The Place of Joyful Peace
Years ago I went through a pretty low low. I was living in Scotland at the time and the sky was grey and the air cold and moist—if you’ve ever been in a place like that, you know the cold just penetrates the bones. It was during that season of my life that I noticed myself yearning for Sunday to arrive.
Not every church service is amazing—right? Some are boring! Others are so fake, so filled with hype, you think you’re at Disney World! Yet where do you want to be when things are difficult? I wanted to be in church. I wanted to be around a few of the folks I’d gotten to know, to see their warm faces, and to hear a message of hope spoken into my despondency. I have a feeling that deep down this is what most people want. Maybe that’s why the churches in New York were filled to the brim right after 911.
When we’re low and discouraged, we want a message of hope and a reason for joy.
And so our psalm for the morning…
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!
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.
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.
The Joy of Arrival
This psalm is about the joy of arrival. Think about it… There is all of these folks that have undertaken the pilgrimage and they look and see the gates of Jerusalem, and then before they know it their standing within those gate. There’s excitement. There’s anticipation. There’s a sense in which that can look at each other and say, “This is the most wonderful thing that we can be doing right now.”
I used to feel that way when I went to summer camp as a youth. During my high school years a bus would come to metro-Detroit and take us way up north to Boyne Falls, Michigan where the trees are so big the sun is blocked from penetrating the windows of the cabins. Our counselors would have to bang pots and pans together to wake us high school boys up for morning prayers and breakfast. Anyway, as the 4-hour bus trip got towards the end, as the bus finally pulled off the highway and started meandering through the tall trees towards Camp Lake Louise, my heart would get lodged in my throat with excitement of anticipation. Then we’d pass through the gates of the camp, arrived—it was the most wonderful thing in that moment.
Do you have things like that? Occasions that pull you out of the daily humdrum of life. Occasions that awaken you to life’s real meaning? Maybe they’re big occasions when you’re lost in the throng. Maybe they’re small occasions when time evaporates in conversation with an intimate conversation with a few folks. … An occasion in which you’ve arrived at the place you know you’re meant to be in that moment, a place where God’s special presence has descended. It’s right. It’s true. And you’re so filled with joy that you’d break into song, if it wouldn’t be so embarrassing.
Years later, when I was in college, nearly every weekend a group of us would meeting in the parking lot behind the math building, we’d pack into cars like sardines, and drive out to Lake Superior. There we’d play ultimate frisbee, cook hamburgers, and as the sound began to go down we’d start the bonfire and gather around to sing. It was the most wonderful thing in that moment. It was right. It was true. And, in unity, we did break into song. I was glad when I heard someone say, “Are you coming to the lake this Friday?” “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psa 122:1).
The Fulfillment of Arrival
There’s a place in the Old Testament in which Moses is talking to the people, preparing them to enter the Promise Land. He’s telling them everything he can tell them, because he’s not going to go with them. And one of the things he says to them is this (Deut 12:8-14):
Your pattern of worship will change. Today all of you are doing as you please, because you have not yet arrived at the place of rest, the land the Lord your God is giving you as your special possession. But you will soon cross the Jordan River and live in the land the Lord your God is giving you. When he gives you rest from all your enemies and you’re living safely in the land, you must bring everything I command you—your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, your sacred offerings, and your offerings to fulfill a vow—to the designated place of worship, the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored.
You must celebrate there in the presence of the Lord your God with your sons and daughters and all your servants. … Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings just anywhere you like. You may do so only at the place the Lord will choose within one of your tribal territories. There you must offer your burnt offerings and do everything I command you.
So, you see, when the people make the journey to Jerusalem, they’re coming to the place God had chosen for them to worship him. The place in which they are called out of their daily lives to focus on him. They’re not merely going up to Jerusalem for vacation or for a big party, like New Year’s Eve in Times Square, they’re actually fulfilling what Moses had spoken of.
So their souls are affirming them: This is right. This is true. We’re here because God said, “This place and no other.” And here we are all together—united—oh, it’s so wonderful. There’s excitement. There’s song. And there’s another thing….
The Peace of Arrival
There’s a desire for the peace of God to invade and remain on the place where they are. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” they sing (Psa 122:6).
Now, they’re not singing that while looking at a war torn city, saying, “We need an invasion of peace here.” They’re singing it looking at all of the pilgrims who’ve made the journey to worship. I could paraphrase their ing this way: “Let the joyous peace that pervades this moment between God and us, which gives rest to our souls and excites our heart, never end. Let slalom come and never leave.” Slalom is the Hebrew word for “peace, the fullness of God’s blessing.”
So they’re absolutely stimulated. “It’s wonderful. It’s enlivening. It’s thrilling because God is here and we’re all here. It’s a joyous moment we don’t want to lose—don’t let it fade,” they sing.
The Peaceless Backdrop
This is what the psalm is about, at least on the surface. But when you view this psalm against the backdrop of what was going on in Israel at the time, you learn that it’s not just a song about a great moment that’s being experienced. It’s actually a cry of the heart, a longing prayer that the peace and unity of the psalm would become a reality.
There’s a movie I like about the 16th-century reformer, Martin Luther. That movie shows that a when Luther was a young Augustinian monk he was sent on a formal errand from his monastery in Erfurt, Germany to the Holy City of Rome. He was thrilled to make the 850 mile trip on foot. It was more than business trip, it was a spiritual pilgrimage. But when he got there he was shocked. Corruption ran rampant in the streets. There were brothels for priest, and you could buy salvation for a few coins. He was appalled.
Ancient Jerusalem was like that. Whitewash covered everything, but if you’d if looked behind the façade, you’d come away saying: “This isn’t a place to find spiritual fulfillment. There’s something wrong. Unity is missing. The peace of God is missing.”
I think the psalmist knows this, and so the song is a prayer for slalom. Because it was only few short years after this psalm was written that the Babylonians descended on Jerusalem from those high hills in the north, destroying the city, knocking the temple down, and carting the people off into captivity.
Jeremiah was there when it happened. I’ll summarize what he said to the people:
“You say, ‘The temple of the lord, The temple of the lord, The temple of the lord, thinking that you are secure because the building is there. You keep saying, ‘“Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.’ You learned to sing the songs of Zion, but does faith and reliance and true worship pour forth from your souls? No… you trust in deceptive words to no avail. You steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before God in his house, which is called by his name, and say, ‘We’re delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Oh, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’” (Jer 6:14; 7:8-10; 17:9).
The Look Forward
If we take the psalm at face value, we would have missed something significant. While the pilgrims are singing one thing, they’re singing it within the context of their day. Through this Song of Ascent they’re trying their darnedest to look forward to something bigger, and greater, and deeper, and more lasting than Israel ever experienced.
Let me try to bring this home to you by looking at something that the prophet Isaiah said. Isaiah preached to the northern tribes of Israel who conquered by the Assyrians more than 100 years before the people of Judah and Jerusalem were taken into captivity by Babylon. But what God says through Isaiah showcases his heart perfectly (Isa 57:15–17).
The high and lofty one who lives in eternity,
the Holy One, says this:
“I live in the high and holy place
with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.
I restore the crushed spirit of the humble
and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.
For I will not fight against you forever;
I will not always be angry.
If I were, all people would pass away—
all the souls I have made.
I was angry,
so I punished these greedy people.
I withdrew from them,
but they kept going on their own stubborn way.
Parents, have you ever disciplined your children? Did you do it because you hate them? Of course not; quite the opposite. But how many of your kids turned into perfect angels? God is saying, “I have disciplined my kids, but they’re stubborn and keep turning back to their sins. Yet I’ll be there with all my fullness those who are humble and contrite.”
God words through Isaiah continue (Isa 57:18–21):
I have seen what they do,
but I will heal them anyway!
I will lead them.
I will comfort those who mourn,
bringing words of praise to their lips.
May they have abundant peace, both near and far,”
says the Lord, who heals them.
“But those who still reject me are like the restless sea,
which is never still
but continually churns up mud and dirt.
There is no peace for the wicked,”
says my God.
The Heart of the Matter
I wonder—even while this is ancient history—if you’re picking up on the timeless truth here: There is never peace, never slalom in the human heart as long as it is filled with guilt and shame. And when a person is filled with guilt and shame they’ll do all sorts of evil to relieve it; they’ll argue, and fight, and defend, and flee, and lie, and steal, and on and on. And still there is no peace.
Isn’t that the problem? It’s it why the Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23); that “there is none who does good, not even one” (Psa 14:3)?
My aim isn’t to put you on a guilt trip, but you’ll not experience the wondrous joy of this Psalm 122 unless you understand that pilgrims are singing about a great need. Deep down in the nooks and crannies of every human heart their is corruption, and unless it’s removed there can be no peace.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” doesn’t mean put a fresh coat of paint on the city. It means: May God do something massive here; may he bring a major heart transformation to this place, starting with me!
The Work of Salvation
Now, you’ll remember that when Moses led the people out of Egypt that a massive battle had to be fought. Pharaoh let the people go, but then he changed his mind and chased them down with his army. God had to judge Pharaoh’s army; he had to defeat it in order to bring this ragtag band of people, people who weren’t anymore faithful than you or me, to himself, and into his rest in the Promised Land.
That was a massive work of salvation. But it was an external sign of what God was aiming at within each person. Looking back on the Exodus Event and saying, “Look what our God has done,” was appropriate, but it wasn’t complete. A day would come when the Exodus Event would become a massive internal transformation, the heart’s exodus from darkness.
Let me try to be even more clearer. When you think of Christmas what do you think of? Do you think of lights and trees? Maybe a cutesy, little baby in a manger?
Imagine for a moment that you’re Joseph and the angel comes to you and says, “Mary is going to have a child and you’re going to call him Jesus.” What are you going to say? Maybe you’ll say, “Why?” To which a reply will return: “Because of all of the corruption that my prophets spoke about, because of the absence of peace, because of all of that I am going to send myself, Emmanuel (‘God with us’), in the person of Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves’, to save my people from their sins, to bring about and internal exodus.”
It’s God breaking it! It’s peace on earth! It’s something absolutely wondrous, something absolutely massive. It’s not God transforming Jerusalem, but the whole of humanity. What did John the Baptist say when he saw Jesus? Didn’t he say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Think about this: Believers and unbelievers alike have to admit that this world hasn’t been the same since Jesus. Jesus is history’s watershed moment. And when you come to know Jesus that watershed event invades your own interior world.
Sometimes I get frustrated when people hear the gospel and say, “Great, I’m glad God loves me; that’s he’s cool with all the crap I do.” Folks that’s not the good news. The good news is that grace meets you where you are, yes, but it doesn’t leave you there. Because there’s no peace there. The grace of God in Jesus is an exodus event. It moves us to a new place.
The Place of Joyful Peace
I think that place was spoken of by Jesus in his priestly prayer in John 17 (vv. 20-21):
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
The psalm was praying for peace. Jesus was praying for peace. Do you see it?
The place to which the exodus leads is a place of peace. It’s peace with each other, birthed out of peace with God. And the fullness of that peace is displayed in the book of Revelation when the angel says to John in chapter 21: “‘Come with me! I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ So he took me in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” (vv. 9–10).
Ya know, at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9) humanity was denied unity because we wanted to erect it on the grounds of pride and dominance. But here unity is something God brings about; it’s a unity grounded on humility and contriteness, a yearning for peace with God; it’s a unity rising through Jesus, the Lamb of God—our mutual need of Jesus uniting us in spirit in a way nothing else can.
In other words, before peace is possible redemption had to occur. You may still have feelings of guilt when you screw up. But there’s no penalty for that guilt because it has been nailed to the cross and judged there. “It is finished,” said Jesus (John 19:30). Isn’t that wondrous?
Those of you who are husbands need to know this: Do you ever get cruddy and crusty with your wife? Those of us who are children—an we’re all someone’s child—need to know this: Do you ever get angry at or tired with your parents? Have you ever thought, “Oh, you’ve done that again; you’ve said that again—I don’t like it! You’re guilty, I hold you in contempt.” Ah… but we can’t do that, can we? The sting of all the accusations is lost because you were washed and justified and sanctified in Jesus by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 6:11).
The cross has taken our putrid, divisive guilt and removed it. Our sins have been forgiven. We’re washed clean, it’s a wondrous thing. And so the Apostle Paul encourages us, I’d say that he pleads with us: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32).
This is the place that Psalm 122 anticipates. It’s a place of joyful peace. And we get to participate in it now as citizens of the New Jerusalem, which will come in all of it’s fullness.
Maybe you came this morning excited Monday is near. Maybe you came without cheer: feeling unhappy, uncertain, unclean, unacceptable, or just uncomfortable in your pain. I get it. I really do. Sometimes I feel the same way.
Yet this Song of Ascent wants to take us higher, pointing us to the truth that God has done something that utterly transforms life. That, friends, is hope for the journey. The journey is leads to a place of great joy.
And so… “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psa 122:1).