YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 3 and July 9)
Psalm 48 is often called a ‘song of Zion’. This small collection of psalms, each of which focuses on the city of Jerusalem, consists of Psalms 46, 84, 87, 121 and 122 in addition to today’s Psalm 48. Psalm 48 is closest to Psalm 46 in many ways besides just placement in the collection. In language and imagery it builds on Psalm 46. There are many verbal links between them: ‘to be glad’ (46:4; 48:11); ‘the ends of the earth’ (46:9; 48:10); and certain ideas are carried on through synonyms – joy (47:1; 48:2) and exaltation (46:10; 47:9). There are also some contrasts between them. The city of Jerusalem, Zion, is described in much more detail in Psalm 48, especially in 48:1b, and 12-13.
Of course, there is no small amount of exaggeration in this description of Jerusalem. In terms of geography the hill on which the city is situated is not particularly high (v. 1b), nor were its ancient towers and ramparts of a size or magnitude that kings would be panicked by the mere sight of them (vv. 4-7, 12-13). The city was, in fact, not easy for attacking armies to overcome as the episode concerning David’s conquest of it indicates (2 Sam 5:6-8, omitted from today’s Old Testament reading). But this was neither because of size, nor constructed defenses, rather because of strategic location. In short, the language of the city’s grandeur in the psalm is not about its physical advantages and size. Many other cities in the ancient Near East would have made Jerusalem look like a small regional centre, which in fact it was. The grand statements about the city in Psalm 48 and elsewhere were not statements of physical realities as much as theological convictions.
The city is described in several places in the psalm as ‘the city of God’ (e.g. vv. 1a, c, 8). The city is not so much the focus as what it represents, the kingship of God established to the ends of the earth against the threat of all that would oppose that (vv. 4-8). The city symbolizes the ‘sure defence’ that is ‘our God’ (vv. 3, 14). It witnesses to the steadfast love of God (v. 9) and to God’s eternal nature (v. 8). We must remember in this circumstance that cities in ancient times were important and impressive places giving security in times of trouble and providing centres of public festivity. They would take time to build and maintain and to many would have seemed eternal. The psalmist employs in this psalm and Psalm 47 a phrase from the old mythic legend of combat in creation (cf. 47:3 and 48:1c). The phrase ‘Mount Zion, in the far north’ echoes the place of dwelling of the gods in ancient Near Eastern myths, ‘the far north’. All of this affirms that the city is, above all, a witness to the presence of God with his people. Of course, as time will tell, such assurances based on worldly realities can be abused and come to represent a distorted view of their initial significance. This happens with Jerusalem and its temple at the time of exile when many thought the presence of the temple in Jerusalem guaranteed the protection of God against adversaries. In fact the message of Jeremiah is that such ‘guarantees’ are not eternal when God has an issue with his people (see Jer 7:1-15).
It is interesting that in today’s Old Testament reading, 2 Sam 5:9-10, the city is called the ‘city of David’ not the ‘city of God’ as in the psalm. The reading in v. 10 makes it clear that David was able to take the city and strengthen it precisely because God was with him. It is a tribute to the honour given to David that his name is attached to the same city that bears the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is a reminder that what bears God’s name in our community is also closely tied to what bears the marks of human activity, for good or ill. It witnesses to the degree to which this same God gets involved in human affairs and lets his ‘name’ be associated with them, all the time working toward human redemption.
Preachers this week could note the image of Zion, Jerusalem, in the psalm and how it stands in contrast to our own images of cities in the modern world – as places of hustle, isolation, often polluting and polluted while at the same time citadels of learning, culture and national life. While they may not be symbols of divine steadfastness or security any more they are still the places where God is present and at work.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:
Verses 9-10 can be adapted for use as a call to worship:
We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.Old Testament reading: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with victory.
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