Expositor's Bible Commentary
A Song of degrees of David. I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.Psalm 122:1-9THIS is very distinctly a pilgrim psalm. But there is difficulty in determining the singer’s precise point of view, arising from the possibility of understanding the phrase in Psalm 122:2, "are standing," as meaning either "are" or "were standing" or "have stood." If it is taken as a present tense, the psalm begins by recalling the joy with which the pilgrims began their march, and in Psalm 122:2 rejoices in reaching the goal. Then, in Psalm 122:3, Psalm 122:4, Psalm 122:5 the psalmist paints, the sight of the city which gladdened the gazer’s eyes, remembers ancient glories when Jerusalem was the rallying point for united worship and the seat of the Davidic monarchy, and finally pours out patriotic exhortations to love Jerusalem and prayers for her peace and prosperity. This seems the most natural construing of the psalm. If, on the other hand, Psalm 122:2 refers to a past time, "the poet, now again returning home or actually returned, remembers the whole pilgrimage from its beginning onwards." This is possible; but the warmth of emotion in the exclamation in Psalm 122:3 is more appropriate to the moment of rapturous realisation of a long-sought joy than to the paler remembrance of it.
Taking, then, the former view of the verse, we have the beginning and end of the pilgrimage brought into juxtaposition in Psalm 122:1 and Psalm 122:2. It was begun in joy; it ends in full attainment and a satisfied rapture, as the pilgrim finds the feet which have traversed many a weary mile planted at last within the city. How fading the annoyances of the road! Happy they whose life’s path ends where the psalmist’s did! The joy of fruition will surpass that of anticipation, and difficulties and dangers will be forgotten.
Psalm 122:3-5 give voice to the crowding thoughts and memories waked by that moment of supreme joy, when dreams and hopes have become realities, and the pilgrim’s happy eyes do actually see the city. It stands "built," by which is best understood built anew, rising from the ruins of many years. It is "compact together," the former breaches in the walls and the melancholy gaps in the buildings being filled up. Others take the reference to be to the crowding of its houses, which its site, a narrow peninsula of rock with deep ravines on three sides, made necessary. But fair to his eyes as the Jerusalem of today looked, the poet-patriot sees auguster forms rising behind it, and recalls vanished glories, when all the twelve tribes came up to worship, according to the commandment, and there was yet a king in Israel. The religious and civil life of the nation had their centres in the city; and Jerusalem had become the seat of worship because it was the seat of the monarchy. These days were past; but though few in number, the tribes still were going up; and the psalmist does not feel the sadness but the sanctity of the vanished past.
Thus moved to the depths of his soul, he breaks forth into exhortation to his companion pilgrims to pray for the peace of the city. There is a play on the meaning of the name in Psalm 122:6 a; for, as the Tel-el-Amarna tablets have told us, the name of the city of the priest-king was Uru Salim-the city of [the god of] peace. The prayer is that the no men may become omen, and that the hope that moved in the hearts that had so long ago and in the midst of wars given so fair a designation to their abode, may be fulfilled now at last. A similar play of words lies in the interchange of "peace" and "prosperity," which are closely similar in sound in the Hebrew. So sure is the psalmist that God will favour Zion, that he assures his companions that individual well-being will be secured by loyal love to her. The motive appealed to may be so put as to be mere selfishness, though, if any man loved Zion not for Zion’s sake but for his own, he could scarcely be deemed to love her at all. But rightly understood, the psalmist proclaims an everlasting truth, that the highest good is realised by sinking self in a passion of earnest love for and service to the City of God. Such love is in itself well-being; and while it may have no rewards appreciable by sense, it cannot fail of sharing in the good of Zion and the prosperity of God’s chosen.
The singer puts forth the prayers which he enjoins on others, and rises high above all considerations of self. His desires are winged by two great motives-on the one hand, his self-oblivious wish for the good of those who are knit to him by common faith and worship; on the other, his loving reverence for the sacred house of Jehovah. That house hallowed every stone in the city. To wish for the prosperity of Jerusalem, forgetting that the Temple was in it, would have been mere earthly patriotism, a very questionable virtue. To wish and struggle for the growth of an external organisation called a Church, disregarding the Presence which gives it all its sanctity, is no uncommon fault in some who think that they are actuated by "zeal for the Lord," when it is a much more earthly flame that burns in them.