“How can we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.”
An impossibly thin silver chain keeps the words “If I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget…” suspended over my heart. After being born there, I’ve spent most of my life trying to get back to Jerusalem. It’s comforting to recognize my angst in David’s lament, (He’s right…How could I?) yet it’s challenging to tease out the truth about my loyalty to this place.
(By the way, if you’re interested in a surprising Bible study, take a look at what God remembers and forgets. He remembers his people and his promises, and asks them again and again to remember his covenant, appointed times, and commands. Then there are examples of sins God forgets, and people whose names are blotted out. It turns out being forgotten, having your name disappear, is the worst punishment.)
To give you some context, the main Hebrew word we translate as “forget” also means to mislay or misplace. The word for “remember” describes the action of marking something. It’s related to the word that describes marking with a scent.
Jerusalem smells good to God. He marked it with his own fragrance. He follows the scent trail again and again, back to this precarious piece of cream colored rock, pock-marked with olive green. He marked a people to give it to. They are music to his nose. Their perfume will never leave his nostrils.
Millions of people follow their noses back to this same chunk of rock. We know it’s important, but we get it wrong. I love the moment in the movie “Kingdom of Heaven” where Balian asks, “What is Jerusalem worth?” Saladin says, “Nothing”. He walks away, and says, “Everything!”
This place means everything and nothing.
I owe so much to a city that owes me nothing.
One constant certainty of Biblical interpretation is multiple levels of revelation. God is always communicating on more levels than we understand or even perceive. The letters and numbers of the text itself are bursting with truth.
God has big plans for the city of Jerusalem, today and always. Nothing I have to say is meant to minimize that, ever. But there’s another layer of meaning in this verse I carry with me, one that eluded me until now. I wanted to share it here, because we need to keep reminding each other: we aren’t seeing the full picture.
Jerusalem is the name of a place. It’s also a word, with meaning apart from all the meanings we attach to that place. It’s most basic meaning is foundation of peace.
So what if, in addition to marking the scent trail back to my birthplace, God wants to lead me back to the foundation of my peace? The basis for my shalom?
Because if that’s true, I’m no longer stuck pining for a place I can’t legally enter.
If that’s true, this verse is (also) talking about a person.
If it’s true, I don’t just wear Jerusalem over my heart.
Jerusalem is alive inside me. Inside us.
And the psalmist is right: If our foundation stone, is mislaid, if we misplace our hope for shalom, nothing we do or say amounts to anything. Dexterity? Eloquence? Worthless.
Jerusalem is a skipping stone in a global ocean, falling with a barely audible plunk. And it’s the chief cornerstone, sending endless rings of impact rippling through time and space.
Jerusalem is a person. He revealed himself as small enough to dismiss. And we will see him vast. Strong enough to hold up whole worlds.
Right after this realization hit me, something ironic happened. I’ve been trying to get my Israeli citizenship documents for over six years, and just a few days ago a court in Israel finally ruled that I’m a citizen. We still can’t live there or even visit yet, but we’re closer to physically setting foot in Jerusalem than we have been since we were forced to leave two years ago.
The question now is: When I can go back, will I? Do I need to be physically present there? Or am I here to prove that Jerusalem is more than a place?
His scent, the fragrance of life and the stench of death, will always be fresh in my nostrils.
I will not forget.