From Learning to Love the Psalms
The great theme of this psalm is the presence and blessing of God in the city of Jerusalem. At the center of the psalm stands this great expression of confidence: “As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God, which God will establish forever,” (v. 8). The psalmist declares that the security of Jerusalem is not only something of which he has heard, but it is also something that he has seen with his own eyes. Jerusalem is secure because God makes her secure, and he makes her secure because she is his own precious city. Jerusalem belongs to God in a unique way because he dwells in her (“Within her citadels God has made himself known,” (v. 3) and because his temple is there, (v. 9).
This central confession is developed in each of the sections of the psalm. In the first section (vv. 1-3), God is praised as the great King. His capital city is beautiful, built on the heights, and fortified for safety. But the security of Jerusalem does not rest ultimately on her geographical advantages or her strong wall. It rests on God himself who “has made himself known as a fortress,” (v. 3).
The second section (vv. 4-7) celebrates God’s power and successful defense of the city. It speaks of an alliance of kings who advance to attack the city. But God destroyed them like ships caught in a great storm at sea. He filled them with fear and trembling so that they fled. The defenders of the city did not need to fight at all because God fought for them (this language could again be an allusion to the defeat of Sennacherib as we discussed in relation to Psalm 46).
The third section (vv. 9-11) meditates on the character of this great saving God. In the temple, the people of God think of his unfailing love that surrounds them and will never abandon them. “He will not leave you or forsake you,” (Deuteronomy 31:6), the Lord promised long ago, and the people continue to experience that care. Their Lord is also the righteous God whose judgments defend his people. So great is the holiness and love of this God that his name and his praise reach the ends of the Earth. He is no local God of a little people but is indeed the maker of the heavens and the Earth.
The fourth and final section (vv. 12-14) basically returns to the theme of the first section. Zion is beautiful and fully fortified. The God who protects her is the God who endures from generation to generation, indeed forever and forever. He will guide and defend Jerusalem even to the end of time.
How can we as Christians identify with a psalm that seems so linked to the times and places of ancient Israel? Should the Earthly Jerusalem continue to be of concern to us as the center of God’s redemptive work and care? The New Testament answers that question for us. Just as the sacrifices and temple of the old covenant pointed beyond themselves to fulfillment in the coming of Christ, so the ancient, Earthly city of Jerusalem points beyond itself. It stands for the Heavenly Jerusalem today. Paul teaches us this: “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother,” (Galatians 4:25-26). The book of Hebrews teaches the same:
You have not come to what may be touched [Mount Sinai]. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in Heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18, 22-24)
And John sees that the Heavenly Jerusalem will one day descend from Heaven to fill the Earth.
And then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth, for the first Heaven and the first Earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4; cf. 3:12; 21:10)
Here is the only Jerusalem that will abide forever.
So, Jerusalem remains the focus of Christian hope and anticipation, but not as a city in the Near East. We love the Heavenly Jerusalem as the present and coming place of fellowship where the people of God live with their Christ. Even the Old Testament saints had a sense that the Earthly Jerusalem pointed beyond itself, especially as they experienced the destruction of their capital. This sense begins to become clear in Book Three of the Psalter.
The point we are making here about Jerusalem is crucial for the interpretation of the psalms and of the entire Bible. The Earthly Jerusalem pointed to and is fulfilled in the Heavenly Jerusalem. So, too, the Earthly Israel pointed to and is fulfilled in the church. Paul teaches very plainly that the Gentiles who were once aliens are now citizens of Israel, God’s true spiritual people:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-15, 19)
Paul makes the same point when he says that the Gentiles who have become Christians were formerly wild branches but have now been grafted into the tree of Israel:
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root supports you. (Romans 11:17-18)
The Israel of old is fulfilled in the new Israel, the church of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus, the Messiah.
The New Testament frequently applies the names and blessings of Israel to the church. When Paul blesses the Galatian Christians at the end of his letter, he says to them, “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God,” (Galatians 6:16). James addresses scattered Christians as the twelve tribes: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” (James 1:1). Here he is speaking of more than just Jewish Christians, because he refers to his readers generally as believers in Jesus and as part of the church, (James 2:1, 5:14).
Peter is particularly strong on this point. He knows one of the great promises that God made to Israel: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the Earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Exodus 19:5-6a). Peter applies this promise to the church: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9).
Israel’s history has become our history. We are part of the one people of God and the psalms of Jerusalem and Zion are fully ours. Psalm 48 is not the local history of a little city, but it has significance for the ends of the Earth. Indeed, we can appreciate this psalm and all of the Old Testament in a way that the old covenant people could not. They had the promise; we have the fulfillment. They had the sons of Korah who wrote this psalm; we have Jesus who fulfilled this psalm. They sang in praise of the Earthly Jerusalem; we sing in praise of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What is the great theme of Psalm 48? What makes Jerusalem secure and significant?
- How can we as Christians identify with a psalm that seems so linked to the times and places of ancient Israel? Should the Earthly Jerusalem continue to be of concern to us as the center of God’s redemptive work and care?
- Why is Jerusalem crucial for the interpretation of the psalms and of the entire Bible? How is the Earthly Jerusalem fulfilled in the Heavenly Jerusalem? How is it that Israel’s history is our history?