1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
We are accustomed to hearing words, and often we call on others to listen with us; but in dramatic fashion the prophet Isaiah speaks of "seeing the word." Seeing the word, a new idea for many of us, points to a new level of discernment. There is "a seeing beyond seeing," learning to see reality at its depth, as we learn that "there is often more there than meets the eye." In a profound sense the emphasis is not on human imagination or gifts of intellect, but on anticipation that the word concerning Judah and Jerusalem will be revealed by God. God's servants are expected to wait for God to reveal the word concerning their situation of faith. God shares the word with God's people, and they not only listen to the word, but also "behold the word."
Quite often in the Old Testament we are told that God's word is enacted. God's word does not return empty but accomplishes its intent. God's word happens as the word becomes deed. The word, as promise, is always looking toward fulfillment. "Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). Isaiah enables his community to see that the rich have been exploiting the poor and worshipers have been preoccupied with the scrupulosity of sacrifice and obedience; but he goes beyond that.
The genius of Isaiah is that he also paints a vivid picture of God's corrective message to the people and the new reality it will create. Along with his contemporary Micah, he enjoins Judah that God requires justice, mercy, and even more, to walk with God. It is in this context that he articulates a theology of "the last days." The word of God provides the basis of a new future in which the temple of God becomes the focal point of the world. There is a break, a discontinuity, with the way things were. The good news is that tomorrow will be different from yesterday, because the future is based on the promises of God, which are always new.
There is no basis in the contextual situation of Judah for expecting or planning a new future. Without God's promise as basis and ground of hope, the future is bound to be a repetition of the past. With that promise, there is a new point of departure, because the future is based on the faithfulness of God. The new future that Isaiah offers as promise is that the temple of God will be lifted high above all the mountains and all people, including the Gentiles, will stream toward it. The promise comes in the midst of the waywardness and idolatry of the people. The promise is not consonant with the practice and the conduct of the people, but the prophet, who is able to "see beyond seeing" and somehow able to see God's hope for the people, articulates a message that transcends the reality on the ground.
Jews and Gentiles alike stream toward God's holy mountain. Why? What compels them? One insight that emerges here is that, at our core, human beings need instruction from YHWH. "Many peoples shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths'" (v. 3). The people are in need of instruction and direction at crucial junctures of life, but they are tired of false instruction and faulty directions from their culture's gods. So they set their gaze on the temple of YHWH atop the highest mountain, and together they become the pilgrim people of God.
There in the mountain of God they will encounter and meet God, who speaks not only in words but in acts. They will hear not only with their ears but with their hearts—and this God, whose actions they see and whose will they hear in their hearts, will be an all-welcoming God. The prophet offers a clue that the instruction of God revealed and hidden in the Torah is not only for Israel, but for all the nations. God's word, indeed God's law, is not the exclusive right of any particular people, but is "spoken" for all who stream toward the mountain of God.
God's word always comes as law and gospel. The law here comes not in an exhortation but in a proclamation: the people will make peace, as swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks. Once again the promise of peacemaking does not match the reality on the ground. The enemy is preparing for war, but the word goes forth that God's will is peace, and the people are called to join God in God's work of peacemaking. Because the prophet has his eyes on God and not merely on the situation—because he is focused on God's instruction and direction—he can actually see the word of God, the promissio dei in action. The word of encouragement for those who seek instruction at the house of God is not to focus on the present existential situation in such a way that they lose sight of the God who speaks and acts.
We are promised by God that as God's gift of peace becomes real among us, Jews and Gentiles alike will stream to the mountain of God to be instructed and directed by God. The people who are taught by God will seek peace and practice violence no more. Weapons of violence will be destroyed. To receive divine instruction is to share in a vision of a coming realm of peace in which God will judge among the nations, and nations will not learn war anymore. The way forward is to walk in the light of the Lord.
Noel Leo Erskine
By the time Advent comes around, we have already been primed by our culture for a Big Event. Catalogs arrive, showing us pictures of happy families in matching pajamas enjoying a quiet moment together. Commercials splash across the television screen, promising love and contentment in the form of new gadgets. Store displays evoke nostalgia for childhood wonder. We are invited to lean together toward the coming Big Event, when fantasies will be fulfilled, and dreams may yet come true.
In the face of such messages, we preachers have the task of articulating a message that is both faithful to our Scriptures and responsive to the deep, true needs of people who are longing for something Big. We fail when we take the easy road of simple assault against the cultural and commercial messages. Yes, our culture is celebrating a giddy overhyped pseudo-Christmas while we are attempting the more serious task of observing a holy Advent, but the reason the cultural messages are so powerful is that our human yearning is so real, and so profound.
Isaiah holds up a vision of the true. He takes us to a mountain and shows us what our hearts are actually tuned for. First, he shows that God's presence, by God's own initiative, will become more evident and compelling: the Lord's house will be established as the highest of the mountains, and the nations shall stream to it. People everywhere will be drawn to God, from all nations, all cultures, all races. They will converge out of a shared desire for divine instruction. Here is a revolutionary contrast to current complacency and cynicism. The preacher might find real fire for preaching if he or she simply contemplates how radical a promise this is—that we will all seek God together, and God will be present. Here Isaiah is declaring that one day we can quit trying to get by on scraps and remembrances of spiritual experiences. God's presence will be made manifest. God's house will be established, and we shall stream to it. We will press toward it together to be taught and to be changed.
Then the word of the Lord will go forth, and from that word will come justice; God will judge between the nations and settle disputes. The word of the Lord will make an actual difference in the way the world works: inequities will be balanced, shackles will be loosed, wrongs will be set right. Out of this justice will come transformation—weapons of violence will be turned into instruments for nourishment. The nations will put their swords down, and will not train for war anymore.
Consumerist visions of the good life may seem to prevail in our culture at this time of year, but Isaiah's prophecy will stand up to any of them. This picture of unity, of justice, of shared openness to the divine way, and of peace speaks to some of our deepest hopes. The preacher would do well to find ways to build bridges between the listeners' culturally driven anticipation and the deeper yearnings that lie beneath. How might the many pictures of happy families and yuletide gatherings actually speak to something real, like the desire for harmony across many divisions? How might the nostalgia for Christmases past, and the idolization of childhood wonder represent our desire to believe again in things that seem impossible to us as adults—like peace on earth and goodwill for all?
Once tapped, these yearnings may reveal something raw and disillusioned. As much as we may long for a day when weapons are laid down, hearts are transformed, and peoples are drawn together, we find it hard to believe that such a day will actually come. Even to speak of the end of time, or of a time beyond time, when God will set everything right, is a stretch for many of us. Isaiah's vision may be even more preposterous than that. He announces that this remarkable transformation will take place "in days to come." "In days to come" may not be specific, but it does imply that such transformation will come within history.
Herein lies another important pastoral insight. It is so much easier to pin our hopes on Christmas gifts and holiday feasts than it is to open ourselves to the possibility of believing in the seemingly impossible. We have been disappointed so many times by failed peace treaties abroad, and by divisions within our own culture, and by fractured relationships within our own lives. We know firsthand the destruction that conflict inflicts, even if we have never lifted an actual sword. It is important for the preacher to acknowledge the reality of disillusionment and disappointment, understanding that these apply not only to the lofty ideas of world peace, but also to some of the most intimate relationships in congregants' lives. As Christmas approaches, some in our churches will be feeling these losses acutely; it is important for the preacher to be honest about realities and attentive to the fact that happy visions of hope can make old wounds throb.
In the end, what Isaiah offers is not only a vision of global transformation, but an invitation to live toward that day. "O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!" However hard it may be to believe that a new and longed-for reality will take hold some day, there is power in walking in God's light now, one step at a time. Congregants may feel cynical or hopeless about the prospects of Isaiah's vision, but in his invitation lies enormous and practical power. The future belongs to God, but the first step toward that future belongs to those who have glimpsed God's light and are willing to trust that enough light lies ahead.
Stacey Simpson Duke
This oracle is often called the "floating oracle of peace" because it also appears in Micah 4:1-3. It is apparently part of a general prophetic tradition that was available to both of these prophets as a promise of the eschatological fulfillment of God's kingdom. Presumably this is especially important in times of difficulty when present circumstances seem unpromising; confidence that the future belongs to God gives hope in the present. In Advent we anticipate the birth of Jesus into a world in need of light (v. 5). Every generation needs assurance that the powers of the world—whether the Romans of Jesus' time or the principalities and powers of our present age—do not determine the future.
In Isaiah's time the difficult present circumstances were probably associated with the Syro-Ephraimitic war, when the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus tried to force Judah into an unwise alliance in opposition to the Assyrian Empire. When these foes finally laid siege to Jerusalem, King Ahaz turned to the prophet Isaiah for advice and assurance.
In response, Isaiah offered a vision of promise that has a number of elements. The first is that regardless of where power seems to lie in the present, the day is coming when God's reign will be established for all humankind to see. God's dwelling on Mount Zion will be central and elevated over all other claims to prominence or power (v. 2).
The temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem was far more than a matter of local geography. It was the locus of God's presence in the midst of God's people. To envision Zion as elevated above all other mountains and the focus of pilgrimage by all peoples (vv. 2b-3a) is not so much a political claim by Jerusalem as a spiritual claim of God's presence as the true center to which all nations will eventually flow. Nations will always be in conflict unless God's reign is recognized beyond that of kings and God sits on Mount Zion enthroned above the ark of the covenant, reigning over all other claims to power. Already the prophet Isaiah understands God's ultimate purpose to bring salvation to all the nations and not simply to Israel. This universal quality is appropriate to Advent, where Christians celebrate the birth of the child proclaimed with the words "Peace on earth; goodwill to all people."
A part of that hoped-for future day is that all humanity will also recognize the need for God's direction in their lives. Verse 3 actually contains four synonyms that stress the ways in which the direction that comes from God will finally prevail: "he [will] teach us his ways," "we [will] walk in his paths," "out of Zion shall go forth the law;" "the word of the Lord [will come] from Jerusalem." Ways, paths, law, word—all express the direction that comes from God and counters the alternatives that tempt our allegiance in the world. The ways of this world are self-centered and idolatrous. This verse reorients the faithful to the alternative world created by covenant partnership with God. God is the true source of guidance in human life and community. In Advent, God's word incarnate is about to become flesh in our midst, countering the wisdom of this world. The Gospel of John expresses this hope in its profound claim that "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (1:14).
This new focus brings two results. The first is judgment. Nations and peoples are judged and rebuked (v. 4a). Those in the world who claim authority apart from God's reign are exposed and judged. The world is not the source of true authority, and it is not the source of hope for the future. The world is the source of conflict, the sword, the spear, the making of war.
In God's reign these implements of conflict will be transformed into tools of community (v. 4b). Swords will become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks. Nations will trade in their swords and war will not be the focus of nations. This transformational image has fueled the imagination of many generations. It is the inspiration for a large sculpture that stands outside the General Assembly tower at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The hope is that through the cooperation of nations, the tools of community can replace the weapons of war.
The occurrence of this same striking image in Micah 4:3 suggests that this was a common expression of hope within the wider prophetic movement during Isaiah's time. It moves beyond the particularities of immediate conflicts between peoples and nations to find unity in a common hope for the alternative world of God's reign. In Advent we lift our sight beyond the challenges and crises of our own time to participate with the generations since Isaiah in the hope for a world transformed by the final goal of peace and harmony toward which God is moving us.
In the end, the establishment of God's reign is a matter of walking "in the light of the Lord" (v. 5). Light is a strong image in the prophecies of Isaiah, in 9:2, where God's light gives the people hope, and in 42:6, where God's people are called to be a light to the nations. Light is also, of course, one of the primary symbols of Advent. This First Sunday finds the Advent community brimming with confidence. The light of the world is coming in Jesus Christ, and the world will be transformed. We light the candles of Advent as a foretaste of the light that is to come in the Christ child. The darkness of the world will not prevail. Conflict is replaced by community, and those who would oppose the advent of God's reign will be judged and overcome. God's light will not be denied. The reign of God will come.
Bruce C. Birch
As the Old Testament reading for the First Sunday of Advent, these lines from Isaiah are Scripture's first words to the church in Advent. They are, therefore, the very first words to be heard by the church as its new year begins. The curtain rises. A prophet walks onto the darkened stage in a circle of light. He begins to sing—of a mountain, and of nations streaming to it willing to hear holy instruction and be judged by it, willing also to make peace with each other. As the song is ending, another sound rises, the ringing sound of hammers striking metal. It fills the room. That sound is the first in the church's new year.
So vivid and appealing is the image of swords and spears beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks that we may be inclined to camp the whole sermon there. As usual, the preaching will likely be truer and richer if the larger sweep of the text is taken into account. So frame by frame, how does the vision proceed?
It begins by declaring that in God's future, the holiest ground becomes highest ground—above all other elevations will be the place of awe. From this place the Presence will call to the nations, who will flock to it. A new community is being gathered to the Holy, a multicultural, multiracial, multilingual convergence. Coming nearer, they urge each other on and call out to each other the longing that draws them toward a common center: to hear the instruction of God.
This instruction, it turns out, includes arbitration. The Holy One "shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples." God, in other words, will not only speak, but will listen to the grievances, disputes, and concerns of the nations, and will adjudicate. These two words—"judge" and "arbitrate"—are the only active verbs assigned by the text to God. The nations and peoples are about to make peace, but the gift given by God is justice. The ending of inequity is ground for the ending of violence. The old assertion is true: there is no lasting peace without justice.
The nations accept God's judgments. One result, the only one named, is disarmament, inevitably leading to new capacities for tending the land and feeding the people. Since the reasons for envy, greed, resentment, retribution, and fear have been abolished, weapons are irrelevant. Since aggressions have been rendered absurd, resources once diverted for battle are available now for the provision of health, life, and communal growth. The text imagines conversion in its literal, material sense. Instruments of taking life are converted to implements for sustaining life. The economy is converted. The world's curriculum is converted from learning war to learning the ways of God.
Lest we get too dreamy about an idyllic future, the text hands us a present-tense invitation. Having pointed to a day when "the peoples" will say to each other, "Come, let us go to the mountain," the text now urges us: "Come, let us walk in the light." Whatever peaceable future there is to be, those who hear the promise are enjoined to go walking toward it "in the light of God."
Preachers face an odd challenge when a text points to the future of God. We are preaching a dream. In what way is the dream true, and in what realm? Isaiah is apparently proclaiming future wonders within human history. Real nations will bend their weapons toward the cultivation of the actual earth. On this First Sunday of Advent, preachers are not likely to declare that this vision will be historically and universally so.
Then what will we say? Strategically, it might be wise to say how absurd it all sounds. During the reading of the text, did no one in the room laugh out loud at the naiveté of it? Did no one smirk? Texts such as these cannot be preached effectively or truthfully without acknowledgment of the unbudging, bleak realities they claim will disappear. Sorrow and doubt need a voice in the room, or the promise is flippant. Advent proposes impossibilities. The fitting first response is bafflement. The season keeps giving us cause to blurt out the question of Mary: "How can this be?" (Luke 1:34).
We are in the presence of a mystery. God's own justice and peace will occur among the nations "in days to come." What days? How? Perhaps all we can say is that the vision describes what God is, in fact, at work in the world to do. It is what Jesus apparently meant by "the reign of God," which is already present and at work among us, though not yet in fullness. We saw it in Jesus, who converted fear to love, lunacy to sanity, enemies to friends. He died surrounded by swords; a spear stabbed him; nails tore him. They entered infinite love, which "melted them into light."
Isaiah's vision should not be preached in the imperative. The text does not scold or admonish; it lifts a gleaming promise of what God will do in days to come. If the sermon blasts the nations or lectures congregants about being peacemakers, it violates the text's intention. True to the season, the sermon will express the deeps of human longing, and point to the dreams and promises of God for the world. In the end, the sermon will also be, as hope always is, invitational. "Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord." God's future casts its gleam into the present. We move toward God's future by making our choices—personal, relational, political, communal—in its light.
At St. Louis University is a small Jesuit chapel that is creatively lit. The light fixtures are made of twentieth-century cannon shells, converted. Emptied of their lethal contents, they now hold light for people to pray by. In such light we pray and live. And having laid our own weapons down, we bear witness to the promise of greater transformations in days to come.
Paul Simpson Duke
1 I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord!"
2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.
4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers."
8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say,"Peace be within you."
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.
Beginning to read Psalm 122 leads to singing. The question is: "What song do you sing?" On the one hand, people might be drawn to the classical setting for organ and choir written by Sir Hubert Parry in 1902 for the coronation of King Edward VII of England. With ease that ought to worry us as much as it delights us, this music bespeaks the power of empires and their political, military, and religious elites all singing of the strong walls that enfold their peaceful and prosperous city. The divide is obvious, implicit throughout and made clear toward the end: prosperity to Jerusalem-lovers, but the hostile better keep their distance! This song is a song by and for the powerful.
What if those who are powerless sing the psalm? Can we hear it quite differently, less a theology of glory and more a theology of the cross? The song might begin with vibrant handclapping, Hammond organ, and drums, pulsing forth in a strong gospel style, such as the version by Joe Pace and the Colorado Mass Choir. The African American context insists that despite oppression, we have a mighty advocate fighting on our side, and in that one's house we have safety and protection. Rather than the power of empire and its elites, here we might find a safe house where we can exhale and gain strength for the struggles of life.
The psalm itself has a theological argument about its meaning, Read through Joe Pace—that is, through the viewpoint of those on the underside of life—it subverts all we know about the violence that upholds empire and instead dreams of a city redeemed. What might such a reading of Psalm 122 imply? At least four things: a space for refuge-offering, a time for praise-making, a place for justice-doing, and a way for peace-living. Let me take each in turn.
Seen from the underside, the bold claim of space for refuge-offering is a theological claim, a declaration about the God whose house this is. The first and last verses of the psalm speak of the house of God, the one who made us, who brought us out of Egypt, and who desires for us good and not evil. We are, then, rejoicing as one rejoices in being where true joy lives. This is not simply happiness, the satisfaction that comes with a good meal or a lovely concert. The character of the moment is not subjective and emotional but, rather, objective and holistic. It is as if we could return to the womb, to our human place of origin. Here, people rejoice to come into the place where God dwells, the very house where God resides, from which all good things come to be. This house is a womb of the world, and our deep joy comes from being offered that deep and healing refuge.
In response to an overwhelming gift of healing refuge, the psalmist naturally turns to praise-making. The rejoicing at the psalm's beginning quickly moves through the doors and into the city, into the temple, where all go up to worship and give thanks to God. The centrality of praise to Israel's identity is directly related to their becoming a people in the first place. They are the people who were brought out of slavery. They are the people whose cry brings God's action through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The claim that giving thanks is what it means to be Israel, however, has to be held in tension with the story of how Jacob received the name "Israel." After wrestling through the night with the angel, asking for a blessing, Jacob received the blessing and a new name: Israel, one who has struggled with God (Gen. 32). The praise is ever entwined with the struggle.
Therefore, the time of praise-making finds its partner in a place for justice-doing. The God of Israel has always been both cosmos-creator God and committed-savior God, both transcendent and immanent in particular ways for us. Here the house of the Lord is described as having thrones, not for lording it over others, not for oppression and abuse, but for righteous judgment. This is the hope of the people, the long-ago promise that makes them glad: that when they arrive in the house of the Lord they find a place for justice-doing.
Doing justice, in the biblical world, helps define a way of peace-living called shalom. Here prosperity is far from contemporary culture's consumer-driven definition. Living in peace includes duties and privileges, requires both well-doing and doing well. The psalm, as a whole, could be heard both as a declaration of what is and an invocation of what should be. At the end of the psalm, its character as invocation grows: the insistence that we should pray for Jerusalem's peace, that its peoples should live in peace, that the writer pledges to do the very best for "our God."
In fact, if one reads this psalm assuming the perspective of the oppressed, of those who struggle and depend on God's mercy and justice, the psalm seems to end as the flip side of a lament, one crying out against what is broken and the other crying out for what was and will be again when things are set right.
Jesus' lament over Jerusalem comes to mind as one way to come to this psalm. In Luke 19, Jesus enters the city to great crowds and enthusiastic praise. At Jerusalem's gate, Jesus weeps over the city before declaring that everything degraded and unjust will be broken down before a new and just city can arise. He himself begins the symbolic work in the temple, tossing over the tables of those making excessive profit on the backs of pious pilgrims.
In our cities and temples, where does this psalm leave us? Perhaps as we look at the sorrow of our world, its economic turmoil and ceaseless wars, we too join in Jesus' tears and moral outrage. Perhaps we too cry out for the promised house of God where we find refuge and an image of a new shalom that draws us into a life of well-doing as we seek to do well.
By the time Advent rolls around, most of North America is already thinking of Christmas. Carols are playing in the shopping malls, Christmas decorations are up, and the retail bonanza that drives our economy is well under way. The church comes late to the Christmas season. We are culturally out of step, emphasizing different themes, having different priorities. Psalm 122, a song of ascents or pilgrimage psalm, draws some attention to the different path we as Christians take toward Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Verse 1 might be an interesting place to begin this discussion. "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord!'" I almost detect some ambivalence, here; the image is of people encouraging each other to go to worship, and the psalmist proclaims gladness at this—as opposed to some other prevalent emotions, perhaps? In my own context, people who proclaim an affinity for the church and for Christianity stay away from worship in droves. In the minds of some, it appears that "going to church" is indeed something that has been "decreed" (v. 4), an obligation that has been laid on us. We go to church not because we want to, but because we think we should. In the minds of many, also, are the images of a judgmental God and a judgmental church. Church can be the place where "thrones for judgment [are] set up" (v. 5)—where we expect to be judged and made to feel guilty.
Why would anyone be glad to worship? In what way could those "thrones for judgment" be positive and life-giving for us? While the Christian path through Advent is different from the consumer one, and therefore challenging, it is also one that many people in our culture crave. While part of us delights in the materialism of the season, part of us yearns for something deeper. Who first invited you to church, and to faith? Are you glad they did? In what way has God's judgment (or, shall we say, God's fresh perspective on life, a new glimpse of the truth) transformed you, and brought you to new life? What truth, what depth, what gladness can we offer those who attend worship this Advent?
This psalm is also a prayer for Jerusalem, for its people and its allies. It is a prayer for peace, prosperity, and security—all fairly standard prayers, in almost every time and place. These prayers have particular force and poignancy in times of war, political turbulence, and/or economic difficulty. This, too, can be an entry point to consider the different paths taken by our culture and by the church of Jesus Christ.
It is worth noting that this psalm brings together worship, religion, and politics in a way that may be quite challenging to those of us who are reluctant to bring political issues explicitly into our worship and preaching. This will become even more clearly an issue in the psalms for the next two weeks. The thrones for judgment in Jerusalem are identified as the thrones of the house of David (v. 5). Images of divine and human kingship seem to shade into one another in a way that is probably quite scary for many of us (was it scary for the psalmist as well?). This presentation seems to raise the question: what is our relationship as church to the governance structures of our society? What is our relationship with our own "thrones for judgment," and with those who are judged?
A prayer for peace, security, and prosperity also raises the question of definitions. In what does peace consist? For whom are we praying? When the psalmist prays for Jerusalem, there is perhaps a tribal assumption in the background, in which the peace and prosperity of Jerusalem is lifted up as more important than the peace and prosperity of other competing nations and cities. Do we do this in our prayers? Are we praying for our own church or nation's peace and well-being over against that of others? Such a prayer does not seem consistent with Jesus' teaching to love and pray for our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). In what does peace consist, in this world that has become in so many ways a global village?
Similarly, what is prosperity (v. 6)? Are we content to measure our prosperity in simply material terms, using our salaries or "net worth" as a guide? Are we content to measure the prosperity of our nation with a tool such as gross domestic product, which simply measures the amount of money spent in a given year? In that respect, the more we spend in a given Christmas season, the better the year—whether that spending is for gifts, feasting, alarm systems, or litigation for drunk driving. Is that how we see things? Or does prosperity have more to do with the quality of our life together?
The word "security" also brings with it a host of assumptions. Security typically brings to mind border guards and alarm systems (often euphemistically called "security systems"), airport checkpoints and military strength. Do these things make us secure, or are they testimony to our lack of security, to the divisions and injustices of our world? What would security for all people look like?
Finally, it seems important to pay attention to the form of our prayers, in light of this psalm. What are the assumptions behind our prayers? Do we pray as the privileged, for others who are disadvantaged? Do our prayers somehow imply a division between "us" and "them," somehow raising us and our interests to a place of greater importance?
Church and society approach Christmas ostensibly seeking the same things: celebration, peace, prosperity. Under the surface, though, there are profound differences. Society tends to focus on our own families and communities, and tends toward materialism (though longing for something deeper). The church is called to worship, to a wider community, and to a deeper and more widely shared prosperity. This purposeful hope is good news to a congregation of worshipers who are eager to say, "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord.'"
The Psalter reading for this First Sunday of Advent is identified in its superscript (not included here) as "A Song of Ascents" (Heb. shir hama'alot)—one of fifteen psalms (Pss. 120-134) so identified. The Hebrew word ma'aleh usually appears as a geographical term describing rising terrain (Num. 34:4; Josh. 10:10; 1 Sam. 9:11) or as an architectural term meaning "step" (cf. Exod. 20:26; 1 Kgs. 10:19-20). While neither of these meanings is impossible in this context, the content of the psalms in this collection suggests another translation. All of these poems deal, in one way or another, with coming into or longing for God's presence in the temple. Since, in Hebrew idiom, going to the Jerusalem shrine always meant going up, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an ascent. Perhaps, then, we should read these psalms as the songs of those who ascend—as pilgrim songs.
The bulk of today's psalm deals with the city of Jerusalem. The poet rejoices to be at last within the city gates (v. 2). Jerusalem is praised for its stability ("built as a city that is bound firmly together;" v. 3), its political significance as a center for all the tribes (v. 4), and the justice enforced within it (v. 5). All of this is ensured by the king, descended from David, appointed by God (v. 5; see also 2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89:19-37). Because of these blessings brought by the city (as well as for the sake of family and friends living within its walls, v. 8), the psalm instructs to all who read it:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers." (Ps. 122:6-7)
The high view of Jerusalem expressed in this psalm was widely held in ancient Israel. The Old Testament lesson for today, Isaiah 2:1-5, expresses a longing for the day when Jerusalem will at last be revealed in its true glory and be recognized by the nations as the center of the world: "For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isa. 2:3). Psalm 46:5 declares of Jerusalem, "God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved." In Psalm 48:12-14, the poet declares:
Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers,
consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation that this is God,
our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.
For this ancient psalmist, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a journey into the very presence of the Divine. In other words, if you have seen Jerusalem, you have seen God.
The emphasis upon the peace and security of Jerusalem in today's pilgrim psalm is difficult, for, of course, Jerusalem would remain neither peaceful nor secure! The Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 BCE, bringing down its walls and bringing an end to David's line: no king in David's line would ever again sit on a throne in Jerusalem. In light of this disaster, the old "songs of Zion" became a mockery (for example, see Pss. 89:38-51; 137:1-4). Further, the prophets said that Jerusalem's destruction had come about because it was not a place of justice, that in fact it had become a city of violence, oppression, and idolatry (for example, see Jer. 7; Ezek. 8).
Eventually, the exile ended and the city was rebuilt, but then Jerusalem was destroyed again, by the Romans in 70 CE (see the text leading up to today's Gospel, esp. Matt. 24:1-2). Both destructions are commemorated by a fast in the Jewish year, on Tish'ah Be'Ab (that is, the Ninth of Av, which falls late in July or early in August). Through the long years of the Diaspora, prayer for the peace of Jerusalem became in Judaism an expression of longing for deliverance from oppression, and of hope for unity and restoration.
In our own day, the land of Jerusalem is once more a battleground, as innocent victims on all sides of the conflict fall to Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli tanks. Once more, Jerusalem has become for many a symbol, not of justice and peace, but of injustice and violence. This psalm read at this time of year requires us to ask, how should Christians respond? How shall we join our prayers with those of the ancients?
A vital feature of today's psalm saves it from being a jingoistic embrace of Jerusalem as a political power. The psalm begins and ends, not with the palace of David, but with the house of the Lord. The poem opens, "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord!'" (v. 1). The poet has come to Jerusalem in order to worship at the temple. Further, the last verse qualifies the prayer for Jerusalem's safety: "For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good" (v. 9). Jerusalem is prized, and its security is sought, not for the city's own sake, but because God's temple is there. Indeed, the tribes flow into Jerusalem "as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord" (v. 4). It is as the site of true worship that Jerusalem is praised in this psalm.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus urges his hearers to be ready at any time for the inbreaking of God's kingdom. In Matthew, these words are followed by four parables that clarify what readiness means. The fourth, climactic parable in this series makes clear the standard of judgment in the world to come: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40). So too, Jerusalem in our psalm stands for right worship and right living, for justice and mercy. Praying for the peace of Jerusalem, then, means praying for, and working for, the day when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isa. 2:4).
Steven S. Tuell
Advent, the beginning of the church year, is a time to begin our journey of faith afresh. Today's psalm captures in miniature the movement in the life of faith, that all of life should be one continual act of praise for God and service of neighbor. The psalmist creates a roadmap for peace that begins and ends in God (vv. 1, 9). This divine cartography propels the pilgrim's journey in acts of praise and prayer and purpose. When we journey to the heart of God, we become God's peace in the world.
Pilgrimage.The psalm invites the preacher to explore an itinerary for our Godward journey. We meet the psalmist, who is carried along by throngs of fellow pilgrims filled with joy about the impending journey. The psalmist exclaims, "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to house of the Lord!'" (v. 1). Might we also detect a hint of hesitation and uncertainty? After all, one may be glad out of a sense of excitement, but one may also be glad out of a sense of relief.
That uncertainty seems true to the spirit of Advent, which, though filled with anticipation, is not devoid of dread. It causes us to question where we fear God's judgment, and where we need God's peace. We yearn for a world ordered according to God's purposes, but that is not the world we see. The eschatological tension is inescapable, and it takes courage to have faith in the promises of God's peace and prosperity in a violent and broken world. It takes determination to begin afresh.
Whether a child heads off to kindergarten for the first time or an adult enters recovery from an addiction, change brings not only hope but also fear, and it requires courage to take that first step.
Praise.Even if there had been hesitation in the psalmist's intent to set out on pilgrimage, upon arrival the joy is unmistakable. The joyful homecoming to the Lord's house awakens gratitude (vv. 1, 4). Praise, honor, and thanksgiving are offered to God as the psalmist acknowledges God's sovereignty (v. 4).
So why is the psalmist moved to praise? It seems more reasonable that the psalmist might lament in the face of dire conditions and stark realities, since Jerusalem has been a place of strife and turmoil. Perhaps praise chases out the powers and principalities that threaten to take God's rightful place in our lives.
Praise may also come from the fact that despite difficulties in Jerusalem, the city was and is symbolic of a place that unites God's family. To come into Jerusalem's center is to spend time in the heart of God, who guides the pilgrim's journey. To come into God's presence reminds us of divine care for all creation, and so we offer praise.
Prayer.Though entering Jerusalem inspires praise, it also reminds us of the dual character of Advent—of the reality of violence and destruction as well as the hope for a world in which God's will is fulfilled. Nowhere was and is that tension more palpable than in Jerusalem, which is not only a center of God's presence but also a center of political and social instability. Although the psalmist extols the virtues of the city's political leadership, the historical record is less positive. So the psalmist is moved to pray for Jerusalem and for the consummation of God's reign of justice and peace.
We, then, are enjoined to reach beyond our singularity and into concern for others, for the cities and people where fulfillment is needed. In so doing, we escape our self-centeredness to experience our interconnectedness with one another, as well as our vulnerability.
Peace.Whenever we travel, the place we have been leaves a reminder, and we are transformed by its memory. In God's house, the residue is peace. The psalmist is inspired to take that peace to humanity (v. 9). As Easter people living in an Advent world, that too is our charge: to pray and work for God's peace and wellness for all nations.
Just as God is not bound by space to the temple, God's peace will be so expansive that it cannot be bound by the walls of any city. In the new Jerusalem, we see a radically new blueprint for the city, its proportions so expansive that even if fortifications can contain it, they will not be necessary, as God's glory will be its protection (Zech. 2:4, 5; Rev. 21:23). As the architect of creation seeks to bend our hostilities into peace, we are reminded of the many walls that have created forced separation of God's family for reasons of race, land, and political ideologies. Whether in Soweto, Gaza, or Berlin, in the Messiah we are promised that, even now, the dividing walls of hostility have been broken down by Christ, who is our peace (Eph. 2:14).
Purpose.Our purpose, then, is to become the peace with which we have been gifted and to return it to the world. When the psalmist writes that the people said, "Let us go to the house of the Lord," it reminds us that the first act of the psalm is an act of worship—an act of going to the temple to encounter the Lord, pray, and give praise. We can see then how, when one praises God, one begins to care about others, pray for them, and work on their behalf. That work becomes the work of peace, work that will shape the world into the hope God has for it.
Each time we approach our Advent pilgrimage anew, we are different. The end of one journey positions us to begin the next. Our yearly pilgrimage gives us once again an opportunity to reconsider the way we are living our lives. Through pilgrimage, praise, prayer, and purpose, the psalmist reminds us that we are always waiting in hope, always called to be light in the world and to work on behalf of God's reign of justice and peace. We are forever engaged in an act of new creation.
Carol L. Wade