Is it Real or is it…?


If you are old, like me, you remember the ad for cassette tapes which asked, “Is it real or is it Memorex?”

Sometimes we have to ask if something in the Bible is real or symbolic.

This week I am thinking about Babylon and Jerusalem.  These are real places.  The Biblical story of Babylon begins with Babel in Genesis 11.  The real city/state/empire of Babylon was a looming threat for much of Judea’s history.

And yet Babylon takes on a symbolic role.  St. Augustine spoke fo the City of God and the City of Man.  The City of man is where people deny God and love themselves.  The city of God is where people deny themselves and love God.  Babylon becomes a symbol of this “city of man” in scripture.  The Fall of Babylon in Revelation 17-18 is not just about the location in present day Iraq, but about a world system of government and living that is hostile with God.  Babel/Babylon is symbolic of this stemming back to the goals formed on the Plains of Shinar (Genesis 11:3):

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…”

Jerusalem was a Jebusite city taken over by King David and selected because of it was a place where wrath was stopped by Sacrifice.  It is also identified with the location where Abraham was to offer Isaac in Genesis 22.  There we find a pregnant promise, “…on the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”

From the idea that Jerusalem was the home of the King and the location of the Temple, we have a combined hope of glory and grace.  Jeremiah’s the historic city has never lived up to that promise. Consider the description of Lamentations 1:1-2

How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
    with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
    she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherousl

Isaiah 2 and Revelation 21 share a vision of Jerusalem as a place for the Nations to live in the knowledge and blessing of God.  The citizens of that City of God are those who are born there by faith – as we find in Psalm 87 (NIV)

He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
    more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.

Glorious things are said of you,
    city of God:
“I will record Rahab and Babylon
    among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
    and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
    “This one and that one were born in her,
    and the Most High himself will establish her.”
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
    “This one was born in Zion.

As they make music they will sing,
    “All my fountains are in you.”

So when you read Babylon or Jerusalem, ask if it is Real or Symbolic.

Symbol & Thing in Haggai 2:1-9

Don’t we mix up the symbol for something with the thing itself?

Do we love the flag, or what it represents?  Fabric does nothing for us, but the ideas of freedom and justice, loyalty to the rule of law and unity do mean quite a bit.

The Temple was where God chose, for a time, to be present to his people in a unique way.  Theology tells us that He is everywhere already.  However, He is more in some places than others – not in terms of space and time, but in his purpose to display his glory and to enrich his people.  But the Temple itself, see as stones and timbers, was not really anything.  The Lord was willing to have it destroyed – repeatedly.  By the time of its destruction, the Glory had departed already. Only the symbol was left.

When in Ezra 3, the old timers lamented the small size of the foundation of the temple to be re-built, they were clinging to a memory.  They were also holding on to the symbol, not the thing itself.

So what is the thing itself?  It is the Lord.

From the Christian perspective God’s presence is not located in a material temple – Jesus discussed this with the Woman of Samaria in John 4.  The only temple that matters in our time is the christian community, where God uniquely dwells.  Both with the individual (“your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” I Cor 6:19) and with the church as a community (I Peter 2:1ff).

Now we would not think of lamenting the smallness of our “church” or boasting of its size and vitality.  Would we?