The Songs of Ascent, Text: Psalm 122, Title: The Compact City


We have seen the departure from the present evil world and the journey up to the city of hope and now, in the third song in this triad, we have arrived at the city. In the early nineteenth century Timothy Dwight was a lonely Christian at Yale University in the midst of deists and atheists. However, he later became president of that institution and effectively combated the rampant and growing unbelief. He wrote, “ I love thy church. O God; her walls before me stand,
dear as the apple of thine eye, and graven on thy hand. For her my tears shall fall, for her my prayers ascend; to her my cares and toils be giv'n till toils and care shall end.” Yet what we frequently find today is not a love for the church, a sense of duty to the church, but rather the church is put under the ever-scrutinizing eye of the consumer and the critic. The consumer looks at the church in terms of "what's in it for me?" They approach the Church of Christ as if it were a strip mall, wondering if the right shopping options will be through the doors. The critic appears to be more serious however, than the consumer. He has established himself as the ecclesiastical judicatory, testing the leadership, the worship, the sermons, the friendliness of the people. The critic is the first to boycott the precious Body as soon as he feels slighted. No church is worth the consumer's or the critic's tears or prayers. The church is only worth whatever their own carnal evaluations. Christians should love the visible church that Augustine identified as the city of God, just as the pilgrims in our Psalm loved Jerusalem, the Old Testament City of God. There are not two churches, the visible and the invisible, but lone church which may be viewed in its visible and invisible aspects. Thus when Jesus replied to Peter’s confession that He was the Son of God in Matthew 16;18 and 19,  And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” He was talking about the church visible and invisible. This is the city of God both visible on earth and invisible in the heavenly realm. You cannot be a true member of one without being a true member of the other, and therefore there may be false members of the visible church who are not members of the invisible church, that is, truly converted, but there should never be members of the invisible church who are not members of the visible church on earth. There is one city with two aspects, the invisible which only God sees, and the visible which is all that we can see. And this is the city that we should be glad to come to as the psalmist expresses in this song. We are looking at the design of the city, the devotion to the city, and the desire for the city.

I The Design of the City of God

The vital thing to see in the design is the compact nature of the city. It is variously translated as solid, unbroken or consolidated as expressed in verses 3-5, Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together. That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, to praise the name of the LORD according to the statute given to Israel. There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David. We observe first that there are three activities that take place and these are identical to what takes place in the church. These are the declaration of the statutes of the Lord which is like the preaching of the Word, the praise of his name, which is worship, and judgment which is the administration  of discipline expressed through the elders in admitting members, regulating worship and fellowship, and excommunicating false professors. None of this is possible in a city that is not compacted together. There must be a communion of the saints and a submission to one another. This is the way Paul describes the workings of the church in Ephesians 4:11-16, It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. The members of the compact city are joined together by ligaments. If all of the joints are not together, then there will be no worship, no growth and no service. There are many who claim to be Christians but think it unnecessary to belong to a church, and there are many people in the church that do not think that they are essential. Both are wrong. We must all say with Timothy Dwight, “ I love thy church. O God; her walls before me stand,dear as the apple of thine eye, and graven on thy hand.”

II The Devotion to the City of God

The devotion is manifested in verses 6-9, Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your prosperity. This is both the least you can do and the most you can do for the city of God whether in the Old or New Testaments. You can pray for peace. This is not a prayer for peace among the nations however worthy that desire. It is a prayer for peace in the church. It was well expressed by Samuel Stone in the great hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” as he writes, “Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed,by schisms rent asunder,by heresies distressed,yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up, "How long?" And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song." Church members have long promised to study or work for the peace and purity of the church. These are complementary. When Jesus describes the way to purity in John 15:1 and 2 he says, I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. Pruning is the divine solution, but in history that sometimes requires wholesale separation, or as Samuel Stone refers to it, “schism.” This is large scale pruning that is often necessitated by the failure to maintain proper discipline within churches. Ultimately we need to be actively dedicated to follow Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 4:3-6, Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit- just as you were called to one hope when you were called-one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Too long Christians have used the excuse that only the church invisible matters, and they have neglected their responsibility to the church visible on earth.

III The Desire for the City of God

Verses 1 and 2 express the psalmist’s heartfelt desire, I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”  Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem. At his entrance to the holy city the psalmist goes from sadness to gladness. There is an old saying, “To dwell above with the saints we love, that will be glory, but to dwell below with the saints we know, that’s another story. There is none of that sentiment in the heart of the psalmist. He is overjoyed to gather with the brethren, as we should be here and now. There is not much point in  waxing eloquent about the pleasures at the right hand of God someday when we ignore them here. Psalm 26:8 says, I have loved the habitation  of your house and the place where your honor dwells. In the city of God, only He is honored. Jesus said there were many dwelling places in His Father’s house and we are mistaken if we think that means only in the world to come. There’s a place here for us in the city of God before we reach that eternal abode. It is a place we should fervently desire.