Home » Biblical Exegesis » Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem: Psalm 122

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem: Psalm 122

“Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem…” as I read these words penned thousands of years ago, I cannot help but reflect on how far we in twenty-first century America are from ancient Jerusalem and, increasingly, from peace.  Ours is a world of technological marvels, instantaneous communication, and high-speed travel.  A pilgrimage to Jerusalem now takes only hours and can be made from thousands of miles away. Ours is not the world of the author of the 122nd Psalm.  Sadly, it is not even the world envisioned by the psalmist for a hopeful future.

Screenshot 2016-07-02 14.19.06

Image courtesy wordle.net

Since the writing of the words of this Psalm, two great world religions have arisen from lands familiar to the author.  Those religions, along with the author’s own, would value and revere Jerusalem as a holy city and in the many years in between would contest—often violently—for control of that same city.  They contest for it even now and the consequences of that struggle have had repercussions around the globe.

In the 1988 movie Working Girl, starring Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith, the title song was a song written by Carly Simon called Let the River Run. Some of the lyrics read:

Silver cities rise/the morning lights/the streets that meet them/and sirens call them on/with a song.
It’s asking for the taking/Trembling, shaking/Oh, my heart is aching.
We’re coming to the edge/running on the water/coming through the fog/your sons and daughters.
Let the river run/let all the dreamers/wake the nation/Come, the New Jerusalem.

As the opening credits and the location of the film make clear, the “New Jerusalem” being referred to in the song is New York City.  It is not the only time such imagery has been used to describe that metropolis. E.L. Doctorow has recently written a new and critically acclaimed novel— a tour de force philosophical work about faith and religious experience in the modern world—called City of God. It takes place in New York.  As one who grew up in New York State, I have long viewed ‘the City’ as something of a new Jerusalem, and in its more inspiring moments, a city of God.

Indeed, I have reflected much about both the Carly Simon song and the Doctorow novel in the weeks since September 11, 2001.  For, just as they found New York to elicit Biblical imagery in their creative work, I found that I could not read the words of Psalm 122 and not think about wounded and bleeding Manhattan.  Reading the words of that Psalm were a sad reminder that neither the Psalmist’s Jerusalem, nor Simon’s New Jerusalem and Doctorow’s City of God is at peace today.

I. Encountering the Biblical Text

The first thing that makes an impression as one reads the 122nd Psalm is the familiar phrase “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.”[1] One encounters not just this familiar phrase but also other references to “peace,” “quiet,” and “quietness.”  Those words sit alongside words like “ramparts” and “citadels”—words of military significance.

There are a no major “speed bumps” to be encountered in the reading, though there are a couple of difficulties in translation, which will be discussed below.

As mentioned above, the text is familiar.  The phrase “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” is often encountered, particularly in relation to world peace issues.  Groups that work toward peace in the Middle East often quote the verse.  I, myself, have used this verse in the preparation of a catalog of missions groups at Foundry United Methodist Church.  On the page dedicated to the Human Rights Mission, active in Israeli-Palestinian peace issues, I placed the words at the bottom of the page in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.[2]

II. Close Reading

A number of issues present themselves in the translation.

In the very first verse there is an ambiguity in the phrase שָׂמַחְתִּי בְּאֹמְרִים לִי can be seen in the variant translations of the NIV and the NRSV.  The phrase is literally “I rejoiced in-the-saying (pl.) to me…”  Here אֹמְרִים a masculine plural active participle can be translated as “the ones saying” or “(they) are saying.” When preceded by the preposition בּ– (in, with), it can yield a number of meanings: “with those who said to me” (NIV); “when they said to me” (NRSV).  I struggled to come up with a translation that allowed both the associative and temporal meanings.  The result is “I rejoiced at their saying to me…” It is not the most elegant English, but attempts to follow after Everett Fox’s practice of being transparent to the Hebrew.

In that same verse, in the next clause, is another ambiguity.  The verb נֵלֵךְ, a first person plural Qal imperfect verb can mean “Let us go” (so NIV, NRSV) or “We go/will go” (so JPS).  One is an invitation, the other a statement of fact.  Given the context of the author’s rejoicing, I have interpreted this verb to be one of invitation.

Another translation issue is raised in the very next verse.  The verb הָיוּ is the third person Qal perfect of the verb היה.  As such, it would normally be translated in the past tense.  Of the major contemporary translations, only the JPS translates this verb in the past tense: “stood.”  The NIV and the NRSV render the verb “are standing.”[3] The difference is not insignificant.  The verb tense changes the Psalm from a present tense account to a past tense recollection and after the fact remembrance.  I saw no good reason to translate הָיוּ in any way other than that usually employed and have used the past tense.

In the third verse, Jerusalem is described as a city שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו, literally “joined to her together.”  This is translated variously as “closely compacted together” (NIV), “bound firmly together” (NRSV), “knit together” (JPS), and “where people come together in unity” (NEB).[4] I have chosen to leave this phrase deliberately vague and ambiguous: “joined together to itself.”

One final translation issue has to do with a phrase in verse 4: עֵדוּת לְיִשְׁרָאֵל, which is variously translated as “according to the statute given to Israel” (NIV), “as was decreed to Israel” (NRSV), “the bounden duty of Israel” (NEB), and “as was enjoined upon Israel” (JPS).  The phrase is literally “a testimony to Israel.”  עֵדוּת is the same word translated “covenant” in the Scriptural mentions of the “Ark of the Covenant.”[5] The problem is not so much the translation of this word, however, as it is the question of this phrase’s placement in the text.  It seems an awkward parenthetical insertion, disruptive of the flow of the text.  Witnesses from Qumran and the Symmachus Greek translation offer another possibility.  Qumran texts read not עֵדוּת לְיִשְׁרָאֵל but עדת ישראל “community of Israel.”[6] If this reading is given to the text, there is a building that takes place in the verse: “the tribes, the tribes of Yah, the community of Israel.”[7] I find this interpretation more satisfying and have included it in my reader’s translation, though the literal rendering “a testimony to Israel” remains in my literal translation.

There is a division among scholars as to the structure of the Psalm.  The majority favor a three-part structure: the first describing the setting (vv. 1-2), the second describing Jerusalem (vv.3-5) and third presenting a vision of and for Jerusalem (vv. 6-9), each beginning with a reference to Jerusalem and containing four poetic lines.[8] There is certainly an argument to be made for the three part structure, however, others have seen a chiasm in the Psalm, described as follows:[9]

A (vv. 1-2) the psalmist, their companions (“I”/ “us”), and “the house of Yhwh”
B (vv. 3-4) Jerusalem
C (v. 5) “house of David”
B’ (vv. 6-7) Jerusalem
A’ (vv. 8-9) the psalmist, companions, and “the house of Yhwh.”

This Psalm is the third in a series of fifteen שִׁירֵי הַמַּעֲלוֹת, Songs of Ascents, or pilgrim songs.  They are so named because going to Jerusalem always involves “going up” (עלה) no matter from which direction one is traveling.[10] The frequent references to Jerusalem and Zion in Psalms 120-134 suggest their usage in pilgrimages to Jerusalem.[11] Those who support a chaistic structure note the word play between the words “house of Yhwh” and “house of David.”  Though “house of David” is central and becomes the crux of the Psalm, it is “house of Yhwh” which defines the beginning and endpoint of the Psalm, in effect encompassing the house of David.[12]

Though a three-part structure is defensible, the chiastic structure has the benefit of suggesting a journey ‘there and back’: starting and ending the journey with a focus on the ‘house of Yhwh.’  The key to this understanding is in verse 5, which begins with the pointer כּי for—setting up the verse as a central verse to the Psalm.

As noted at the outset, there is a lot of language relating to peace, quiet, and stillness.  These motifs are repeated throughout verses 6 through 9, often in subtle ways.  There is artful wordplay and euphony in these verses, driving home the theme of peace.  Verse 6 begins ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’שַׁאֲלוּ שָׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָיִם sha’alu shalom Yerushalam.[13] The consonants shin [sh] and lamed [l] are present in each word. Further, in verses 6 through 9, there are seven words that make use of this euphony: שַׁאֲלוּ שָׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָיִם  sha’alu shalom Yerushalam (v. 6), יִשְׁלָיוּ yishlayu (v. 6); שָׁלוֹם shalom (v. 7); שַׁלְוָה shalvah (v. 7); שָׁלוֹם shalom (v. 8).

Davidson points out that the words of verse 6 echo the traditional greeting which is translated in Jeremiah 15:5 as “to ask about your welfare.”[14] Thus, the Psalmist has linked Jerusalem with peace and with the welfare of the pilgrims traveling to it.  Prosperity, security, well-being, and peace are thematically and linguistically linked by the author.

There is also evidence of intensification in the text.  As argued above, there is intensification in the description of those making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem:  the tribes, the tribes of Yah, the community of Israel.  Some have also pointed to an intensification in verse 5: “For there sit thrones of justice—thrones of the House of David.”

There is no direct evidence in the text of the date of the Psalm’s authorship.  This is not some small matter.  Dating of the Psalm would give us a clue as to the meaning behind the extolling of the Davidic kingdom.  The mention of the House of God could indicate either Solomon’s Temple or the Second Temple.

There are subtle echoes of this text to other Biblical texts.  Curiously the words “peace” and “Jerusalem” rarely occur together.  In one such instance, the occurrence is not hopeful:

Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it— the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord GOD. (Ezek. 13:15-16 (NRSV)).

Here God exercises judgment on those prophets who said peace, peace, when there was no peace.  Another is more hopeful:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9:10).

Here is a messianic vision of peace in Jerusalem and throughout the world.  In a way, both passages share thematic links with the Psalm.  Ezekiel reminds us in stark fashion of the absence of peace in Jerusalem and judgment upon those who falsely say there is.  But Zechariah reminds us that there will be peace, not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the nations.  These texts, like the Psalm, remind us of the contrast between present reality and future hope.

III. Engaging the Text

This Psalm is a pilgrimage Psalm.  As such, it would have been used in making pilgrimage up to Jerusalem for the festivals—Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.  But the Psalm is more than just a way to pass the time on the journey.  There is a distinct message that is made here: the Davidic reign is to manifest God’s reign.[15] This idea is borne out by the centrality of verse 5: “For there sit thrones of justice—thrones of the house of David.”  Justice is an attribute of God’s reign, here declared to be manifest in the Davidic kingdom.

There is an interesting juxtaposition between the elements of justice and peace with the more traditional understandings of the power of earthly kingdoms: ramparts and citadels.  As Pleins notes, though military language makes its way into this Hymn of Zion, “the topic is not war, but peace.”[16] Pleins continues: “the reality of war cannot lie far away from this prayer” and Jerusalem’s ramparts, citadels, and gates “inspire reflection on Zion’s peace.”[17]

As noted above, there is no direct, conclusive evidence as to the dating of the Psalm.  If the Psalm is pre-exilic, then the Psalm is celebrating the Davidic dynasty as a manifestation of God’s reign on earth.  It is noting the juxtaposition between the Temple and the Palace, the House of Yhwh and the House of David.

However, if the Psalm is post-exilic then a very different message is being communicated.  For, there are no longer thrones of justice on Zion, or thrones of any kind.  The Davidic dynasty has been destroyed.  The Temple may have been rebuilt, but Judah’s political independence and military power would be gone altogether.  The “house of David,” then, becomes not a present reality, but a future reality, a messianic hope.  Jerusalem itself then becomes a present symbol of a future hope.  Perhaps clues to this are found in the imperfect subjunctive verbs found throughout: “May those who love you have quiet (יִשְׁלָיוּ)…Peace be in your ramparts (יִהִי שָׁלוֹם)…Peace be in you….”  Perhaps the subjunctive nature of these verbs suggests that peace and quiet are now absent but devoutly wished.

It is this latter understanding that has more relevance for us today, not simply because the Temple no longer exists, but because the Messianic kingdom clearly does not.

It becomes clear that the author is trying to make the connection between peace and security, between quiet repose and wholeness.  It should be noted that שָׁלוֹם means more than simply “peace” but comes from the root שׁלם, which means “wholeness.”  Peace is therefore not simply the absence of war, but a complete sense of well-being, including justice.  Jerusalem is a city of peace not on account of its ability to defend itself against war—its ramparts and citadels—but on account of the presence of the House of Yhwh and “thrones of justice.”

Today, neither the Old Jerusalem nor the ‘New Jerusalem’ is a city at peace.  What do the words of this Psalm mean to us in light of the continuing conflict in Israel and Palestine, and the devastation in New York and Washington?

In answering this question, there is something else worth noting.  The Psalmist instructs us to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”  We usually interpret this as praying for peace for Jerusalem.  This is likely borne out of the pragmatic observation that Jerusalem does not have peace, and so therefore we pray for it to have peace.  But the text simply says שָׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָיִם the shalom of Yerushalayim.  Perhaps we are not simply instructed to pray for peace to come upon Jerusalem (though that is certainly a part of it).  Perhaps we are instructed to ask for the wholeness of Jerusalem.  Not the Jerusalem of our present reality, but the Jerusalem that is meant to be: the City of God, from which comes forth Torah, and to which the nations stream.  We pray for the peace of that City where justice reigns and God is sovereign over the nations.  We pray for the wholeness of that city, to which not only the “community of Israel,” but all the nations, go up to praise the name of Yhwh.  In short, this prayer is not a prayer for the redistribution of a present reality to a city that lacks it.  Rather, it is the prayer for an eschatological reality, which will be located in the very city now beset by strife and war.

This then brings us full circle. When we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, we do not ask for its military security or for the strength of its ramparts and citadels.  We ask instead that it become the city that it was meant to be: a city under God’s reign.  A city wherein justice and righteousness reign, where God is present in our lives and in our world.  Seen in this way, praying for the peace of Jerusalem is neither nostalgia nor wishful thinking.  It is a recognition of the Jerusalem that is meant to be, the Jerusalem that is promised to be.

And so, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  We pray for the peace of New York.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barker, Kenneth, ed. The NIV Study Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, (1985).

Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, (1984).

Davidson, Robert. The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, (1998).

Ebor, Donald, ed. The New English Bible. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961. Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1970).

Frick, Frank S. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace & Company (1995).

McCann, Jr., J. Clinton, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 4: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Introduction to Hebrew Poetry, Job, Psalms, by Leander E. Keck, Sr. Editor.  12 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, (1996).

Meeks, Wayne A., ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, (1993)

Petersen, David L. and Kent Harold, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, (1992)

Pliens, J. David. The Psalms: Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice. The Bible & Liberation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, (1993).

Rudolph, W., and K. Elliger, ed. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. 4th ed. 1967. Reprint. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (1990).

Stein, Rabbi David E. Sulomm, ed. JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society (1999)


[1] The translations of the text of the 122nd Psalm in this paper are my own unless otherwise indicated.  A complete translation of the Psalm is appended.

[2] The similarity of the Hebrew and Arabic is clear and striking: שאלו שלום ירושלים and Ldgav,h íl©s h,ghsh asaalu salaame Urushalim.

[3] The King James “shall stand” (perhaps inferring a vav reversive construction, lacking the vav). the RSV and Young’s Literal Translation have “have been standing.”

[4] This last translation, found in the New English Bible, is interesting. The text has no mention of people in it and has only the three words mentioned above.  However, the root of the word חברה is חבר which is also the root of the word חַבֵר, ‘friend.’ Perhaps the NEB is trying to capture some element of ‘friendship’ in its understanding of Jerusalem’s togetherness rather than its architectural closeness.

[5] See, e.g., Ex. 25:22 (NRSV).

[6] עדת ישראל (Adas Israel) also happens to be the name of a conservative synagogue in Cleveland Park, where I once had the happy privilege of giving the D’var Torah.

[7] Young’s Literal Translation renders this phrase “companies of Israel” reading the text as עַדוֹת יִשְׁרָאֵל.

[8] McCann, Jr., J. Clinton, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 4: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Introduction to Hebrew Poetry, Job, Psalms, by Leander E. Keck, Sr. Editor.  12 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, (1996), p.1183.

[9] Id.

[10] Modern day Jews who emigrate to Israel “make Aliyah” (עליה).  In addition, an aliyah is also the name of the synagogue practice of ‘coming up’ to the podium to recite the prayers before reading a portion of scripture.

[11] McCann, supra,  at 1176.

[12] Id., at 1183.

[13] The MT points the text yèèÈrU˚H‰l‰im but there is no yod in the consonantal text.  It is therefore likely that the original pronunciation was something like yèèÈrU˚H‰l‰m.

[14] Davidson, Robert. The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, (1998), p. 411.  It bears noting that in Modern Hebrew a similar question is asked: מַה שְׁלוֹמְךָ / מַה שְׁלוֹמֵךְ ‘What is your peace/welfare?’

[15] McCann, at 1183.

[16] Pliens, J. David. The Psalms: Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice. The Bible & Liberation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, (1993), p. 125

[17] Pleins, 125-6.

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