He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are said of you,
city of God:
‘I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me –
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush –
and will say, “This one was born in Zion.”’
Psalm 87 is best known through Newton’s wonderful hymn, ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken Zion, city of our God.’ Why God chose to locate in Jerusalem is a mystery. Why he chose the Jews is a mystery and why he chose Abraham is a mystery. The Bible makes it clear that it certainly wasn’t because of any merit on their behalf (Deuteronomy 7:6–8). Election is grace.
We don’t know when the Psalm was written, but Jerusalem’s history was a battered one. Isaiah speaks of her being ‘lashed by storms and not comforted’ (Isaiah 54:11). She was threatened by the Assyrians and ransacked by the Babylonians. Yet ‘Zion’ (which is simply the name of one of the hills upon which Jerusalem was built) has global significance. There’s something happening there that will affect all peoples on earth. Other places in the Old Testament also give witness to this vision. In spite of the failures of her leaders, God declares that Jerusalem will be established as chief of the mountains and the people will stream to it. Nations will come to Jerusalem, God will teach them there, swords will be beaten into ploughshares and all people, not just a few, will enjoy peace and prosperity (Micah 4:1–5).
Election is always for others and these Zion-focused Psalms (46, 48, 76, 87, 122) remind us that God has a plan for all people. At Mount Sinai, the Israelites were told that God intended them to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6). Later on, Isaiah makes it clear that, in their life together under God’s rule, she is meant to be ‘a light to the nations – so that all the world may be saved.’ (Isaiah 49:6).
The Psalmist surveys the Jews’ traditional enemies – Rahab (a contemptuous name for Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Cush (Ethiopia) and says that they will ‘know’ Israel’s God (v. 4). The NIV’s ‘acknowledge’ is weak: the Hebrew word derives from ‘yada’ which is used of intimate knowledge such as that between husband and wife (see Genesis 4:1, KJV).
Palestinian theologian Yohanna Katanacho comments these are ‘those who seek and trust him [God] (Psalm 9:11). They are the ones who pursue his loving kindness and righteousness (Psalm 36:11), and enjoy his protection and blessings (Psalm 36:8–11).’
It seems that they are the ones who have made their way as pilgrims to Zion. Although the text is not clear-cut, it looks like those who come to Jerusalem, wherever they have come from, even former enemies, are counted as born in the city. They are included in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic (vv. 4, 6) and joyful community (v. 7). They are adopted natives with full citizenship (vv. 4–7). They (to quote St Paul) are, ‘no longer strangers or people far away but live with God’s people and belong to God’s family.’ (Ephesians 2:19). Newton, again, captured it well when he writes that we are members of Zion’s city ‘through grace.’ We don’t have a natural right to live in the presence of God – in our natural state we are cut off from him (Ephesians 2:1–3) – but God himself has done something about it.
The New Testament declares that Jesus is the true temple (John 2:21), the true dwelling place where all diverse humanity meets with God. It envisages a future age when the new Jerusalem, the city of peace, will come to earth (Revelation 21:9f) and, in the meantime, we are called to be part of that (Ephesians 2:21). Whoever you are, wherever you’ve come from, whatever you’ve done – you’re welcome!