We recently celebrated Jerusalem Day here in Israel, a day on which we remember the reunification of the city in 1967. I thought this would be a good time to go through the Biblical significance of Jerusalem for the past, the present and the future.
Do you have a few hours?
Ok, not really. I will try to make it relatively short, I promise. Volumes of books have been written on Jerusalem, but let’s try to make it simple: Jerusalem has a rich and messy history, a controversial present, and a glorious future.
The city started out as a Canaanite city, known as Salem or Jebus, which encompassed a small hill just south of Mount Moriah. It is first mentioned in Genesis 14:18, when Melchizedek, king of Salem, who was a priest of God most High, brought out bread and wine to Abraham and gave him a tenth of all. This is around 2,000 BC. Scholars debate whether this Salem really was Jerusalem or not, but the much later king of Jerusalem mentioned in Joshua 10 is known as Adoni-Zedek, so the city names are similar, and there seem to be a consistency with the names of the rulers.
This small hill just south of Mount Moriah is today known as the small neighborhood “City of David,” and it’s entirely outside of the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Why did they build the city on this little hill, and not any of the other, much higher, hills around it? Probably because it had a water source, the Gichon spring.
Tradition holds that Mount Moriah is the same place on which Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac in Genesis 22. This is consistent with the scripture’s description that it took them three days to journey there from Beer Sheva (Genesis 22:4).
God told Abraham in Genesis 15:16 that “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” It seems like God didn’t want to punish Salem as long as Melchizedek served him there, but many generations later, in Joshua 10, the king of Jerusalem, Adoni-Zedek waged war against the Israelites, and was defeated.
Is the Bible silent about Jerusalem between Abraham and Joshua? Not entirely. Deutronomy mentions over and over a “place God will choose.” Deutronomy 12:11 for example:
“Then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God will choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution of your hand, and all your choice votive offerings which you will vow to the Lord.”
The Samaritans, until today, refuse to believe that God meant Jerusalem. The woman at the well said to Yeshua: “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” (John 4:20).
Jerusalem became significant only at the time of King David. When Joshua invaded Israel, Jebus was one of many cities, and even though Joshua 10 describes how Jerusalem was conquered, it seems they didn’t keep it – instead the Jebusites must have returned, and the city stayed as a Gentile city, stuck between the borders of Benjamin to the north and Judah to the south. The book of Judges mentions it as a Gentile city (Judges 19:10-12).
After the death of King Saul, David initially became king only over the tribe of Judah, and he ruled from Judah’s capital, Hebron. When Saul’s son, Ish-Boshet, died and David was asked to rule all of Israel, he chose Jerusalem as his capital. Why Jerusalem? Just as Washington DC doesn’t belong to a specific state, David similarly wanted a federal capital that could unite the 12 tribes. Jerusalem was right on the border between his own tribe, Judah, and the previous king, Saul’s, tribe, Benjamin. We can guess that it also served the religious significance of being next to Moriah where their ancestor Isaac was almost sacrificed a thousand years earlier.
1 Chronicles 11 and 2 Samuel 5 describe how David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital – I remind you that this is still only this small little hill south of Moriah. Scholars estimate that this happened around 1,004 BC. When I moved to Jerusalem in 1996, the city celebrated its 3,000-year anniversary as the capital of Israel.
On this small little hill, most of the Old Testament was written. We can imagine David sitting at the top of that little hill, looking to the higher mountains surrounding it. Mount Moriah to the north, Mount of Olives and the area of modern Silwan to the east, the place today known as Mount Zion to the west and the mountain we today call Armon haNatsiv to the South. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people from this time forth and forever. (Psalm 125:2) Nowadays those mountains are all filled with houses, all considered different neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
In 2 Samuel 24, the top of Mount Moriah just outside Jerusalem was the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite:
“So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time, and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who destroyed the people, “It is enough! Now relax your hand!” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” (2 Sam 24:15-16)
The rest of the chapter depicts how David purchased the threshing floor in order to build an altar to God, and we see the same story in 1 Chronicles 21. In the following chapter 22, we see how David determined this as the place on which to build the temple. He started with the arrangements for it, but God decreed that only his son, Solomon, would build it. This is the place today known as the Temple Mount, and the wall of the city expanded to the north to encompass the temple.
When Israel split into Israel and Judah, Jerusalem was the capital of the Southern kingdom of Judah. When Assyria conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom in the 8th century BC, the Judean king Hezekiah prepared Jerusalem for siege, including building the famous water tunnel that you can still walk in if you visit the City of David. We can assume that this is also when the city expanded to the west, to encompass parts of the current Old City. A part of the city wall from this time is preserved, within the current Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and scriptures also describes a part of Jerusalem as “The Second Quarter” in 2 Kings 22:14.
In 586 BC the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the first temple and enforced the first exile (Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther). The books of Ezra and Nehemiah depict the return to Jerusalem, and the building of the second temple. Nehemiah built the walls of Jerusalem, and the city was now much larger than it had been before – in fact, it stretched further north, encompassing most of the current Old City, as well as the City of David.
A few hundred years later, Herod the Great enlarged the “plaza” of the temple, and created the large flat compound we recognize today as “The Temple Mount.” He also built a wall to surround this large compound, and it’s a small piece of this wall that is today the Western Wall where Jews pray. This is the temple that Yeshua visited, and in which he drove out the money-changers. This was the Jerusalem over which Yeshua cried.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! (Matthew 23:37-39)
Forty years after Yeshua, the temple was indeed destroyed by the Romans, and the temple left desolate. After the later Bar Kochba revolt in 132 AD, the Romans built a pagan city named Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem, and they let the temple stay in ruins. Even after Roman Empire became Christian in the 4th century, and the Byzantine rulers named back the city to Jerusalem and erected churches wherever Yeshua might have been, the temple itself was still left in shambles. Golgotha had been outside the walls of Jerusalem, but now the wall expanded to include it, and The Church of the Holy Sepulcher became the holy focal point of Jerusalem. The Roman ban on Jews from the city remained in effect also under the Byzantines.
Throughout the centuries, as the Bible transformed the world, Jerusalem became famous as a holy place for both Jews and Christians. The Jewish prayer book incorporates many prayers about a future with Jerusalem as capital of the world. Every Passover they would say, and still do, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Christians believed in the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation, but the actual Holy City of Jerusalem was only ever a pilgrimage site for them, not a future capital of a utopian homeland as it was in Jewish tradition. When the Samaritan woman had asked Yeshua where to worship, he had said that “an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father,” and instead, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21,23). Partly based on this, and partly based on a wish to prove that the Jews were cursed for not accepting the Messiah, the Byzantine Christian rulers of Jerusalem didn’t touch the Temple Mount. It just stayed in ruins.
In the year 636, the Muslims conquered Jerusalem and renamed in AlQuds, the Holy, which is still the Arabic name of the city. They built the Dome of the Rock on top of Mount Moriah in 691, and the al-Aqsa mosque just south of it in 705. Jews were allowed back in Jerusalem, but they were not allowed on the Temple Mount. The closest they could get was to pray close to the wall surrounding it.
Just as the Christians, the Muslims never turned Jerusalem into a capital. Jerusalem was a Holy City, but the regional capital was Ramle, and the Muslims often ruled from Damascus or Baghdad. Different factions of Muslims fought, and Jerusalem went back and forth. In 1071 the Seljuq Turks conquered the city, and in 1099 the European crusaders arrived and the city was again under Christian rule. They turned alAqsa into a church.
In 1187 Saladin conquered Jerusalem which went back to Muslim rule. Richard Lionheart failed in reconquering it. The Mongols conquered it for a short while in the 1300s, but only plundered it and left. The Ottoman Turks took over in 1517, and Sultan Suleiman took the initiative to rebuild the walls around the city between 1537 to 1541, which are the walls still standing today, accidentally leaving the City of David outside the walls. Only in the 1800s, archaeologists rediscovered the correct location of the original biblical Jerusalem.
In the early 1800s the first European Jews arrived in Jerusalem, and so did the first protestant missionaries, equipped with Bibles from the Bible Society, including Bibles in Hebrew. The Jews were the majority of the population of the city already in the 1840s, and in the 1880s the first Zionist Jews arrived with a dream of a Jewish homeland. In 1917, in World War One, the British Empire conquered Jerusalem, and in 1948 when they left, the ensuing war of Independence ended up with a divided city, between Israel and Jordan. Jordan destroyed the synagogues in the Old City and banned Jews from all holy places in Jerusalem. This was the first time Muslim rulers had ever done that. Israel unified Jerusalem in 1967.
In the present, Jerusalem is a melting pot of many languages, cultures and religions. Each and every type of Christianity, whether mainstream or on the fringes, seems to have at least one representative in Jerusalem. The majority of the city is Jewish and Muslim, many deeply religious. But the city also has a significant secular population, and there is a controversial gay parade held every year. The Bible has foreseen also this mosaic of beliefs and cultures, as it describes Jerusalem as a “city put together” in Psalm 122:3.
Jerusalem is a friction point of so many different worldviews, so from a human viewpoint, it is nearly impossible to avoid the occasional controversy, war, or terror attack. But we believe that all is possible through God, who calls us to pray according to his word:
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you. May peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces. For the sake of my brothers and my friends, I will now say, ‘May peace be within you.’ For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.” (Psalm 122:6-9).
As the Bible Society serving in this eternal city of the King for almost 200 years, we see it as a great privilege to serve God here in the City that He has chosen, and reach our people with the Word of God. Whether during peace or wars, health or plagues, we will stay here and serve him, awaiting the glorious future of Jerusalem, which the Bible also foretells:
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:2-4)
As Jewish followers of Yeshua, we have the great privilege of making available the truth about the Messiah through the Holy Scriptures in his Holy City. We provide God’s word from Genesis to Revelation, in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and more, that all who live in Israel might have access to the good news of Yeshua.
Please pray with us for the salvation of the people of Israel, through faith in the Messiah Yeshua! If you would like to support us in sharing God’s word with Israel, you can donate here: