The LORD Is With His Pilgrims (Psalms 120–122): O Jerusalem!—Psalm 122

A Series Through Psalms 120–122

Have you ever been called home? It may be after a long vacation or a business trip. Or maybe you are going home to spend the holidays with family after moving to the other side of the country. There is just something about home. No matter where it is, we find comfort and security there. Of course, sometimes the beauty of home is subjective. The place I desire to go may not seem all that great to you, and vice versa. But there is a home that is objectively beautiful and comforting, because God is there. That is one of the central themes of Psalms 120–122, which we have been considering in these essays.

The Psalms of Ascent go in cycles of three: generally, the cycle begins with some sort of distress; the second psalm expresses confidence that God’s help is present or at least on the way; finally, to resolve the cycle, the psalmist celebrates the fact that he has arrived at his destination (literally or figuratively). In part one of this series, we considered Psalm 120—there, the psalmist was dwelling far from God’s special presence in Jerusalem. He was living in tents among warlike, deceitful pagans. Yet God was still his hope. Part two looked at Psalm 121, where a traveling pilgrim looked up to the hills and remembered that his help came from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. We come now to Psalm 122, the third and final part of this cycle, and the conclusion of this Psalms of Ascent mini-series.

Psalm 122 is the first Psalm of Ascent attributed to David. It is also the conclusion of the first cycle in this collection of inspired pilgrim songs. At this point, the question arises: If we have reached the end of the journey in Psalm 122, where had we been going? We find the answer immediately: we have come to Jerusalem, and specifically to the house of the LORD.

Arrival

1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!

There it is: the journey is over—at least for the first cycle. It began in the land of pagans, far from God’s house. It continued along the difficult path, even as the LORD watched over his people. Here, it ends in the capital city itself, the dwelling place of Israel’s Great King. That is the Christian life in a nutshell: from sojourning “in Meshech” and dwelling “in the tents of Kedar” (Ps 120:5) to standing within the gates of Jerusalem itself (Ps 122:2). As you consider this psalm, there are five primary individuals or groups to keep in mind. The first is David, the author of the psalm and the one who brought the ark of God and the tabernacle to Jerusalem in the first place. Then there are the Israelite pilgrims who would have had this song on their lips as they approached the city for the annual feasts. Third, there is our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He would have sung this song on the way to Jerusalem, perhaps even as he arrived for his triumphal entry a few days before his crucifixion. Then of course, we find ourselves in this psalm. In a way, Psalm 122 is the cry of the Christian as he or she gathers with the church on the Lord’s Day (Heb 12:22–24). Finally, in a more general sense, Psalm 122 reminds us of our ultimate destination as we sojourn on this earth in anticipation of the world to come (2 Pet 3:13).1

Consider why Psalm 122 was a song of joy for the ancient pilgrims: the feet that were not allowed to slip (Ps 121:3) were now standing in Jerusalem. Their secure arrival was a time of joy and gladness. Perhaps we can understand this ourselves. When was the last time you were on a long flight? I do not mean a little puddle jumper from one state to the next. I mean a big, pressurized tube, full of one hundred of your closest acquaintances. It is cramped and boring, and what makes it worse is the fact that you are not yet at your destination. But now imagine you disembark from the plane and see sunshine, palm trees, and the promise of two weeks without a care in the world. It is time for gladness and rejoicing! That was what the ancient pilgrims experienced—except they had something better. God himself was there.

The source of the pilgrims’ joy was the LORD’s House. God himself dwelt in Jerusalem in a special way in those days. This is instructive for us: our greatest blessing in this life and the next is God himself. Remember what Asaph wrote in Psalm 73:25–26: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

This is the experience of all God’s people, even on this earth. Good things come from Yahweh, but the greatest good is Yahweh himself. As you gather with other Christians in a Sunday worship service, ask God to give you this joy as you arrive in his presence. You are being called and strengthened by the God who is good enough to give himself to sinners. How can we not respond in gratitude? This certainly does not mean that we ought to skip church if we are sad. This life is often hard. But we are headed toward everlasting joy in God’s presence—ask him to give you a foretaste of that joy even now, and remember your hope. You are a pilgrim on the way to God’s special presence, forever.

It is the same for us, even if we are not on our way to an earthly, physical city where God’s tabernacle/temple dwells. We know we are heading somewhere, however. We have desires—strong desires that nothing in this creation can satisfy. These foundational needs can only be fulfilled in Christ’s presence, and that is exactly where we are going. So be glad, Christian! You are a citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem (Phil 3:20), and Christ is your God and King.

Unity

3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David.

David gives us some details about the city of Jerusalem in verse 3. This may seem odd to us. What is a description of the city doing in a psalm about rejoicing in God’s presence? Has David missed the point? No, not at all. As he sees the city, he can see the God who built it. The city (and by implication, the people) is united and strong because the LORD gives it strength (Ps 147:2). The ancient Israelites could look through Jerusalem and see Yahweh. Christian, look through Christ’s bride on earth and see Christ. We have something far better. Like our father Abraham, we are “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

The mention of the tribes in verse 4 is instructive. They come from different parts of the land, yet they dwell together in blessed Jerusalem. Unity and worship were the goals and outcomes of the pilgrim feasts. These should be our desire and work as well, while we exist on this earth. One day all the nations will dwell in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24), but in the meantime we are called to unity as the people of God (Eph 4:1–6). What gives us unity, though? Put simply, we have unity because we are the LORD’s people. We are united to Christ, and through him to each other. Now in the new covenant, the people of God come from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Eph 2:13).

Notice also the mention of “the thrones of the house of David” in verse 5. There is justice and security in this city as a result of proper judgment. This is the capital where the king resides, and he is tasked with judging rightly among the people.2 We see that the tabernacle/temple and the kingship are connected in Psalm 122. That makes sense, both in light of this psalm’s Davidic authorship and in light of the intertwined nature of these themes in the rest of Scripture. Ultimately, temple and kingship are connected in Christ. Jesus is the one able to fulfill both offices for us, and he remains our King and High Priest even two thousand years later.

Prayer

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! “May they be secure who love you! Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!” For my brothers and companions’ sake I will say, “Peace be within you!” For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

If, like me, you spent any part of your life in broadly-dispensationalist circles, then you probably just realized why Psalm 122 sounded so familiar. For the ancient Israelites, this was a prayer for security from without, and for peace and unity within. Their welfare was tied to the welfare of Jerusalem, for obvious reasons—if the capital, the king, and the temple were gone, things would not be looking good.

Perhaps we should ask a question at this point: How long did this idyllic situation last in the earthly city of Jerusalem? Not long—the glory days under David and Solomon were the exception rather than the rule during Israel’s tenure in the land (and even the end of David’s reign saw its fair share of conflict and rebellion in the kingdom).

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”—what does that mean for those of us convinced of doctrines like covenant theology and the Reformed understanding of the unity of God’s people? Well, for one thing, we must acknowledge that it is not wrong to pray for the peace of an earthly city. In fact, that is a good thing to keep in our prayers. But more than that, this prayer has been transformed by Christ into a prayer for the church and the age to come. Like David, we should pray for Jerusalem’s peace for the sake of our brothers and companions. For the new covenant people of God, this means we ought to pray this psalm for the church’s security from without and her peace and unity within. And we ought to remember the persecuted church. May our LORD strengthen and deliver our brothers and sisters who live under the sword.

Pray also for your nearer brothers and companions, even those in your own congregation. The Christian life is not meant to be solitary and self-sufficient. Pilgrims traveled and arrived together in ancient Israel. It is still the same today. We are saved by Christ as a people for God’s holy name, and we are brought together for a reason. So pray that Jerusalem will be filled with people from every nation, people who have been united to you through Christ. Pray for church plants and evangelism.

Ultimately, pray for God’s glory in Christ. After all, David says he will pray for the sake of God’s house. God’s glory is primary and our good is secondary, but God’s glory is for our good. God and his name are the reason for our existence and salvation. So pray for God to be glorified, and seek to show the beauty of Christ to each other.

What David was experiencing was a preview of something greater. This is coming for us all, both when we leave the body to be present with the LORD, and fully and finally when we arrive at the new creation. In the meantime, remember that your loved ones in Christ who have gone ahead of us are already experiencing this—and one day, we will join them. Even now we have a foretaste every Lord’s Day, and every day of our Christian lives.

This series closes with a suggestion, not a command: try reading a Psalm of Ascent (Pss 120–134) every Saturday night as you prepare for worship the next day. After all, we are in the same position as the ancient pilgrims—we may feel far from God, but we can know he watches over us on the way and one day we will dwell with him forever in the city Christ earned for us. So take heart, pilgrim. God will bring you to himself, and Christ will never let go of you at any point along the way. And every Sunday, this LORD meets with you.

Notes

  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, reprinted 2008), 469.
  2. Kidner, Psalms 73–150, 470.

©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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    Post authored by:

  • Christopher Smith
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    Christopher Smith is originally from Bellevue, Nebraska. A graduate of Westminster Seminary California (M.Div 2019; MA (Historical Theology) 2020). He is associate pastor of Phoenix URC in the United Reformed Churches of North America. He is currently pursuing a ThM in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

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