"in the city"

Destroy their plans, O Lord, confuse their tongues;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it on its walls;
and mischief and trouble are within it,
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud do not depart from its market place. (Ps 55.9-11)

Reading these words this morning reminded me of Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City. A very thorough look at the biblical symbolism and teaching about "the city." It offers a strong challenge against our gravitation towards and attachment to the cities we build.

That's Ellul's main point (and a very important one): That cities are the work of our hands, centers of human power, that we depend on for our provision and protection. Instead of God.

The story starts in the early chapters of Genesis. The first mention of a city is in Gen 4.17—right after Cain's banishment by God, we are told that he built a city and named it after his son. And the Hebrew word used there (translated "city") tells of the fear and self-reliance that inspired its construction. It means "a place of waking, guarded." And the other connotations of the word—excitement, anguish, terror—provide an even clearer image.

A few chapters later, "the city" appears again. Babel. The psalmist I quoted seems to refer to this part of the story when he prays, "Destroy their plans, O Lord, confuse their tongues." God scattered the people at Babel because their faith was in their collective strength; gathered into a mighty city, they believed they would be secure and be respected. Their trust was in "We, the People."

And this is still the lure of the city. The places we built, promising opportunity and refuge. All around the world, people (especially the poor) feel ever greater pressure to abandon fields and crops and seek their livelihood in the concrete cities. But instead of livelihood, they find violence and strife, oppression and fraud. When we trust in human power, we soon experience what it means to be enslaved by that power. So, as at Babel, it is a mercy of God whenever that power is broken, when the compromising alliances of men are confused and the bricks of their mighty institutions are scattered.

And it is a mercy of God that he has opened a way for Heather and me (and for any children who might join us along the way) to live out beyond the oppressive cloud of the city. There our prayer will be the closing words of Psalm 55:

"I will trust in thee."