God’s Word for You
Psalm 87:1-3 City of God
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, January 2, 2019
P S A L M 8 7
I pray that my comments on this Psalm and some of its technical details will in no way diminish anyone’s love or appreciation for this masterpiece. It was the text of one of the first pieces of religious music I ever attempted, 37 years ago. Verse 3 was the inspiration for the hymn, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” (John Newton, TLH 469). Also, the term “City of God” in the second part of verse 3 was used by St. Augustine for his autobiography.
It is not cited in our Lutheran Confessions nor does it contain any vital doctrinal points. It is not a passage used as either a proof text or as an example in our Catechism. It’s just a lovely little Psalm.
The recurring theme is:
“This one was born in Zion.”
Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm. A song.
The names of the “Sons of Korah” are given elsewhere in the Bible, but like the BeeGees, they preferred to be called by their group name when it came to their music. They were Elkanah, Isshiah, Azarel, Joezer, and Jashobeam (1 Chronicles 12:6). Perhaps if they had been a Motown group we would call them “The Korah Five.” Their ancestor, Korah, led a rebellion against Moses in which many thousands died (Numbers 16:1-50). Almost all of Korah’s family (he was a Levite) and certain Reubenites perished, but some part of Korah’s family—perhaps a grandson—stood with Moses and was spared (Numbers 26:11). By David’s time, the family seems to have remained small, but these five men were appointed by David to be musicians in the tabernacle. For this reason, their music is best associated with the reign of David, 1010-970 BC.
1 His foundation is on the holy mountain.
2 The LORD loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
3 Glorious things are said in you, O city of God: Selah
The speaker in this Psalm is first singing about God, and then shifts his word directly to God. The “foundation” is not the foundation of the temple, because we don’t know that the temple was even begun at this point—the Sons of Korah could and probably were talking about the tabernacle in David’s time and not the temple from Solomon’s reign. But the foundation is the Word of God, the promises, laws, and forgiveness presented by the Lord in his Scriptures for his people. This connects with the translation of verse 3, “Glorious things are said in you” rather than “Glorious things are said of you.” The Hebrew preposition bach is more properly “in you.”
There is an absolute difference between the city of Jerusalem and the city of God. The city of God is the Church, the people of God. The walls, stones, gates, and geography of Jerusalem are irrelevant except as the historical location of where so many of the Bible’s events took place, especially the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The current obsession in so many Protestant churches with a physical Jerusalem betrays a complete misunderstanding of the difference between the spiritual Jerusalem and physical Zion or Jerusalem. Zion was the name of the city even in pre-Israelite time, when it was the city of the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:7). The spiritual Zion is the Holy Christian Church, the true “Jerusalem” on earth, which is connected to the true and permanent Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the eternal Church in Heaven. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Romans 9:6). And again: “Understand, then, that those who believe are children from Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).
This spiritual Jerusalem is what John saw in his vision:
“He carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:10-14). Here once again in John’s vision, the foundation of the church is the Word of God, the preaching of the Apostles of the Lamb.
What are the gates of Zion? They are a poetic way of speaking about the entryway into the church. How do people come into God’s kingdom? It is through the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments through which the gospel is applied, especially baptism. Although the physical gates of the earthly Jerusalem could be breached because of the sins of the people (Lamentations 4:12-13; Obadiah 11,13), it is faith alone that allows entrance into the spiritual City of God. Isaiah said, “Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith” (Isaiah 26:2). Also, the Psalm could only be sung by a believer with faith in Christ: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter.” (Psalm 118:19-20).
The law of God which proclaims his holy will, and the gospel which proclaims our forgiveness and our entrance into the eternal City of God, are the “glorious things” that are said in that city. Jesus said (Luke 21:33), “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Pastor Timothy Smith