I’ve a Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (hereafter ZPBD) that my grandma Crawford gave to me when I was 14 (1971). I was appreciative but mostly uninterested, but the book became a keepsake after Grandma died just a few months later. Then, when I was 18, I began to take faith more seriously. I kept the book and still use it, over forty years later, along with some of my other reference books. I took it down the other day to take a few personal notes about the subject of Jerusalem in the Bible—references I can continue to study over time.
The subject of Jerusalem is much longer and more involved than my few modest notes. A good Bible dictionary can give you the many references to the city in the two testaments. The biblical citations alone are numerous, and also one can take into account the extra-biblical historical materials about the ancient city, along with its importance for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—not to mention the long history of the city into our contemporary time. Not only was it the capital of David’s kingdom but was also the site of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ visits to and ministry in Jerusalem are interesting to study, as is the early church in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts, and the concern of the Apostle Paul (in some of his letters) that the poor of Jerusalem be supported by Gentile Christians around the empire.
Later, Jerusalem becomes central to Muslim faith. It was the destination of the Prophet Muhammad on his Night Journey, recorded in the Qur’an. Today, the beautiful Dome of the Rock stands upon the site of the Jewish temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE) in Jerusalem. Jerusalem also is important in the Baha’i faith.
For now, I mostly want to write down a few biblical references about its founding and also its symbolic significance. It is a pre-Hebrew place, called U-Ru-Sa-lim in ancient times (later in Hebrew Yerushalayim), that is, “city of peace.” The earliest biblical reference to the place is the story of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Gen. 14:18). So although Jerusalem does not became an Israelite city until the time of David, it begins to figure in the Bible a thousand years earlier in Abraham’s time. That connection of Jerusalem to “peace” (Salem or Sa-lim, in Hebrew shalom) is found in Haggai 2:9, Psalm 122:6, Isaiah 66:12, and other scriptures (ZPBD, p. 417).
The city’s name Yerushalayim appears for the first time in Joshua 10:5, and then later in the book (15:8, 18:28), where the text tells of Joshua’s failure to drive out the Jebusites, although the Israelites may have inhabited part of that area (Judges 1:21).
It is worth consulting a Bible dictionary about the parallel history of another city, Shechem, which eclipses Jerusalem in importance to the Israelites prior to the time of David. It is the city deeply associated with Abraham (Gen. 12:6-7, Jacob (Gen. 33:18-19, Gen. 34), Joseph (Gen. 37:12-14, Joshua 24:32), and Joshua (17:7, 24:1), and Shechem continued in importance for the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:1, 12:25, 2 Chron. 10:1, Jer. 44:5ff, Psalm 60:6, 108:7). Shechem falls from the biblical record, although the Samaritan woman of John 4 met Jesus in that area (ZPBD, 780-781).
The city of Shiloh is another important early city, the place where the Israelites under Joshua set up the Tabernacle, thus making Shiloh the center of the Israelite theocracy until the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant 400 years later (1 Samuel 4:3). Psalm 78:60 says that the Lord forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh. It was one of the worship centers during the time of the northern kingdom, but Jeremiah refers to it as a desolate place by his time (Jer. 7:12, 14) (ZPBD, 785-786).(1)
As for Jerusalem, David captured the city from the Jebusites during his reign (2 Sam. 5:6-10, about 998 BC). That is the first reference to the word Zion (ziyon), of uncertain meaning but perhaps citadel. David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, thus sanctifying Zion Hill (2 Sam. 6:10-12). Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on the proximate Mount Moriah, which meant that the name Zion was applied not only to the particular hill named Zion but also the temple mount (Isa. 8:18, 18:7, 24:23, Joel 3:17, Micah 4:7), and eventually all of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:21, Ps. 48, 69:35, 133:3, Isaiah 1:8, and others). The name Zion came to also apply to God’s people (Ps. 126:1, 129:5, Isa. 33:14, 34:8, 49:14, 52:8), and in the New Testament, for heaven (Heb. 12:22) (ZPBD, 914).
A very different biblical theme is the prophetic image of Jerusalem as God’s unfaithful wife! On this theme I recommend an excellent book by a former classmate, Dr. Julie Galambush: Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Society of Biblical Literature, 1992).
Jerusalem as God’s city, sometimes unfaithful but overall a symbol and reality of God’s peace, is found many times in the scriptures. The glory of Jerusalem itself is also found in the references to the place as the city of the Lord (Isa. 45:13, 60:14, Ps. 46:4, 48:1, 87:3), the mountain of the Lord (Isa. 2:3, 11:9, 56:7, 66:20), and many other lofty and praising references. It is called Hephzibah, “my delight is in her” in Isa 62:4) (ZPBD, 418).
The image of the New Jerusalem is also a powerful image in the concluding chapters of the Book of Revelation, one that connects to earlier texts like Ezekiel 40-48 and Zechariah. (The image also appears in noncanonical books like 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and some of the Qumran writings.) As depicted in Rev. 21-22, the New Jerusalem becomes an aspect of Heaven, or is Heaven itself, and is the reconciliation of God with all things. The peace of Jerusalem is the peace of God.
Altogether, you begin with that first, pre-Hebrew reference to Salem in Genesis 14, and then reconnect to the city in the histories following Deuteronomy, and then trace the references to the city (historical, prophetic, and symbolic) through the rest of the Bible, you do see how the city of peace is another pervasive theme, bringing the many biblical texts together.
I’m a member of a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group on Middle Eastern issues, which meets at Eden Theological Seminary. I enjoy learning from my colleagues about challenges faced by Israelis and Palestinians, including the complicated social, citizenship, and political issues of East Jerusalem (pre- and post-1967) within the overall municipal area. Discussion-friendship groups like this are one important way for us all to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” as taught in Psalm 122:
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—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.
As I’ve taken these notes, a song has been stuck in my head. Grandma’s Bible dictionary gives the names of other Christian hymns, like “Jerusalem the Golden.” I learned another old hymn in Sunday school as a child (words by Isaac Watts, refrain and music by Robert Lowry). The city thus became nostalgically lodged in my childhood faith, years before I ever went there.
Come, we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne,
And thus surround the throne.
We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.
To conclude these thoughts, I want to recommend a lovely 2-CD set of music called “Jerusalem: City of Two Peaces,” which I discuss here: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/11/jerusalem-city-of-two-peaces.html
1. The fact that Jerusalem became more significant than Shechem and Shiloh—and only in the eras of David and Solomon—reminds me of my page about the biblical monarchy, where I discussed the ambivalence in the biblical sources about an Israelite king. Some passages (that I discovered and discussed there) affirm that Yahweh is Israel’s true king and thus was not according to God’s original plan—as, one might argue, these other two cities were God’s original places of importance and worship. But God incorporated the monarchy—and specifically King David—as a “type of God’s kingdom.” And so the career of David—and now, we can add, the Jebusite city that he conquered for the Israelites—became significant for Israel’s messianic hope. It is interesting to reflect theologically about the way God seems to adapt and be reflexible in these aspects of Israel’s experience.