From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalms 86 and 87 illustrate different emphases in the section of Book Three that deals with crisis and the hope of rescue and restoration, (Psalms 79-87). Most of these psalms contain cries for rescue that fit the broader theme of a crisis of faith in Israel. Psalm 86 illustrates this type of psalm even though the central section of the psalm is quite hopeful. Psalm 87, by contrast, is one of the psalms in Book Three that looks away from the crisis and is filled with a remarkable confidence in God’s anticipated restoration of his people and a blessing for the world.
Psalm 86 is the only psalm in Book Three that is attributed to David. To the extent that this psalm reflects a crisis of faith, it reminds all those who are suffering in exile that David too faced times of great temptation, doubt, and struggle. Here, he prays to remind God that he is “poor and needy,” (v. 1), and that he faces “the day of my trouble,” (v. 7). Later in the psalm, he specifies the character of that trouble: “O God, insolent men have risen up against me; a band of ruthless men seek my life, and they do not set you before them,” (v. 14).
The psalm begins and ends with prayer for help. Each prayer is seven verses – vv. 1-7 and 11-17. These prayers express real need and distress. But the prayers themselves contain confessions of faith: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you,” (v. 5), and “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (v. 15). These verses echo the words by which God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” (Exodus 34:6-7a). This allusion to the Mosaic covenant in the only Davidic psalm in Book Three is very significant. David anticipates the comfort developed in Book Four when Israel does look back to God’s faithfulness at the time of Moses. So, David, in his distress looks for solace in the same place where many of the psalms of Book Four look.
Between the two sections of prayer for rescue stand three verses of strong confidence in God. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any words like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God,” (vv. 8-10). This confession of faith begins by declaring the superiority of God to other gods and ends by declaring that the Lord is the only God. This movement in poetic thought shows the monotheism of the psalmist in the midst of many who claim the existence of other gods. Twice, this section asserts that the one true God is the God of power and amazing works in this world.
At the center of this central confession is the remarkable statement that all of the nations will come to worship God and glorify him. The God of Israel is the God who made all the nations. He is no local deity, limited to one people. As he created all the nations of the world, so one day he will draw all of them to himself. How remarkable that in the midst of the crisis in which the nations seem to be overwhelming and destroying Israel and her temple, God promises that one day the nations will come and worship with Israel in Zion.
The central verse of Psalm 86 not only connects it to Book Four but also to Psalm 87. Psalm 87, where the nations do come to worship God, is really an elaboration of the great expectation of Psalm 86:9. Indeed, as we will see, the coming of the nations may well be the sign that David prays for in the last verse of Psalm 86: “Show me a sign of your favor, that those who hate me may see and be put to shame because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me,” (v. 17).
Psalm 87 may well be the greatest missionary psalm of the Psalter. Here is a vision, not of the destruction of enemies, but of their conversion. The list of the nations that will come to God is astounding. It is a list of almost all the great enemies of God’s people: Rahab (standing for Egypt), Babylon, and Philistia. The psalm also refers to distant Cush (Ethiopia) as coming. Here Cush stands for nations far away as Tyre stands for nations near at hand.
The picture is not just of these nations’ coming to acknowledge the Lord, (v. 4). It is not just that these peoples are coming to worship God in his beloved Zion. Amazingly, three times we are told that these nations, these former enemies, will be counted as those born in Zion: “‘This one was born there,’ they say. And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her’; for the Most High himself will establish her. The Lord records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there,’” (vv. 4b-6). The nations are not just adopted into the family of God; they are reckoned as those native born. And when the nations raise their voices in praise, they see Zion as their true mother: they will sing of Zion, “All my springs are in you,” (v. 7).
This prophecy of the coming of the nations to Zion is exactly what the New Testament sees as fulfilled in Christ and his church. The church is the true Israel, (Galatians 6:16), and Heaven is the true Zion, (Hebrews 12:22). Gentile believers are grafted into the root of Israel, (Romans 11:16-24). Jesus has taken away the wall of division between Israel and the Gentiles (or nations):
Remember that you were at that time separated form 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. 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 2:12-14, 19)
Gentiles and Jews are one people in Christ, and that one people is the new Israel, the church.
Jesus himself seems to see the coming of the Gentiles as a sign of God’s redemptive work. Consider John 12:19-23. After Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Pharisees said, “Look, the world has gone after him.” Then we read that some Greeks who worshiped God wanted to see Jesus. Jesus responds as if the interest of the Gentiles was a sign to him. He immediately says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the Earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” For Jesus, the coming of the Greeks to him was a sign that the hour of his glorious, saving death had come.
The coming of the Gentiles to Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of Psalms 86 and 87. It is also the day God spoke of to Isaiah: “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see my glory,” (Isaiah 66:18). It is the expectation of Zechariah 8:23: “In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” The Old Testament clearly saw the day of the church when the springs, the true origin, of believing Jew and Gentile alike would be found in Zion.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- In what ways does the opening prayer in Psalm 86 express a need for help in the midst of distress as well as confessions of faith? Why is the allusion to the Mosaic covenant significant in Psalm 86?
- How does Psalm 86 poetically show the monotheism of the psalmist in the midst of many who claim the existence of other gods? Could you use similar ideas in today’s pluralistic culture?
- Why is Psalm 87 considered the greatest missionary psalm of the Psalter? How is the coming of the Gentiles a sign of God’s redemptive work?