On the surface, Psalm 87 appears enigmatic and confusing. Its mention of ancient places, particularly for the modern reader, is a bit baffling. What is going on here? Well, in fact, something glorious is being recorded—and something very relevant for the modern church. In fact, it is very relevant regardless of the age in which one lives.
John Newton wrote many hymns, and one of the better known was inspired by the words of this psalm. For those who believe in only singing the Psalms, perhaps they would even allow this one of Newton’s: “Glorious Things of You Are Spoken.”
Perhaps at first glance the new covenant believer will wonder at the value, or at least at the relevance, of such a psalm. After all, it speaks of “Zion” as the city of God, and most recognise this as a reference to Jerusalem. And they are correct. But the question is, which Jerusalem? And I answer, in the words of Galatians 4:26, that this is not primarily a reference to earthly Jerusalem, “but the Jerusalem above … which is the mother of us all.” The ultimate prophecy of this psalm is with reference to the New Jerusalem of the new covenant (Hebrews 12:22–24; Revelation 21:1–7); it is with reference to the Israel of God as noted by Paul (Galatians 6:16); the church of Jesus Christ. And so, once you grasp this, the psalm takes on a wonderful tone for us and we will find ourselves joining in the jubilantly fresh exclamations of v. 7: “All my springs are in You!”
So let’s spend some time examining this brief psalm. I am persuaded that we will find that, rather than it being a confusing enigma, it is an opportunity for celebratory edification.
God’s Affection for His People
The psalm begins describing God’s affection for His people: “His foundation is in the holy mountains. The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God! Selah” (vv. 1–3).
This prophetic, missiological psalm begins with a declaration of God’s love for Zion, Jerusalem, the city of God. It is this love that forms the backdrop for God’s love that extends to all of the nations. But there is also something else here that is significant.
The mention of Zion being spoken of “gloriously” by others whets our appetite for the privilege that the nations will one day enjoy. Further, it may also serve as an appetising invitation to those outside of Zion to enter.
Perhaps, therefore, we could summarise this opening stanza by the designation that Zion is God’s loved and therefore she is His lovely city. Just how loved? Just how lovely? Let’s look.
Zion, Located by God
The psalmist begins in v. 1: “His foundation is in the holy mountains.” The antecedent “Zion” must be supplied; thus, “The foundation of Zion is in the holy mountains.” The point is that God, and God alone, selected the location for Zion, and God, and God alone, established Zion to be His dwelling place in that location. We hear the sovereign grace of God extolled here.
Other passages in the Old Testament testify to God’s sovereign choice of Zion (see Psalm 132:13; Isaiah 14:32). It is for this reason that it is called “the city of the LORD of the hosts” and why the Jews called Zion “the city of our God” (Psalm 48:8).
God chose Zion (Jerusalem)—and He chose Israel of which Jerusalem would be the capital—as His dwelling place. There was nothing in “Jacob” (v. 2) that merited this privilege. No, it was all because of the sovereign grace of God. God graciously and powerfully carved out a place for His people by which He would accomplish His purpose. This is seen even more clearly in v. 2.
Zion, Loved by God
In v. 2 the psalmist continues: “The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.”
Zion, Jerusalem, is God’s most prized city; it is His pride and joy. He loves her above any “tabernacle city” in Israel (Gilgal and Bethel?). And this love is rooted in His sovereign and free grace.
Derek Kidner notes that the character of Zion is derived from God and that she is loved because God has chosen to love her. He writes that Zion is located in and identified with “‘hills of holiness’ because He is there; it is not the other way around.”1 As Leupold rightfully observes, “Her outstanding beauty consists in the fact that the Lord loves her.”2
The Scripture makes this point very clearly. Consider but one example. Speaking to Israel in the wilderness, the Lord said,
The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
The mention of Zion’s gates being loved by God speaks of God’s blessings upon His city. It speaks of God giving security to her. Allen Ross notes that the mention of “the gates of Zion” is a “poetic substitution for the city as the centre of social, economic and legal activity—the centre of life.”3 The point is that God loved Zion in establishing her and He continues to love her in sustaining her.
Zion, Lovely by God
The psalmist continues in v. 3: “Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God!” Most probably the ones saying such “glorious things” are both inside and outside of Zion. We think of the Queen of Sheba, who told Solomon concerning Jerusalem, and the kingdom it represented, that the half had not been told her. She was, at it were, breathless as she experience the glory of the city. Though we are not sure just when this psalm was written, it is probable that it was written around the time of the reign of King Hezekiah. If so, the city would not have been as glorious (architecturally, economically, militarily) as in Solomon’s day. Nevertheless, it would still have been “glorious.” Whenever a location has the blessing of God’s presence and providence it is glorious. And others will notice.
What made Jerusalem glorious was the presence of God more than the prosperity under Solomon. After all, what other city on earth could boast that God had chosen to reside with it? None. Though, of course, God is omnipresent, yet His special experiential location was in Zion. The glorious God of the universe chose to dwell with Israel in Zion. No wonder glorious things were spoken about her!
An Essential Selah
The section ends with the musical term implying a pause. We would do well to pause to make some relevant connections and applications.
As mentioned in the introduction, this psalm is prophetically Messianic. It envisions the future when the ultimate Zion, the Jerusalem above, the Israel of God, will come into history. In other words, what has been said about physical Jerusalem applies ultimately to spiritual Jerusalem, the church of Jesus Christ. We will see this more clearly later, but for now let’s make some important connections.
We should pause to consider the sovereign grace of God in locating us in the hills of His holiness. We who have been saved have been “delivered … from the power of darkness and conveyed … into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13). God chose us before the foundation of the world. He located us in His Son so that, when Jesus died, we died with Him and, when He arose, we were resurrected with Him to newness of life. Further, when Jesus ascended, we ascended with Him and are now located in the heavenlies in Christ. What a glorious location!
Dwell upon this the next time you are tempted to despair.
I was recently having a bit of a pity party, to which I alone was invited. I was thinking about some things happening in my family and was feeling decidedly down. But then I turned to Colossians 1:1–3 and my soul rejoiced in the truths and privileges of the gospel.
But second, we are loved by God’s free and sovereign grace. God demonstrated His love to us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). The Bible makes very clear that God’s love for sinners is both undeserved and unconditional. We deserve nothing but everlasting wrath in hell. This is what makes God’s love for those whom He chooses to make a part of Zion so glorious. And when we grasp this, we gain perspective as we face difficulties in life. Some of my dad’s last words to me, spoken over the phone two weeks before he died, in response to my question “How are you doing?” were, with the sound of appreciation in his voice, “I’m doing better than I deserve.” What a gospel way to live—and to die.
Finally, we who are the Israel of God are blessed to be loved by God to such an extent that we are lovely to God.
Paul wrote that those who are saved are chosen “in Him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). We might paraphrase this as, “chosen in love to be lovely.” And we should live like it. We should live in such a way that our surrounding culture views us as lovely, or in the words of our text, as glorious. In an appropriate way, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ should be the envy of others. Oh that we would have such a testimony! Oh that those outside of Zion would look at us and desire what we have! Not because of us but because of the Lord who loves our gates.
Economically, we should be the envy of the world, not as defined by the spiritually vacuous “prosperity” gospel, but rather by the contentment that we have regardless of the condition of our bank account.
Relationally, we should be the envy of the world. Our relationships with each other in the church, our relationships with our husbands and wives and children and parents, should be glorious because they are godly.
When it comes to a sense of security, we should be the envy of the world—not that crime and hardships never come our way, but rather because our trust in the Lord and our experience of His overwhelming love should be such that others see us with a peace that makes no sense as far as the world is concerned (see John 14:27; Philippians 4:7).
God’s Adoption of His People
In the second major section of this psalm we read of the adoption of God’s people.
I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to those who know Me; behold, O Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia: “This one was born there.” And of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her; and the Most High Himself shall establish her.” The Lord will record, when He registers the peoples: “This one was born there.” Selah.
The psalmist now records something very remarkable. In fact, to an ethnocentric, nationalist Jew, it might seem offensive to the point of being blasphemous. The writer identifies those who share in the glories of Zion, and it is not only Jews. No, Gentiles are included as well. And, by the way, not merely Gentiles in general but rather Gentiles who were, at some point at least, some of the fiercest enemies of the Jews.
This passage is a wonderful prophecy of what was all along God’s purpose for Israel: to be the vehicle of gospel blessings to all of the nations (Genesis 12:1–3). It is a remarkable passage, highlighting God’s boundless love as expressed in saving grace.
When speaking of the effect of the atoning work of Jesus, we sometimes speak of “limited atonement.” We use this language to speak of those for whom Jesus died and concerning those who will experience this redemption applied. But a better phrase is “particular redemption,” for when it comes to the extent of Christ’s work it is extensive: It is for all of the nations. There is not much limitation there! This passage is evidence of this long before the incarnation.
God Acknowledges and is Acknowledged by Adversaries
The Lord says, “I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to those who know Me; Behold O Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia.”
The word “Rahab” means “to behave proudly,” and it pictures one who is arrogant in an insolent and even fierce way. Perhaps we could say “fiercely proud.” In Isaiah 30:7, this word is used as a euphemism for Egypt. The prophecy is that Egyptians will one day be considered as citizens of Zion. But the amazement has only begun, for it is said that Babylon will also be included as welcomed members of this glorious city.
The words “those who know Me” mean far more than merely a casual theological cognisance of who Yahweh is. Rather, they will know God in a saving way.
He then mentions Philistia and Tyre, nations or city states that were often thorns in the side of Israel. They too will be included among the gloriously loved inhabitants of Zion. God will gladly and graciously dwell with these!
Finally, Ethiopia (Cush) is mentioned, and this seems to indicate that God’s glorious grace will extend to the farthest reaches. God will bring in representatives of every nation, globally, into His heavenly Jerusalem. The Israel of God will be multi-ethnic beyond Israel’s wildest imagination. That’s how God’s grace is.
It has been observed that the nations mentioned in this passage literally surrounded Israel. From the south (Egypt) to the north (Babylon) and from the East (Philistia, Tyre) and to the West (Ethiopia), Israel was enclosed by these nations. Historically, they were seen as a surrounding threat, but now they are prophesied to be brought into the very city of God, not as adversaries but rather as glorious associates.
In summary, the prophecy is that these peoples will be viewed by God, and by the inhabitants of Zion, as native-born. Though at one time they were on the outside, and even hostile to what was happening on the inside, by God’s power they will become insiders with all of the rights and privileges of those who were naturally born there. What a beautiful picture of adoption; what a glorious picture of gospel adoption: Those who by natural birth are estranged from God are by the new birth accepted as every bit a member of God’s family (Romans 8:15; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5).
We might say that the inhabitants of the City of God are, quite literally, “together by adoption.” This is further seen in v. 5: “And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her.’” In other words, Zion will become such a place that it will be viewed as a mother. We are probably correct to conclude that Paul had this psalm in mind when he wrote in Galatians 4:26 of “Jerusalem above” as “the mother of us all.”
God, the Father of us All
But who is doing this work of the new birth? The rest of the stanza tells us: “‘And the Lord Most High Himself shall establish her.’ The Lord will record, when He registers the peoples: ‘This one was born there.’ Selah.” That is, “Now, pause and think about that!”
We learn from this verse that God is the Father of all whom He has registered in heaven. The picture here is clearly that of God the Father taking responsibility for the rebirth (the new birth) of those who were on the outside who are now on the inside. And everyone whose name He has recorded in heaven is His child. He is the Father of all whom He chooses by grace to be a member of His Zion.
The New Testament speaks of Christians as citizens of God’s kingdom (Philippians 3:20; Ephesians 2:19).
Paul spoke about God demolishing the wall of ethnic separation between Jew and Gentile by the powerful work of the gospel (Ephesians 2). And here in this psalm we see a prophecy of this mystery, which will be revealed in the new covenant era.
We should be encouraged by this prophecy. We should realise that we are living in these very days. We should rejoice in the gospel. We should be persuaded to be done with any and all forms of ethnocentrism and nationalism.
But further, and this perhaps is the rightful emphasis of this psalm, we should take great comfort in the power of God to save the outcasts, to save those who currently are on the outside. God is able to save the vilest offender who truly believes, and they can believe—and will only believe—by the power of the Most High God. The gospel is “the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16). The same gospel that turned Saul to Paul changes lives today.
I recently read Fearless, the biographical account of navy seal Adam Brown. Brown was raised in a good, hardworking family. His parents were not believers, but they were good, moral citizens. Growing up, he stood up for and defended the weak.
When he was in his late teens he started abusing alcohol and using crack cocaine. He began stealing from his parents to fund his activity, and his parents would often find him in rundown crack houses. He swore he would get right, but he couldn’t overcome the addiction. Eventually, his parents, at the end of their rope, vowed to turn him into the police the next time he committed a crime.
When he stole his dad’s car and some money from the family business, his father the sheriff and turned him in. He was arrested and jailed.
About that time his parents had started attending church, realising that they needed help. They asked their pastor to visit their son. He gladly obliged, and to cut a long story short, Brown came to faith in Christ.
When he was released from prison, he went to a program called Teen Challenge, which helped addicts overcome their addiction. He did really well, but eventually he fell back into old habits. He struggled for a long time with addiction. One day, he decided that he needed some structure in his life and so he enlisted for the navy seals. An friend’s father was an admiral who, putting his career on the line, recommended Brown for service.
Brown became part of the elite force that eventually tracked and killed Osama bin Laden. He was killed in combat in 2010.
As I read the last thirty or so pages of the book, I literally read them with tears. I’ve read a lot of biographies, but this was perhaps the most vivid example of the power of God I have yet read, and it moved me to tears. What a wonderful example it was of a man whose life was a wreck, but whom God picked up and declared, “This one is born here.”
Keep praying for your unsaved loved ones. Keep praying for the unreached peoples. Keep investing in the mission of reaching the Rahabites and Babylonians. Keep proclaiming the gospel to your friends and family and fellow workers and students and neighbours. But also, keep loving all those who are in Zion. Move out of your demographic comfort zone. Embrace the gospel of adoption. Live it out.
God’s Amazed People
Finally, we read of God’s amazed people—amazed in response to his sovereign grace. “Both the singers and the players on instruments say, ‘All my springs are in you’” (v. 7).
This is a beautiful ending to a beautiful psalm. But when you consider all that has preceded, it is not surprising. The psalm has exulted in God’s affection for His people, in God’s adoption of His people, and so now it ends with God’s people displaying affection for Him and for His people. I believe that this is the main emphasis of this closing verse.
The phrase, “All my springs are in you” indicates that God’s people have great appreciation for their privileges because of God’s grace, and therefore they see that Zion is not only “a place … of stability and glory already described, but of joy and freshness.”4
It pictures Zion as a place of constant refreshing as is revealed in Psalm 46:4: “There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.” Some also see in this a reference to the ever-flowing and overflowing grace of God, which flows into the world by the church’s gospel ministry as depicted in Ezekiel 47. In that passage, we see the waters of God’s gospel grace flowing from the threshold of the temple and reviving the desert. Surely this is the privileged purpose of those loved and adopted by God. As the new covenant temple (Ephesians 2:19–22; 1 Peter 2:4–6), we are blessed by the gospel to spread the gospel. Kirkpatrick comments, “Under the protection and blessing of the Sovereign Ruler of the world she grows ever stronger and nobler as each fresh nation joins the universal kingdom of God.”5
In the context, the “springs” or “fountains” are in Zion. Certainly, they are in the God of the city, but the city is the place where they connect to God. This is important, for it helps us to appreciate the privilege and power of church membership. Since God works through the church, we need to make sure that our fountains are well founded there. I understand that the church is not the ultimate Zion (cf. Hebrews 12; Revelation 21) but a foretaste of it. For this reason, we should heed these words:
Even in Old Testament days the greatest saints did not set their affections on earthly Jerusalem alone, but loved it rather only as a symbol of the greater glories they knew they would enjoy in heaven. Should we not say that believers today can love their local church in nearly the same way?6
In conclusion, let us learn from this psalm that, if we have Jesus Christ, then we truly have all that we need. As Boice wrote,
May I suggest that if you acknowledge that “all your fountains are in God,” as they truly are, then you will have joy in your salvation and, what is more, you will be encouraged to keep on serving God, since you know that he will sustain your effort. You will know that “he who began a good work in you will carry in on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).7
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:314. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 624. ↩
- Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2013), 2:794. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 2:316. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 522. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:710. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 2:714. ↩