Jerusalem in Biblical Theology

Jerusalem in Biblical Theology

The OT

Jerusalem plays a key role within biblical history. It is never expressly mentioned in the Pentateuch (though the references to 'Salem' and 'Moriah' in Gen. 14:18 and 22:2 were later connected with the city: see Ps. 76:2; 2 Chr. 3:1). Early Egyptian Amarna texts (from the second millennium BC), however, refer to 'Urushalim'. As the Canaanite *city of Jebus (Josh. 18:28; Judg. 19:10) it was taken by Joshua (Josh. 15:63) and Judg. 1:21), but it came to the fore only when *David made it his capital (2 Sam. 5). From then on the city's significance began to increase.

Situated on the borders of the two tribes of Benjamin and Judah, and without any prior Israelite associations, Jerusalem was an ideal choice for a capital designed from the outset to signify the unity of the tribes of *Israel; it was the cornerstone of the religious and cultic unification of Israel' (S. Talmon, in Jerusalem, p. 195). Yet with the breaking away of the northern kingdom after Solomon's death it soon became the capital of just the southern kingdom. The city designed to bring unity now pointed instead to Israel's division (see e.g. 1 Kgs. 12:27-28).

Despite its lack of pedigree, the city became a centre for Yahwism, not only because of Solomon's building of the *temple but also because his father David had brought to Jerusalem the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6; 15:29; cf. Pss. 50; 132; 68:8, 17). Thus Jerusalem became the place where the Sinai covenant (Exod. 19 – 34) was remembered and cultivated. This link between Sinai and Zion (the term used for Jerusalem especially in Isaiah and the Psalms) encouraged the belief in the election of Zion; as the dynasty of David was chosen by *God (2 Sam. 7:4-17), so too was Jerusalem (see Pss. 2; 110). Moreover Zion was understood to be the place where Yahweh had put his 'name' (1 Kgs. 11:36; 14:21; 2 Kgs. 21:4; cf. Deut. 12:5, 11). The city of David was thus the city of Yahweh, and its temple the place where he dwelt (Ps. 135:21). Such ideas needed to be stated with caution (see 2 Sam. 7:5-7; 1 Kgs. 8:27). Yet they passed into the heart of Israel's worshipping life, as seen later in the Psalms (especially the 'Psalms of Ascent' such as 122; 125; 128): Jerusalem is the 'city of our God, the city of the great King' (Ps. 48, NRSV). Similarly Isaiah speaks frequently of Zion as Yahweh's holy hill, the place where he lives (4:5; 8:18; 10:12; 12:5-6); 14:32; 24:23; 30:19; 31:9).

A distinctive 'Zion-theology' developed involving various related elements: Jerusalem as the abode of Yahweh, the great *king; Zion (not Sinai) as his chosen mountain located at the centre of the world; the coming to Jerusalem of other *nations to acknowledge the sovereignty of Yahweh (J. M. Roberts, in JBL 92, p. 329). The dramatic survival of the city when besieged by Sennacherib in 701 BC (2 Kgs. 19:35-37; fulfilling the prophecy of Is. 31:4-5) may have strengthened these convictions, leading to the further conclusion that, because of the divine presence and kingship, the city was inviolable.

This view was denounced by prophets such as Micah (3:12) and Jeremiah (7:1-15; 26:1-6). The Lord might indeed be 'in Zion' (Jer. 8:19), but that was no guarantee that the city would be spared divine *judgment. God's covenant with his people was never without conditions (cf. Deut. 4 – 5). Far from fighting a 'holy war' in defence of his city, Yahweh was now its enemy (Jer. 21:4-7). Messages of disaster and judgment for Jerusalem are therefore a major element in the prophetic writings. Beneath the superficial issues of local politics, the prophets discerned divine judgment upon the city, and they denounced it for its disregard of Yahweh (Is. 22:11), its idolatry (Jer. 7:17-18; Ezek. 8:3), the corruption of its leaders (Jer. 13:13; Mic. 3:10), the oppression of the poor (Mic. 6:9-16), and its failure to observe the Sabbath (Jer. 17:19-23). Isaiah had likened the city to 'Sodom' (1:9), but Ezekiel went further, portraying Yahweh's contending with a city which was now to be called 'Oholibah', an Egyptian prostitute (23:1-49).

The catastrophic destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 587 BC (described in 2 Kgs. 25 and Jer. 52, and mourned in Lamentations) vindicated this critique. After the accession of Cyrus (539 BC) many *exiles returned to the city; the temple was rebuilt by Zerubbabel (Ezra 6) and the walls by Nehemiah (Neh. 1 – 6).

These key events within Israel's history inevitably occasion much reflection within the OT as to the nature of God's purposes towards Jerusalem, Israel and the world. First, there is a continued re-evaluation of the supposed 'inviolability' of Zion. For example, Psalm 89:1-37 speaks extravagantly of Jerusalem's security, but then describes its destruction in anguished terms (vv. 38-51). Significantly this concludes Book 3 of the Psalter, a book in which Psalms 74 and 79 also reflect on Jerusalem's destruction and which paves the way for Book 4, which bases its view of God's faithfulness and kingship not on Zion's restoration but on creation (see Pss. 90; 91; 93; 96 – 99). And Psalm 87, while emphasizing Zion (vv. 1-3), clearly sees God's purposes as more universal in scope: Yahweh declares that those who were 'born in Zion' will include even Israel's enemies (v. 4).

Secondly, although the prophets in the midst of their warnings had predicted *salvation and deliverance for Jerusalem in the short term (e.g. Is. 30:19; 44:26-28; Jer. 30 – 33; Ezek. 14:22; Zech. 1:16), increasingly God's purposes for the city in the long term were increasingly depicted as embracing something far bigger. The return of the exiles under Cyrus was indeed a fulfilment (especially of Jeremiah's prophecy in 25:12; 29:10; cf. 2 Chr. 36:22; Ezra 1:1), but in some ways it was disappointing (Neh. 9:32-36), thereby fuelling the hope that God might yet do something better (cf. Hag. 2:9). Isaiah and Micah had foreseen the day when '*word of the Lord' would 'go out from Jerusalem' (Is. 2:3; Mic. 4:2) and the nations would gather there to honour him (cf. Jer. 3:17). Jeremiah had spoken of the city's being called 'The Lord our Righteousness' (33:16). This larger, more apocalyptic vision was now augmented in grandiose and colourful terms. God's new work for Jerusalem would usher in a new age (Is. 65:18-19; Joel 3:17-18); the city would serve as a source of living *water (Zech. 14:8). The book of Ezekiel concludes with an extended depiction of the rebuilt temple in highly stylized terms with water flowing down to revitalize the Dead Sea and the city's being renamed 'The LORD is there' (48:35) – a dramatic picture of the Lord's presence amongst his people.

The OT closes with these issues unresolved. In one sense the exile was over; Jerusalem could be told that her 'penalty was paid' (Is. 40:2), but in another sense it was clear that much of the prophetic hope remained to be fulfilled. Ezekiel had spoken of the departure of the Shekinah glory of the Lord from the temple (chs. 8 – 11) at the time of the exile, but it was unclear whether his vision of its return (43:1-5) had since been fulfilled; and Isaiah had spoken of the Lord's redeeming Jerusalem and returning to Zion as King (Is. 52:7-10), but in what sense, if any, had this occurred? Jerusalem was thus supposedly the place of God's presence and his kingship, but it appeared instead that Israel's God was absent and not yet truly King, Jerusalem not redeemed, Israel not restored and the exile not truly over.

Such concerns are widespread in the intertestamental period, especially after the end of independent Hasmonean rule (167-63 BC). Not surprisingly, then, Luke sets his Gospel against the background of godly Jews who longed for the '*redemption of Jerusalem' and the 'consolation of Israel' (Luke 2:38, 25; cf. 1:71). Some of those prophecies for Jerusalem were connected with expectations of a Messiah. Jerusalem would one day welcome her long-awaited king (Zech. 9:9), a new branch from David's line (Jer. 33:15-16); at that time the city's people would be cleansed and her temple visited (Mal. 3:1-4), and God's Spirit would be poured out (Joel 2:28-32). When would these prophecies be fulfilled?

The NT

The NT writers, convinced that *Jesus was truly Israel's Messiah, understand these Jerusalem-connected prophecies to have been fulfilled in him. Jerusalem plays a central role within the story of the NT, and this is no accident. If Jerusalem at the dawn of the NT period was associated with the presence of the divine Name, the throne of the true King, the place of true *sacrifice, the centre of Israel's life and the focus of its eschatological hope, then it was inevitable that the mission of Israel's Messiah would be integrally connected with this unique city. The more important question becomes: in what way are these biblical motifs concerning Jerusalem affected by the coming of Israel's Messiah? Do they continue unchanged, or is their significance reforged as a result of God's revelation in Jesus?

The key role of Jerusalem within previous salvation-history is clearly affirmed within the NT. Jesus describes it as the 'city of the great King' (Matt. 5:35) and affirms the idea that God in some sense dwells in its sanctuary (Matt. 23:21; cf. Luke 2:49?). Matthew twice describes it as the 'holy city' (Matt. 4:5; 27:53). For all the evangelists it is the ultimate goal of Jesus' ministry. This is seen most notably in Luke with its extended 'travel narrative'; Jesus 'set his face to go to Jerusalem' as early as 9:51.

Yet this very focus on Jerusalem reveals a deeper truth and a great irony. Jesus must go to the city, not to receive popular acclaim as Messiah, but to be rejected by its rulers and ultimately to die (Mark 8:31 etc.). Again it is Luke who makes this point most clearly. Jerusalem is the city which 'kills the prophets'; 'it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem' (Luke 13:33-34). The infant Jesus had been welcomed by those who longed for the 'redemption of Jerusalem' (2:38), but now as he arrives in the city the adult Jesus weeps over it and pronounces a fearful judgment (19:41-44). This is repeated in the apocalyptic discourse (21:20-24 par.). He had longed to 'gather [the city's] children together' (13:34), but now the city will be surrounded instead by the Roman armies (19:43). Why? 'Because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God' (19:44).

This becomes the key window through which to perceive Jerusalem from the standpoint of Jesus: the city which missed its moment of destiny; the city prepared by God to welcome his presence but which now rejects him who embodies that presence; in sum the 'city of God' which does not recognize its visitation by the Son of God.

This dramatic encounter between Jesus and Jerusalem, which inevitably must cast Jerusalem in a whole new light, can be seen in all the Gospels. They all record Jesus' cleansing of the temple – a dramatic, prophetic act, almost certainly pointing to the forthcoming destruction of the temple (Mark 11:15-17 par.). In Matthew Jerusalem is the 'city of the great King' but it becomes clear that Jesus is that King (25:31, 34), the one whom the city does not welcome, the owner's 'son' who is thrown 'out of the vineyard' (21:39). Jesus is the embodiment of God's presence ('Emmanuel' in 1:23; cf. 18:20; 28:20) who pronounces that the temple, previously associated with that Shekinah presence (23:21), will now be 'left desolate' (23:38); and, with that, Jesus removes his own presence from the temple (24:1). He is the one 'greater than the temple' (12:6). His provocative and enigmatic statement ('destroy this temple, and I will raise it in three days', as in John 2:19) is used against him both at his trial and on the cross (Matt. 26:61; 27:40), but what happened on the third day? Was the risen Jesus the true temple? If so, what then would happen to the physical temple?

John affirms that Jesus is indeed the true embodiment of the temple (1:14; 2:21; cf. 1:51; 4:21-24) and the fulfilment of its festival symbolism (8:12; 10:36; etc.). Meanwhile Jerusalem is the city at the centre of his 'own country' (4:44), but when he 'came to what was his own', 'his own people did not accept him' (1:11). So Jerusalem proves to be the place which epitomizes the 'world' in its hostile response to God's truth and light. The crucifixion of the Messiah outside the walls inevitably casts a shadow over the city in the minds of the evangelists. How could this have come to pass? Could Jerusalem ever be the same again?

This new understanding of Jerusalem, drawn from a reflection on the life and ministry of Jesus, is then developed throughout the NT. The writer of Hebrews not only sees Jerusalem's temple sacrifices as now fulfilled in Christ (chs. 7 – 10 etc.); he also senses the contrast in the passion narrative between Jerusalem and Golgotha: 'let us then go to him outside the camp … for here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come' (13:13-14). He weans his readers away from the earthly Jerusalem and focuses their attention on the 'heavenly Jerusalem' (12:22; cf. 11:10, 16).

Acts tells a story in which (in deliberate contrast to that of Luke's Gospel) Jerusalem is gradually left behind, and it includes an extended critique of the temple and its hierarchy (Stephen's speech: Acts 7:2-53). Admittedly Paul returned to the city on several occasions (Acts 11:30; 15:2-4; 18:22?; 21:17), but despite his generous gift for the Jerusalem church (1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 8 – 9), he considered the 'present Jerusalem' to be 'in slavery with her children' (Gal. 4:25), influenced no doubt by the activities of the Judaizers who looked to the city for support (Gal. 2:1). It was indeed the place of the Messiah's great act of obedience and deliverance (Rom. 9:33; 11:26), from which the gospel message had gone out to the world (Rom. 15:19), but his converts were to focus now on the 'Jerusalem above; she is free and she is our mother' (Gal. 4:26). The book of Revelation completes the picture with its focus on the 'New Jerusalem' (3:12; 21:2). As for the physical city where the 'Lord was crucified', this is seen as comparable to 'Sodom and Egypt' (11:8). Even the description of the fall of *Babylon (ch. 18) appears to reflect the recent fall of Jerusalem, as predicted by Jesus in the apocalyptic discourse (Mark 13, reworked in Rev. 6).

The coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, result in a new theology of Jerusalem, with the city's losing its distinctive theological status as the 'holy city' or 'city of God'. In part this is because of divine judgment (see e.g. Luke 13:33-35; 19:41-44; 21:20-24; 23:28-31), but it is also because in the economy of salvation the city need no longer serve the same function within God's purposes. Christ is now in his own person the locus of God's presence on earth, and his death the fulfilment of the temple sacrifices; the temple's 'dividing wall' between Jew and Gentile is now broken down in Christ (Eph. 2:14), and by the Spirit God can be present with his people throughout the world: true worshippers need not 'worship the Father … in Jerusalem', but 'worship in spirit and truth' (John 4:21, 24). This is a foretaste of the heavenly *worship in the New Jerusalem, where there is no temple (Rev. 21:22). Just as the temple, according to Hebrews, was a shadow of the heavenly reality, so too the city of Jerusalem points forward to that which lies ahead.

The *election of Zion thus speaks powerfully of God's involvement with his people and his desire to reveal himself in concrete ways. Moreover, the fact that the ultimate goal of salvation-history is depicted not as a garden but as a city (albeit in ways reminiscent of Eden: see Rev. 22:1-3) may indicate that God appropriates for his own ends the human instinct to build cities, even though since Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) this had been a mark of human fallenness, a sign of humanity's proud 'counter-creation' (see J. Ellul, The Meaning of the City). Nevertheless the new perspective in the NT is also a powerful warning. That which God has given may be taken away when the divine gift is abused. And Jerusalem's fall serves as an advanced paradigm of God's ultimate judgment upon the world. The predominant note, however, is one of fulfilment in Christ. Jerusalem points to the greatness of Jesus. The one who visited the city on a donkey was indeed Zion's true King, the one in whom the city's chequered history was to find resolution, the one who held its destiny in his hand. Truly this was its 'hour of visitation'. It could never be the same again.


  1. Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids, 1970); B. Ollenburger, Zion, City of the Great King: A Theological Symbol of the Jerusalem Cult (Sheffield, 1987); J. J. M. Roberts, 'The Davidic origin of the Zion tradition', JBL 92, 1973, pp. 329-344; S. Talmon, 'The biblical concept of Jerusalem', in J. M. Oesterreicher and A. Sinai (eds.), Jerusalem (New York, 1974); P. W. L. Walker, Jesus and the Holy City: New Testament Perspectives on Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, 1996); idem (ed.), Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God (Grand Rapids, and Carlisle, 21994); I. Wilson, Out of the Midst of the Fire: Divine Presence in Deuteronomy (Atlanta, 1996); J. C. de Young, Jerusalem in the New Testament (Amsterdam, 1960).