God’s Word for You
Psalm 87:4-5 Born in Zion
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, January 3, 2019
4 I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Behold—even Philistia, and Tyre, along with Cush!
I will say: “This one was born in Zion.”
For most readers, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Cush should be familiar places; enemy nations surrounding Israel. Babylon was to the north and east, corresponding to the geography of modern Iraq. Philistia was, for a long time, an enemy immediately to the west. The battles between the Philistines and the Israelites in the days of King Saul were fought only a few miles from the villages of Judah and Simeon (1 Samuel 17:2-3). Tyre was further to the northwest, the enemy near Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali in western Galilee. Cush was the nation to the south of Egypt that corresponds to the geography of modern Sudan. All of these nations are condemned as enemies of God’s people in the prophets (Esther 2:5-6; Isaiah 39:1; Jeremiah 47:4; Joel 3:4; Amos 6:2; Jeremiah 46:9). But who or what was Rahab?
Could Rahab be a reference to the prostitute who helped the spies in Jericho? This is the understanding of St. Jerome (347-420 AD), who said: “Let the sinner be at peace; the Lord was mindful of Rahab (the harlot). I mean, at peace, if the sinner returns to the Lord” (Homily 18 on the Psalms). I admire this interpretation, because Jerome is trying to take the verse at face value with its simplest interpretation. But there is another possibility that works within the context of the other nations.
Rahab is sometimes a sea monster in the Bible (Isaiah 51:9). Dr. Brug says that Rahab “represents the chaos of the sea” (Psalms Vol. 2, p. 118). In Job, Rahab can either be the fierce sea itself (Job 26:12) or enemies coming over the seas, pirates arriving in “cohorts” of ships (Job 9:13). Here, Rahab seems to depict Egypt. Isaiah uses the name Rahab for Egypt: “Egypt, whose help is utterly useless, therefore I call her Rahab the do-nothing” (Isaiah 30:7). Some think that this association comes from the way that the Nile looks like a fierce serpent on a map, but no ancient maps depict the Nile as anything more than a straight line running from south to north. It was probably the proud or raging ferocity of the Egyptian armies that won the nickname Rahab here (Rahab also means “proud” or “raging”).
Look what has happened to these enemies. They were Gentiles; they were the most common opponents of God’s people, but now they are “born in Zion.” They are recorded as being in the Lord’s book of life (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5). This Psalm has turned from general praise into a hymn for the mission work of the church. The Gentiles are also those who enter through the beautiful gates of Zion. They are recorded in God’s register.
The beginning of the final phrase, “I will say,” is not part of the Hebrew text but is carried over in translation as the thought from the beginning of the verse (translators must sometimes repeat verbs in order to make the text understandable). God himself is the speaker in this, the central verse of the Psalm. The idea of being “born in Zion” or “born into Zion” is the theme of the whole second half of the poem. It continues directly from here into verse 5.
5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her.”
And the Most High himself will establish her.
The middle line is not certain in Hebrew. It could also mean, “A man, a man is born in her.” Jerome took this to be a reference to Christ, which is a fine way of thinking, because we should always be holding Christ before our eyes as we read the Bible. But the context is of Gentiles, the people of the world’s nations, coming into the family of God, reborn through the gateway of Zion (the gospel in word and sacrament). Therefore I have adapted the NIV’s understanding of the verse and have translated similarly, “This one and that one were born in her.” This is a reference to all those outside the circumcision of the Old Testament believers and who entered into God’s family through faith. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). The Sons of Korah are saying the same thing here.
Your place in heaven has been established by the work and words of the Most High. This name for God is Elyon, “the Highest.” It is similar to expressions for “upper rooms” or “roof chambers” (Jeremiah 22:14). God is the one who is above all, above everything and everyone in every way. We bow before him, and by his grace we are born into his kingdom through the washing of baptism and the working of the holy gospel. To him be all glory forever. Amen.
Pastor Timothy Smith