the Church as well as the Jewish people hope for “Thy kingdom come.” It is a tension that sometimes leads to despair more grievous than if there were no hope at all. It is the tension of hope partially realized.
This is in fact where the issue of faith really comes into play. It is as the writer of Hebrews has said. We have evidence now of things still hoped for (Heb 13:1). But this is less than a comfortable situation. It is the place between promise given and promise fulfilled.
While still at the king of Persia’s table, Nehemiah rejoices when he hears the decree. Return to Jerusalem. He makes his preparations for the arduous journey. He travels through inhospitable territory, all the while remembering the bitter “trail of tears” that his people traveled in the opposite direction. With the distance diminishing to Jerusalem, anxiety swells with both joy and trepidation as images of “the glory of Israel” past repeatedly jog the conscience.
Now, the expedition imagines itself actually entering the gates of Jerusalem, and the stories of city’s demise are jolted into bitter reality. It is as if Nehemiah was saying: “I stand now within the gates of the beloved city, just as my ancestors did for centuries past. But I stand now where glorious gates are nothing more than charred rubble, inglorious reminders, symbols and signs of Israel’s stubborn resistance to God’s gracious invitation.
Here, we might pause and remind ourselves of our repentance. Although there is in the Hebrew bible some ranting against other nations and its wicked ignorance of God, it pales in comparison, to the soul-searching grief of Israel’s own failure to live up to their calling. Nothing hurts our world more than the refusal of God’s people to faithfully respond to God. We too have “arrived” at the very gates of the great city only to stare with wounded heart at a city decimated by half-hearted response and distracted passions.
Jerusalem, built as a city bound firmly together
This, of course, is not how the story ends for our expedition leader nor for us, for Yahweh’s faithful march is irretrievable. Our singer sings of glory past, not so he can nostalgically wish for “the good old days,” but to recall the past as a guiding map of the future. For this singer, the city itself is a blueprint of what God’s people are. The way Jerusalem is situated and was built upon is a powerful “icon,” a window into how God views his people.
First, he speaks out the name of the city and beckons all to pause and listen. “Yerushalaim.” Listen again as the soft sounding syllables stream effortlessly in a line dance of unity. “Yerushalaim,.” City of shalom, of peace. Throughout the rest of this song, our singer pushes the limits of the imagery—city of peace. Both words, “Jerusalem” and “peace,” are strategically conjured up three times in this song.
The very fact that it is a city that God loves is marvel enough. The Israelites have carried with good reason a high degree of suspicion about cities. There, tools of war are forged. Kings arise to take what is not theirs and leave only insurmountable burdens of conscription. The gods of city kings are insatiable, ever driving for more food, bigger boundaries and more glory. Cities always have pharaohs, and pharaohs never have enough bricks. So, one should marvel that a transient god content to live among nomadic shepherds should even care about a city, let alone choose to take up residence in one.
But this is no ordinary city. The main reason for her peace is that it is inaccessible and unsustainable. It is a rock mound pushed up by arid hills from the desert floor. It has little natural resources, especially water, to generate its own commerce. It is off the easily traveled highway routes of commerce. Her life totally dependents on travelers and merchants. She is a destination city whose survival depends on attraction beyond economic necessity.
Its geographic makeup combined with its build creates a postcard design of God’s desire for his people. It is a city tightly bound together. The verb to bind (habar) has a basic sense of tying, weaving, or binding together, usually with cords or ropes. Oddly, it is also used to refer to some kind of magic that actually uses ropes to, in a sense, bind someone to a curse. The picture is, of course, that the binding element is strong and secure, not easily undone. The city is zip-tied. Our lyricist views the buildings of the city which are mortared to each other as a picture of the common destiny of the faithful. Perhaps a comparable picture is that of quilting, sewing separate pieces of fabric into a whole blanket.
The adverb here is one of the main Hebrew words used to describe unity, oneness, or togetherness (yachad). It is often used in reference to a unique, priceless relationship with a beloved person or thing that cannot be replaced. For instance, in the well-known story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, God describes Isaac as “your son, your one (only—yachad), whom you love (Gen 22:2, 12, 16). The description of Isaac—son/one/love—is repeated three times in that story, intensifying the powerful passions at play in the drama.
In this psalm, it is likely that the compact density of the buildings ascending to the temple intensified the sense of a city acting as one personality, as one living thing. Somehow the compact nature of cities, not just in terms of buildings, but more so in terms of its life, takes on a distinctive feel or personality. Even today, we create songs memorializing our city experiences: “New York, New York,” “My kind of town, Chicago is,” “I left my heart in San Franscico,” “I wish I was in New Orleans.” We never reminisce this way about suburbs because the individual houses stand apart from each other. There is enough distance and fences between each house to lose any distinctive ambiance for the place as a whole. It does not bustle with its own distinctive rhythm and characteristic vibe like a city can.
For many of us today, we can only imagine being “tightly bound together” in a living situation as a thoroughly miserable proposition. We love our fences, our distance, our social networks. We especially don’t like the idea of being bound by someone else’s need, necessity, or even worse, his sin or idiosyncrasies. Today’s spirituality mostly envisions communion with one’s self and with nature. For sure, solitude is a critical component to anyone’s spiritual health and growth. All Christian spiritual traditions emphasize this. One cannot, however, lose sight of what is an ever driving vision of God the Father—to unite all things unto Himself (Eph 1:10). God incorporates. God calls each individually, and each person must personally respond to God’s gracious initiative. But it does not stop there. God beckons one to a family, a people, a city, an assembly, a house, a body, a priesthood, and a citizenship (Eph 2:22).
 The word tzion simply means barren mound.
Keith Ruckhaus© 2013