God’s Word for You
Psalm 48:1-7 The city of our God
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, January 4, 2020
The City of God
A psalm of the Sons of Korah.
We know the circumstances of many of the psalms, and we can guess at many others. In this case, the occasion that caused it to be written is not as important as what it describes: God protects his people, the church. Jesus quoted verse 2 of this psalm during his Sermon on the Mount (“Jerusalem… is the city of the Great King,” Matthew 5:35). This is the conclusion to a series of Psalms (46-48) that teach us not to rely on worldly things.
1 Great is the LORD.
He is to be greatly praised in the city of our God,
his holy mountain.
Psalm 48 begins by praising God. The text leads us to think of God as being in a city, either his city in heaven, or his city on earth: Jerusalem. His holy mountain could either be heaven or Jerusalem, since Mount Zion, although unimpressive compared with nearby heights in Israel, was and is revered because of its history and its place in God’s plan. It was on Mount Zion that Abraham offered Isaac and received a substitute. It was on Mount Zion that Abraham was told: “The Lord will provide.” It was on Mount Zion that God would provide a substitute for all mankind’s sins; a stand-in for each of us: Jesus our Lord.
2 Beautiful in its height,
Mount Zion is the joy of the whole earth.
Like the summits of the far north
is the city of the Great King.
3 Within in her citadels
God has shown himself to be her fortress.
As we move into these verses, our picture of God’s dwelling is changed again, and we are left off-balance by the carefully crafted text: His dwelling is beautiful, it is lofty, it is the joy of the whole earth. Then our minds are carried to Mount Zaphon, which is an actual mountain (Mount Casius, also known as Mount Aqraa) in the far north of Canaan, on the shore of the Mediterranean near the “corner” between Canaan and Turkey. It is about the same height at Mount Carmel (over 1,700 feet), and it was revered by the Canaanites as the home of the gods and especially of Baal the storm god.
So: Is God in a mountain up north? Is he up in heaven? Is he here in Zion? In verse 3, we realize that all of these things are true; God is everywhere. If there is a mountain or any other place held sacred by pagans, then we can be comforted: God is there, not Baal or any demon. If there is a gloomy dungeon or an eerie swamp, a frozen wasteland or a desert that roasts like a furnace, God is there.
In catechism class we learn that God is omnipresent; he is present everywhere. Another psalm tells us that “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Psalm 139:8). But here we learn something else about God. He is “her fortress.” In other words, God doesn’t dwell in a place because it’s strong, he dwells in a place to make it strong by being there. God strengthens. And more important than God strengthening a place like a mountain or a citadel, he strengthens the people in whom he dwells. He strengthens us.
Zion and Jerusalem were strong because God was there defending his people; not because they had good walls. We are strong because God is in us, defending us. David called God “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:3). With God dwelling in us, we don’t need to fear death or any opponent.
When this Psalm began, we marveled at the might of the City of God; Mount Zion in all her splendor. But then in verse 3 we realized that the city isn’t strong because of its ramparts and stone walls. It’s that way because the Lord himself is her wall and her defense. Now the nations will find that out, too.
4 Remember that when the kings joined forces,
when they advanced together,
5 they saw her and were astounded.
The panicked and they fled.
Some of the poetic language here is obscure. There is a “behold” that begins verse 4 that isn’t usually translated. Sometimes the best way to bring this into English is with “Look,” “See,” or “Remember.” It’s calling our attention to see with our mind’s eye an event of the past: Kings advancing. In fact, the root meaning of “advancing” in this case is probably “storming” (like the Lord’s anger breaking out like a firestorm in Psalm 78:21). Enraged, the enemies of God’s people make a rush at the city walls. But God is the one who reinforces his people. There are not just palisades and ramparts, but the chariots and horsemen of heaven. That’s what happened when the Assyrian king Sennacherib advanced on the city. No soldiers left Jerusalem at all; God’s angels destroyed the Assyrian army (Isaiah 37:36). In his annals, Sennacherib mentions that he “advanced” on Jerusalem, but there is no satisfying follow-up comment: “and I took the city and all of its possessions.” Instead, the Great King just mentions the next city he attacked.
6 They were seized by trembling there,
pain like that of a woman in labor.
7 You shattered them
like the east wind, shattering ships of Tarshish.
Ships of Tarshish are ships bound for the end of the world. Tarshish was on the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea; probably Spain (see Psalm 72:10; Isaiah 23:1). There were probably many stories of ships setting out for distant shores that vanished or turned up wrecked. Jonah’s ship (bound for Tarshish) almost went down, threatening to break up (Jonah 1:4), and Paul’s ship, heading for Italy and not for Spain. was battered to kindling in a storm that smashed his ship into the surf off the windward shore of Malta (Acts 27:41).
This is the promise of God’s retribution on his enemies. For us, this is the comfort of being his child. We know that he judges and punishes sin, but the punishment that should have been ours fell on our Savior instead, and by his wounds we are healed. As the Psalm continues, we will learn about facing many opponents. But if God is for us, who can be against us?
Pastor Timothy Smith