Facing Jerusalem.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 May

It’s a really old custom which you might not know about.

Before Solomon ben David, the fourth king of Israel, the LORD’s worship site had consisted of a tent in Jerusalem. Solomon personally supervised the construction of a gold-plated cedar temple, and the day he dedicated it to the LORD, here’s some of what he prayed:

1 Kings 8.28-30 KWL
28 “Turn to your slave’s prayer. To show him grace, my LORD God. To hear his shout of joy.
To the prayer which your slave prays to your face today.
29 May your eyes be open towards this house night and day,
to the place of which you said, ‘My name is there.’
To hear the prayer which your slave prays towards this place.
30 You will hear your slave’s petition, your people Israel, who pray towards this place.
As you sit in the heavens, you’ll hear and forgive.”

More than once in his prayer, Solomon mentions the idea of praying in the direction of the new temple. 1Ki 8.35, 38, 42, 44, 48 And towards Jerusalem, towards Israel, towards the homeland God gave the Hebrews.

Thus it wound up becoming Hebrew practice to pray in the direction of the temple, or of Jerusalem. ’Cause we see Daniel doing it in Babylon.

Daniel 6.10 KWL
Daniel, who knew what was recorded in the writing, entered his house.
The windows in his upper room facing Jerusalem were opened for him.
Three times a day, he knelt on his knees and prayed thanksgiving before God,
just like before, which he used to do previous times.

“Okay,” you might argue, as Christians will: “That’s something Jews practice. They pray to Jerusalem. Gentiles like me don’t have to.”

Nah; Solomon had you covered.

1 Kings 8.41-43 KWL
41 Also to a foreigner, who isn’t of your people Israel, who comes from a faraway land:
Due to your name— 42 when they hear of your great name, strong hand, stretched-out arm—
when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, 43 you hear in the heavenly place you dwell,
and do everything which was requested of you by the foreigner.
Thus every people on earth can know your name and respect you like your people Israel;
thus they know your name can be called via this house which I built.”

After all, Solomon knew the LORD isn’t only Israel’s God, but everyone’s.

As a result, whenever Pharisees built synagogues in Jerusalem, they made sure their buildings faced temple. And whenever they built synagogues in other parts of Palestine and the world, they made sure their buildings faced Jerusalem. ’Cause while Solomon’s prayer isn’t a biblical command or anything, it was a custom which they sorta saw the value in.

Wait, we gotta face Jerusalem now?

True, there’s no temple in Jerusalem anymore, ’cause now God’s temple consists of every Christian. 1Co 3.16 But Jews today don’t acknowledge this, and they still regularly construct their synagogues so they’re facing where the temple used to be, namely the Al-Aqsa Mosque by the Western Wall. They figure God’s name is still sorta headquartered in Jerusalem, so they face Jerusalem.

The ancient Christians also practiced the custom of facing Jerusalem. But not facing temple: They started pointing their synagogues and churches towards Jesus’s tomb, and later the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over it. A lot of American churches are still built with the worship space facing east, precisely for this reason—whether you realized this was the reason for its layout. (Other churches, like mine, coincidentally face east—for us it was just the easiest wall to face. Likewise our children’s church faces west.)

Muslims used to face Jerusalem too: They followed the same custom as Jews and Christians. That is, till Muhammad changed the direction they pray towards, and they now face Mecca in Saudi Arabia. So if you were wondering, “Wait, is this a Muslim thing?”—nope, it predates the Muslims.

Now like I said, this is a custom. It’s not a command, and God isn’t particular which direction you face when you pray. It’s not like God is literally in Jerusalem, as Solomon himself acknowledged:

1 Kings 8.27 KWL
“For is it true? God dwells on Earth?
Look the heavens—heavens of heavens—don’t hold you in!
So really? This house which I built?”

Like Jesus pointed out in his conversation with the Samaritan, location isn’t important; what God wants are people who worship him in spirit and truth. Jn 4.21-24 Face any direction you like. Bow your head or face the sky; kneel or stand or bow to the ground; arms stretched out or held out or hands folded or whatever. Your prayer posture is up to you.

But the little bit of extra effort we make in positioning yourself—of remembering that prayer isn’t about making yourself comfortable, but about stretching yourself towards God—can sometimes be a pretty big deal when we pray. A much bigger deal than we realize.

So it’s for this reason I drop the idea in your head. Maybe you don’t need to face east when you pray… and maybe you do. Maybe it’d be a good idea to think about the place Jesus taught and died and rose again, the city Jesus will return to invade, and the location New Jerusalem will be established. Maybe it’d be a good reminder God interacts with the real world. Maybe it’d shake up the ruts we’re getting into. So give it a whirl.