Are Christians commanded to pray for Jerusalem?

Before I begin this post, let me make it clear there is nothing wrong with praying for cities. Whether it’s your hometown, New York City, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Baghdad, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, etc., that’s fine. Jerusalem is included in this list. It is perfectly fine to pray that God would protect a city, bring revival to a city, protect believers in a city, have mercy on a city, etc. Again, Jerusalem is included in this list.

The question is…are Christians told by scripture to pray specifically for Jerusalem?

I recently encountered a gentleman on Twitter (his identity is not vitally important) who said that “we are told in the Bible to pray for two cities 1) your own city 2) Jerusalem.” The obvious inference was in regards to the current crisis in the Middle East regarding Hamas and Israel. What struck me about this was it seemed to suggest that Christians were commanded by scripture to pray for the city of Jerusalem.

The Biblical Problem

I asked the gentleman where New Testament believers were commanded to pray for Jerusalem; he responded that, as the early church “lived in the psalms,” the early believers “would have felt the applicability of Psalm 122.” This was a reference specifically to the wording of Psalm 122:6a, which reads: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (ESV).

Logically speaking, note that the individual is starting with an assumption (Psalm 122 would have been applicable to early believers) and is backing it up with a vague historical fact (the early Christians used the psalms). This is begging the question, however, on the notion that early Christians would have interpreted Psalm 122 to mean a literal Jerusalem for which to pray (which we will get to in a moment). Already we see a dilemma in this kind of doctrine. While there is no doubt that the early Christians would have used the psalms, or worshiped with the psalms, we must remember that they would have to use them within context, depending on each individual psalm. There is no evidence, for example, that any Christian in the early history of the church interpreted Psalm 137:9 to mean that Christians should kill infants.

With this in mind, let’s examine the full psalm (it’s only nine verses):

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that is built as a city that is compact together; to which the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord—an ordinance for Israel—to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For there thrones were set for judgment, The thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. May peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.” For the sake of my brothers and my friends, I will now say, “May peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. [Psalm 122:1-9; NASB]

Traditionally, this is believed to be a Davidic psalm, though some scholars have placed its dating not until after the exile; in either case, it can be safe to assume that this is about an Old Testament Jew going to the Temple. The first few verses are the language of a pilgrim, going to Jerusalem, as all Jews were commanded to do (cf. Exo 23:17; Deu 16:16).

The language suggests that the pilgrims have just arrived (v. 2) and beholding the city as a “city that is joined to her together” (as it says in the original Hebrew of v. 3). Traditionally, this is translated to suggest that the buildings were built closely together (hence the NASB’s rendering of “compact together”). The NET translator notes suggest that this may refer to the duality of Jerusalem’s function in the old state of Israel, as it was the center both of the religious and civil authorities (the reference to the seats of judgment and the thrones of David in v. 5 would give some support for this). On the other hand, the Targum (an early Aramaic paraphrase/commentary of the Bible) suggests that this was in reference to the heavenly Jerusalem; the Jews of Christ’s time did indeed believe in the “Jerusalem below,” or the literal Jerusalem, and a “Jerusalem above,” referring to God’s realm (hence the apostle Paul’s reference to the Jerusalem above in Galatians 4:26).

This connection was broken (or perhaps, more properly, mended) by the connection between man and God brought about by the first advent of Christ, the rejection of Christ by the Jewish state, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Christ came and “tabernacled” among us (the literal translation of “dwelt among us” in John 1:14), and by His atoning sacrifice and resurrection he became a high priest and made the Levitical priesthood null and void, and gave the final atonement for the sins of His sheep, making null and void the Temple sacrifices as well.

In the last few verses, the psalmist begins to speak of how he will “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” The reason for this prayer is seen in the following verses: so that those who love Jerusalem may prosper (not meaning financially or physically, but simply that they would have tranquility or security); that peace may be within Jerusalem’s walls, and prosperity within the palaces (meaning that the civil institutions would be stable); for the sake of the psalmist’s “brothers” and “friends” (meaning fellow believers). For these three main reasons, the psalmist states that he will now say “may peace be within” Jerusalem. Finally, the psalmist says that “for the sake of the house of the LORD our God,” he will see “good for you” (in the literal Hebrew), meaning that he will seek the good that is within Jerusalem through prayer.

Let us now highlight the purposes of this “Jerusalem,” according to the psalmist:

  • It is where believers go to worship God and “give thanks to the name of the Lord” (v. 4)
  • Those who love this Jerusalem will find tranquility and peace (v. 6)
  • Praying for peace within this Jerusalem is done for the sake of fellow believers (v. 8)
  • This Jerusalem contains the good of the Lord, of which believers may seek (v. 9)

At the time of the psalmist, this context fit very well. Today, these traits could not fit within the context of modern Jerusalem, which is ruled by modern day secular Israel, inhabited largely by Jews who deny Christ and the Trinitarian God.

The fact is, this could only refer to the spiritual Jerusalem (Paul’s “Jerusalem from above”), found within the modern day church and with faith in Christ. Modern day believers do not need to pray for Jerusalem to obtain the good of the Lord, for we have it in Christ, the “tabernacle” of the New Testament. We cannot consider the Jewish and Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem to be our “brothers,” as they are not brothers and sisters in Christ. We do not need to go to Jerusalem to worship God and give Him thanks, for our bodies are a temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) and Christ is our eternal high priest (Heb 7:26-27).

There are therefore two possibilities regarding this passage:

Firstly, this is a passage written in the context of believers under the old covenant, and the importance of Jerusalem to the individual believer.

Secondly, this is a passage with eternal implications, but within the context of each individual testament. In the old, it was for a literal Jerusalem; in the new, it is for the spiritual Jerusalem.

The Historical Problem

Related to this is the issue is that, historically speaking, most of the early Church Fathers, and most theologians afterward, saw the extension of many passages regarding Jerusalem and Judea into the new covenant within a spiritual context – that is, Jerusalem, Judea, Israel, and many other names refer to the church or body of believers within the new covenant. Just as the sons of Israel were God’s chosen people in the old covenant, so are Christians, the spiritual sons of Israel according to the promise (cf. Rom 9:8), God’s chosen people in the new covenant.

The contention by the gentleman I was speaking to was that Justin Martyr and other Fathers believed Christ, upon his second coming, would reign in the literal city of Jerusalem. While it is true that many Historic Premillennial Church Fathers believed Jerusalem would carry some significance at the end times, this does not negate that, at the same time, they upheld passages about Jerusalem in a spiritual context. One quote from Justin Martyr (who lived in the second century):

“Now, sirs,” I said, “it is possible for us to show how the eighth day possessed a certain mysterious import, which the seventh day did not possess, and which was promulgated by God through these rites. But lest I appear now to diverge to other subjects, understand what I say: the blood of that circumcision is obsolete, and we trust in the blood of salvation; there is now another covenant, and another law has gone forth from Zion. Jesus Christ circumcises all who will—as was declared above—with knives of stone; that they may be a righteous nation, a people keeping faith, holding to the truth, and maintaining peace. Come then with me, all who fear God, who wish to see the good of Jerusalem. Come, let us go to the light of the Lord; for He has liberated His people, the house of Jacob. Come, all nations; let us gather ourselves together at Jerusalem, no longer plagued by war for the sins of her people. ‘For I was manifest to them that sought Me not; I was found of them that asked not for Me;’ He exclaims by Isaiah: ‘I said, Behold Me, unto nations which were not called by My name. I have spread out My hands all the day unto a disobedient and gainsaying people, which walked in a way that was not good, but after their own sins. It is a people that provoketh Me to my face.’” [Dialogue with Trypho; 25; source]

The rest of the conversation is likewise beneficial, as Justin and Trypho speak, and Justin clearly distinguishes between the literal Judea Jerusalem of the old covenant, and the spiritual Judea and Jerusalem of the new covenant. Justin Martyr cannot be telling Christian believers to literally go to the literal Jerusalem – he must clearly be speaking of a spiritual Jerusalem.

Other Church Fathers could be called into account for this. For example, Tertullian speaks of “the true catholic Jerusalem” (The Five Books Against Marcion, 3:22; source) and calls individual Christian believers “a citizen of Jerusalem” (De Corona, Ch. 13; source). Likewise Hippolytus, commentating on the psalms, states that we are citizens of “the Jerusalem which is above” (On Psalm 62:6; source). Also Alexander of Alexandria calls Christ “the Son of the true Jerusalem” (On the Soul and Body and the Passion of the Lord; source). The gentleman mentioned before had argued that, before the Council of Nicaea, a “spiritualized Jerusalem” was not a common belef…as these quotes hint at, that isn’t true.

The fact is, there is no direct command in scripture to pray for the city of Jerusalem. While there is nothing wrong with Christians praying for Jerusalem of their own conviction, and while we shouldn’t argue God will automatically ignore prayers meant for Jerusalem, we should not go to the extreme that we are somehow commanded, by God’s holy word, to pray for a single literal word. There is simply no evidence of this in scripture, and it is foreign to Christian history.

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