The world grieves for Ukraine. Its capital city, Kyiv, has already endured weeks of attacks, and even the recent Russian pullback doesn’t mean there won’t be more tragedy in its future. Kyiv is more than its buildings and infrastructure. It represents the idea that Ukrainians are a unique people with a cherished history. Citizens of Kyiv believe their city is worth dying for because it embodies their nation’s hopes. Kyiv must stand.
For the Russian leadership, Kyiv represents something else. Centuries ago, the city played a leading role in Russia’s origin story. Now, it symbolizes what Russia once was, an empire stretching from Alaska to Poland and from Finland to Turkmenistan. Like many other cities, it belongs to the grand Russian epic. Kyiv must fall into their hands.
Whether the city stands or falls, Christians are right to mourn the effects of sin and war. And while we’re not promised a lasting city in this age, we’re called to care for our earthly cities even as we point our fellow citizens to the city of God.
Jesus was certainly aware of cities and their symbolic significance. As a Jew, he would have sung songs like Psalm 122. Commonly numbered among the “Zion Psalms,” it emphasizes the spiritual importance of Jerusalem. Unlike similar psalms of this type (e.g., 46, 48, 76, 84, 87), Psalm 122 has a special emphasis on the physical, earthly city of Jerusalem. Not only does David name the city several times, he also references the awe-inspiring nature of its gates, buildings, and defensive fortifications.
Also a Song of Ascent, this psalm would have been sung by pilgrims. From throughout the land, the tribes and clans of Israel would come to God’s city and gaze upon its glories. They’d pray for the peace of this special place and take comfort that God’s anointed—the king from David’s line—would one day judge them justly from his throne. It’s a lovely song in its picture of beauty and unity. Outsiders and native residents alike gather to seek peace, worship YHWH, and find justice within its walls.
On his final journey to Jerusalem, and in preparation for Passover, Jesus likely reflected on and sang from Psalm 122. As he approached the city, descending with his disciples from the Mount of Olives, crowds gathered, laying down palms, blessing him, and acclaiming Jesus as their king.
Jesus gazed on Jerusalem and mused on the history of his people. He then began to weep.
Then something peculiar happened. Jesus paused. From the hillside opposite Jerusalem, he took one final look. As the psalmist described, it must have been an awesome sight. In Jesus’s day, it was even more magnificent. The Herodian kings, employing the finest Greek and Roman building techniques, had beautified and expanded much of the city, especially the temple complex. Jesus gazed on Jerusalem and mused on the history of his people. He then began to weep.
Destroyed by Rome
Jesus’s weeping must have been akin to the cries we’ve seen in recent days for Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other Ukrainian cities. Jesus foresaw the war and devastation that was to come upon Jerusalem at the hand of Rome. By 70 AD, complex politics would prompt the Romans to destroy the city and its temple, leaving thousands dead. The physical beauty of Jerusalem would become ash and rubble within a generation (Luke 19:41–44).
But Jesus also knew a deeper tragedy was looming. Despite the cheers of that day, a mob would form within the week and demand his execution. The Jews would betray their King. The Romans would betray justice. Both would conspire to destroy David’s heir and the city’s rightful ruler. For Jew and Roman alike, Jerusalem had become a city devoted to the pride of man and with no place for God.
The rest is history. The following Friday, Jerusalem showcased the crucifixion of Jesus. Four decades later, the city suffered a failed Jewish revolt that led to its destruction at the hands of the Romans.
Christians and Earthly Cities
I believe God still grieves for human cities. There are those like Kyiv, where his children suffer the travails of war and the aggressions resulting from human greed and ambition. There are also other cities, seemingly at peace, that boast of human endeavor and political power independent of the true King.
I believe God still grieves for human cities.
New York, the place where I teach, often manifests itself as such a city. Rightly renowned as a center of cultural and financial achievement, it also indulges every kind of perversity and celebrates every form of greed. If we could see with the clarity of Jesus, we would follow him in weeping for it—and for the smaller American cities it exemplifies.
But the Christian’s concern for the city isn’t expressed only in mourning. In another great city, Athens, Paul explained that God created nations—and metropolitan centers—so that they should seek and find him (Acts 17:26–28). Cities exist for this purpose: that people might worship God in them. In fact, this is the beautiful vision the psalmist had of the first Jerusalem. And it’s what Christians expect of the future and heavenly Jerusalem.
In the meantime, we should attend to the welfare of our cities, even as we strive for the kind of flourishing that comes only when citizens are rightly related to God. Christians cannot accommodate human pride, violence, or injustice in New York or Moscow or Kyiv any more than Jesus did as he entered Jerusalem. But neither can we ignore the city’s needs.
Instead, like Jesus, we weep for it and then enter its gates anyway. And, like Paul, we bring the message of hope from Holy Week: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.