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Jerusalema – The Dance, The Meaning, The Theology

Over the past few months, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a song called Jerusalema produced by South African DJ Master KG has trended like wildfire on social media. Fellow Africans from Angola danced to it in a video, which is now known as #JerusalemaDance. Later it resulted in a #JerusalemaDanceChallenge on TikTok.

Views of the song grew in large numbers daily (as we publish this article it’s closing in on 200 million views). That number is still climbing. I was surprised when I first heard it, late in 2019. Like many others, Jerusalema adapts another, older song. And I used to sing the original version of it in morning assembly, back in primary school.

I used to sing the original version of it in morning assembly, back in primary school

Because of its popularity, media outlets have written about the song and its impact. They have also interviewed Master KG. But very few of these interviews touched on the meaning or message of the original hymn. Unfortunately it seems to have been forgotten. Therefore, in this article, I will reflect on the forgotten theological message and roots of Jerusalema. I hope that by doing this we will ponder its meaning even as we listen to the newer version.

Before we do that, let’s reflect on the meaning Jerusalema has taken in popular culture.

Jerusalema And The Desire For Unity

Jerusalema has taken on diverse meanings for different people around the world. In South Africa, it took a celebratory meaning. Before Heritage Day, our state president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa challenged everyone in South Africa to do the #JerusalemaDanceChallenge. He hoped that in doing so we could both celebrate South Africa’s diverse heritage and show the world that South Africans can produce good music.

For others, Jerusalema is a symbol of a potential unity for our fractured communities. Many people desire unity and peace. Yet daily we are confronted by fighting and unrest. We long for a world where peace, love, and happiness reign. A world without fighting. One article, written by Nyasha Chingono in The Guardian, quotes Nigerian musician Burna Boy saying, “My hope is that it unites us through our divisions and misunderstandings.”

Much of what we long for and project onto Jerusalema can be found in the original song

Still others have used the song to reflect further afield, applying Jerusalema’s vision to the challenges in Palestine. Owing to its wide reception, Jerusalema has brought new and different meanings to listeners. However, the original message of the song deserves an equal hearing. In fact, much of what we long for and project onto Jerusalema can be found in the original song.

“The New Jerusalem”

It might surprise many, but Jerusalema is actually adapted from an old gospel hymn, titled Jerusalem Ikhaya Lami (Jerusalem My Home). It can still be found in the IsiXhosa Methodist Church hymnbook. The original hymn celebrates the promise of the New Jerusalem in Revelation where we read that John saw, “A new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). Within God’s restored cosmos is a city, “The New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2). John’s vision looks forward to the day when God will once again dwell among his people. This could be linked with the reminder in Hebrews 13:14, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

John’s vision looks forward to the day when God will once again dwell among his people

The original hymn reflects on this promise and hope. It expresses a prayerful longing for the New Jerusalem. The hymn describes a wondrous place of rest and salvation. There is no pain or sin. There are no more tears. The New Jerusalem is better than the Garden of Eden. For it is the permanent Promised Land, where our present wandering will end. The whole congregation of believers throughout the ages will be present.

Together, these descriptions highlight the sheer beauty of the Christian hope. For the world, as we know it, is not the end. We await a better world. Jesus is preparing a place for us. Those who love him will live with him. Forever.

Master KG’s Jerusalema

There are obvious similarities between Master KG’s adaption and the original hymn. For the first line of Jerusalema, “Jerusalem ikhaya lami” invokes the message of the entire hymn in the minds of those familiar with it. Yet in Master KG’s Jerusalema this refers vaguely to a utopian place, some ‘new Jerusalem.’ The rest of the lyrics are original to Master KG:

Jerusalema ikhaya lami [Jerusalem my home]
Ngilondoloze [Keep me]
Uhambe nami [Walk with me]
Zungangishiyi lana [Don’t leave me here]
Ndawo yami ayikho lana [My place is not here]
Mbuso wami awukho lana [My kingdom is not here]

In Master KG’s Jerusalema, Jerusalem is referred to as the home. Yet it is not explicit if this home lies in the future. It is transcendent and utopian. The subject of the next three lines is difficult to determine. But the singer speaks to someone who can play a guarding and guiding role in the present. Jerusalema is a prayerful request to that person. The singer makes this plea because she does not belong in this world. She needs to be guided to another.

Even without being explicit, Jerusalema expresses the human longing for a better place

Nyasha Chingono has argued that this is a request to God. This is possible. But it is not explicit. For the mention of Jerusalem in the first line will only invoke the original hymn and its meaning for those familiar with it. A major difference between Master KG’s Jerusalema and Jerusalema Ikhaya Lami is that the former focuses on the present. Yet, even without being explicit, it expresses the human longing for a better place. The desire for more. Our desperation for God’s new world.

Pointing To A Deeper Longing 

My intention for this article was to highlight the theological meaning of the original hymn. For Master KG’s adapted version, KG’s Jerusalema, is a signpost to the theologically rich original. Even then, Jerusalema Ikhaya Lami is merely a signpost to the greater truth expressed in the Bible. Christians have God’s promise of the New Jerusalem, where they will dwell with God. One day he will dwell with us.

Let us reflect on that hope, brimming with beauty and purpose. It is ours in Jesus Christ. This world is temporal. So too are its frustrations and pains. Hope lies beyond, though it is found now in Christ. He has prepared for us a future where all our longings for him will be fully, finally, and forever satisfied.

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