A “citadel” in ancient times refers to an innermost part of a city, where a miniature fortress would be built as a last line of defense in case of an enemy attack. Citadels were literally cities within cities, armed and barricaded military forts in the hearts of ancient civilizations. They were often used to hold the most precious things to an ancient people, the scrolls of their histories or their national treasures were kept here. The word citadel derives from “small city.” Jerusalem had one. It was called Zion.
The term Zion appears constantly throughout the scripture, and is a regular term in both Christian and Jewish vocabulary. It is referenced in both old hymns and modern-day praise and worship songs. Yet very few have a full understanding of this place, its cultural significance in Judaism or its deep spiritual symbolism to Christianity.
Tsiyon in Hebrew was actually a fortress built on Jerusalem’s westernmost hill, originally by the Jebusites before the Israelites conquered Canaan. Its first mention in the Bible is in II Samuel 5:6-7: And the king and his men went to Jerusalem unto the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land: which spake unto David, saying, Except thou take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither: thinking, David cannot come in hither. Nevertheless David took the strong hold of Zion: the same is the city of David.
The enemies of God still occupied this fortification until David, the anointed king, finally took it over and was able to expand Jerusalem to include it. But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: (Deuteronomy 20:17). This was the completion of the conquest of Joshua, even though it took many generations and occurred long after the conquering generation had died out.
Symbolically, Zion has come to represent the final enemy to be conquered to establish a fully-realized kingdom. Think of the loved one you spent your entire life trying to win for the Lord, who finally surrenders to Jesus long after your death. You won’t see it in this life, but it was the long-awaited harvest of the seeds you sewed while on the earth. That loved one is your Zion. When you learn the news, you will rejoice in heaven. No doubt Joshua and Caleb sang praises in the afterlife when they learned that the citadel had finally fallen.
Mount Zion still stands to this day on the westernmost banks of Jerusalem, a desert hill rich in history. In II Samuel 6, not long after David had conquered it, he firmly declared this spot for God by moving the Ark of the Covenant here. So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom into the city of David with gladness (verse 12). The event was like a flag-planting for God on the ash heap of where the enemy’s last stand had been. Zion was now a sacred spot.
A fortress of defense became a symbol of conquest and victory. The Ark didn’t stay there forever; when Solomon completed the temple, it was moved to its new home in the holiest of holies. 1 Kings 8:1: Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel, and all the heads of the tribes, the chief of the fathers of the children of Israel, unto king Solomon in Jerusalem, that they might bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion.
However, an interesting phenomenon occurred. The Ark carried the name “Zion” wherever it went. Now the word did not just refer to the physical mount Zion; it became a spiritual term that accompanied the presence of God wherever it went. Isaiah 8:18: Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth in mount Zion.
And the legend only grew from there. Isaiah gives us the first hint of the eternal ages, referring to the Lord ruling not just from the New Jerusalem, but Mount Zion. Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign in mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before his ancients gloriously (Isaiah 24:23). And this mountain, originally a pagan fortress where the enemies of God made their final stand, became known as the holy mountain of God by the prophet Joel. So shall ye know that I am the Lord your God dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain: then shall Jerusalem be holy, and there shall no strangers pass through her any more (Joel 3:17).
This stunning revelation works both ways. Zion became every place where God’s presence was. But it also indicates that the original physical location was also always going to His. The Old Testament came to mention it as symbolic of the whole of the children of Israel: When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream (Psalm 126:1). It is even referenced in the New Testament, used as a metaphor for heaven itself. But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, (Hebrews 12:22). Revelation 14:1: And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads.
But there is backlash. The name “Zion” has become an important term to Jews and Christians alike. It has also become a favorite word of anti-Semites. Among people who oppose Israel, believing it to be a wicked nation brutally conquering land that rightfully belongs to Islam, “Zionist” has become a keyword. “I don’t hate Jews,” they will often say. “I hate Zionists.” I used to be very confused about this doublespeak until I studied it further. “Zionist” is a derogatory term used against people who feel Israel should own the land promised to Abraham. This doesn’t necessarily indicate a military conquest, but the very presence of Jews in the Middle East is blasphemous to most Muslims, a violation of Umar al-Khattib’s book of hadith, Sahih-Muslim: “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim (Book 019, Number 4366).” This is why most Islamic nations, from Palestine to Egypt to Iran, want Israel destroyed and all Jews expelled from the land.
But from reading and understanding the true nature of Zionism, we learn that it really has nothing to do with conquering an earthly kingdom.
This precedence was set by the founding father and first prime minister of the nation of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. The eccentric Ben-Gurion was also the mentor of the recently deceased legendary Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Ben-Gurion used the Old Testament as his guide for forming the new state of Israel, and in 1953, after five years of leading, suddenly gave up all his power, resigned, sold his house and all of his possessions, and moved into the desert to spend the rest of his life as a humble sheep farmer.
To the Israelis, Zionism isn’t about a military conquest; it isn’t founded in tanks or bullets or bombs. Zionism is about settlement; its essence is in building house, creating farms in the desert, and living peaceful lives with their neighbors.
This concept is found in the book of Jeremiah. After the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, the exiled Jews who had fled the besieged city wrote the prophet, wanting to know when God would allow them to return to their homeland. Jeremiah’s response in chapter 29 is not the good news they were hoping for: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished (verses 4-6).
The will of God was not for them to resettle their city; it was for them to settle in the desert, to build communities and farms and marry and reproduce. Just like their ancestors had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years to learn to be dependent on God, the Jewish exiles were to build strong, faith-based communities, learning to live simple lives off the land. Only then could God weed out idolatry and disobedience from them enough to be worthy to rebuilt Jerusalem. It would take 70 years.
For Jew, this is the essence of Zionism. It’s why Ben-Gurion suddenly gave up everything to become a sheep farmer. It isn’t about conquering land and building magnificent cities so much as spiritual reliance on God.
For the Christian, Zionism is not about an earthly kingdom. It wasn’t found in the crusades or in the taming of the American West. It is simply Jesus’ commandment of the great commission: And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15).
The Ark of God rested on the physical Mount Zion. But then wherever it went, the presence of the Lord went, and that place became part of Zion. Now everywhere the glory of God is is Zion. And the commandment of Christ is to bring the presence everywhere, by preaching and winning souls for His heavenly kingdom. John 18:36: Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Mount Zion has become Mount Calvary.
To conclude, let’s look again at the original Hebrew name of Zion. Though not originally a Jewish word, the name of the location had to be brought into the Hebrew language. The Jewish term tsiyon contains an interesting concept; the two root words of Hebrew letters combined suggests “Fortress in a dry place.”
And Jesus Himself is that fortress in a dry place; when we are stranded in the wilderness, He is that solid rock, the foundation upon which our faith is built. He is the place of safety and refuge in the wilderness of death and sin, where all people can come and receive life. 1 Peter 2:6: Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded.
-Feiler, Bruce. Walking the Bible: A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002.
-Tenny, Merrill C., ed. Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Nashville: The Southwestern Company, 1968, Page 667 (“The Rose of Sharon”).
-“Zion Meaning.” Abaram-publications.com. Accessed October 22, 2016.
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