With its economy of language and notable use of metaphor there are certainly elements of the cryptic about Psalm 87. But it is a psalm which repays close reflection, packed as it is with wonderful truths about God’s purpose both with His holy city and with the nations at large. The psalm tends to introduce new ideas quite abruptly, and it is only by reading on beyond a given difficulty and into the succeeding lines that clarity starts to emerge; this is simply part of the psalm’s technique, one which creates engagement and intrigue for the reader (see note at end for an example).
- [A Psalm or Song for the sons of Korah.]
His foundation is in the holy mountains.
- The LORD loveth the gates of Zion
More than all the dwellings of Jacob.
- Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Selah.
- I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me:
Behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia;
This man was born there.
- And of Zion it shall be said,
This and that man was born in her:
And the highest himself shall establish her.
- The LORD shall count, when he writeth up the people,
That this man was born there. Selah.
- As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there:
All my springs are in thee.
First, the architecture of the piece. There are three stanzas (v1-3,4-6,7), each separated by ‘selah,’ but each connected by a common focus on Zion. Since Zion is the focal point of God’s plan on earth it makes sense that in the future all nations will be gathered to it. Each stanza presents a different aspect: the first looks at Zion as the focus of God’s affections and purpose, the second at Zion as a future home for the nations (even those who have historically been Israel’s opponents), and the third at Zion as a locus of worship and refreshing for the faithful community.
Now that we have a broad context for the psalm’s concerns we can proceed to examine each of its parts in more detail.
Gates and foundations
Even the opening sentence is abrupt: ‘His / its foundation is in the holy mountains’, which immediately raises the question: Whose foundation? The foundation of what? This is typical of the way the psalm proceeds, setting up an implicit question for the reader which is subsequently answered as we read on. It is the foundation of Zion which is spoken of, God’s holy city built on a rock, on the mountains that God has chosen as His resting-place. It is a city of promise – a city of the future, not merely a city where great things have happened in the past: ‘glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God’. This is the source of the famous hymn ‘Most glorious things are spoken, Jerusalem, of thee’. There is a sense of destiny which surrounds Zion, the inevitability of a glorious future staked on the promises of God. Zion is preselected and predestined for greatness and glory because God has chosen for it to be so.
The middle lines of this stanza also contain some interesting comparisons:
The Lord loveth the gates of Zion
More than all the dwellings of Jacob.
First, it is interesting that God should choose Zion ahead of something connected with Jacob. Jacob is characteristically the one chosen (perhaps in certain respects despite himself), as opposed to Esau who was the one rejected. But here the dwellings of Jacob are set aside in favour of the gates of Zion, a place to which Jacob had little connection. Here the associations begin with Abraham, Melchisedec and Mount Moriah, but it is not until David’s day that they really bloom in full. To speak of Zion is to reference the promises to David and the greater king who will succeed him.
Second, there is an interesting contrast between the gates of Zion (something formal, constructed, regal even) and the dwellings of Jacob (Jacob was, after all, a plain man who characteristically dwelt in tents). Despite the negative connotations that cities and human attempts at civilisation sometimes conjure up in Scripture, here God’s choice is for the formal and the structured: the place with foundations and gates, the city of God rather than the fragile and temporary tent. God’s ultimate purpose is to establish Himself in Zion on a permanent basis (the former kingdom of Israel, even at its height, was only a foretaste of this) so it is entirely appropriate that language associated with permanence, security, and the majesty of kingdoms should be employed. It’s perhaps a surprising choice for God to choose a city over a tent, but one that does make sense in the broad context of God’s plan. God’s king will be established in the earth and will not be overthrown; this is God’s glorious purpose.
The implications of all this are far-reaching. They extend not merely to the land of Israel or God’s immediate subjects; they incorporate the whole world. What more powerful metaphor could there be for this than the envisaging of a global census in which all nations, even Israel’s mortal enemies, willingly gather together for registration and association with God’s holy city? Previously they had come (if they had come at all) only to mock, to threaten, to ransack; now the tables have turned and they come to sign their names in God’s mighty registry.
The audacity of this literary move and the impact it would have had on its audience when the psalm was first performed and shared is not to be missed. For the psalm does not merely say that Egyptians (‘Rahab,’ a cipher for Egypt), Babylonians and Philistines (to name but three) will come and record their names in a book; it says that they will come and register themselves as citizens of Zion by birth! Though they hadn’t known it, God had originally made of one blood all the nations of the earth, and it was always His intention that they would find their home and centre in His holy city. It is the perfect base for Paul’s development of the metaphor when he says that spiritual Jerusalem, the Jerusalem which is above, is the mother of us all (Gal 4:26). No text of Scripture could have been more in Paul’s mind as he wrote those words than Psalm 87.
The most notable feature of the census passage, v 4-6, is the threefold repetition:
This man was born there (v4)
This and that man was born in her (v5)
This man was born there (v6)
The psalm envisions a procession of people, a motley crew of former inhabitants of diverse nations coming to subscribe themselves in God’s book. The language of writing, records and books here immediately catapults the mind in the direction of other Scriptures regarding the book of life and other mentions of divine record-keeping, but here the purpose is very much on registration. One by one they file by – this one was born there (in Zion), and this one … and that one too … and then another, this man was born there also. The very repetition captures the iterations of the registration process as people come from all over the world to have their names recorded as citizens of Zion.
The citizens assemble
And what places they come from!
I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me:
Behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia;
This man was born there. (v4)
The first phrase here is a little misleading in KJV, and would be better rendered
I will mention Rahab and Babylon amongst them that know me
Why these particular nations? Rahab (Egypt) and Babylon stand for the biggest enemy empires in Old Testament history, the archetypal enemy, human power systematised and overgrown. The mythological name Rahab is used for Egypt to emphasise the symbolic as well as physical nature of her opposition (cf Ps 49:10; Is 51:9). Pharaoh and his armies represent worldly power and the forces of sin and death in all their cosmic significance, not merely one particularisation of that power in the days of Moses.
The Philistines, by contrast, were the characteristic enemy of Israel and Judah at the local level, the enemy over whom David triumphed. Tyre is the great trading nation, the place with connections. Now, however, the Tyrians have abandoned their old shipping routes and far off treasuries because they want to be connected definitively with Israel their local neighbour. Ethiopia represents distance and ‘otherness’, perhaps, and stands for far off gentile lands; she too wants to join the fold and sign up as a citizen of Zion, and God is only too happy to welcome her.
The final verse of the stanza, v6, is particularly rich in imagery:
The LORD shall count, when he writeth up the people,
That this man was born there. Selah. (v6)
Certainly this is the language of a census as we have discussed, but there is also the suggestion of a roll-call, the taking of a register, in which God ‘counts’ people as being from Zion even though they are clearly not! They may not originally be from Zion, but now Zion is their spiritual home for they, like Ruth, have come to trust in the shadow of God’s wings. By using the word ‘count’ there can be this sense of something being considered to be the case even if it isn’t necessarily intrinsically or literally so (compare the way that believers are ‘counted’ righteous when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them). The word ‘count’ also carries with it the idea of enumeration or numbering, and the thought that one day the number will be made up (the word can also mean ‘recount, tell, record’).
The New International Version makes the concept of the register explicit:
The LORD will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion”
And the New Living Translation is even more bold (a paraphrase, of course, but it captures the spirit nicely, if not literally what the text says):
When the LORD registers the nations, he will say,
“They have all become citizens of Jerusalem.”
The ESV, meanwhile, takes the idea of ‘count’ and translates it (legitimately) as ‘record’, as do a number of other translations:
The LORD records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”
This again allows for the possibility of God as it were seeing a Philistine standing before Him at the registration desk, but choosing not to record ‘Philistine’ in the official log but ‘citizen of Zion’ instead! This is a great relief for all disciples who have, inevitably, not been as true to their new identity in Christ as they would have intended and hoped to be.
The notion of the census introduced by Psalm 87 comes to the fore again at the time of Jesus’ birth. On that occasion it was Caesar Augustus who instructed the census, the record in Luke 2v1-5 making insistent repetition of the registration motif just like Psalm 87 (KJV employs the concept of taxation instead, but the census reading is probably the better one):
A decree went out … that all the world should be registered
This was the first registration…
And all went to be registered
And Joseph also went up … to be registered …
This census ensured that Jesus was born at the place decreed by the prophets, thus maximising Jesus’ connection to David. But a census involving ‘all the world’ also creates a potential link to Psalm 87. Interestingly, the Septuagint Greek version of Psalm 87:6 reads ‘the Lord will recount it in the inscription of the peoples and of the princes who were born in her’ – introducing the idea of a register of royalty, and the idea of a king being born or reared and of Messianic expectation in the passage is also found in Jewish literature. There is also a specific version of the Greek known as Quinta which appears to have been known to Luke which goes even further: ‘In the census of the peoples this one will be born there,’ and the Aramaic version of the psalm also speaks of the rearing of a king. While we don’t know this for certain, it seems that this passage with its ‘this one will be born in her’ was understood Messianically. Interesting, then, that Caesar should order a census of the whole world at the time of Jesus’ birth! (This is discussed in Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, p417-8). As the firstborn of all creation it is appropriate that his name should be recorded – and perhaps recorded first – in God’s roll-call of the inhabitants of Zion!
Springs and singers
The final verse of the psalm constitutes its final stanza. Singers and musicians are abruptly introduced, but by this time we are no longer surprised by the psalm’s juxtapositions:
As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there:
All my springs are in thee.
The majority of translations take the last phrase (“All my springs are in you”) to be a quotation on the lips of the singers and musicians – this is what they are singing, in other words; it is the content of their song. The New Living Translation is worth quoting again, paraphrastic though it is, because it most likely interprets the metaphor of the springs correctly.
The people will play flutes and sing,
“The source of my life springs from Jerusalem!”
The springs are the wellsprings of hope and desire, the source, the basis of one’s expectation. Everything that the faithful hope for springs from God’s promises to gather a people for His name and to bring them to Him in Zion as one. A more modern metaphor might perhaps be ‘roots’ rather than ‘springs’. A root is the basis for a plant, and all its growth, its foliage and its fruit spring forth from that source. Zion is likewise the basis, the root, or the fountain spring from which well up waters which spring forth to everlasting life. No wonder that this is the song which the musicians (or dancers, as some translators have it) and singers choose to perform. God’s glorious plans for the future find their centre and their source in Zion. It is ‘home base’ for all who love His ways.
Note 1: an example of how you need to read what comes later in the psalm to understand the cryptic earlier references is as follows. In v4-6 which concern the census for Zion it is not entirely clear that it is a census which is being described until v6 when it is finally made explicit! The language – and even the central metaphor – is concealed until the very last moment is reached (v6). Similarly, it isn’t clear that Zion is the place of origin for all the people described in v4; that crucial detail isn’t revealed until v5.