“If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem”
by D. Blackburn
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” a phrase that is often uttered, and yet, the weight and meaning behind it are seldom understood. This verse, found in Psalm 137:5, was the lament of the Psalmists upon being taunted by their captors at the beginning of the Babylonian exile. This phrase has become so much a part of culture it is even recited by the groom in a traditional Israeli wedding ceremony just after the breaking of the glass. The broken glass is symbolic of the destruction of the Temple and thus “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” is said as a reminder to never forget the importance of Jerusalem to the future of the Jewish people.
However, this verse should not only hold great meaning to traditional Jews, but also anyone who is a believer in the word of G-d and its promises. To understand this verse we first must examine G-d’s relationship with Jerusalem and Israel. In Deuteronomy 1:8, G-d tells the Israelites He has taken them out of Egypt to inhabit the land to which He has brought them. “See, I have set the land before you. Enter and possess the land that Adonai swore to your fathers – to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob – to give to them and their descendants after them.” (TLV)
After spying out the land, the Israelites began conquering the Amorite cities, including Jerusalem. In Judges chapter 1 they are finally successful in overtaking Jerusalem, which was in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. The Benjamites live alongside the Jebusite inhabitants of Jerusalem until the city falls to King David as it is spelled out in 2 Samuel chapter 5. A little later, in chapter 7, G-d makes an important promise to David that his son, Solomon, would build a permanent house for the L-rd and that through Solomon He will establish the throne of David forever. He also promises that His lovingkindness will never be withdrawn from his descendants.
During the time that the Children of Israel were in the desert, G-d gave specifications for the Tabernacle to be established so that the L-rd could come down and dwell with the people. We see all throughout the Torah references to communication with the L-rd within the tent of meeting, a reference to the Tabernacle. Once the Temple was erected, whose specifications the L-rd also ordained, it became G-d’s permanent resting place. In 1 Kings chapter 9 Adonai appears to Solomon and says, “I have consecrated this house which you have built, to put My Name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there every day.” (TLV) He also warns Solomon what would happen to the Temple and the people of Israel if they worshipped other gods.
As we read through the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, we see that the majority of the kings do not follow the L-rd and lead the people into worship of idols. Therefore, G-d punishes the people by allowing the destruction of the Temple twice over and exiled the peoples of Israel and Judah away from His sight. This is where many have said that G-d’s promises to Israel ceased. The fact that there were two temples should be enough evidence in itself to prove that is not true.
If the L-rd’s punishment of Israel and Judah was permanent then why would he bring them back a second time to rebuild the Temple? Furthermore, if we believe G-d is good and merciful and that His word is true, we must examine the fact that when He refers to his promises to Israel the word “forever” is often a part of the promise. In 1 Chronicles 23:25, for example, David tells the people as he is giving instructions on the service of the Levites, those who served in the Temple, that, “Adonai, the G-d of Israel, has given His people rest and He dwells in Jerusalem forever.” (TLV)
On the other hand, when he refers to his curses towards them for disobeying it clearly means they would be punished for turning away, but there is no finality to it. Never in scripture does it say that He would cut Israel off forever.
In Jeremiah 16:14 and 15 G-d says,
“Therefore the days are quickly coming,” declares Adonai, “when it will no longer be said. ‘As Adonai lives, who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt.’ Rather, ‘As Adonai lives, who brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where He had banished them.’ So I will bring them back into their land that I gave to their father.” (TLV)
Just as He revealed His plan ahead of time through the prophets to exile them from the Land and destroy the Temple as punishment, He has a plan to bring them back and He will return to Jerusalem. In Zechariah 8:3 it says, “Thus says Adonai, “I will return to Zion and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth and the mountain of Adonai-Tzva’ot will be called the Holy Mountain.”(TLV) In order for all these promises to be fulfilled, a physical Israel with a physical Jerusalem at its center must exist.
This brings us to the meaning of “If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem may my right hand wither.”(TLV) As stated previously, this declaration was made by the psalmists upon the beginning of the Babylonian exile. It is a heart cry in recognition of the holiness of the L-rd that was uttered in response to their captors upon the request that they sing them one of the songs of Zion. They recognize in being taken from the Holy City they have been separated from Him for a time and mourn almost immediately to be reunited.
The following verse confirms this in saying, “May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I cease to remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy.”(TLV) We as believers should follow this example and continue in constant prayer for Jerusalem and for Israel as a whole. We know that the closer we come to the Messiah returning, the more intense the situation there becomes. Yet, we know G-d has promised to return to Jerusalem and through it re-establish His kingdom. If our sight is set on Jerusalem we are not likely to miss seeing the L-rd move into place the things required to happen before His return.