George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalm 48

1. Structure

1- 3.
The city of our God
4- 7.
The enemy
The redeemed

2. Historical setting

Without any question, this psalm is about the glory of Zion being saved by her God, when He destroyed the vaunted Assyrian invaders. Therefore, notice the similarities between this psalm and Isaiah 33 (“Woe to the spoiler” — i.e. Sennacherib):

Psalm 48

Isaiah 33
The sinners in Zion are afraid
Ships of Tarshish
Neither shall gallant ship pass thereby
The towers thereof
Where is he that counteth the towers?
Tell it to the generation following
Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities
Our guide, even unto (or, beyond) death
He will save us

Mount Zion on the sides of the north. Isa. 14:13 is about this same event: The king of Babylon (i.e. in this case, of Assyria also) boasts that he will sit “upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north”. This might mean: (a) the camp of the Assyrians was on the north side of the city; (b) the temple was on the north side of Jerusalem; or (c) the temple was just north of the king’s palace, as a kind of protection for the royal house.

The great king. But, in contrast to Sennacherib’s blasphemous boasts (2 Kings 18:19), it is God, and only God, who is the Great King.
God is known in her palaces. An allusion to the righteousness of king Hezekiah, who — assisted by Isaiah — always kept his God at the forefront of his reign.

For a refuge: s.w. 46:7,11. God is pictured as a refuge in 2 Chron. 32:7,8.
The kings. The plural implies that, like Napoleon with his generals, so also Sennacherib made his favorites rulers over provinces. Or, this plural may refer to the many, like Arab chieftains, who would rather help the Assyrian than be plundered by him. Compare Psa. 83:8, where “Assur” is linked with the Arab powers invading Israel.

Passed by together. Or, crossed over (i.e. the boundaries of Israel, as an invading force): cp. the same verb in Judg. 11:29 and 2 Kings 8:21. “They came on together” (RSV).
They saw, but the record does not say what they saw, for the Shekinah Glory of God overwhelmed all their powers of description.

They hasted away. A Passover word (Exod. 12:11). This deliverance almost certainly happened at Passover: Isa. 26:20,21; 30:29; 31:5.
Fear took hold upon them there, and pain, as of a woman in travail. The very effect these Assyrians were accustomed to producing in others was now their own experience.
Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish. Earlier Shalmanezer V had come against Tyre with a fleet of sixty ships; but the Tyrians, with only twelve ships, routed them and thus made themselves a great reputation (Jos. Ant. 9:14:2). But now Tyre was helping Sennacherib, and therefore paid for this disloyalty to Israel by having its proud fleet smashed by the hurricane of the Lord. This was precisely what had happened years before to the eastern fleet of Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:48,49; 2 Chron. 20:36,37; cp. Ezek. 27:26).

With an east wind. Here “wind” (ruach) means “Spirit” (Isa. 37:7, s.w.).
As we have heard, so have we seen. The people of Jerusalem, awestruck, saw the wreck of the Assyrian camp (vv. 4-6). But what did they hear?

The Lord of hosts = The God of the Cherubim (Isa. 37:16).

God will establish it for ever, just as He will establish (s.w. v. 25) David’s house and kingdom (2 Sam. 7:13,16,24,25). So mount Zion “shall not be moved” (46:5; 125:1).
Thy lovingkindness... in the midst of thy temple: Isa. 37:14.
According to thy name. Which name? Shaddai, the “Destroyer”?

Praise unto the ends of the earth. “Thus the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria, and from the hand of all other, and guided them on every side. And many brought gifts unto the Lord to Jerusalem, and presents to Hezekiah king of Judah: so that he (i.e. the Lord, not Hezekiah) was magnified in the sight of all nations from thenceforth” (2 Chron. 32:22,23).

Thy right hand. The king’s palace was at God’s “right hand”, being immediately south of the Temple.

Is full of righteousness. Isa. 41:10 refers to this: “I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”
Let the daughters of Judah be glad. Literally, the maidens of the land singing a song of triumph, as in Exod. 15:20,21 and 1 Sam. 18:6,7. Or, figuratively, the plundered cities and villages of the land (Isa. 36:1; 46 in number according to Sennacherib himself) now rejoice after being restored to peace and prosperity. These satellite settlements are called “daughters” because Jerusalem (where Judah reigns) is the “mother” (this figure of speech is quite common: Psa. 87:2-6; Isa. 54:1-5; 66:7,8,13; Gal. 4:26).
Tell the towers thereof. Sennacherib had had his experts going about Zion, assessing the quality of its defenses (Isa. 33:18). Now Zion’s people glory in its impregnability, not because of its walls and towers, but because the Lord of hosts is there.
Consider. From this Hebrew word Pisgah is derived. As Moses, standing on Pisgah, viewed the Land of Promise from afar (Deut. 34:1-4), so now the faithful take pride in their city and their God.

Her palaces. Better: ‘her wonderful temple’ (an intensive plural). The same word occurs in v. 3 and in 122:7: “(May) prosperity (be) within thy palaces.

To the generation following. In the spirit of 78:4-8, but also with special reference to Manasseh, not yet born. (But, alas, he seems to have taken little heed.)
He will be our guide even unto death. Hezekiah knew precisely how many years he had to live, and meant to dedicate every one of them to his God. As Moses stood on Pisgah (see v. 13 above), or Nebo, and surveyed the Promised Land (Deut. 3:27; 34:1-4), yet knowing he was soon to die — so Hezekiah stood on the “mountain peak” of rejoicing, viewing the Promised Land delivered from its oppressors, yet knowing that his own years were severely numbered.

3. Messianic fulfillment

In the Last Days there will be an assault on God’s people and on God’s city which will initially succeed. Zechariah 14:1,2 is explicit regarding this. Then, in the extremity of Israel’s need, Messiah comes to rescue people and city, and to manifest himself as King of the Jews (vv. 3-11). Now Jerusalem is truly “the city of the great King” (Psa. 48:2; Matt. 5:35) and the city in which He has chosen to dwell (Psa. 132:13,14; Joel 3:17-23; Isa. 2:2-4; Ezek. 48:35). Before long, in fulfillment of Psalm 2 and Ezekiel 38, a latter-day “Assyrian” comes with a confederacy from the north, only to be destroyed by divine power (cp. Mic. 5:4-7). This is the greater counterpart to the prophecies in Psalms and Isaiah about the destruction of Sennacherib’s army. Psalm 48 needs to be reconsidered against this impending scenario.

Note especially that there are marked correspondences (to be expected!) between this psalm and Psalm 2:

Psalm 48

Psalm 2
City of God, my holy mountain
Kings gather themselves
Troubled/vexed (s.w.)
Ends of the earth

God is known in her palaces (citadels: RSV) for a refuge. The deliverance is a divine deliverance.
The picture of modern military might reduced to helplessness, as of a woman in travail (cp. 1 Thes. 5:3; Matt. 24:8; Mark 13:8), is very impressive. Of course, a necessary item in the assertion of divine authority must be an exposure of the futility of human cleverness.
The ships of Tarshish. Tarshish was a son of Javan (Gen. 10:4), a name which came to refer to the Phoenicians, with which Tyre was connected. The name may have come in later days to refer to any seafaring merchant power — either to the east or the west of Israel (cp. Jonah 1:3; Ezek. 27:12; 1 Kings 9:26; 10:22; 2 Chron. 9:21). Attempts to identify Tarshish with a single marine power — such as Britain in earlier days, or America in later times — always seem to run afoul of at least some of the Biblical evidence. (For a more technical discussion, see L.G. Sargent, “Tarshish — Once More”, The Christadelphian, Sept. 1964, pp. 401-403.)

That Tarshish represents a latter-day power or powers is evident from Ezek. 38:13 and Psa. 72:10. “Tarshish” appears in Ezekiel as an ally of “Sheba and Dedan” (Arab powers: see Whittaker, The Time of the End, pp. 58-60), to be broken by God’s power (here; Isa. 2:11-17; 23:14). But later it will bring gifts to Christ (Psa. 72:10), including “thy sons” (Isa. 60:9).
God will establish her. And it must be seen that this is an act of God. In this new order there will be no glory in the works of men.
We are the Lord’s redeemed, the Lord’s true temple, experiencing now more than ever his lovingkindness, in the final fulfillment of His promises.
Thy praise unto the ends of the earth. How else can this be, except through open demonstration of the authority and power of a King of Kings?

Thy right hand is full of righteousness. Here is a strange expression which only becomes meaningful when this divine King is seen as being a King-Priest, coming from the presence of God with upraised hand to impart blessing and forgiveness (Num. 6:23-27).
Be glad, because of thy judgments. Gladness, as in the prototype, because the might of God has been exercised against human pride. The world is so far gone in evil that its education in godliness must necessarily begin with judgment. “For when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:9). A rebellious child has to be taught first to respect authority. Then, and only then, does obedience follow.
Towers... bulwarks... palaces. The glory of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10-23) is something to marvel at. (Compare also the description in Heb. 12:22,23.) But to what extent this description should be taken literally rather than (or in addition to) figuratively, may safely be left to the future. Imaginative designs of the city and temple of the age to come lean far too much on supposed architectural expertise and far too little on solid Scriptural exposition.
That ye may tell it to the generation following. As children playing in the streets of Jerusalem (Zech. 8:5) grow up, their spiritual education through the past experiences of their city will be all-important.
For ever and ever. Even the phrase unto death can be read (by a small textual change) “for ever” (as LXX, RSV, NEB). Or, as Delitzsch: “beyond death”. Christ has destroyed that “which hath the power of death” — so that his brethren need no longer fear the great enemy (Heb. 2:14,15; 1 Cor. 15:57; Rom. 8:37,38).

4. Other details

His holiness: cp. s.w. in 46:4 and 47:8.
Beautiful for situation. The last word may mean “shaking”, referring to (a) the earthquake (46:2,3) in the great theophany, both past and future; or (b) the offering of sacrifice (a fairly common usage). The RSV has, instead, “elevation” — referring to the lifting up (physically? or spiritually? or both?) of mount Zion (Isa. 2:2; Zech. 14:4,5,10). Elsewhere the phrase has been translated: “eminently beautiful”, i.e. beautiful above all others!

The joy of the whole earth: cp. 47:2,7; Lam. 2:15.
The ships of Tarshish: cp. Rev. 18:17,18.

An east wind is always associated with destruction: Gen. 41:6,23-27; Exod. 10:13; Job 27:21; Isa. 27:8; Ezek. 17:10; 27:26; Jon. 4:8 (cp. D. Baly, Geography of the Bible, p. 52).

5. The Destruction of Sennacherib’s Host

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen.
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay wither’d and strewn.

For the Angel of Death went forth on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d;
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there roll’d not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Assur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

                George Gordon Byron

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