George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 3

Psalm 87

1. Title

For the sons of Korah: This is the eleventh of the 12 “Korah” psalms (42-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88) — which all point to the times of Hezekiah: see especially the notes on Psalms 42/43. The “Korah” psalms are characterized by their high regard for the service of the Temple of the Lord (see Psa. 84:10 and, here, vv. 2 and 7).

The subscription, Mahalath Leannoth: Mahalath (cp. Psa. 52) means “dancings” (Song 7:1; Exod. 15:20; 32:19; Judg. 11:34; 21:21), and recalls — in Psalm 87’s context of divine worship — David’s dancing before the ark when it was brought to Zion (2 Sam. 6:5,14,15; 1 Chron. 15:16,25-29; cp. v. 7 here). Leannoth signifies “shoutings” — referring to the chanting songs of the dancers (cp. v. 7 again).

It is possible that the great deliverance of Jerusalem (and Hezekiah) from Sennacherib’s host (v. 7) was the occasion of festive singing and dancing, and that this in turn was reminiscent of a similar celebration at the time when David first brought the ark to Zion.

2. Historical setting

Everything about this psalm suggests the unique experiences of king Hezekiah.

His foundations (yesudah) is in the holy mountains. Isaiah 28:16, about the great altar of burnt-offering (see H.A. Whittaker, Bible Studies, pp. 111-116), has the same Hebrew root. The dual references to Selah in this psalm (vv. 3,6) confirm such an identification.
The gates of Zion emphasize the temple rather more than the city.

The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Here “Jacob” distinguishes the separatist northern tribes. There is also probable allusion to the massive Assyrian destruction of cities throughout the Land — in all, “forty and six fenced cities”.

Dwellings is the Hebrew mishkanim, the word used for the Tabernacle in the wilderness. As Korah put his rebellion on its course by setting up a rival tabernacle of worship, so also the northern kingdom had set up its “pseudo-sanctuaries”! These dwellings were the “high places” often referred to in Bible history. Contrast the “holy mountains” (plural: denoting either the several mountains of Jerusalem, or the one great mountain of Zion) of v. 1; note the scornfully dismissive force of “all the dwellings of Jacob”.
Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. And plenty of those were spoken by Hezekiah’s contemporary, Isaiah: 2:2-4; 12:6; 24:23; 35:10; 49:14-16; 51:3,11,16; 52:1,2,9; 54:1,2; 59:20, 21; 62:6,7; 65:18,19; etc.
I will make mention. This Hebrew word is nearly always used in association with Yahweh/Jehovah, the Covenant Name of God, His Memorial (v. 6). Here, then, it may be better to read: I will bring to remembrance (i.e., the Name of Yahweh), O Rahab (Egypt) and Babylon. These two were the outstanding rivals of Assyria, whose army was destroyed so sensationally outside Jerusalem. So this verse may be linked with 2 Chron. 32:23 and Isa. 39 — in fulfillment of Psa. 86:9 — as those nations now give (at least nominal) allegiance to the God of Israel and Hezekiah (cp. Psa. 68:31 also). In Sennacherib’s campaign Philistia and Tyre had been compelled to give support to the Assyrian campaign (Taylor prism). Now they too, apparently, give glory to the God of Israel. (Surely it is significant, in this context, that Assyria is not mentioned.)

This man was born there. Is there any special virtue about birth in Jerusalem? Consider, over the centuries, how many villains first saw the light of day there. But if this is read as meaning new-born there, then all is clear: Hezekiah, as good as dead, was given a new lease of life there, an experience which contributes much towards making him one of the finest types of Christ in the Old Testament (see Psa. 80, Par. 4). No wonder this psalmist (Hezekiah himself?) mentions this new “birth” three times (vv. 4,5,6). And, furthermore, through the reformation of this fine king many an apostate man of Israel came to a new spiritual life there.
And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her. Or, as the LXX reads: “A man shall say, Zion is my mother”. Paul corroborates this with his allusion to this verse in Gal. 4:26:

“But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (cp. also Isa. 54:1-3,13; 66:7,8,13).

The apostle Paul was both “free born” naturally — as a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:27,28), and “free born” spiritually —as a citizen of Zion! (A city and a woman are interchangeable also in Rev. 21:2,9,10 — where John looks for a “bride” and sees instead a city!)

The Highest (Elyon) himself shall establish her — i.e., for ever! Zion is the true “eternal city” (Psa. 48:8; 125:1,2)! This verb echoes the name of one of the great brazen pillars in the temple: Jachin. It is also a key word in the great promise made to David:

“And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom... And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever” (2 Sam. 7:12,16).

The divine name here — Elyon — often comes in a Gentile context. It was used also by Melchizedek, the king-priest in Salem, or Jerusalem, who blessed Abram after his return from the slaughter of kings who came from Assyria/Babylon (Gen. 14:18-20).
The Lord shall count, when he writeth up the people. “The Lord records, as he registers the people...” (RSV). An inspired history of this period was written by Isaiah (2 Chron. 26:22).
As well the singers as the players on instruments (or dancers: RSV). Compare the songs of Hezekiah: Isa. 38:20 (“my songs”).

All my springs are in thee. That is, “my most important spring is IN thee.” Up to the moment of angelic judgment upon Sennacherib’s army, Jerusalem had to rely on the channel of water brought into the city through Hezekiah’s conduit (2 Kings 20:20). So, quite literally, the water of this spring was in Zion! It was fitting therefore that there be special reference to this in the celebration of deliverance; hence also Isa. 12:3-6 (in v. 3 there, “wells” is s.w. as “springs” here) and Psa. 46:4 (“city of God”, as in v. 3 here). “The waters of Zion flow through my heart” (N.P. Holt).

3. Messianic reference

The emphasis now is two-fold: on the spiritual (symbolic) New Jerusalem, and also on Jerusalem restored and glorified as the city of the great king (Psa. 48:1,2; Matt. 5:35).

His (Yahweh’s) foundation, in the building of His spiritual temple, is Jesus:

“The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner” (Psa. 118:22; cp. Isa. 28:16 in Par. 2; Matt. 21:42 / Mark 12:10 / Luke 20:17; 1 Pet. 2:6-8; Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20-22).
The Lord loveth the gates of Zion. Compare Rev. 21:10-14, with its wall, and its gates, and its foundations (with the apostles’ names, as in v. 6 here).

Jacob here (instead of “Israel”) hints again at the unregenerate part of the nation.
Selah (as in v. 6) has special emphasis on sacrifice of thanksgiving at God’s altar and re-consecration to His service (Psalms Studies, Book #1, Introduction). On the third day — the day of his resurrection — it is probable that Jesus also ascended to heaven, displaying in the presence of his Father the tokens of his perfect sacrifice (see John 20:17, and note the present tense: “I ascend”).
I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia. Here are Gentile nations being brought to understand the Covenant Name of God (see note in Par. 2):

“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning ... Jerusalem. And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:1-3).

“Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces (wealth, mg.) of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought” (60:11).

This man was born there. Where else but in Zion could God’s gift of immortality be bestowed? To associate this ultimate blessing of God with Sinai is both un-Biblical and unseemly; surely John Thomas (Eureka, vol. 2, p. 553) is mistaken on this point. See the discussion on the judgment seat of Christ in Psalms Studies, Psa 68, Par. 8. Also, additionally, see Psa. 102:18-22; Isa. 4:3; 40:9; 51:16; and Matt. 27:53 (a foreshadowing).

  The prophet Joel spoke of the deliverance to be found in Zion and Jerusalem, for all who call upon (or call themselves by?) the name of the Lord (Joel 2:32, cited in Acts 2:16-21). It is surely appropriate that some of those who heard and responded to the preaching of Peter on that day had come from Egypt (v. 10 there; v. 4 here).
This (man) and that man was born in her. This great salvation is an individual matter and not to be earned or received by virtue of descent or nation or even by belonging to the right religious community.
The Lord shall count, when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there. This is just as in Isa. 4:3 and 44:5:

“One shall say, I am the Lord’s; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of the Lord” (contrast Jer. 17:13 and Ezek. 13:9).

God’s “book of remembrance”, or “book of life”, is alluded to in Psa. 69:28; 139:16; Mal. 3:16; Exod. 32:32; Dan. 12:1; Phil. 4:3; Luke 10:20; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 21:27; and 22:19.
All my springs (fountains: RV) are in thee. Springs or fountains produce “living”, or flowing, waters — which symbolize the Word of Life (Isa. 12:3; 55:1,2). Only Jesus can provide the water of eternal life, such that — if a man drink thereof — he will never thirst again (John 4:14; 7:37,38; Rev. 21:6; 22:1,17). Out of the side of Christ the smitten Rock there flowed out water (Exod. 17:6,7; John 19:34; 1 Cor. 10:3,4), which became at last a fountain for the purifying of all uncleanness (Zech. 13:1; cp. with 14:8). “For with thee [and with thee only!] is the fountain of life” (Psa. 36:9).

4. Other details

The gates of Zion. It was through these gates that the ark entered the Holy City (Psa. 24:7-10), and through the same gates that Christ himself will enter (Luke 21:28)!

The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob (Psa. 132:13,14; cp. 2:6). That is, more than all the earlier dwelling places of His ark: i.e., Shiloh (78:60; 1 Sam. 1:3), Bethshemesh (1 Sam. 6:13), Kirjath-jearim (7:1), Gibeah (2 Sam. 6:3,4), and the house of Obed-edom (6:10-12).
Rahab signifies “braggart” or “insolent one”. It is a code name for Egypt (Psa. 89:10; Isa. 30:7; 51:9).
Only God can count those who are (spiritually and eternally) born in Zion, for they are a multitude which no man could number (Rev. 7:9)!
RSV: Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.” Zion and “players on instruments” (harps) and singers are all found together in Rev. 14:1-3:

“And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sang as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth” (cp. Psa. 68:24,25; Heb. 12:22,23).

“The harp is an instrument used in giving thanks, in rejoicing, and in praising. To ‘hang the harp upon the willows’, indicates great tribulation and distress... The absence of music shows that all joy has departed from a people; while its presence indicates the reverse. A harper harping with his harp is a saint, who has been judged according to what is written, and rewarded according to his works, and thereby admitted into the glorious company of the redeemed. The first thing he does when he finds himself on the mount of Yahweh’s holiness, is not to celebrate battles to be fought, and victories to be won; but to show forth the praises, the worthiness, and loving kindness of him, who called him out from among the worshipers of the beast, and placed him within ‘the Circle of the Throne’ ” (Eureka, vol. 3, p. 388).

5. Postscripts

Does our birthplace really matter,
        Palace, cottage, mansion, slum,
Village silence, city’s chatter,
        Life was sown, and life did come?

Yes, it does, it really matters,
        Though born great, or born much less,
We can change our earthly tatters
        Into robes of righteousness.

There’s a birth we can rely on,
        Born in Christ our Lord anew.
Choose your birthplace — make it Zion!
        Endless life ’twill bring to you.

N.P. Holt

Most glorious things are spoken,
        Jerusalem, of thee,
To all God’s saints the token
        Of love and liberty:
Who shall thy hill ascending,
        From pain and sorrow free,
From sin and death’s contending,
        The living glory be?

Who shall, the white stone bearing,
        His secret name behold,
And robes of whiteness wearing,
        Come forth as purged gold?
He who has hands of cleanness,
        Whose heart abides in truth;
Whose soul abhors to leanness
        The vanities of youth.

He shall receive the blessing
        Of Yahweh’s saving grace;
And, righteousness possessing,
        Shall see Him face to face.
Yes, wondrous things are spoken,
        Jerusalem, of thee:
The oath cannot be broken,
        And we its joys shall see.

David Brown

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
He, whose word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for His own abode:
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal Love,
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove:
Who can faint, while such a river
Ever flows their thirst t’assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age.

Round each habitation hovering,
See the cloud and fire appear
For a glory and a covering,
Showing that the Lord is near!
Thus deriving from their banner
Light by night and shade by day;
Safe they feed upon the manna
Which he gives them when they pray.

Bless’d inhabitant of Zion,
Wash’d in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their hopes rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God.
’Tis his Love each person raises
Over Self to reign as King,
And, as priests, his solemn praises
They for a thank-offering bring.

Saviour, if of Zion’s city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

John Newton
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