Read Psalm 76.
To modern readers it seems a strange request. Naaman, the Aramean military commander, had just been healed of his leprosy by the God of Israel, and he asked for a souvenir of sorts—dirt. Yup, he went to the prophet Elisha and requested as much unfiltered, genuine dirt as two pack mules could carry (2 Kings 5:17).
Naaman wanted this soil from Israel not for sentimental reasons or for the upcoming planting season. He wanted it because it belonged to Yahweh. It was His dirt, a bit of His land, part of His territory. In order to properly worship the Lord, Naaman figured, one must do it on ground that is sacred to Him. Back in Aram, the land belonged to other gods, so Naaman requested enough promised-land dirt to set up a small worship space, perhaps in his home. He would kneel down before Israel’s God on Israel’s land.
For a God who is infinite and everywhere all at once, Scripture sure does spend a lot of time highlighting His home address on earth—the land of Israel and, more specifically, Mount Zion: “God is renowned in Judah; in Israel his name is great. His tent is in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion” (Psalm 76:1–2). As Naaman knew, the land of Israel—literally the dirt and sand and clay the people walked on—was special to the Lord. It was uniquely His in a way that the lands outside of Israel were not.
While all the world ultimately belongs to God (Psalm 24:1), the Lord does not force Himself where He is not welcome. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal Son, “the Most High gave the nations their inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32:8). They rejected Him (not unlike the prodigal in that same story), and so He left them to their rebellion, placing them in the hands of lesser heavenly beings, the gods of the nations: “he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God” (v. 9 ESV*).
But when did God divide humanity so that nations would develop and grow across the world? Genesis 11 records the famous story of the tower of Babel. If you recall, the people invented bricks and used the new technology to build a grand tower in the land of Shinar (Babylon). They decided to settle down there in an act of disobedience against God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). “So the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stopped building the city” (11:8).
Those people, with their varied languages, formed the nations of the ancient world. And with that, God had no one—no group left to worship His name, no land where that worship could be cultivated. So God decided to create something new. He chose Abram and Sarai, an elderly Mesopotamian couple, and promised to grow a nation in Sarai’s barren womb (Genesis 12:2; 18:10). Then when their descendants had grown numerous in a nation ruled by gods hostile to the true Lord of the universe, God delivered His people and brought them into a land they could call their own, a land that would be sacred to Him.
Of course, the most sacred place in that land was the temple, as Asaph highlights by zeroing in on Zion (Psalm 76:2). That was where the presence of God took up residence in the land. As a result, there were all sorts of laws on the books to maintain the holiness of the site—rituals with restrictions and sacrifice and blood to preserve the purity of God’s dwelling place within Israel, all done so that the people could continue to meet with the Lord in worship.
Today, there is no temple in Judah. God has made the followers of Jesus His temple, both corporately and individually (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19). That means you and I are sacred space. We bring the presence of God with us wherever we go, even into the hostile territories of other gods. As we do this, we proclaim what has always been true: God is the true King of this world.
In Psalm 76, God judges the nations: “He breaks the spirit of rulers; he is feared by the kings of the earth” (v. 12). The rebellion that began in the garden and was brought to a new level at Babel is coming to an end. One day, we will be able to say, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Revelation 11:15). On that day, all the dirt of the world will be sacred; the Lord Himself will walk among us.
* I’m quoting Deuteronomy 32:9 in the ESV, because it follows the reading found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. While the NIV and other translations tell us that God divided the nations “according to the sons of Israel” (though see the footnote in the NIV), that makes little sense, since the verse describes a time before Jacob (Israel) and his sons. The Dead Sea Scrolls undoubtedly retain the earlier tradition.