Chapter 3 — Have a Vision for the Gathering (Psalm 122)
“A SONG OF ASCENTS. OF DAVID. 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.” (Psalm 122).
Our ancient Hebrew pilgrim, readying himself for the journey to Jerusalem, wanted God in his life. He wanted God every day, not only during the three annual feasts at the temple. He understood, though, how limited his everyday experience with God would be if he didn't go to Jerusalem. If he never gathered with other believers to worship God, he'd experience less of God than he craved. To go up to the assembly in Jerusalem would unlock something which would flow into every other area of his life. His goal was God, not the gathering, but He expected to find God in and through the assembly.
Today's believers do not make a pilgrimage to a temple in Jerusalem, for the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ. But, as believers have done for thousands of years, we still gather. The name we go by in this era — “church” — is even derived from the Greek word for assembly or congregation. In other words, embedded in our very name is the idea that we come together and worship God.
And the Christ-life must have a vision for this assembling together of God’s people. It seems no one can be convinced of this unless God Himself embeds it upon their souls, and I believe He is trying to. Excuses for avoiding the assembly abound, but not for our pilgrim. He loved the gathering. He was hopeful of all God would do there, and beyond there, as a result of coming together in worship. A love for the gathering helps the climb of the Christian life. We must develop our vision for it.
It seems theologically possible to be a Christian without the gathering, but it also seems impossible to live the Christian life without it. Christians assemble, for it is what the church does. If we aren't committed to the gathering, if it isn't a regular part of our experience, we cheat the rest of the body of our gifts. If we are absent, we cannot learn at the rate we should. If we are haphazard in our commitment to the gathering, we will not have the strength for what God's calling on our lives. So, because we are weaker than we ought to be, He cannot call our number. We remain on the shelf. No, the gathering of the saints is vital to the Christian life. Our pilgrim, in his era, saw this, so he rejoiced over the gathering.
I, for one, believe it is possible to over-emphasize the all-church meeting. To attend a Sunday service forty times a year does not guarantee any spiritual progress. Christianity is designed to roll with us in everyday life. Monday is as holy as Sunday. If too much of an emphasis is placed on the gathering wrong beliefs could grow. For instance, congregants might wait for all every issue in life to be solved during the Sunday time slot, but this is foolish. We need more community with other believers than only on Sunday. We need more teaching than can be given on Sunday. We need more service than we can provide on Sunday. There is more to the Christian life than the gathering.
Take a broken marriage, for instance. Week after week the couple might attend a gathering. Silently, they hope and pray and wait for something miraculous to happen. At least one of them does. But when weeks tick by hope begins to wane. Now, the Spirit can break through in the gathering, and often does. I’ve rarely seen a marriage healed in Christ’s body without the involvement of the Sunday gathering. But counsel from seasoned believers, instruction from Bible-based books on marriage, and a commitment to personal prayer are all some of the ingredients which could lead to the health of that marriage. In other words, no Sunday magic dust will cure all your ills. But, so often, it all starts there. The gathering sparks something, and a fresh work begins.
If it is possible to over-emphasize the all-church gathering, it is also possible to under-emphasize it. Some of the undue emphasis on Sundays has been a reaction to the neglect of Sundays by so many. The weekly gathering of the local church is often ignored by those who seek to hold a loose affiliation with their local congregation. They might have a disciple and kingdom of Christ mentality, they might not, but they avoid the gathering. But holiness, wisdom, and balance cannot be found at the exclusion of the worship gathering. It must be part of the disciple’s life. For endurance during times of apostasy, Hebrew tells us, "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
But this is all likely something that is caught, not taught, and our pilgrim had caught it. He was all in for the corporate gathering. He could not wait to experience it. Do you want God in your life? Every day? Consider the gathering of your ecclesia, your church. There, God may have a word or work or perspective or lesson for you. He may have a touch that follows you back down the mountain into your everyday experience.
Glad for the Gathering
“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!” (Psalm 122:1-2)
Like a child waking up after a long car ride to the word, "Wake up, we're here," the pilgrim rejoiced when he heard they had arrived in Jerusalem. This was the city which housed the temple of God. His response at the call to worship was one of gladness — “I was glad,” he said. I wonder if this entire song is prophetic, more of a looking forward to when he would see Jerusalem again. Is he still on the road, dreaming of the next time he’ll get into the gates of God’s city, standing with thousands of worshippers of God, praising His name? With childlike anticipation, our pilgrim longs for the assembly. He is glad to “go to the house of the Lord.”
But how can a modern worshipper make himself glad at the thought of the all-church gathering? We cannot immediately change our feelings, nor should we follow them. But wouldn’t it be nice to have this level of gladness at the thought of praising God with other believers?
One way to develop this gladness is through a transformation of the mind. We must begin to see the church the way Christ sees the church. His perspective must become our perspective. When it does, our gladness for the gathering of the church will grow.
The New Testament is full of images which help us value the church, and to study these images helps transform the mind. We are told we are like branches connected to Christ, the vine, while the Father is the vinedresser (John 15:1-5). We are told we are like a flock, individual sheep whom Jesus knows, but part of a larger group (John 10:1-18). We are told we are a holy priesthood, set apart to minister to God and others (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10). Many images are helpful when considering what the church is. But let me suggest three central metaphors for the church that might help you grow in your appreciation for the gathering.
The church is the body of Christ -- “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Since you are a member of the larger body of Christ, you need the other body members. You cannot say you do not need the others, just as your body parts cannot reject the others (1 Corinthians 12:21). Even the seemingly insignificant parts of the body are needful. Without the corporate gathering of the church, when will the entire body be present together? The worship gathering gives us an excellent opportunity to, at least, see the whole body.
The church is the bride of Christ -- “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25–27). Christ, the husband, loves the church, His bride. The dowry was costly; His blood secured His bride. In thinking of the worldwide Church as the bride of Christ, we also ought to consider our local congregation the bride of Christ. By seeing the church through this lens, a believer is saved from much of the criticism and bitterness that can invade the human heart. Before we speak an ill word of the church, remember, she is Christ’s beloved.
The church is the household of Christ -- “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19–21). There was a time when Jesus’ mother and brothers tried to interrupt Him as He taught a houseful of people. Messengers told Him His family awaited Him. But Jesus replied, "'Who are my mother and my brothers?' And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers!'" (Mark 3:33–34). The church is the household, the family of God in Christ. Should not a family gather together?
Perhaps the Spirit will use these images to develop a passion within your heart for the local church gathering, the ecclesia. As the congregants congregate, there is a beauty to be found. Bodies have flaws, no wife is without error, and no family is without a bit of dysfunction. But I encourage you to love the mess! Don't look for heaven on earth at the gathering, but heaven messing with the earth. Let His word and love penetrate your heart. Our pilgrim sang with joy when he heard it was time to come to the house of the Lord. He rejoiced knowing the believers had now gathered. May the same joy find our hearts today.
Will you be glad at the invitation, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”? Will you give the invitation? Will you say this to the backsliders and reluctant? We know we cannot earn any ounce of our salvation or God’s grace with church attendance, so push past that thought and rejoice at the gathering. Get to the house of the Lord!
Glad Because the Gathering Produces So Much
Our pilgrim continued his song. He sang of the reasons for his gladness about the gathering. The pilgrims didn’t gather for gathering, but God. An exchange would take place in the house of the Lord. Lessons would be learned. A transformation would occur. In this portion of the song, there are four elements for us to consider.
It Helps Us Sense Our Togetherness in God
“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…” (Psalm 122:3-4a).
First, we notice our pilgrim’s observation. He saw Jerusalem and was moved. He began singing to the city, to Jerusalem. He praised it for being “bound firmly together.” Remember, our pilgrim has likely come from agrarian town. Farmland butted up against farmland. His village was likely sprawling. Dwelling places would have been more spread out than they were in Jerusalem. There, the pilgrim saw a compact urban center. Apartments, houses, shops, walls – all of them bound firmly together. The city fascinated our country pilgrim.
In seeing Jerusalem this way, our pilgrim was no mere sightseer, impressed with urban life. No, the togetherness he saw in Jerusalem was a metaphor for the unity he saw in the worship taking place in Jerusalem. When he saw “the tribes go up…as was decreed for Israel,” he was seeing a unity that was fresh for him. The togetherness of Jerusalem reminded him of the tribal love he experienced in the worship gathering.
In a world sharply divided, this brand of togetherness brings healing to our souls. Watching a diverse group unify in the worship gathering brings us great joy. We celebrate this unity, this togetherness, when we think of the church worldwide, rejoicing that we are one in Christ. Though different — just like the various tribes in Israel — we are one in Christ. We see this in the unity found across denominational lines as well. But we should also see this in our local church gathering. The variety of “tribes” in the local congregation, all coming together to sing and praise and learn and serve, should refresh us in a segmented and divided society. The church is a new society, united under the blood of Jesus Christ. The worship gathering reminds us of that unity.
This unified assembly helps us acquire a better understanding of Christ. Seeing Him in others through their holy example is educational, powerful. Receiving from Christ through others as they minister to you and others is refreshing. Learning of Christ from others as you hear of all He has taught them is vital to the Christian life. I can know Jesus while living in isolation, but not like I can when living in the community, coming to the gathering.
It Re-Centers Our Relationship With God
“…To give thanks to the name of the Lord” (Psalm 122:4b)
Second, we note the purpose of the gathering: to give thanks to God. God’s people have much for which to be thankful. For generations, we have praised Him for His work in our lives. And thanksgiving to God does something to us. Since thanksgiving magnifies Him, it is through it He becomes more real to us (Psalm 69:30).
Thanksgiving prayers help recenter worshippers on their relationship with God. You remember who you are in the thanksgiving, for you remember who God is. He is good. He is love. He is patient. He is provider, defender, holy, awesome, and God. As you recall this in the thanksgiving, you recall who you are in relationship to Him. You begin to remember what life is all about. The worship gathering begins to serve its purpose as you wake up anew to God’s purpose for and in your life.
You might climb into the worship gathering with feelings of fear and doubt. Lethargy might be the mood of your life. But the gathering, as you thank Him, is designed to awaken you from that slumber. God is alive, and the corporate gathering helps us remember who we are in relationship to Him.
Week after week, believers need this reminder. The danger, to borrow a Bible word, is drift (Hebrews 2:1). We do not automatically trend towards God or godliness. The worship gathering cannot make you godly, but it does encourage it. It does help remind you of who you are, a new creature in Christ. How many times have we seen this in dramatic fashion? Someone drifts for years, perhaps decades, forgetting who they are in Christ. It used to be called backsliding. One day, for some reason, they find themselves in the worship gathering again. The Spirit moves, the scales fall from their eyes, and they remember who they are. They repent, they return, and they embrace God, His word, and His church once again.
O, that this would be found in miniature at our every Sunday gathering! The less dramatic, the better, for we do not want to drift far. Let the gathering wake you, and rewake you, over and over again. Engage with it by thanking God. From the depths of your being, appreciate Him afresh for what He's done for you. Think on His divine rescue operation for broken and rebellious humanity. Celebrate His love as manifested in the blood-drenched body of Jesus on the cross. And as you set your mind and heart on who He is and what He's done, thank and rejoice over Him! Let the gathering become an opportunity for you to reengage with the awesomeness of Christ and the glory of God. Let Jesus become famous to you once again, for that week, in that day, and let the newness of life which is yours in Christ become real once again.
It Helps Us Hear the Word of God
“There thrones for judgment were set, the thrones of the house of David” (Psalm 122:5)
Third, we see the pilgrim’s expectation for sound judgment to flow from Jerusalem. That city, of course, was the city of David. He captured it and, under divine influence, relocated Israel's capital and house of worship there. As the King of Israel, he was to lead righteously, to judge biblically. And each successive king was supposed to honor God by making leadership decisions that reflected their submission to God's word. In a gesture emblematic of their obedience to God and His word, each new king was required to pen his own word-by-word copy of Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:18). The throne of Israel did not belong to the king's of Israel, but God. The kings were to come under God’s word. The throne of David was to reflect the authoritative judgments of God.
Is this not a significant component of our worship gatherings? Do we not invite the word of God to authoritatively speak into our lives at the gathering? The church, after all, is the pillar and buttress of the truth, so it must proclaim the word of God (1 Timothy 3:15). The corporate gathering gives the Word of God an opportunity.
The New Testament includes many letters to churches and regions, but there are three letters written directly to pastor-leaders — one to Titus, and two to Timothy. In these letters, Paul outlined many functions of the local church, what it should look like, how it should operate. One cannot read these letters without concluding the gathering should give space for the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13). Churches should have pastor-elders who labor in preaching and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). They are to read from Scripture. It is inspired by God and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Of course, the word is to be read, studied, and enjoyed by individual believers. We need not wait for the corporate assembly. The Spirit within us can give us illumination of His word, for He knows the deep things of God. Paul wrote, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). And, of the indwelling presence of God's Spirit, John said, "The anointing that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you” (1 John 2:27).
So as individuals we are to study the word of God. We can know the truth. But God has also given to the church speaking gifts and offices so that His church might be taught and instructed in His Word. Jesus "gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12). Good teaching in the assembly does not discourage but promotes a better study of our Bibles as individuals. When teachers explain the word well, the listeners learn not only their Bibles but how to study them. Good teaching helps read our Bibles better.
It Helps Us Experience the Peace of God
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! ‘May they be secure who love you! Peace be within your walls and security within your towers!’” (Psalm 122:6-7)
Fourth, and finally, our pilgrim held out hope for peace to be in Jerusalem, to flow from it. To him, Jerusalem’s peace would lead to Israel’s. If Jerusalem had peace, God's temple would be a priority, which meant God's blessing would be on the nation. Individual worshippers would return home in peace. Our pilgrim longed for such peace, so he prayed for Jerusalem.
In our modern church era, it is good to pray for the peace of literal, physical Jerusalem. I believe a day will come when Christ literally, physically returns and reigns there. Jesus will inhabit Jerusalem and it shall dwell in security forever (Zechariah 12:11). All the nations will flow to Jerusalem to worship King Jesus (Zechariah 12:17). Israel will never again be uprooted from the land God gave them (Amos 9:14-15, Jeremiah 33:16). With their apostasy healed, God's people will dwell underneath His shadow and freely drink in His love (Hosea 14:4-7). At Zion God's people will seek the Lord in an everlasting covenant that will never be forgotten (Jeremiah 50:4-5). Christ will reign there, removing the stain of the curse from humanity (Isaiah 65:17-25). Of that time, God said, "I will rejoice over Jerusalem and delight in my people. And the sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more" (Isaiah 65:19, NLT).
But how does our pilgrim’s ancient prayer for Jerusalem apply to our modern church age? We do more than pray for literal Jerusalem. Jerusalem, if you remember, is the place the house of God dwelt. God’s people would gather there for prayer and worship. In our modern era, believers are not commanded to gather there. The temple is no more, for it grew old, became obsolete, and vanished away in the floods of Rome's war machine (Hebrews 8:13). It's as if God made His statement about the temple's expiration by allowing its demise.
So for us, we pray for more than Jerusalem, but whatever allows for the peaceful gathering of God’s people. We long for God's people to safely gather for prayer and worship. New Testament versions of this Old Testament prayer would come in the form of “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We might also pray for a peaceful unity to come upon the modern body of Christ (John 17:20-21). But perhaps the strongest parallel is found in the way Paul taught us to pray for governing authorities — “kings and all who are in high positions.” We are to pray for them so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Our pilgrim prayed for Jerusalem's peace so believing tribes could gather. We pray for the church's peace so every local church can gather.
Again, though, why would the pilgrim pray this way? Why did he long for the ability to peacefully congregate with other believers? He wanted the peace found there to flow out of there and into every home in Israel. He wanted every pilgrim, including himself, to experience the peace found in Jerusalem. And is this not our desire today?
The gathering of the church assembly occupies a small place in our lives. Even if we are faithful to gather weekly, the gathering only fills a fraction of our week. Up against the influences of society, the flesh, and principalities and powers, how could such a brief gathering of saints produce anything real or lasting in our lives? The pilgrim understood he was only in Jerusalem a few times each year. But what happened in the house of God would follow him into everyday life. The peace found there would impact his everywhere life. The modern Christ-follower embraces this concept as well. A 90-minute church service might seem small in comparison to the other 120 waking hours of the week. So did David’s five smooth stones in contrast to Goliath. Yet they did the job.
When we stop for worship, we are like the laborer out in the hot sun pausing to take a drink from his canteen. Though just a moment during the work day, the benefits are tangible. The work of life cannot be done if we do not stop to drink in God’s grace with other believers. There, in the gathering, peace flows into our lives, peace we are meant to experience during the rest of our everywhere life.
It is in the worship assembly we might be reminded of who we are to God, who we are in Christ. It is in the worship assembly we might find conviction over a besetting sin, one which will slowly or suddenly destroy. It is in the worship assembly we reconsider the priorities of life. There are a million lessons and transactions we might make in the worship assembly. Although a brief, these transactions are influential in shaping our everyday experience.
So We Seek the Good of the Worship Gathering
“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” (Psalm 122:8-9).
Our pilgrim's heart has grown for the house of the Lord. When it does well, God’s people do well, so he prayed for the city which housed God's house. Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and sanctification were all cultivated at the temple precincts. Our pilgrim longed to see these elements rise up in Israel, so he prayed for Jerusalem. He had become a man who loves God’s house and God’s people.
To endure in the race set before us, we need to belong to a community. In our self-focused, find-yourself, pursue-your-dreams, live-your-best-life-now world, belonging to a community of faith comes as a shock, but it is necessary so that we might aid each other on the mission of Christ. There were some in the early church days, as there are in ours, who neglected to meet with other Christians. They avoided the church, feeling no need for fellowship. Instead, "let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The culture we live in prefers loose networks and affiliations, the collection of "friends" online, membership without any cost. We are suspicious of institutions, including the church. Many believers have succumbed to the spirit of the age, a spirit which has discipled them well to be untrusting of any organization and instead focus on the self. Church commitment is rejected as asking too much. But the race is hard, and the Christian life cannot be lived alone. The community of faith helps build the beliefs and doctrines which make us Christian in the first place. If you aren't part of one, you will too easily ditch basic Christian doctrine. When we gather on Sundays, in small groups, at prayer meetings, on service teams, and in discipleship groups, we are "stirred up to love and good works." This encouragement is exactly what we need.
When we are together, the examples around us speak volumes. It is good to hear Christian doctrine but then seeing it lived out also builds our walk with God. And when you are part of a church community, you will take creative risks in stepping out to try acts of love and good works. You launch out because of the encouragement of your church, but also because of the safety the church provides. If you fail in your endeavor, you know your church will still love and receive you.
At this point, we should note how the song is ascribed to the pen of David. The prescript reads: “A Song of Ascents. Of David.” David was a man who loved the house of God, and every pilgrim who sang this song on pilgrimage was imitating David's original passion. He had, of course, captured Jerusalem and established the capital there. He brought the tabernacle and ark of God there, rejoicing upon its arrival. But in his day, Jerusalem wasn’t yet the city this psalm portrays. Solomon, David's son, would build the temple after David's death. Solomon would also expand and develop this well-built city. So David’s song about Jerusalem and its temple was prophetic. He had a vision of the future glory of Jerusalem. He saw and sang of something that was not yet in existence.
Perhaps this song must be prophetic for you as well. If the worship gathering elicits little passion from you, perhaps you need a vision of what could be. If the gathering has not been impactful for you, and your love for it has waned over the years, pray in faith for a better day yet to come. With hope, sing this song prophetically, believing that as you walk in its truth your emotions will follow. Let this song allow you to live above your feelings, for your feelings are not worthy to lead your life. Live by faith in God about the worship gathering. Believe He has great good in store for you there. Soon, your emotions might change. Your feelings might submit. Soon you might find yourself saying, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”