The mother is central to the picture of blessing and prosperity.
—Nancy Wilson, The Fruit of Her Hands (2000)
Great cities are commonly called mothers….
—John Wesley on 2 Samuel 20:19
A Mother in Israel
Deborah called herself “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). As a judge and prophetess, she acted as a mother to the covenant people, not a father. Her goal was to nurture and raise up a new generation of young men who would fight the battles of the LORD. For the most part, she succeeded, and her “sons” honored her.
The phrase “a mother in Israel” appears one other time in Scripture. The time is David’s reign. His general, Joab, has pursued the rebel Sheba to Abel-beth-maachah in the north of Israel. He lays siege to the city, apparently without offering it terms of surrender (Deut. 20:10ff. A wise woman cries out over the city wall and asks to speak with Joab. He obliges. The woman appeals to the overzealous general with wisdom and meekness:
I am one of them that are peaceable and faithful in Israel: thou seekest to destroy a city and a mother in Israel: why wilt thou swallow up the inheritance of the LORD? (2 Sam. 20:19).
Once Joab has explained the real situation at hand, the woman goes “unto all the people in her wisdom,” and in short order, they throw Sheba’s head over the city wall. Joab and his army retire from the city and leave it in peace.
We aren’t told anything else about this woman. We don’t know her name. We don’t know whether, like Deborah, she held some sort of office that guaranteed her a hearing, or whether a lifetime of godliness and wisdom had earned her the respect of the city and its elders. Whatever the case, her wisdom and meekness were worth a thousand soldiers in the field that day.
But when this wise woman speaks of “a mother in Israel,” she isn’t speaking of herself. She’s talking about her city, Abel-beth-maachah. The idea of a city as mother runs throughout Scripture, but it finds the clearest and most concise expression in Paul’s description of the heavenly or spiritual Jerusalem: “the mother of us all.”
The Jerusalem Which Is Above
In Galatians 4, Paul is contrasting the Old Covenant and the New in images drawn from the life of Abraham (Gen. 16; 21). Hagar, the concubine, corresponds to the Old Covenant when taken as an end in itself. Sarah, the freewoman, corresponds to the New Covenant revealed in the gospel. Hagar’s child Ishmael was born by purely natural and man-centered means without regard to the real intention of God’s promise. Ishmael was most literally a child of the flesh in this sense. Isaac, however, was conceived and born through faith (Heb. 11:11). He was the child of promise, and on him hung the hope of the world.
Hagar was like the Jerusalem of Paul’s day. Both were mothers to Abraham’s natural seed, but neither was the true and proper bride. First century Jerusalem was “in bondage with her children” because she embraced the religion of the flesh (Gal. 4:25). But there was and is another “Jerusalem.” So Paul writes:
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).
This Jerusalem is New Covenant City of God. She is the Lamb’s wife, the Church as the God centered way of life (Rev. 21). As the bride of Jesus Christ, she is the spiritual mother of all believers. Calvin’s comments on Galatians 4:26 are worth quoting in full:
The Jerusalem which he calls above, or heavenly, is not contained in heaven; nor are we to seek for it out of this world because the Church is spread over the whole world, and is a “stranger and pilgrim on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Why then is it said to be from heaven? Because it originates in heavenly grace. The sons of God are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man” (John 1:13), but by the power of the Holy Spirit. The heavenly Jerusalem, which derives its origin from heaven, and dwells by faith, is the mother of believers because it’s very center is grace.
The Godly Mother
It’s important to recall what duties and requirements, as well as honors, Scripture puts on mothers. Here are a few: A godly mother ought to be a source of comfort to her children (Isa 66:13). She should be a teacher (Prov 31:1) and the guide and guardian of the home (1 Tim 5:14; Titus 2:5). The godly mother should teach God’s law to her children and enforce it, honoring God and His kingdom above her own children (Deut. 21:18-21; Zech 13:3).
Her children, on the other hand, owe their mother obedience (Gen 28:7), blessings (Prov. 30:11), honor (Ex. 20:12), and fear (Lev. 19:3). They may not strike her (Ex. 21:15), steal from her (Prov. 28:24), bring her to shame (Prov. 29:15), or ridicule her (Deut. 27:16). They are to remember and observe her law (Prov. 1:8; 6:20). “This shows clearly the high standing of motherhood in a redeemed society” (Theological Wordbook of the OT).
“Come, the New Jerusalem…”
As a spiritual and trans-temporal reality, the New Jerusalem is the archetypical City, the pattern and goal for all earthly cities. Brandi Remington writes:
“An ideal city would act as a mother to its residents providing them with safety, support, guidance, esteem and examples of how to navigate through life, allowing them to eventually operate on their own as strong leaders.”
We can think of “esteem” as a sense of identity, of purpose and belonging. An ideal city would have a unique history, culture, and calling within God’s kingdom. It would be a true community, founded on grace and faith. It would be fruitful, full of children loved and nurtured in the Lord. It would honor its elderly and listen to their wisdom. It would be a light to the world. Of course, we have no such ideal cities on our planet. “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14). But in the meantime, our goal should be to have good, righteous cities, just as we can have good, righteous mothers. Both are the fruit of the gospel. Both are the gift of God.
For Further Reading:
Nancy Wilson, Praise Her in the Gates, The Calling of Christian Motherhood (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000).