Unless The Lord Keep The City
Like many other folk, among the various pictures and photographs we display on our walls at home, is a framed map. It is of what used to be called Yorkshire, before parliamentary legislators in 1974 decided to get rid of many of the old county names, re-draw boundaries and invent new titles like Humberside, Kirklees, Calderdale and South Yorkshire.
It isn’t a conventional map, but a stylised one with drawings, quotations and comments indicating the towns and other locations. It includes a recipe for Yorkshire pudding, the old beggars’ litany, “From Hull, Hell and Halifax, good Lord deliver us”, and Mother Shipton’s prophecy, happily unfulfilled or we wouldn’t be here today,
“The world to an end shall come,
In eighteen hundred and eighty one”.
Across the top is an inscription taken from Ripon Town Hall facade, which itself is a quotation from the psalms. It reads,
“Except ye Lord keep ye Cittie ye wakeman waketh in vain”.
Or to up-date the English slightly, “Unless the Lord keeps the City the watchman watches in vain”.
I’ve looked at the quotation many times, and it has sparked two trains of thought in my mind. The first I suspect was the one in the mind of the original Jewish author. It is that in conflict God takes sides. The anonymous original Jewish composer of the psalm probably had no doubt about that. Much of the Old Testament is given to accounts of the battles the Isrealites won or lost according to whether God was supporting them, had left them to their own devices, or was opposing them as punishment for misdeeds. The Phillistines, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the rest were defeated when God was on the side of the Jews.
As they neglected their religious duties, the Jews were punished. Enemies prevailed, the Temple was razed, and the citizens of the towns and cities were taken into slavery, forced to dwell by the banks of the Nile, the Euphrates or the Waters of Babylon.
Later Christians adopted this mantle of righteousness. The crusade against the so called infidel in the Middle Ages for example was regarded as a battle with right on the side of the Christian warriors. But that is only one example among countless. Indeed, it is a universal practice to claim, explicitly or implicitly, that God is on one’s side, whether one is defending, attacking or both.
But the idea of God as a participant in battle, or as the manager on the touch-line, or even as a cheer-leader, is not one that is universally acceptable. Blessing instruments of war, with one side claiming that all moral justification is on its side, and the opponents are totally evil, is rejected by thoughtful Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike.
There are too many contradictions for any intelligent person to imagine that God weighs up the arguments and then concludes he must throw his weight on one side of the battle or the other, quite apart from the moral and theological objections to such a philosophy.
But the quotation of the Lord keeping the city, still for me holds a valid truth, for it has an alternative interpretation which seems the more logically sound, and theologically justified. It is that the enemy to be feared is not without, but within.
During the Second World War, among the sayings in common currency were the word, “quisling” and the phrase, “fifth column”. Quisling was a Norwegian who betrayed his country to the invading German troops, and the name was thereafter used as an epithet to be applied to any internal traitor to the cause. The fifth column was a description of subversive groupings undermining a country’s resistance by working secretly and insidiously from within, to spread gloom, despondency and a feeling of hopelessness.
It is the evil that is within that destroys. Again history gives many examples, both apocryphal and factual. Perhaps one of the earliest recorded is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But the downfall of civilisations, empires and countries is repeatedly attributed to internal cancers which destroy the host body.
Unless the Lord keeps the city, watching out for attacking enemies is vain, for the structure is rotting from within.
The city is a metaphor, descriptive of any community, be it large or small, a family group, or a nation. Likewise, the picture of the Lord keeping the city is descriptive of the need for sound principles of concern, justice, fairness and compassion to motivate the individual and inspire the community. There is an old worn cliché about internal evil corrupting from within that uses a damaged and decaying apple in a barrel, which left to itself will infect the whole. The rotting fruit which poisons societies, pretending to be wholesome but in reality a sham, is greed, hatred, or arrogance.
Any community can contain its quisling, its group of fifth columnists, its corrupting apple which if not recognised and countered will infect and ultimately destroy the whole. What is true of communities applies with equal force to individuals within that community. Unless the Lord keep the individual, seeds of malignancy may take root within him or her.
Racism, intolerance, greed, hatred, envy and the like may spread the virus of decay, and so the individual becomes the rotten apple mouldering inside the pile destroying him or herself and infecting those around.
But there is another analogy of how a whole may be affected by a part. A countervailing force which may pervade the body, be it small or large. A more optimistic and agreeable image. A tiny tablet of saccharine or similar, dropped into a large volume of tea or coffee, will spread throughout and sweeten the whole. The salt which has not lost its savour will flavour the whole dish. Their influence is out of all proportion to their size. The effects are immeasurably greater than one might suppose from the discrepancy between the volume of beverage and the mass of the tablet, or the volume of food and the pinch of flavouring.
Or we might use the drop of that detergent widely and frequently advertised on television, which will allegedly cleanse all those dirty pots long after lesser washing up liquids have ceased to function.
Similarly, the goodness of one individual, saintliness if you like, can affect the lives of many. Cheerfulness, optimism, courtesy, generosity and concern are themselves infectious. Like the small tablet of sweetener, the influence of goodness is a thousand times greater than might be supposed from a comparison of size and volume.
And this gives us an insight into what might be meant by the Lord keeping the city. The city, community or individual which the Lord keeps is one where thoughtfulness, generosity of spirit, tolerance, compassion and understanding are to be found. The watchman’s vigilance is undermined when thoughtlessness, meanness of soul, intolerance, indifference and ignorance are attributes most frequently to be found within the walls.
Our society is in danger not so much from the foe who may or may not attack from afar. It is at risk from subversion from inside its walls. Goodness will prevail as long as we identify the quisling and fifth columnist who preaches the tempting doctrine summed up in the libellous so called motto of the Yorkshireman
“If ever thou do ‘owt for nowt
Do it for thi’ sen”
The Lord dwells in that community where all do for others, whether paid or not, because that is the only way to true happiness, and to a healthy society.
And in the search for the fifth columnist, we must not omit to examine ourselves. Revd. Parkinson, one time Minister of our Doncaster Church, used to tell a children’s story about a warrior searching to do battle with his greatest enemy. The fighter was directed into a room where he found himself faced by a large mirror. “Physician heal thyself” goes up the cry.
And so I draw to my conclusion and summarise. What we may encapsulate in the general title of Christian values will be contaminated, infected, by evil unless we are vigilant. Vigilance begins with self-examination and spreads outward into our communities. But those Christian values, if practised and maintained will themselves spread outwards into the communities of which we are a part, sweetening the whole and cleansing the whole body.
The responsibility for corporate well-being is an individual one. If society is said to be sick, then it is because the individuals who compose it are indisposed. Society in itself is neither good nor bad, healthy or unhealthy. But how a society is perceived, and what it is like to be a member of that society is dependent upon the health, the character, of the individuals making up that society. I firmly believe that goodness is ultimately triumphant, and evil doomed to defeat. But the speed of that defeat is contingent upon the values we hold dear being preserved by individual men and women of good faith.
The Lord keeps the city not by conquest and imposed rule. But by invitation, and then partnership. If the Lord is not to be seen, then we must ask if it is because we have bolted and barred the gates, and allowed the devious traitors in our midst to spread decay throughout the whole body.
“It’s not my job”, is the cry of the idler, the buck passer, or the pleader for a quiet life throughout the ages. But preservation of truth, fostering of love and understanding is the task of each individual Christian. The Lord keeps the city not by a treaty signed with the Mayor and Corporation, but by an acceptance of His values by individuals, and the preservation of those values throughout the individual practising them.
Presumably the original city fathers of Ripon wished to proclaim their faith to the citizens of Ripon. It behoves us to keep before us the words they carved in stone. They are an epigram worth the keeping; they apply more widely than the confines of Ripon.
Fulwood 18 November 1990; 24 July 1994
Upper 25 Nov. 1990
Mexborough 25 Nov. 1990; 2 April 1995
Hucklow 7 April 1991; 6 September 1998
Chesterfield 16 August 1992