How Great Thou Art (Psalm 48:1–14)

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Doug Van Meter - 25 January 2009

How Great Thou Art (Psalm 48:1–14)

A Trilogy of Encouragement

Psalm 48 is the final piece in this inspired Trilogy of Encouragement. “The theme of the Psalm,” writes A. F. Kirkpatrick, is “the greatness of Jehovah and the glory of His city.” And to put it in the words of a well known hymn, its theme is simply, “How Great Thou Art.” When we realise the greatness of God then truly we can be encouraged.

From Series: "A Trilogy of Encouragement"

A brief mini-series preached by Doug Van Meter from Psalms 46–48.

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As we have observed in our Trilogy thus far, Psalms 46-48 are a trio of inspired hymns which recount what the Lord did to protect and to preserve His city (Jerusalem) from the assault of Sennacherib and his army (1 Kings 18-19; Isaiah 36-37).

The Assyrian forces had already carried away the ten northern tribes and with this victorious momentum they sought to carry on their conquest into Judah as well. But there was only one problem (and a major one at that): The Lord had purposed the carrying away of Israel by Assyria, but this was not His purpose for Judah. Later, in fact, there would be judgement upon Judah but God’s tool for that would be the Babylonians.

You see, kings may desire to conquer but they answer to a greater King: Yahweh. Every conquest in the history of the world has ultimately been under the control of God Almighty, the Lord Most High (see Daniel 4-5).

And, so because it was not God’s decreed will that Judah be captured by Sennacherib, it was certain that he and his army would be defeated—against all odds.

After the surrounding of the city and the varied taunting threats, King Hezekiah called for Isaiah who delivered a message of encouragement that the Lord would deliver Jerusalem out of the hand of Sennacherib. As a matter of fact, Jerusalem had never been in the hands of Sennacherib, she had always been in the hands of God!

Hezekiah took this promise of the King and laid it out on the floor beside the threatening letter of the Assyrian king. He prayed and asked for deliverance. And the Lord in His lovingkindness heard. The result was that, overnight, 185,000 unsuspecting and falsely secure Assyrian soldiers were destroyed by the invisible hand of Yahweh. The city of God had been threatened by the armies of men and the Lord had delivered on His promise to protect her. A marvellous miracle by the grace and power of God!

How do you think that you would have responded to such a victory? Probably, like Isaiah (and/or Hezekiah), you would sing praises to God! You would recount the victory and you would praise God that indeed He is the refuge of His people. You would want for His people to join you in realising the truth, “A mighty fortress is our God.” And not only would you want for the people of God in your own locale to know this; you would also desire to make it known to all and sundry about your great God. In fact, this event was such a feat that you would gather God’s people and together you would exclaim, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations!” And yet you would still be filled with such adoration that you would continue to sing, “How great Thou art.” Well, that is precisely what we will do in this study.

Psalm 48 is the final piece in this inspired Trilogy of Encouragement. “The theme of the Psalm,” writes A. F. Kirkpatrick, is “the greatness of Jehovah and the glory of His city.” And to put it in the words of a well known hymn, its theme is simply, “How Great Thou Art.” When we realise the greatness of God then truly we can be encouraged.

The world is looking for hope, for comfort, for encouragement in these difficult days. Many, if not most, are seeking it in political icons, such as the latest craze around Barak Obama. Recently, I saw a picture of a large group at the Australian Open with masks of Obama and signs which read, “Barak to the Future.” That is a lot of confidence to put in a man!

Certainly God raises up men who will inspire hope in a nation and He uses such men for much good (e.g. Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, etc.). But at the end of the day the best of men are, at best, only men. God, of course, is different. Because of who He is, we can be certain of His unchanging character and thus we can be confident in His unchanging covenant. He is faithful to His Word and this causes us to sing, “How great Thou art.”

I do not know what situation of difficulty you are facing but I do know that if you belong to the city of God, if you are a member of His church, then you have God’s inspired Word to encourage you. Lots of words are being spoken today by various people (political figureheads, economists, etc.) with a view to give encouragement. But because they are not inspired, we have no certainty about the outcome. But with the Lord our encouragement is certain. Make sure you are trusting in the truth! Let’s find that encouragement again as we study Psalm 48.

The Celebration of the Church

The psalm begins with a celebration, and it is a celebration of deliverance. We who are a part of the city of God have been delivered from a far greater foe than Sannacherib: We have been delivered from Satan, sin and self. What should be our response and how will this encourage us?

The Praise of the Church

As noted, God had graciously delivered His people from Sennacherib and the forces of Assyria.  Notice the response of the author (on behalf of the inhabitants of Jerusalem): “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness” (vv. 1-2).

Their salvation resulted in a spontaneous outburst of song. Such a response is right and proper, and is to be a corporate function in a particular place: that place where the church gathers for worship.

The church is to be a place of praise. The extent of the Lord’s magnitude is such that we must invest all of our strength (the word “greatly” literally speaks of “strength”) in offering Him praise. “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me: and to him that ordereth his conversion aright will I show the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:23).

Simply put, the Lord’s work of graciously delivering us is to result in a greater fulfilment of Deuteronomy 6:5. That is, He aims to deliver a people who will (corporately) love Him with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and such love is expressed in worship.

The church—the called out people of God—is here designated “the city of our God” and “the mountain of his holiness.” More simply, it is designated “mount Zion.” Of course, this had a geopolitical context in the old covenant era (Jerusalem), but under the new covenant the church is “the Israel of God” and thus we can rightly refer to her as “mount Zion … the city of the great King.”

Twice in these verses the church is referred to as a mountain. A mountain, of course, is a place of elevation, overlooking that over which it towers. Mountains are ideal for perspective. From atop Mount Zion, all appears well. This, of course, is a perspective that we need. But the New Testament tells us that our elevation is greater than a mere earthly mountain, for we are seated in “heavenly places” in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10).

The church must continue to realize her heavenly location if she will be faithful to be a source of blessing to the world (“the joy of the whole earth”). Leupold notes carefully that, whilst Israel is the nation blessed by God here, that blessing is not exclusively for her. The author, he writes, “is not ignorant of the parallel truth that Israel’s advantages are ultimately to be shared with the other nations on the face of the earth; so he quite properly calls this city ‘the joy of the whole earth’ by using a title which carries with it something of the prophetic.”

Mount Zion is here said to extend to “the sides of the north,” a phrase which speaks of “the extreme regions,” or in New Testament terminology, “the uttermost part of the earth.” According to ancient legend, this was the home of the gods. Olympus, for instance, was said by the Greeks to dwell here. In Isaiah 14:13 Lucifer is said to have coveted the privilege of sitting “in the sides of the north.” (“Lucifer,” of course, may be a reference to no one more than a human Babylonian king—see Calvin—though many understand Isaiah 14 to be a reference to the fall of Satan.)

Whatever the precise identification of Lucifer, “the sides of the north” is clearly a reference to the dwelling place of God. Thus, Phillips notes, “The Assyrian king might well have thought twice before attacking the ‘sides of the north’ where, even in his own mythology, the gods were assumed to dwell. He was not up now against the gods of legend, but against the true and living God Himself.”

The application at this point is wonderful: The church is blessed with the very presence of God and therefore our praise must know no bounds. When we gather, let us praise as those in a beautiful situation.

The Protection of the Church

The praise expressed by the church flows here from the protection experienced by her. “God is known in her palaces for a refuge. For, lo, the kings were assembled, they passed by together. They saw it, and so they marvelled; they were troubled, and hasted away. Fear took hold upon them there, and pain, as of a woman in travail. Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind” (vv. 3-7).

There is a wonderful experiential reality here for the church: “God is known in her palaces for a refuge.” Leupold comments, “When he says, ‘has become known,’ he refers to a historical incident … [which became] the subject of sanctified conversation. Each man was reassuring the other that it was so.” God had (and has) a unique relationship with His people. Though He is God (Lord) of all (even of those who do not recognise Him as such), He is in a very special relationship with Mount Zion.

Of course this has already been alluded to several times in these three psalms. The church has a personal knowledge of God as her “refuge,” her “lofty place” and her “rock” affording shelter and security. But here the church herself is identified as a “citadel,” a “fortress”—so called from being lofty (1 Kings 16:18; 2 Kings 15:25).

If we remain within the walls of the church then we can know of God’s protection. This is precisely why it is so important for membership of the church to be guarded, and also why church discipline is such a serious matter. When a professing believer is disciplined to the point of being put out of church membership, that member loses their protected standing before God. But as long as we remain in good fellowship with the church, we maintain that blessed protection.

But not only does the church enjoy blessed protection; she also experiences wonderful preservation. The psalmist speaks of “the kings” (probably a historical reference to the princes of Assyria—see Isaiah 37:11, 18; 2 Kings 19:11, 17) having “assembled” (or “gathered to an appointed place”) and having “passed by” (“to cross a stream,” “to march on a city,” the word carries the idea of overflowing or overwhelming) and having “marvelled,” been “troubled” and “fled.” The word “marvelled” means “to be smitten with fear,” “troubled” means “to tremble” or “to be in trepidation or terror.” “Fled” carries the idea of hasty, frightened flight. Thus, the implication is that the Assyrians were dumbfounded at Jerusalem’s victory and so they fled in terror. Boice writes, “The verbs here literally say, ‘They saw [Jerusalem is implied]; they were dumbfounded; they were overwhelmed; they fled in panic.’” Julius Caesar cried, “I came, I saw, I conquered”; the credo of these nation was, “We came, we saw, we cowered!”

The psalmist further speaks of “fear” (“trembling,” “quaking”—Daniel 10:11; Ezra 10:9) taking hold of “the kings.” To “take hold of” means “to seize.” The Israelites used this word in “the song of Moses” sung after the passage through the Red Sea to describe the terror that would “take hold of” the surrounding nations when they witnessed the power of God (Exodus 15:14-15).

Verse 7 speaks somewhat cryptically (at least to the modern reader) of “the ships of Tarshish” being broken by “an east wind.” Kirkpatrick explains the significant: “The east wind, notorious for its destructiveness, is often employed as a symbol of judgement (Job 27:21; Isaiah 27:8; Jeremiah 18:17); and ships of Tarshish … were emblems of all that was strong and stately (Isaiah 2:16).” The ships of Tarshish comprised the greatest navy in the world at that point in history. The point is that God moved invisibly to destroy what was the most powerful military machine in the world. Of course, this is nothing incredible for God, for “let us remember,” counsels Calvin, “that a nod alone on the part of God is sufficient to deliver us.”

And so whilst Mount Zion enjoyed an intimate knowledge of Yahweh, that knowledge came only by intense persecution. That is the way if often works. Very often, God brings trials across our path as a means of us knowing Him in a greater way. Whether we like it or not, we need problems if we will properly know and praise God. The early church grew in her experiential knowledge of God as they experienced difficulties (cf. Acts 12), and so it is often for us.

We must not be dismayed by the enemies who rage against the gospel and thus against the church. God will preserve us and as He does so we will grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord.

The Perseverance of the Church

Indeed the church will be preserved but more so; she will also persevere. That is, not only will she be protected but she will also be firmly planted. “As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God: God will establish it for ever. Amen” (v. 8).

Here, the promise seems to be that the church will be firmly and permanently set in place. The word “establish” means “to stand upright” or “to strengthen.” The word can be used of the founding of a city. Thus, it is a promise of the enduring establishment of God’s people as “the city of God.”

It is interesting that this verse rounds out this first section. The writer has been telling of how the “city of God” came to learn by experience of God’s saving power. Not only had they heard of God’s past deliverances but now they had personally seen, experienced it. Leupold helps us to understand the significance of this placement:

Many were the mighty instances of God’s protective power and providence that the children of Israel had heard of from the mouth of their fathers. They now saw recent confirmation of the old truth: “God establishes her forever,” and all this “in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God.” Her ancient renown was enhanced.

God’s preservation in the past acted as an encouragement to His people that indeed their city had a future—“forever.” Jerusalem would persevere. And indeed she has and she will in the form of the church (cf. Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 3:12; 21:2; Galatians 6:16). Selah: Now think about that!

The history of the church is at the same time a promise of a future for the church. And let us not forget that we may well need to experience some hardships in order to experience the proof of this promise. We must be biblically convinced of the promised victorious continuance of the church.

The Contemplation of the Church

While celebrating the deliverance of the church (vv. 1-8) we must also contemplate the destiny of the church (vv. 9-14). This flows quite naturally from the last part of verse 8.

We have thought of thy lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of thy temple. According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: thy right hand is full of righteousness. Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgements. Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.

(Psalm 48:9-14)

The psalmist speaks of having “thought” of God’s lovingkindness. The word means “to liken in one’s mind,” “to think,” or “to imagine.” It carries the idea of meditating on or remembering something. He further urges his readers to “consider her palaces.” The word “consider” means “to raise up” or “to pass between” and carries the idea of accurate contemplating. Thus, this section is one full of contemplation. Having celebrated what the Lord had done, the writer now begins to contemplate the unique relationship that Jerusalem, the city of God has with its people. In the words of Leupold, “The inhabitants of the land, particularly of Jerusalem, are addressed and exhorted to make good use of their newly won freedom. The remembrance of great works that God has done dare not die out.”

Of course, such contemplation would have led them to ask some hard questions. For example, why us? How can a people so full of failure and guilty of sin be the object of God’s affection? Why the promise of perseverance? In fact, how can this be? Let’s examine these verses to find some answers to these questions.

The Justification of the Church

The psalmist speaks first of the church’s justification. Its justification is based on two things: God’s compassion and God’s character.

God’s Compassion

“We have thought of thy lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of thy temple” (v. 9). Thus the author extols the compassion of God. Historically, when Sennacherib’s forces surrounded Jerusalem, Hezekiah sent to Isaiah for counsel. Isaiah sent back a letter of encouragement from God, and Hezekiah immediately took the letter to the temple, spread it out before the Lord, and prayed (Isaiah 37:14-15ff). It was in answer to that prayer that Yahweh showed compassion on His people.

The word translated “lovingkindness” is a tender word, which speaks of “ardour” or “desire.” It carries many shades of meaning, including zeal, love, kindness, grace, favour or mercy. There is no one English equivalent that captures the full range of meaning.

Of course, this psalm was written after the events on which it was based, and we learn from this that we are to not only remember God in time of need but also after the deliverance. It is often after the dust is settled that we need to reflect on God’s lovingkindness.

We are reminded further that it is by God’s grace that we are delivered. We are saved, justified by grace alone and we will continue to be preserved and thus persevere because of this justifying grace.

We also learn an important lesson here about prayer. The temple was the place that God had chosen to place his name, and thus although there was nothing mystical about the building or the plot of land on which it was built, it was clearly the right place for Hezekiah to pour out his heart before God. And just as God heard Hezekiah as he prayed in the right location so too will God hear us as we pray in the right location; that is, in Christ! For prayer to be effective, we must be “in Christ.” To pray “in Jesus’ name” means more than simply tacking an empty phrase to the end of our prayers. It means to pray as one who is in Christ, and to pray according to the revealed will of Christ. Hezekiah prayed according to the Word revealed to Him by Isaiah, and we too should pray biblically for our prayers to be effective.

God’s Character

The psalmist continues, “According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: thy right hand is full of righteousness” (v. 10). The key phrase here is “thy name.” When the Bible speaks of God’s “name” it is speaking about more than that title by which He is known. God’s “name” always reveals something about His character. That is why God has so many names revealed in Scripture; each name teaches us something about His character. Thus, “thy name” refers to all that God is. And one of His characteristics—among other things—is that He makes and keeps covenants.

Because of who He is, God justifies. “Righteousness” speaks of “straightness” or “rightness.” It refers to that which is right. The “right hand” in Hebrew (as in Greek) is connected to the idea of success. Thus Yahweh’s right hand is full of righteousness, which He gives to those on whom He places His lovingkindness. That is, He treats them as righteous because of the righteousness of the one who is at His right hand—Jesus Christ!

The Joy of the Church

The psalmist now moves on and speaks of the joy of the church. “Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgements” (v. 11). If v. 10 speaks of the God who justifies, then v. 11 speaks of the God who judges.

We should observe that only those who have God’s gift of righteousness can rejoice in justice. The joy that the church finds in God’s judgements is not a self-righteous glee, but a God-centred joy. We do not find sinister joy in the thought of God’s judgement, but we rejoice that His justice is highlighted as judgement is exercised.

Take, for example, the biblical doctrine of hell. The Bible teaches that hell is a literal place of eternal, conscious punishment upon those who do not believe the gospel. The doctrine of hell ought never to delight the believer. We feel rightly troubled when we consider the reality of fellow human beings—some even loved ones—suffering eternal punishment in hell. Many have been tempted to abandon the doctrine of hell because of such troubling thoughts. (Some have indeed done so, though there have been those who have temporarily abandoned it only to submit to it afresh later.) But, although we are rightly troubled at the doctrine of hell, we dare not be scornful of it. We dare not twist the Scriptures to teach anything other than they plainly teach, for if God has chosen to highlight His justice through the reality of hell, who are we to stand in condemnation of Him?

When we properly contemplate God’s righteousness and our sinfulness then we rejoice both in His salvation and in His promise of justice. And all of this is out of due consideration of His name (v. 10).

When the enemies of Christ will be finally vanquished then we will have fullness of joy due to His glorious vindication. But in the meantime we can rejoice even now at the occasional vindications of truth and righteousness in our own day. Of course the ultimate vindication is the salvation of those presently carrying swords. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

The Journey of the Church

Finally, let us learn something about the journey of the church. “Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death” (vv. 12-14).

The picture here is that of a people who were at one time, in recent days, prisoners encircled by the enemy. They were seemingly in peril and thus they could not walk about freely for fear of arrows, catapults, etc. But now that the Lord has rescued them they are told to walk about freely and to survey the damage by the enemy. The towers had surely been counted by the Assyrian preparing to besiege the city, but now they would be counted by those who had been delivered from the siege.

But there is also a wonderful promise implied here. As the Jews marched around Jerusalem counting the towers, they would discover that in fact the towers, the bulwarks, the citadels, the ramparts were still in place (v.12). No damage there! In fact everywhere they looked the city of Zion was in good shape. She was no worse for wear due to the recent siege by the arrogant and threatening enemy. How amazing! Indeed that was something to tell their children about (v. 13)!

But notice what they were to tell their children. They were to tell the next generation that “this God” (or, “such a God as this”) was their God! And He would lead them “for ever and ever,” yea unto death and into eternity. That is, Yahweh Elohim would guide His church throughout its entire journey!

We must grow in our love and appreciation for the church, and as we do so we must pass this on to our children. And the best way for our generation to pass that appreciation to the next generation is for us to boast in what the Lord has done for us. Like Hezekiah, let us turn to the Word and trust in the Lord as the troubles come. The result will be the experience of seeing the reality of God. Let us give God proper praise. Let us give serious thought to who He is and what He is doing. Let us behave as though God indeed is our refuge.

We will pass this God-centred encouragement on to the next generation by living as though we are on a journey and following our Lord every step of the way. And when we fail, by repenting and embracing afresh the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Simply put, we do so by hanging on to the gospel!