God Lives in a City

Faith Matters
Think of it: God living in a city—a city of political chaos like Washington, D.C., but also “the city of God” sung about in Psalm 87.

Where does God live? Our quick and easy answer is almost dismissive of the question but at the same time almost staggers us with its implications. “God is everywhere.” Easy. “God’s omnipresence,” our teachers called it.

I’m reputed to have explained it at age 5 to my mother this way: “Right now God’s sitting right on top of my head.” That’s a fine fancy with a wisp of truth in it. But it’s not very useful in the world I came to know. I find that God’s absence is much easier to see than his real presence in the bread and wine of communion. We know the wrenching cry all through history: Lord God, where are you? Where can we beat fists on your door to make you hear us?

In the riches of the Jewish tradition, God has always a place, a residence. God is in the ark of the covenant as it is lugged by unwilling wanderers through the desert, or is behind the veil in the Holy of Holies in the temple. More broadly, though not much thought about, God lives in a large city—a city with seven hills and graceful trees, with slums and palaces along filthy streets teeming with beautiful people and people who are crippled, crooks, children, soldiers, and magistrates.

Think of it: God living in a city—a city of political chaos like Washington, D.C., but also “the city of God” sung about in Psalm 87. Forget the green meadows and still waters for a moment. We still know God’s town as Jerusalem. The Lord God “loves [its] gates,” through which people flow and by which they are protected. All the other cities or towns settled by Jacob’s descendants are nothing in comparison to Jerusalem. Strangely, it’s the city eternal that’s meaningful in time.

Although this city of God is a center, it does not exclude from citizenship people who were not born inside its walls. The chorus that sings this psalm sings it first to the Jews, God’s chosen—even Jews born in alien places: Canaan, Babylon, Aleppo. But its citizens can be born in Grand Rapids or Toronto, and they can be, like me, adoptees. God counts “this one and that one” as born in Zion even if they weren’t.

What the psalm is celebrating is not geography. Zion is not defined by boundaries. Psalm 87, like many other psalms, makes visible an actual place and condition in which a resident God with divine urbanity, we might say, can be more easily understood, trusted, and believed. Zion’s bricks and stone give body to a mighty idea. Centuries later St. Augustine would pick up the thread of this powerful image and further weave it into the book called De civitate Dei (The City of God).

We should notice that this psalm about God as an urban dweller does not end by giving us strategies for getting our passports or citizenship papers stamped. Nor are we handed a key to some big downtown Drowsy Dell Slumber-On Hotel. The psalm speaks of the joy of living in the city of God. “Glorious things are said” about it and sung about it. Of all things, it is the singers and the players of instruments who have the last word here. They praise the city’s possessing “all [the] fountains,” all the creative flow that enlivens and nourishes all humans, all of whom are created in God’s image.


Questions for Discussion

  1. Read Psalm 87. What words or phrases strike you? What do they suggest to you?
  2. What does the picture of God living in the city mean to your faith?
  3. The city of God “does not exclude from citizenship people who were not born inside its walls.” How do you feel about being a citizen of God’s city, especially as an adoptee?
  4. How would you sing the praises of living in the city of God? What would you say to non-Christian friends about it?

About the Author

Dr. Rod Jellema, a member of Washington D.C. CRC, is a poet and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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