Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 8, 2018

Psalm 48 Commentary

Psalm 48 is one of the several Songs of Zion scattered throughout the Psalter (Psalms 46, 76, 84, 87, 122).  They sing the praise of the great capital city of Israel, because God has blessed her beyond imagination.  This combination of patriotism and religion makes Psalm 48 a perfect Psalm for this first Sunday after July 1 (Canada’s Dominion Day) and July 4 (America’s Independence Day).  It not only swells with pride and confidence over Jerusalem because “God makes her secure forever (verse 8).”  It also gives us an opportunity to preach about the danger of placing too much confidence in the supposed security of a nation that says, “In God we trust.”  As we celebrate the freedoms of our great nations, Psalm 48 and particularly the history that followed the writing of this Psalm provide a cautionary tale for all who are proud of their country and are sure that God is on our side.

As we proceed into this patriotic Psalm, it is important to note that it is first and last about God, not about Jerusalem.  If Israel (and all subsequent singers of such patriotic songs) had remembered that, things might not have gone so badly for them in the end.  I say “first and last,” because verses 1 and 14 bracket the Psalm with praise for and confidence in Yahweh.  “Great is Yahweh, and most worthy of praise,” and “this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide (an echo of Psalm 23, where Yahweh is the Shepherd King of Israel), even to the end.”

Within the brackets of that comforting confession, Psalm 48 turns immediately and insistently to the glory of Jerusalem and the mountain on which it is built.  Indeed, God’s greatness is to be found quintessentially in Jerusalem.  “Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise, in the city of God, his holy mountain.”  Our Psalm is composed of 4 symmetrical stanzas: verses 2 and 3, with 3 lines about the beauty of Zion as God’s impregnable citadel; verses 4-7, with 4 lines about the futility of enemy attacks against Jerusalem; verses 9-11, with 4 lines about Zion’s joy over God’s saving acts in defeating the enemy; and verses 12-13, with 3 lines, singing the glories of Zion’s impregnability.  Right in the middle is verse 8 with its rock-solid assurance that “God makes Jerusalem/Zion secure forever.”

Verses 1-3 alternate between singing the praises of Jerusalem (“beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth, like the utmost heights of Zaphon”) and the praises of God who is “in her citadels” and has “shown himself to be her fortress.”  The “heights of Zaphon” are probably a reference to a high mountain in Phoenicia where the storm god El allegedly lived (a kind of Canaanite Mount Olympus).  The implied claim here is that Mount Zion is greater, because Yahweh is greater than El or any other god.

Israel’s utter confidence that Yahweh is greater was based on many historical events, in which he defeated the other gods, most prominently the Exodus from Egypt.  But here in verses 4-7 the Psalmist refers to another victory, when “the kings joined forces… and advanced together,” presumably against Jerusalem.  Scholars are uncertain about the historical reference here.  One calls these verses the foundational story of Jerusalem, connecting them to David’s initial conquest of the city chronicled in II Samuel 5.  Others think they refer to some coalition of minor kings whose attack on Jerusalem is not recorded in the Old Testament.  And still others see this as a reference to the attack of Sennacherib on Jerusalem in 701 BC.  But none of those explanations quite fit the words of verses 4-7.  So. one enterprising scholar says that this is simply a reference to all who ever have or would attack Jerusalem.

Such attacks will always be futile, say verses 5-8, because Yahweh makes that city secure.  When the kings attack, they are overwhelmed by the awesomeness of Jerusalem and they are utterly defeated.  Their defeat is described in humiliating language to underscore the futility of attacking the city where Yahweh dwells.  The reports Israel has heard about Yahweh’s past victories have now been proven before their very eyes.  “As we have heard, so we have seen….”

In verses 9-11 the victorious Israelites repair to the Temple to worship the God who lives there.  They will meditate on God’s covenant faithfulness (the word hesed looms large in their worship, as always).  There will be a quiet thoughtful dimension to their celebration; this is not the debauched reverie of pagans.  But they will also make a lot of noise; God’s praise will reach to the ends of the earth as the villages of Israel join the celebration on Mount Zion.  And it will not be a celebration of the violence of war.  It will focus on God’s righteousness.  God’s mighty right hand doesn’t merely smite his enemies; it is filled with righteousness and justice. Yahweh is not some bloody warrior God, though he does wage war.  Rather, he is a just judge who fights for Israel in order to bring justice and equity on the earth.

The last stanza (verses 12 and 13) pictures a triumphal procession around the impregnable city, in which the worshippers “count her towers, consider her ramparts and view her citadels.”  Here the focus seems to shift from the praise of the victorious Yahweh to the admiration of the city he saved.  This is a switch often seen in victory—from God to country, from the Divine Warrior to the weapons we used to win the victory. Is this a subtle hint of the idolatry of nation that would ultimately ruin Israel?  And is the reference to “the next generation” an unintended prophecy of the day when Jerusalem would lie in ruins?  The Israelites who sang this song would not have anticipated that event, because “God makes her secure forever…. [and] this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.”

This kind of unshakeable faith in God’s presence in Jerusalem has led to the kind of theology voiced by Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod.  “There is a place where God dwells and that place is Jerusalem.  He dwells in Number One Har Habayet [= Mount of the House/Jerusalem] Street.  It is a real dwelling and for every Jew, the sanctity of the land of Israel derives from the sanctity of Jerusalem, and the sanctity of Jerusalem derives from the sanctity of the temple, and the sanctity of the Temple derives from the sanctity of the Holy of Holies where God dwells.”  Such is the theology of the religious Jews who fight for Israel today and the theology of the Christian Zionists who support them.

I’m not going to argue with them.  I only want to point out that the close identification of patriotism with religious conviction can be a very dangerous thing.  As I said before, some scholars think that Psalm 48 might have been written on the occasion of the defeat of Sennacherib described in II Kings 19.  When Sennacherib mocked Yahweh, King Hezekiah asked Yahweh to defeat him, “so that the kings of the earth may know that you alone, O Yahweh, are God (II Kings 19:19).”  God did just that, declaring in verse 34, “I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.”

Because of that defeat, many Jews came to believe that God’s protection of this city would forever save them from any defeat.  That’s the confidence voiced in Psalm 48.  But, as Patrick Henry Reardon says, “Their presumptuous confidence in this illusion grew into an arrogant, almost magical audacity at odds with earlier warnings they had received from the prophet Micah.  Unrepentant sin inevitably invites the judgment of God, even on his chosen city (Micah 3:12).”

Then, more than a century later, Jeremiah repeated this warning when Nebuchadnezzar led Babylon against Jerusalem.  Reardon writes, “So strong and popular was their rash, magical presumption of Jerusalem’s invincibility that Jeremiah’s words fell largely on the deaf ears of a people not convinced of their need for conversion.  God would protect his holy city…, so why repent?”

So, it happened that Jerusalem fell and the Jews found themselves in Babylon, where they said in Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… our captors demanded song of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’  How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?’”  And how could this terrible thing happen, given the confidence of Psalm 48?  How could God allow such devastation to befall his beloved people?

The Jewish nation wrestled with that question for centuries, as have Christians (think of Paul in Romans 9-11).  There has been no agreement among Christians.  But as early as the late fourth Century AD, an Egyptian Father distinguished 4 meanings of the name Jerusalem in the Bible: historically, the city of the Jews; allegorically, the church of Christ; analogically, the heavenly city of God; and tropologically, as the soul of man.  In other words, Jerusalem is more than Jerusalem.

Again, this is a larger question than I can deal with here, but this Psalm does clearly warn us against identifying our country, our city, our cause with God himself.  Even the city in which God chose to dwell in Old Testament days finally fell because of unrepentant sin.  It happened to them; it has happened to one empire after another throughout history; and it can happen to us.  This Psalm does forbid not our singing, “God Bless America.”  Patriotism is a good thing.  But presuming that God is on our side, no matter what we do as a nation, is the kind of rash, magical presumption that can lead to ruin.

So, let us sing our national anthems, celebrate our freedoms, support our troops, and rejoice in our beautiful and powerful countries.  But let’s remember the beginning and end and middle of Psalm 48.  Our only hope is Yahweh, the God who entered history again and again to help his people.  Let us pledge our ultimate allegiance to the God who became one of those people so that all the world could be part of “the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, beautifully dressed for her husband… the wife of the Lamb (Revelations 21:2 and 9).”  “God makes her secure forever.”

Illustration Idea

The absolute certainty about the homeland being secure in Psalm 48:8 stands in stark contrast to our fearful preoccupation with security today in North America, particularly in America.  We talk about border security, go through airport security, and invest in internet security.  The fear of a security breach has us running for all manner of devices and procedures and structures that will keep us safe.  Psalm 48 calls us to the source of ultimate security.


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