City of Elusive Peace

Jerusalem Series - 1

City of Elusive Peace

For 3000 years the city of Jerusalem has played a key role in Jewish consciousness and world history. In this first of two articles commemorating the city’s 3,000th anniversary, Rob Yule, Minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, and Board Member of Prayer for Israel (New Zealand), reviews Jerusalem’s turbulent history. Given as an address to St Albans Presbyterian Church on 1 October 1995, it was published in the Challenge Weekly (Auckland, New Zealand), Vol. 53, No. 46 (November 29, 1995), pp. 8-9.

25 September 1995 was Rosh Hashana, the beginning of year 5756 in the Jewish calendar. During this year the Jewish nation, in Israel and throughout the diaspora, is celebrating the 3000th anniversary of Jerusalem. The commemoration is dated from just before 1000 BC, when King David captured the city from the Jebusites, as described in 2 Samuel 5 and 1 Chronicles 11, making it the capital of his united monarchy.

David’s Capital

David, at the age of thirty, had consolidated his kingship after the death of King Saul. He reigned initially for nearly seven years at Hebron, then a further thirty three years after capturing Jerusalem. The city, known at the time as Jebus, occupied a strategic location on the commanding ridge of central hill country, about 750 metres (2,500 feet) above sea level, between Philistine territory on the coastal plain in the west and the Dead Sea rift valley on the east. Jebus was the one major hostile fortress remaining after David’s earlier campaigns, separating the southern and northern areas of Israelite territory.

The capture of Jebus was one of the most imaginative of David’s military exploits. The Jebusites had regarded it as so impregnable that they boasted that even the blind and lame could defend it. David’s troops attacked the city by climbing up the water shaft, so gaining surprise access within its walls. Its capture made it royal property by right of conquest, and enabled David to unify the southern and northern tribes in a united kingdom.

Exile and Return

The Hebrew name Yerushalayim means ‘City of Peace.’ Yet, as Barbara Tuchman says in Bible and Sword, ‘More blood has been shed for Jerusalem than any other spot on earth.’ It has been conquered thirty seven times in its 3000 year history.

Jerusalem was first conquered by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BC, ending what is known by Jews as the First Temple period. As described in 2 Kings 25, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem after an abortive revolt by Judah’s last king, Zedekiah. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, the Jews exiled to Babylon, and the southern kingdom of Judah ended. Exile had a profound impact on Jewish consciousness, imparting a world outlook to their faith but at the same time intensifying their longings for their homeland and Jerusalem, as illustrated by the musician who wrote Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion....
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.

Jerusalem and the Jews

‘Jerusalem is not divine,
her life depends on our presence.
Alone she is desolate and silent,
with Israel she is a witness, a proclamation.
Alone she is a widow,
with Israel she is a bride.
Zion is not a symbol but a home,
and the land is not an allegory but a possession,
a commitment of destiny.

How can anyone expect us to betray our pledge:
"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither."’

Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel,
in An Echo of Eternity

Cyrus the Great, ruler of the first ‘world state’ in history, the Medo-Persian Empire which stretched from the Aegean Sea to the River Indus, conquered Babylon in 539, and in the following year authorized the first return of Jews to Jerusalem, under the leadership of Zerubbabel. In 537 Zerubbabel began construction of the Second Temple, a small structure compared to that of Solomon, completing it in 515.

Greeks and Romans

In the inter-testamental period Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, forcibly attempted to impose Hellenistic Greek culture and religious syncretism on the Jews. In 167 BC he forbade circumcision, entered the Jerusalem temple, offered sacrifices to the pagan deity Zeus, and crucified Jews who attempted to resist. This provoked the revolt of Judas Maccabeus, commemorated in Handel’s famous oratorio, which lead to the reestablishment of Jewish independence for one hundred years. Antiochus’s profaning of the temple is referred to in the Bible as the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ or ‘desolating sacrilege’ (Daniel 9:27, Mark13:14), and led him to being viewed in later tradition as an archetype of Antichrist. During the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) the Israelite nation reached its greatest extent, from the Mediterranean coast to eastern Jordan - a greater territory than under King Solomon.

Maccabean rule ended in 63 BC, when the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem. Entering the Holy of Holies in the temple, Pompey was surprised to find it empty, devoid of idolatrous religious objects. The Romans ruled Palestine through Jewish puppet kings, the greatest of whom was Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 BC to AD 4 and was king at the time of Jesus’ birth. In 19 BC Herod began a massive rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. This was not completed until AD 64, only six years before its destruction by the Romans, as prophesied by Jesus in his eschatological discourse in Mark 13.

The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, by the Roman general Titus, after a bitter siege, is described by the Jewish historian Josephus in The Jewish War. Titus placed Roman emblems in the temple before his troops set fire to it and then tore it apart stone by stone to get at the gold that had melted into crevices in the rock, thus fulfilling to the letter Jesus’ prophecy that ‘Not one stone here will be left on another’ (Mark 13:2). The Romans killed 600,000 people in Judea, crucified 10,000 Jews, and took 90,000 Jews captive to Rome as slaves. This shattering event is portrayed on a famous frieze on the triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome, which shows the Hebrew slaves bearing the seven branched candelabrum and other utensils from the temple. A replica of it comprises the entrance portal to the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, a poignant introduction to this magnificent exhibition which covers the ensuing nineteen centuries of Jewish dispersion among the nations of the world.

Jerusalem was destroyed a second time by the Romans in AD 134, provoked by the Jewish Revolt led by Simeon Bar Kochba, who had been declared Messiah by Rabbi Akiva in 132. 580,000 Jews were killed when the Romans suppressed this revolt. Among those who died were Rabbi Akiva himself, and Yehuda, leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem (effectively ending Jewish Christianity till the rise of Messianic Judaism in modern times, and beginning the fateful separation of Gentile Christianity from its Jewish roots). In 136 the Emperor Hadrian sought to obliterate all surviving traces of Jewish influence. He renamed Judea ‘Syria Palaestina’ (the name Palestine has had an anti-Jewish connotation from the first) and refounded Jerusalem as a pagan city which he renamed ‘Aelia Capitolina’. Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter on the site of the former temple, and forbade Jewish observances such as circumcision, the Sabbath, and the annual festivals.

Christians and Arabs

Over the next few centuries Christianity not only lost its Jewish character but began to develop anti-Semitic tendencies. In 629 Jerusalem was captured by the Byzantine Christian Emperor Heraclius, who massacred its Jewish inhabitants and renewed earlier edicts of Hadrian and Constantine banning Jews from the city. In 632 he decreed the forced baptism of Jews throughout the Byzantine Empire, the first of many such unhappy episodes in the Middle Ages which have given Jews a perverted understanding of Jesus and the Gospel.

The seventh century saw the meteoric rise and westward expansion of Islam. Jerusalem was captured from the Byzantines in 638 by Muslim Arabs under the leadership of Caliph Omar. His successor, Caliph Omar II, was the first to introduce, in 717, discriminatory regulations against dhimmi (non-Muslim subjects), including the wearing of special clothing. This was the origin of the notorious badge of shame, enforced on Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1939-45.

The eleventh to thirteenth centuries were the period of the Crusades, a series of military expeditions undertaken by Christian western Europe to rescue the Holy Land from the Saracens. The First Crusade, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, sacked Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtering Muslims in the al-Aqsa Mosque and burning Jews in the main synagogue. It resulted in the establishment of four Crusader states in Palestine. Many of the Crusader castles are still visible today, occupying dominant locations throughout the country. Between 1095 and 1272 there were eight Crusades, most aimed at liberating the Holy Land. In 1187, Saladin, sultan of Egypt, defeated a Crusader army at Hattin, near Tiberias, recapturing Jerusalem for the Arabs and bringing to an end the Crusader occupation of Jerusalem. Saladin is the hero of President Assad of Syria, Israel’s most wily and implacable present-day enemy.

In 1517, contemporary with the beginning of Luther’s Reformation in the west, the Ottoman Turks conquered Jerusalem. The Ottoman Empire reached its greatest extent under Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid sixteenth century, who took Turkish power into southern and central Europe, with consequences still felt today in the smouldering hostilities of the former Yugoslavia. In 1537-41 Suleiman rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, which surround the Old City to this day.

Modern Times

Towards the end of the First World War, in 1917, the British army under General Allenby liberated Jerusalem and Palestine from Turks, the only time in its three thousand year history that Jerusalem was captured without a shot being fired. Allenby, a Bible-believing Christian, dismounted his horse and entered Jerusalem on foot, anxious to distinguish his entry from that of Jesus nineteen centuries earlier. The establishment of the British League of Nations Mandate over Palestine (1920-48) brought to an end 401 years of Ottoman Turkish misrule and neglect. Of interest to New Zealanders is that ANZAC troops were involved in this campaign: those who died in action are buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery on Mount Scopus.

After the Second World War, like Berlin at the same time, Jerusalem became a divided city. Early in 1948, following the Arab siege of Jerusalem that preceded the War of Independence, east Jerusalem, the Old City, was overrun by the Jordanian Arab Legion, leading to a nineteen year division of the city. The Jewish Quarter was destroyed, along with fifty eight of its historic synagogues (some were used as latrines); the ancient Jewish cemetery on the slopes of Mount of Olives was desecrated, its tombstones used as paving slabs; and Jews were prevented from worshipping at the Western Wall.

Wednesday June 7, 1967, was an unforgettable day in Jewish history. On the first day of the famous Six Day War Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol appealed to King Hussein not enter hostilities, promising that Jordan would be able to retain control over Jerusalem and the ‘West Bank’ if it remained neutral in the conflict. Misled by Egyptian propaganda predicting a rapid and overwhelming Arab victory over Israel, Hussein ignored this appeal and sent the Arab Legion across the armistice lines into west Jerusalem. In the resultant bitter fighting (which for Jerusalem was in fact a three day war) an Israeli counter-attack recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Jordanians.

Emotional scenes took place at the Western Wall as Chief Rabbi Goren blew the shofar and Israeli soldiers wept as they fingered its ancient stones. Down in Al Arish Naomi Shemer, Israel’s leading folk singer, was performing for the troops when news of the event came through. She immediately composed an additional verse for her recent song, Yerushalayim Chel Zahav:

We have come back to the deep wells
To the marketplace again.
The trumpet sounds on the mount of the temple
In the Old City.
In the caverns of the cliff
Glitter a thousand suns.

Taken up exultantly by the whole population, ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ instantly became the anthem of the Six Day War. United Jerusalem was again capital of a sovereign Jewish state for first time since the Maccabbees twenty two centuries earlier.

Conflict Over Jerusalem

With its long history of conquest and contempt, it is little wonder that we are exhorted in the Bible to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122:6). David Pawson sums up Jerusalem as a place ‘with too much history and too little geography.’ Reviewing its tragic history we might wonder why this postage-stamp sized piece of territory (Israel is about size of Northland, New Zealand, the Old City of Jerusalem about the size of the Massey University campus in Palmerston North) should evoke such antagonisms. The basic reason, I believe, is spiritual. According to the prophecies of Zechariah 12 and 14, Jerusalem - particularly east Jerusalem, where the Mount of Olives is - will be a focus of increasing international conflict, because it is the venue for Jesus’ second coming to reign over all the earth.

If we ask, with the Psalmist, ‘Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?’ (Psalm 2:1), the answer is, ‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6). The basic root of the political and international conflict over Jerusalem is eschatological, relating to the future fulfilment of God’s purposes for this earth. God has set his king on Zion. He has determined that his king, Jesus, will one day reign over the earth from his appointed City of Peace, Jerusalem, which the Psalmist therefore calls ‘the city of the Great King’ (Psalm 48:2). This glorious future of Jerusalem is the subject of my next article.

Rob Yule
1 October 1995

© 1995, St Albans Presbyterian Church &
Challenge Publishing Society Ltd.