Jerusalem–Icon of Unity

Unity is the seedbed of peace.

New Jerusalem

An image of the new Jerusalem from a Spanish manuscript, 1047 A.D., preserved in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Psalm 122 is titled a “song of ascents.” This indicates that it belongs to a collection of songs (Psalms 120-134) that pilgrims sang as they entered the city of Jerusalem or the temple. (If they were traveling to the city from the Jordan Valley, it would have been literally a steep ascent, approximately 2,500 feet in total.)

It is a joyful hymn addressed not to God, but to the city itself. Its lyrics reflect the passionate attachment that Jewish pilgrims have felt and continue to feel for the ancient city. (That passionate attachment has come to be paralleled among Christian and Muslim pilgrims, too.)

The psalmist celebrates the city. First of all, it is the place where all the tribes of Israel assemble before God. Here they become one people in the presence of the God who has called them to be one nation.

The city is redolent with memories of the Davidic dynasty. David conquered the city, and there his descendants reigned for the next 400 years until its fall to Babylon in 587 B.C. There their thrones were set up.

The city is the site of the temple. In this sacred place Israel meets its God and God meets his people. It is truly a thin place, to adopt a Celtic concept.

An Evocative Image

But what I have always loved most is the description of the city in verse 3. In the New Revised Standard Version, the verse reads:

Jerusalem–built as a city

            that is bound firmly together.

That may be an accurate translation of the Hebrew, but the translation of the verse that resonates deeply in my soul is the translation that we find in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:

Jerusalem is built as a city

                        that is at unity with itself.

I first encountered this translation in my 20s. That decade was a decade of inner turmoil for me. I was torn this way and that by many different and competing desires and beliefs and confused feelings. It would be accurate to say that I was a deeply fragmented person.*

When I encountered that phrase at unity with itself, I felt that was not a description of me, but it certainly expressed my deep longing. Oh, to be a person who was at unity with himself!

What these words convey to me is an immensely beautiful image of integration. They express the experience of a life in which the diverse pieces of that life all fit together in harmony. The light and the shadow, the successes and the failures, the achievements and the losses, the joy and the pain. All make up a full life, but most of us find it hard to accept that fact.

I have made much progress towards that goal since my 20s, but I am not fully there yet. The words, however, continue to inspire me. They are the lodestar for my spiritual journey.

The words serve not only as the lodestar for an individual life (like my own), but also the ideal for which we all long as we look at living together with others–life in a family, in a church, in a local community, in a nation, or internationally. Human kind has seldom realized this dream, but it beckons us emotionally and spiritually nonetheless.

The New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation

The elder John picks up this image of Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. In chapters 21-22, we read his vision of the new Jerusalem that descends out of heaven upon the earth at the end of history, when God creates a new heaven and a new earth.

The beauty of the city is dazzling with its bejeweled gates, golden streets, and verdant gardens. But what has always fascinated me about John’s description is that the city is equal in length, breadth, and height. The city extends 1.500 miles in each of those three dimensions.

What we have is a description of a cube. And the cube, along with the sphere, has traditionally been a symbol of perfection. The new city is a city at perfect unity with itself. All is in harmonious proportion.

The city has no temple, for it needs none. God dwells fully with his people in the culmination of that unity that unites heaven and earth, matter and spirit, humanity and its Lord.

Psalm 122 ends with the psalmist’s summons to pray for Jerusalem. Pray specifically for its peace. For where there is true unity, there also will be peace.


* So also has been the case with the historic city of Jerusalem. Few cities have been as fragmented and fought over as much as the city of Jerusalem, whether from internal discord or from foreign invasion. When we read Psalm 122, we feel we have entered into something of a dream world. This is not the Jerusalem of history. But dreams do reveal the depths of our inner psyche and for that reason point to a spiritual longing that cannot be smothered.

Prayer on the Temple Mount

Scripture texts:  Isaiah 56:7, Mark 11:17

In reading Isaiah, I find what God says in Isaiah 56:7 a haunting verse. God speaks into the future—the age of salvation—and declares that in that time, his temple shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Eunuchs and Gentiles who have been excluded from the temple will be welcomed in. It is another one of the Bible’s amazing visions of inclusivity.

In Mark 11:17, Jesus cites this verse as sanction for his driving the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. His citation implies that the future age of salvation has arrived. The temple needs to be opened as a place of worship for all nations. It must be cleansed of all that distracts from the supreme work of prayer.

Yet the spirit of exclusion remains 2,000 years later. Jews lament their destroyed temple at the Western Wall. Muslims lay claim to the site of the temple with their Dome of the Rock. The temple mount remains a locus of conflict and competing demands, not a place of prayer for all nations.

Playing the what-if game, I have long wondered what it would be like if the Dome of the Rock were to be opened as a house of prayer for all peoples. The mosque sits upon the very site of the Israelite temple. Here Abraham prepared to offer up his son. Here undoubtedly Jesus walked the pavements surrounding it. And here Muhammed began his visionary night ascent into heaven.

What if the mosque were to become an open place to all people who wish to draw close to God? What if people of all three religions—indeed of all faiths–were welcomed to use the mosque as a place to draw near to God? Would not then the vision of Isaiah and Jesus be fulfilled? The Dome of the Rock could become a symbol of the most profound inclusivity.

This is not to propose an amalgamated religion, composed of elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam combined. I believe the three faiths share much in common as children of Abraham, but each is also different. We must never try to erase the differences in a naïve belief that amalgamation will ensure peace. But in the act of prayer, people of faith (despite their different theologies) can be spiritually one in acknowledging the sovereignty and compassion of God.

As I see it, each of the three Abrahamic religions could and should retain a special site in Jerusalem that is hallowed to their unique faith. For the Jews that would be the Western Wall. For Christians the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And for Muslims the All Aqsa mosque at the south end of the temple mount. But the Dome of the Rock would become a place serving all of humanity as an open place of prayer.

I realize that in the present heated religious and political climate of the Middle East, such a proposal is totally unrealistic. It would take a great act of condescension on the part of Muslims to open the Dome of the Rock as a place of prayer for all faiths. And fundamentalists in all three faiths would vehemently oppose any such convergence of the three faiths in this way.

But one can still dream. And there remains God’s promise that one day this site will indeed be a house of prayer for all nations. May that day come quickly.