<A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.>
1 Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain,
2 beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.
3 Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense.
4 Then the kings assembled, they came on together.
5 As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic, they took to flight;
6 trembling took hold of them there, pains as of a woman in labor,
7 as when an east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish.
8 As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God establishes forever. Selah
9 We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.
10 Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with victory.
11 Let Mount Zion be glad, let the towns of Judah rejoice because of your judgments.
12 Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers,
13 consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation
14 that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.
In the previous two psalms we have celebrated God as our refuge (Psalm 46) and God as King (Psalm 47) and now we see God’s Kingship occupying a specific place of refuge: the city of Jerusalem and the temple. The city of Jerusalem and the temple were two central signs of God’s promised protection and presence. Although I can understand the remark of Walter Bruggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. that the beginning and ending of the psalm in their symmetry and structure of, “nearly equating the God of the temple with the beauty and symmetry of it.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 224) I tend to view the message of the psalm in a more positive light appreciating the presence of God in a holy space. There is always a danger of identifying a structure or item designated for God’s worship and glory becoming an idol in the mind of the worshipper. Yet, we do seek places where God’s presence can be felt amid a world where God’s presence may be harder to identify and God’s refuge in a world that can feel fraught with dangers. The city, the mountain and the temple should all be spaces where the LORD is praised. At its best the beauty and security of the temple and city create a little piece of heaven on earth where God’s presence seems closer. Religious buildings, from the humblest to the most elaborate, attempt to create a safe and holy place for God’s people to come together and where God’s presence is felt and communicated.
Jerusalem as city is merely stone, wood, cloth and metal inhabited by the people who dwell in and around it. Yet, in the minds of the faithful it becomes something far greater. As J. Clinton McCann, Jr. can state, “Jerusalem is important because it is God’s place; thus it can serve as a witness to God’s character.” (NIB IV: 821) It becomes a place of hope and aspiration where in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Isaiah 2: 2
Nancy deClaissé-Walford points to how the psalm appropriates the language of the Canaanites that was used to worship Baal. God ss the one who ascends the mountain in the north instead of Baal, Zion replaces Zaphon as the place of sanctuary and the place from which the God of Israel reigns as King over all other gods and nations. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 435) Like Psalm 29, the people transformed the language of the surrounding culture to give worship and praise to the LORD of hosts. This serves both a polemical function, the LORD is God and King instead of Baal, but also reflects the process of trying to come up with language that can be used to talk about God and the willingness of the Jewish people to repurpose imagery that seemed appropriate for their LORD.
In contrast to the hope in Isaiah 2 where the nations stream to Zion seeking teaching and wisdom, we see the kings of the earth assembling to assault Jerusalem. Yet, like Psalm 2: 1-6, the conspiring of the kings of the nations only exposes their weakness. It is possible that Psalm 48 references the failed siege of King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 B.C.E. (2 Kings 18-19) but the psalm may be independent of this experience of liberation in the memory of the Jewish people. The kings who sought to conquer in strength flee in panic and trembling. Kings who are pictured as masculine symbols of conquest are transformed in the psalm to women in childbirth, an image in the ancient world that was the opposite of strength. Although I would disagree with the use of a woman in childbirth as an image of weakness it was a common image in the ancient world because of the intense pain and the high risk of death for women during childbirth in the ancient world. Devastating winds in ancient Israel were east winds. In Exodus 14:21 it was an east wind which drove back the Red Sea and in Jeremiah 18:17 God promise to scatter Israel before their enemy “Like the wind from the east.”
The reality of God as the refuge for the people of Zion moves from being something handed down from previous generations to the experienced reality of the city of Zion. Once they had heard of God’s steadfast love, victory and judgements but now they can rejoice because they have experienced these things. The threat from the other nations has passed and they can walk around an examine both the physical walls and barriers that surround the city but also reflect upon the God who is the true refuge for the faithful people. They will now have their own experience of God’s faithfulness to share with future generations for their God will endure forever and ever.
For those of us who hear the words of this psalm in our own time we may wonder where we go to experience the presence and protection of God? What are times where we experienced God’s power so that we could speak of our own experience of God rather than the experience of our ancestors? What language do we use to talk about God and how has it changed from the language our parents or grandparents used? What places do we consider sacred or holy and why do we consider them to be sacred?