Chapter 11

Of Places

To the Psalmist there is a place beyond peer, the Holy Land. Its paramount focus is Jerusalem with Mount Zion, and the ultimate centre is the Temple itself. How the Psalmist regards foreign soil by comparison with Israel is brought out starkly in Psalm 137, already mentioned on page 42 in connection with the feelings of vengeance that not infrequently colour the psalms, disfiguring it severely in this particular instance. The thought of singing a song of Zion to their captors in Babylon was intolerable to the exiles. The special relationship between God and Israel makes the very soil of that country blessed. Hence after Elisha's miraculous healing of Naaman the Aramaean army commander, the healed man takes soil from Israel (Samaria) to raise an altar to the one God in Damascus even though necessity obliges him also to show devotion to the local deity Rimmon, worshipped by the king of Aram (2 Kings 5:17-18). Concern for the things of the world is not to be disparaged provided prior acknowledgement is always afforded to the Creator.

One of the most beautiful of the Songs of the Ascents is Psalm 122:

I rejoiced when they said to me,
"Let us go to the house of the Lord".

In the pilgrimage they imagine they are already within Jerusalem's gates, the city is strong and restored. To it the tribes of Israel go up to give thanks to God, for there thrones of justice were set up. Then comes the most touching part of this short psalm:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May those who love you prosper;
peace be within your ramparts
and prosperity in your palaces."

Jerusalem is the City of Peace (Salem is sometimes used as an abbreviation for the royal city, and it in turn is derived from the Hebrew word "Shalom", which means peace). One can imagine the pilgrims halting at the gates of the city as they hail it with shouts of "Shalom".

For the sake of these my brothers and my friends,
I shall say, "Peace be within you."
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God
I shall pray for your well being.

The peace of Jerusalem invoked in this psalm brings us on to the goodwill that should prevail among individual members of the population. Psalm 133, the penultimate Song of the Ascents, celebrates the brotherly love that should inform the relationship between the priests and Levites serving in the Temple, and by extension all true believers.

How good and how pleasant it is
to live together as brothers in unity!

Two analogies are made: the fragrant oil poured on the head of Aaron and falling over his beard on to the collar of his vestments, and the dew of Hermon falling on the mountains of Zion. To me, the flow of oil or water, as the case may be, signifies the downpouring of God's blessing on those who work in a spirit of goodwill. To be sure, perfect peace is a rare commodity, but it comes as a fruit of the Holy Spirit to those who do the Lord's business unfailingly and without fuss. The oil brings together Aaron and his brethren, signified by the vestments he wears; the dew falls copiously on all the ground of the mountains so that they become of one surface.

There the Lord bestows his blessing,
life for evermore.

Psalm 87 is a rousing eulogy of Zion:

The city the Lord founded stands on the holy hills.
He loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken about you,
city of God.

There is a splendid universal scope as all the neighbouring nations are bidden to citizenship within Zion's boundaries. They are to declare allegiance to the one true God as the divine register includes them all in its pages.

Singers and dancers alike say,
"The source of all good is in you."

The inclusion of all the surrounding peoples within the compass of Zion is indeed an attractive prospect. It is not God who excludes but man who will not enter. Entrance depends on something more than merely claiming the Lordship of the one God, mirrored in Jesus Christ in Christian theology. It involves growing into the stature of Christ by honourable behaviour and deep devotion to the truth as revealed both by the Church and one's inner light. The two, often with considerable discomfort, have to be reconciled and harmonized. The Church, which can be broadened to include organized religion in general, is often led astray by the temporal powers that surround it, so that it becomes party to terrible miscarriages of justice. The inner light can, on the other hand, become so inwardly directed that it loses contact with outer reality and degenerates into a focus of irrational prejudice. It should therefore be constantly challenged by the authority of an ongoing religious tradition whose validity has been proved by the witness of its saints and teachers. All this, in addition, has to be reconciled with the world view that at present prevails; nothing that lives can remain static for long. The compilers of the Bible, for instance, knew very little about the world as compared with our own generation, and we may be sure that much more will be revealed provided we have the diligence and courtesy to attend to our labours day by day.

These reflections lead us on to another favourite psalm. Psalm 24 celebrates the glory of God as a prelude to the elect who may ascend the mountain of Zion and stand in the Temple:

To the Lord belong the earth and everything in it,
the world and all its inhabitants . . .
Who may go up to the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?

The requirements remind us of Psalms 15 and 101: hands that are clean and a pure heart, a mind that is set on the truth only and whose word is reliable.

Such a one shall receive blessing from the Lord, and be vindicated by God his saviour.

This is the good fortune of those who seek God in spirit and in truth, as we read later in John 4:24.

Then comes the fine antiphonal psalm as the servants of the Temple enter with solemnity:

Lift up your heads, you gates,
lift yourselves up, you everlasting doors,
that the king of glory may come in.
Who is this king of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle . . .
Who is he, this king of glory?
The Lord of Hosts, he is the king of glory.

It is possible that this latter part of the psalm dates from the translation of the Ark to Jerusalem commemorated in Psalm 132. The first part, whether or not of later date, reminds us of the strict holiness required of those worshipping in the sight of God. The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and Jeremiah all are alike in arraigning ritual worship in the absence of a penitent heart. It is all too easy to go through the motions of religious devotion as a substitute for true worship in the truth of one's condition and the spirit of holiness. Thus in the already quoted Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee the tax-gatherer's worship is faultless because he has given of his very soul to God, whereas the pious Pharisee has given nothing of himself though we may accept that his ritual response has been excellent.

The mention of an elect who may ascend the mountain of Zion and worship in the Temple strikes an unpleasant note of elitism, but nevertheless we have to face the fact of the great range of spiritual awareness in any group of people. Jesus was not afraid to teach that the road that leads to life is a narrow one and that those to be found on it are few in comparison with the many travellers on the broad road that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13-14). However, those who do elect to venture along the difficult path to spiritual proficiency go of their own free will. They belong to no comfortable class of society and gain little recognition for their efforts, at least among their contemporaries. Among their number are natural mystics to whom the presence of God is the only reality, and also the enlightened sinners who have learnt by bitter experience the folly of worldly gain and the necessity of love before everything else. In other words, the elect are those who have elected to follow the way of God, and they learn much truth about themselves and the world around them as they progress painfully up the narrow path to Mount Zion and the eternal Temple at its peak.

Psalm 50 is itself a repetition of the teaching of the prophets about the necessity of a clean heart before one worships God.

God shines out from Zion, perfect in beauty.
Our God is coming and will not keep silence. .
Listen, my people, and I shall speak;
I shall bear witness against you, Israel:
I am God, your God.

Then follows a scathing attack on the munificence of the animal sacrifices, the people being reminded that the Lord owns everything on earth already. What he wants is a sacrifice of thanksgiving and a fulfilment of the vows so earnestly made but so soon forgotten. Only then will God come to one's rescue, because only then will one be truly open to the divine love. By contrast the evildoer is roundly condemned for polluting the Temple worship with his gross hypocrisy. No amount of recitation of prayers will redeem the broken relationship with God; in one verse it is suggested that the wicked person actually thought God was someone like himself. Before we discard this suggestion as pure hyperbole, it is worthwhile remembering with shame the times when the larger Church has aligned itself with evil national powers and been an accessory to terrible destruction. The ambivalent attitude of most of the German Christian Church to Nazism is a case in point, but fortunately it has been counter-balanced by the heroic stand of various religious leaders in the opposition to injustice in many parts of the world. The witness is at present bearing impressive fruit. We all learn by experience, as the psalm is telling us:

He honours me who offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and to him who follows my way
I shall show the salvation of God.

It is not inappropriate that this psalm is followed by the great penitential Psalm 51.

Psalm 48 once again extols Zion, God's mountain:

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain is fair and lofty,
the joy of the whole earth.

The Psalmist sees Jerusalem as the city of the great King, while God as revealed in her palaces is a tower of strength. Then comes a commemoration of the stunning defeat of foreign rulers camped outside the city and waiting to conquer it, an allusion, as in Psalm 46, to the Assyrian campaign against the city and its literally miraculous deliverance by God:

See, the kings assemble;
they advance together.
They look, and are astounded;
filled with alarm they panic.

Once this fearful threat has been removed there is sincere devotion to God as the Psalmist meditates on the Lord's steadfast love. One remembers how soon the divine intervention is forgotten as apostasy follows thanksgiving, but nevertheless, in the sheer relief of this feat of liberation, one may rejoice in a mood of celebration, bringing with it one's own act of homage for some recent trial successfully undergone.

Go round Zion in procession,
count the number of her towers,
take note of her ramparts,
pass her palaces in review,
that you may tell generations yet to come
that such is God, our God forever;
he will be our guide for evermore.

Psalm 74 reflects on Zion in a very different mood, one of near despair after its desecration by the heathen. Why has God deserted his flock that once he shepherded so lovingly; why does he no longer remember the Temple which he allowed to be made his temporal home in earlier times?

Remember Mount Zion, which you made your
Restore now what has been altogether ruined,
all the destruction that the foe has brought on your

At the present time the enemy fills the Temple with their shouts as they plant their standards as a token of victory. At the same time the fabric of the building is ruthlessly damaged as its most sacred precincts are wilfully destroyed. As in many psalms of lamentation, the enemy is identified as hostile to man no less than to God. Worse still, the age of great prophets is over, and who can tell how long this may last! One may add the ironical observation that a prophet never lacks honour except in his own time (in addition to his home town, his relations and his own family, as noted in Mark 6:4).

It is generally agreed that the occasion for this bitter psalm was the sack of the Temple by the mad hellenizing king Antiochus Epiphanes, mentioned on page 34 in connection with the Maccabaean revolt of the Jews, the role of martyrs, and the extended vision of the resurrection of the dead. During this terrible period of persecution the Temple gates were burnt and the sanctuary profaned. Later King Herod was to restore the Temple, which Jesus himself was to use as a place of teaching. The prophet had then indeed returned with a vengeance, but soon afterwards came the final destruction of the Temple in AD 70. A far more interior religion was to be practised by the Jews in their synagogues, the Christians in their churches, and at a later date by the Muslims in their mosques. They all arose from a common stock, and the agonies no less than the exultations of the Psalmist were to be part of the very fabric of their subsequent tradition.

It is worth noting the harsh words the Psalmist uses to God; there is no obsequious deference here. It gives us a clearer understanding of prayer when we observe this.

Will the enemy pour scorn on your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand,
why keep your right hand within your bosom?. . .
Rise up, God, defend your cause;
remember how fools mock you all day long.
Ignore no longer the uproar of your assailants,
the ever-rising clamour of those who defy you.

We may end on a more hopeful note. The lovely Psalm 126, another of the Songs of the Ascents, recalls the return home of the Jewish exiles after the Babylonian captivity:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like people renewed in health.
Our mouths were full of laughter,
and our tongues sang aloud for joy.

Indeed the surrounding people were greatly impressed at what God had done for the Israelites. There follows a prayer that the people's fortunes may be restored, with the confident hope, always worth repeating:

Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying his bag of seed,
will come back with songs of joy,
carrying home his sheaves.

All this is excellent, but we must also look forward to the time when our enemies also may know the light of God's fortune, when the emotional separation that leads to enmity will have been transcended, when our adversaries will have taken their place in our lives as newly-found friends. This more universal gathering of an elect that includes everybody is not far from the vision of the finest psalms; it is explicitly articulated in Psalm 87, which we have considered earlier in this chapter.

History teaches us the evanescence of all worldly institutions. It is of interest how few of the worldly concerns of the Psalmist endured much after his time. Yet his love for the things around him is eternally valid. All earthly things are sacramental, being outer presages of the divine reality that far surpasses anything we can imagine on this side of the grave. St Paul, quoting Isaiah 64:4, writes of "things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining, all prepared by God for those who love him" (1 Cor. 2:9). But first we are to prove ourselves worthy by the care we bestow on the tangible products of our little world. In the thought of the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) the person who has shown himself worthy of the responsibility of looking after small things will be given a much greater work, as he comes and shares his master's joy. And so the ancient Jew's enthusiasm for the things of his country, and especially the Holy City with its dominating Temple, was not after all misplaced. The love he expended on the things that are past is now part of the spiritual atmosphere of mankind, inspiring generations who know little of that part of the world except by repute.

When a person of spiritual sensitivity visits a place of great devotion in past times, he can nearly always discern the holiness of the atmosphere, and this emanation accompanies him for the remainder of his life. As T. S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding, "You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid." Ultimately such a place will not be special, such as the seventeenth-century religious community that Eliot remembered (and is happily reconstituted in the present time) or Mount Zion of old, but will be part of the general atmosphere in which we live and move and have our very existence, as St Paul spoke of God to the sceptical Athenians (Acts 17:28). While the Deity cannot be simply reduced to the form of a benign spiritual atmosphere, it is nevertheless in such an atmosphere that he shows himself most effectively to us. Then we may go about our business in the world intent on bringing our particular concern to fruition, so that the divine presence may be more accessible to those around us. In the work of intercessory prayer this presence may become universally active, until that time when the universe itself is freed from the shackles of mortality and is ready to enter upon the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).

When the straggling remnant of the children of Israel returned home from exile, they felt disheartened when they remembered the glory of the Temple and beheld the rubble that now bore witness to its erstwhile existence. But God spoke through the prophet Haggai urging them to start on its reconstruction and assuring them of his support (Hag. 2:3-5). Then comes the promise (verses 6 to 9):

I shall shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I shall shake all the nations, and the treasure of all nations will come here; and I shall fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of Hosts. Mine is the silver and mine the gold, says the Lord of Hosts, and the splendour of this latter house will surpass the splendour of the former, says the Lord of Hosts. In this place I shall grant prosperity and peace.

Christ taught within its precincts, and now, though long destroyed in its physical form, it remains a psychical replica of the eternal place of God, which Moses was shown on Mount Sinai. Then he was instructed, "See that you work to the design shown to you on the mountain" (Exod. 25:40). In our own lives, times and places fade into oblivion with the passage of years and the increasing weakness of the body, but what we have learned and achieved during our period of activity we take with us, as we proceed along the narrow, uphill path of spiritual proficiency that brings us in conscious union with the One in whom alone we find eternal rest. And this rest is harmonious action in the service of all creation to the time of its own movement from death to immortality.

Chapter 12
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