Psalm 87 A Psalm or Song for the Sons of Korah The Glory of Zion, 'City of God'
In previous messages we have been considering the second collection of the Psalms for the sons of Korah. These are Psalms 84, 85, 87 and 88. Last time we looked at Psalm 86 located in the middle of this collection though entitled a Prayer of David. In this message we are considering the concise, yet beautiful Psalm 87:
(1) A Psalm or Song for the sons of Korah. His foundation is in the holy mountains. (2) The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. (3) Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Selah. (4) I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; “this man was born there”. (5) And of Zion it shall be said, “This and that man was born in her:” and the Highest Himself shall establish her. (6) The LORD shall count, when He writeth up the people, “that this man was born there”. Selah. (7) As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there: all my springs are in thee.
This Psalm divides simply into three with the two selahs (vs 3, 6) marking the divisions.
Vs 1-3 City of God – the Glory of Zion Vs 4-6 Capital of the World – the Citizens of Zion V 7 Centre of Worship – the Joy of Zion
David Kidner says that ‘The most memorable commentary on the psalm is John Newton’s masterly hymn’ (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary – TOTC Vol 16, Psalms 73–150, An Introduction And Commentary, Derek Kidner). Newton penned these words:
Glorious things of thee are spoken, Holy city of our God; He whose word cannot be broken Formed thee for His own abode; On the Rock of Ages founded, What can shake thy sure repose? With salvation’s walls surrounded, Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.
See the streams of living waters, Springing from eternal love, Well supply thy blessed members, And all fear of want remove; Who can faint, when such a river Ever flows their thirst t’ assuage? Grace which, like the Lord, the giver, Never fails from age to age.
Blest constituents of Zion, Washed in the Redeemer’s blood; Jesus, whom their souls rely on, Makes them kings and priests to God. ’Tis His love His people raises Over self to reign as kings: And as priests, His worthy praises, Each his thankful offering brings.
Saviour, if of Zion’s city I, through grace, a member am, Let the world deride or pity-- I will glory in Thy name. Fading is the worldling’s pleasure, All his boasted pomp and show; Solid joys and lasting treasure None but Zion’s members know.
John Newton 1725-1807
This brief Psalm almost seems somewhat strange at a first read. It strikes you as perhaps incomplete in the sense of lacking sufficient information in order to understand it. However as we look at it closer we discover it is a Psalm that summarises beautifully the greatness and significance of the future Zion. It is one of many scriptures that speak of the ‘city of God’ as to its history and future. It has well been described as a ‘theological gem’ and in terms of when it was written, the time of Hezekiah seems a reasonable suggestion for the few themes found here very much correspond with the prophecy of Isaiah. Also, seeing it as a psalm sung at one of the nation’s festival gatherings makes sense. The heart of its message is the privilege of being considered a citizen of Zion, of belonging to her community, not by natural birth, but by spiritual birth.
Vs 1-3 City of God - the Glory of Zion
His Love for Zion (vs 1-2) These verses tell us that the Lord loves the city He founded or established on Mount Zion more than any of the ‘dwellings of Jacob’. No other city or place in the land of Israel holds His affection and interest as Zion does (Psa 78:66-69). He chose Zion as the city of His king and the place of His sanctuary. While the psalmist refers to ‘holy mountains’, as we shall see presently, Zion stands for all the hills on which Jerusalem sits and indeed for the city itself. These are ‘holy mountains’ because the LORD dwelt there. Within the walls and gates of the city stood the House of the LORD. The gates of Zion speak of its strength and security. The LORD was its protector. The Assyrians under Sennacherib learnt this to their cost. The Angel of the LORD smote 185,000 Assyrians in an night and sent arrogant Sennacherib away in defeat only to die at the hands of his own sons (2 Kings 19:7, 34-37) delivering besieged Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. In a future day the nations will again discover, like Sennacherib, that to touch Jerusalem is to touch ‘the apple of His eye’ (Zech 2:8). The prophet Zechariah speaks of a future day when Jerusalem will again be under siege by the nations:
‘Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the people round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and against Jerusalem. And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it’ (Zech 12:2-3).
His Promises to Zion (v 3) ‘Glorious things’ have been said about Zion as to her status before God both in terms of her past (Psa 48:1-3; 78:65-69; 125:1; 132:13) and her future (Isa 2:3; 26:1-2; 62:1-6; Zeph 3:14-20; Ezek 48:35). Yes, her history is sad and a cause of bitter tears. Jeremiah writes of the tears of Jerusalem after she fell to the Babylonians:
‘She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks’ (Lam 1:2).
And of himself he said:
‘Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people. Mine eye trickleth down, and ceaseth not, without any intermission’ (Lam 3:48-49).
The Christ like Jeremiah, ‘the weeping prophet’ shared in the grief of the Zion’s king of whom we read: ‘And when He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it’ (Luke 19:41).
But God’s city has a future. Zion here does not speak of the church as commonly supposed by reformed writers. Zion is God’s earthly city and the capital of His earthly people, Israel. The LORD promised He will never forget Zion:
‘But Zion said, The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of My hands; thy walls are continually before Me’ (Isa 49:14-16).
Zion will yet be redeemed by judgment; the prophet Isaiah writes:
‘How is the faithful city become an harlot! It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers. Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water: Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them. Therefore saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts, the mighty One of Israel, Ah, I will ease Me of Mine adversaries, and avenge Me of Mine enemies: And I will turn My hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin: And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness. And the destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that forsake the LORD shall be consumed’ (Isa 1:21-28).
The LORD speaks of that future day when the ‘Rays of Messiah’s Glory’ will shine on Jerusalem:
‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising... And the sons of strangers shall build up thy walls, and their kings shall minister unto thee: for in My wrath I smote thee, but in my favour have I had mercy on thee. Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted’ (Isa 60:1-3, 10-12).
But why is Zion called the ‘city of God?’ A Little of her history is appropriate at this point. The first reference in the Bible to Jerusalem, it seems, is Salem: ‘And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God’ (Gen 14:18; Cp Psa 76:2). Melchizedek is the focus in this narrative. He is king of righteousness and king of Salem, king of peace as the writer to the Hebrews explains (Heb 7:1-2). The significance of a king priest associated with Jerusalem (meaning founding of peace, or possession of peace, Commentary on the Old Testament, Keil & Delitzsch) initially points to the ultimate king priest, our Lord Jesus who in that same city ‘shall build the temple of the LORD; and He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon His throne; and He shall be a priest upon His throne’ (Zech 6:12-13; Cp Psa 110:1-7). The next reference relevant to Jerusalem is Genesis 22. Abraham was told: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Gen 22:2) and ‘Abraham called the place “Jehovah-Jireh”: as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen”’ (Gen 22:14). It was here that David reared the altar on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite and proclaimed after the LORD answered him by fire: “This is the house of the LORD God, and this is the altar of the burnt offering for Israel” (1 Chron 22:1) and there Solomon built the temple: ‘Then Solomon began to build the house of the LORD at Jerusalem in mount Moriah, where the LORD appeared unto David his father, in the place that David had prepared in the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite’ (2 Chron 3:1).
Long before David came to the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite be had taken the stronghold of Zion just after becoming king over all Israel (2 Sam 5:1-5). We read, ‘David took the strong hold of Zion: the same is the city of David … So David dwelt in the fort, and called it the city of David. And David built round about from Millo and inward. And David went on, and grew great, and the LORD God of hosts was with him (2 Sam 5:7, 9-10). Thus under David, Zion became the royal city. He then brought the Ark of the LORD to Zion until the temple on Moriah became its permanent resting place (1 Kgs 8:1-11). Thus Jerusalem was established by the LORD as the royal residence and the religious centre of Israel. Zion and Jerusalem are constantly employed throughout scripture rather than Moriah. Both are used distinctly and interchangeably (2 Sam 5:6, 7; 2 Chron 5:2; 2 Kgs 19:31; Psa 102:21).
Vs 4-6 Capital of the World - the Citizens of Zion
Born in Zion (vs 4-5) What we need to understand in considering these verses is that Zion is not just a city, it’s a community. Not all that will comprise her community live within her walls, but they truly will belong to her by birth. Jerusalem will be the capital of the world and the worship centre of all the nations, a truth we considered at Psalm eighty six verse nine.
When the kingdom comes and the King is reigning, Jerusalem will be elevated governmentally, spiritually and indeed physically. She will stand out and sparkle like a diamond on a ring in the glory of her universal preeminence (Isa 2:2; Zech 14:8-11).
Presently it’s a city of controversy with Jewish right to the land and the city opposed and disputed. East Jerusalem under Israeli control since the six day war of 1967 is claimed by the Palestinians who want it as their capital as part of the so called ‘two state solution’. The capture of East Jerusalem and Israeli sovereign authority over all of the city is neither recognised by the Palestinians or the international community, a fact often demonstrated by UN resolutions. Despite all of this, the 45th President of the United States fulfilled the 1995 Jerusalem Act passed by the 104th congress in moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14th 2018, the seventieth anniversary of the State of Israel and thus recognising Jerusalem as the official and rightful capital of Israel.
Today Jerusalem is considered one of the world’s holy cities, religiously significant to not only Jews, but also Christians and Muslims. It is certainly not holy in its present state in any Biblical sense for the LORD is not there and the nation persists in its unbelief. The Lord Jesus said that “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). Its days of defilement, sadly, are not over.
Verse four is to be understood as the LORD speaking. The New American Standard Bible translates:
“I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me; Behold, Philistia and Tyre with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’ ”
The LORD is announcing how that other nations, once hostile, will become His people. Rahab is a descriptive or poetic title for Egypt (Psa 89:10; Isa 30:7; 51:9) referring to its pride and arrogance against the LORD and His people. Egypt and Babylon once the proud oppressors and destroyers of God’s people are now transformed. Philistia, her ancient enemy along with the worldly wise and wealthy Tyre (Psa 83:6-8; Amos 1:6-10) and the far off people of Ethiopia or Cush (2 Chron 14:9; Psa 68:31; Isa 18:1) are declared not proselytes, but children of Zion. Thus these historically ungodly nations are now declared as knowing the LORD and belonging to Zion. The expression “this man was born there” (vs 4, 6) means born in Zion and parallels the statement of verse five which makes clear the meaning. The focus is that the people of these foreign nations are seen as belonging to Zion by birth. It cannot be physical birth which makes them part of Zion’s world-wide community, but spiritual birth. They share the faith of redeemed Israel and look to a restored Zion as their capital. They will live as her citizens both enjoying her privileges and obeying her laws (Isa 2:3).
The Lord Jesus said: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Born from above or of God means for us now and will for believers in that future time that we are citizens in His kingdom and children in His family (John 1:12-13).
The prophet Isaiah writes:
‘In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance’ (Isa 19:23-25).
And Zechariah prophesied:
‘Thus saith the LORD of hosts; It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities: And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts: I will go also. Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you’ (Zech 8:20-23).
Registered in Zion (v 6) Almost all of us are citizens in the United Kingdom, I’m sure, and subjects of her majesty by birth. We possess a birth certificate as the documented evidence of our birth registration in the United Kingdom and thus we grew up enjoying all the privileges, blessings and responsibilities which our citizenship gives us. While birth certificates are issued by local councils, the structures of administration lead back to the ultimate authority of the kingdom, the Crown and parliament both of which reside in the nation’s capital London.
In that day Jerusalem will be the residence of the Crown and the place of the Throne, the capital of the LORD’s glorious kingdom with its worldwide community of registered citizens. In that time ‘the LORD will count when He registers the peoples, “This one was born there” (v 6 NASB).
Aren’t you glad your name is on His ‘register’ now and written in the Lamb’s book of life? (Rev 13:8). When the seventy returned to the Lord Jesus after their mission He reminded them:
'Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven' (Luke 10:19-20).
The hymns says:
Lord, I care not for riches, neither silver nor gold I would make sure of Heaven, I would enter the fold In the book of Thy Kingdom, with its pages so fair. Tell me, Jesus, my Saviour, is my name written there?
Is my name written there, On the pages white and fair? In the book of Thy Kingdom, Is my name written there?
Mary A. Kidder (1820-1905)
V 7 Centre of Worship - the Joy of Zion
Finally the Psalm concludes with the words, ‘Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, “All my springs of joy are in you”’ (NASB). The singers and musicians lead the praise in the temple. They express on behalf of all who belong to Zion that she and all that she represents is the source of the believer's life and joy. To belong to Zion is everything for it means belonging to the LORD!
I remind you that we too belong to Zion. Not the earthly Zion spoken of in this Psalm, but ‘Jerusalem which is from above’ (Gal 4:26), the heavenly one spoken of by the writer to the Hebrews:
‘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, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel’ (Heb 12:22-24).
And John writes:
‘And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God’ (Rev 21:2-3).
In conclusion, the words of H. C. Leupold are fitting: ‘So this psalm is a psalm that is full of Messianic anticipation, rich in evangelistic hopes, and deeply grounded in the insight that the inner sources of a man’s life are transformed when he becomes a true citizen of Zion’ (Leupold Old Testament Commentaries, Exposition of the Psalms, H. C. Leupold, D.D.).
Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the King James Version.