City of Joy
The theme of joy in Scripture finds its focus in the joy of knowing God as our God and Saviour. As we seek his glory (as opposed to our own) we experience a joy that is utterly different from all the joys of earth combined. Nevertheless, amazingly, this joy can be found and experienced on earth.
The Israelites knew all about this. In fact they wove it into their anthology of worship in the Book of Psalms in words that have been used by God’s people down through the ages. Anticipating the joy of going up to meet with God in Jerusalem, the pilgrims would sing, ‘I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”’ (Ps 122.1).
This psalm belongs to the group of psalms known as the ‘Songs of Ascent’. Psalms God’s people would sing as they travelled to Jerusalem for the great feasts and festivals of the Old Testament calendar. They were community psalms. They expressed the sentiments of shared experiences of life generally, but in the shared experience of God’s great salvation. In this third ‘pilgrim psalm’ the singers express the joy bound up uniquely with meeting with God in his city.
Even though they knew the ‘joys of life’ each day in their homes and with the communities from which they came, the joy located in the city of God had a quality all of its own. But in what did that mean in real terms? – Clearly it was not merely the thrill of a tourist seeing the city of Jerusalem for the first time, or even returning to it for another year. There was much more to it and the wording of the psalm helps us understand what this entailed.
At the most basic level it was the fact that Jerusalem was God’s city. Even though it was recognised to be the city of David, the capital he established for Israel, it was far more. The fact that in the lyric of the second verse of the psalm, the singers address the city as if it were a person, ‘O Jerusalem’, signals that this is no ordinary city. This detail picks up on many other references in the psalms and elsewhere in Scripture that identify the city in relation to God and not just to Israel or its kings.
Often it is identified as ‘Zion’ – a name it already had prior to its first being captured by David from the Jebusites (2Sa 5.7). It was later used to refer to the city itself, sometimes more specifically to the Temple area, but also to the city as an earthly symbol of the eternal city of God. However, the Sons of Korah, in a psalm about the security of God’s people, speak of it as ‘the city of God, the holy place where God dwells…God is within her’ (Ps 46.4-5). The one thing that set this city apart and made it a joyful refuge was the fact it symbolised God’s earthly dwelling with the temple as its epicentre.
The Jerusalem temple is in ruins; but the true temple still remains. Paul identifies the church as God’s new temple in which he dwells by his Spirit. Not in the sense of a physical building; but, as Peter says, all those who have come to Christ as ‘the living Stone’ through union with him become ‘like living stones [who are] being built into a spiritual house [or temple of the Spirit]’ (1Pe 2.4-5). So the joy of Jewish believers as they went up to their beloved city is taken to a whole new level for Christian believers as they gather for worship as the church.
Psalm 122 develops this insight further in terms of the character of Jerusalem as being, ‘built like a city that is closely compacted together’ (122.3). It is possible that this simply makes the observation, as any present day visitor to the Old Quarter of Jerusalem will know, that its streets were narrow and its houses tightly packed. But it could also be a vivid reference to its being a close-knit community – ‘bound firmly together’, as it can also be translated. This seems to be echoed in the prayer for peace and prosperity that comes later in the psalm.
Why should this be a cause for rejoicing? Because its opposites – disunity and dysfunction: the hallmarks of a fallen race – are the cause of sorrow. So, again as we see this feeding through into New Testament teaching about the church, we appreciate why it emphasises not only the church as God’s community; but especially on the need to preserve its unity.
Once more in the flow of the psalm we are given a glimpse of how God safeguards the unity of his people. It is by strong and stable government: ‘There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David’ (122.5). The life of the church is enfolded under the righteous rule of its great King – another reason for rejoicing.
Even though in the psalmist’s day the throne of David was in mind, the psalm makes it clear there was actually a higher throne in view. The pilgrims were to go up to Jerusalem, not to praise their current king, but ‘the name of the LORD’ (122.4). So it is to the LORD, their eternal King, that they address their prayers (122.6-7).
The LORD and King of Israel is the same LORD and King who appeared in flesh and lived among us (Jn 1.14). He is the ultimate source of the peace [shalom] we need more than anything and to him we joyfully come as we gather in his name each Lord’s Day. We hear his word, we sing his praise, we enjoy the fellowship of his people and we savour the sacraments of his love.
The climax of this Old Testament psalm is actually found in the New Testament, in a letter addressed to Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. To them (and to Christians of all ethnic backgrounds) the writer says, ‘You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem…’ (He 12.22-24). The joy of faithful Jewish pilgrims, in the shadowlands of Old Testament times, is eclipsed by the inexpressible joy of those who live on this side of Calvary. We see clearly what they only saw dimly. In the light of New Testament teaching we realise that when the church gathers in the name of Christ, through the power of the Spirit it is the earthly high point of our communion with the triune God and nothing less than a foretaste of heaven. So, as we set out on our ‘pilgrimage’ to church each Sunday, we should surely be singing, ‘I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go unto the house of the Lord!”’ We are heading for the City of Joy.