Marching to Zion (Psalm 68:1–35)

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As a church, BBC is very focused on the Great Commission, because that is the biblical focus of a local church. But sometimes, if we are not careful, we can become so focused on the task that we can lose sight of the one who set the task. That is, we can become so focused on the Commission that we forget about the Christ who gave the Commission. Psalm 68 helps us to avoid that danger, for it reminds us that the Lord will ultimately accomplish the Commission. Rather than going through the motions of ministry, we need to keep our eyes focused on the Lord.

Psalm 68, in a very literal sense, is about God marching to Zion. The psalm celebrates the march of the Ark of the Covenant to the temple (tabernacle) in Jerusalem. Symbolically, it speaks of the militant march of God and His people. I say militant, not in the sense of bearing arms, but militant in the sense of the church militant serving the Lord now in the Great Commission.

This psalm has been used throughout history by so-called Christian nations in military contexts. Boice note that

Charlemagne and Oliver Cromwell loved the sixty-eighth psalm. In 1812, after the French general Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow, a service was held to celebrate the city’s deliverance and the Metropolitan of the City preached from Psalm 68:1, “Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered.”1

I’m not sure that such uses were always terribly wise, and that is not the type of militancy I have in mind as I write about this psalm. My focus is instead on the militancy of gospel ministry. The Great Commission can be understood in terms of spiritual warfare, but we have the confidence of knowing that the victory has already been won, that Christ has already purchased the nations, and all who have been purchased by Him will ultimately bow the knee. But, as I have said, even as we march forth with the gospel, we need to be careful of losing sight of the God who gives the victory.

Background

The superscription tells us that the psalm was “to the Chief Musician” and that it was “a Psalm of David. A Song.” As noted, the occasion of the psalm appears to be the moving of the Ark to the tabernacle in Jerusalem. Perhaps the parallel historical passage is 2 Samuel 6, where David first innovated the moving of the ark, and later reverted to doing things God’s way. In the end, the Ark came to Jerusalem, but at some cost.

The language used in the beginning of the psalm (“Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered”) seems consistent with language associated with moving the ark (see Numbers 10:35–36). There is temple language employed here, but we should probably understand references to the temple to be referring to the tabernacle. The temple would only be constructed under Solomon’s reign, but David understood the tabernacle to be representative of the temple.2

And so the Ark of God was being moved from one location to its appointed location. This was all accompanied by prayer, by promise and by prospects of greater things. God and His people were marching to Zion. There are a number of lessons here for us, and we will consider them together as we divide this psalm into four broad sections.

The Home to which We March

In vv. 1–6 we read of the home to which we are marching. David writes,

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those also who hate Him flee before Him. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God; yes, let them rejoice exceedingly. Sing to God, sing praises to His name; extol Him who rides on the clouds, by His name YAH, and rejoice before Him. A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation. God sets the solitary in families; He brings out those who are bound into prosperity; but the rebellious dwell in a dry land.

(Psalm 68:1–6)

A Prayer for God’s Victory

In vv. 1–3 we see a prayer for God’s victory. The prayer is that the Lord’s enemies will be defeated, which will result in God’s people rejoicing. The prayer for victory is here a God-centred passion. This prayer is mirrored in the New Testament by the first part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9–10).

David prays, “Let God arise.” God must arise because the battle is His. The theme of God fighting for His people (because He fights for His glory) is repeated time and again in Scripture (1 Samuel 17:47; Judges 6:12, 34, 36; 7:2, 20). We pray for God’s help in spiritual warfare (see Ephesians 6:10–20) precisely because the battle is His. He is the one who has achieved the victory at the cross, and He is the one who will ultimately bring the victory to pass in time and space.

As God arises to defeat His enemies, His people are glad. His people are glad when He is glorified, for our gladness is always tied to God’s glory.

Praise because of God’s Victory

In vv. 4–6 David changes gears slightly because He has attained victory. While there were still very real enemies in time and space, David seems to have understood that God’s victory had already actually been achieved.

As God’s victory is realised in time and space, His enemies are made into His sons and daughters. God becomes “a father” to them and their “defender.” He considers His people His children (see Exodus 4:22–23) and He cares for His children.

At one time, we were God’s enemies, but the power of the gospel has made us God’s children, and we are therefore assured of God’s loving care.

The point in this first part of the psalm, then, is quite clear: As God’s glorious presence moves from place to place, unbelievers experience either the savour of life and family or the savour of death and forsakenness (2 Corinthians 2:14–17).

The History of the March

As he focuses on God’s presence moving to its appointed place in Jerusalem, David recounts the history of God’s march with His people (via His revealed presence) from Egypt to the Promised Land. He does so in order to remind the people of God’s faithfulness to them in the past.

O God, when You went out before Your people, when You marched through the wilderness, Selah, the earth shook; the heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel. You, O God, sent a plentiful rain, whereby You confirmed Your inheritance, when it was weary. Your congregation dwelt in it; You, O God, provided from Your goodness for the poor. The Lord gave the word; great was the company of those who proclaimed it: “Kings of armies flee, they flee, and she who remains at home divides the spoil. Though you lie down among the sheepfolds, you will be like the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.” When the Almighty scattered kings in it, it was white as snow in Zalmon. A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you fume with envy, you mountains of many peaks? This is the mountain which God desires to dwell in; yes, the LORD will dwell in it forever. The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands; the Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the Holy Place. You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men, even from the rebellious, that the LORD God might dwell there.

(Psalm 68:7–18)

He begins by recounting God moving from Egypt to the wilderness with His people (vv. 7–10). It may be that he is speaking here of the initial year following the exodus, until the time that the spies were sent into Canaan. It is also quite possible, however, that these verses compass the entire forty-year wandering period. Though the forty years focused on an unfaithful generation, their unfaithfulness would not derail His purposes. Church history bears testimony to this; God has remained faithful to His promises despite the many failures of His people.

We can take heart from this that God provides for His people, even when—especially when—they are “weary” (v. 9). It is helpful to learn this lesson from history as we reflect on God’s faithfulness in our past. It is helpful to read biographies of others who have experienced God’s favour in this way. It is helpful to remember God’s faithfulness to your church in this regard.

David next focuses on the conquest of Canaan (vv. 11–14). It seems to me that this is David’s focus here because there are hints in these verses of the song of Deborah (Judges 5), which she sang after God gave Israel a great deliverance in the Promised Land. And God’s victories in the past were meant to encourage His people that He could likewise overcome their enemies in the present and in the future.

The NKJV translates the second part of v. 11 as “great was the company of those who proclaimed it.” Other translations, picking up on the feminine gender employed in the Hebrew, say things like, “The women who announce the news are a great host” (ESV). Women play an important role in announcing good news. Even when Jesus rose from the dead, He first appeared to women in the garden and instructed them to inform the disciples of His resurrection. Deborah announced the victory of God in her song, as did Miriam in Exodus 15:20–21. Similarly, women here proclaim the Lord’s victory.

Verse 13 speaks of “silver” and “gold,” probably hinting at the spoils of victory promised to God’s people. The “snow in Zalmon” (v. 14) may be a poetic reference to the bones of God’s defeated enemies. God’s enemies “flee” (v. 12) as He gives victory.

The language is highly poetic and there is a good deal of debate as to exactly what the psalmist means by each image, but the overriding point is simply that the Lord gives victory. Jesus has similarly promised victory to His church in the new covenant (see Matthew 16:18). The enemies—whether they be people or spirits or even the ultimate enemy, death—will not prevail against Christ’s church. The church militant (i.e. the church in this age) is guaranteed that, in the age to come, it will be the church triumphant. Death is, in fact, the door to that victory.

In vv. 15–18 David exhorts us to realise and appreciate that we are a God-created people. He draws a contrast between “the mountains of many peaks” and “the mountain of God,” using “Bashan” as a reference point throughout. Probably, he is contrasting Mount Hermon (in the region of Bashan) with Mount Zion. Hermon was a massive mountain, dwarfing Zion in height. And yet God had chosen to dwell, not on Hermon, but on Zion. Hermon is portrayed as being jealous because God has chosen as His dwelling place the lesser mountain.

We must recognise that this is God’s usual way of doing things. He usually uses the weak and insignificant things of this world because that further highlights His glory. He used Gideon, a fearful man who was found hiding away from the enemy. He used David, the least physically impressive of eight brothers. He used Israel precisely because it was the least impressive of all nations (see Deuteronomy 7). And He continues to use the insignificant things of this world to carry out His significant purposes (1 Corinthians 1:18–31).

The gospel of a crucified Messiah seems to be an insignificant message, which is easy to despise, but it is the very power of God for salvation.

Here is the point: The church is a God-centred, God-caused place. It is not a significant institution created by men, but is “the temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16). The church has “been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19–22). In the church, there is no need for a physical temple because “the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22).

Verse 18 is probably familiar to you, given its citation in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:7–8). Kidner explains the verse this way: “God has won His war, entered His capital and put ‘the rebellion’ under tribute.”3

Jesus has won the victory. He is in His place. He has divided the spoils. What will you do with them? What are you doing? We are blessed to be His people, to be His place. Embrace the privilege.

The Hope for the March

Verses 19–31 offer us some hope for the march:

Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation! Selah. Our God is the God of salvation; and to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death. But God will wound the head of His enemies, the hairy scalp of the one who still goes on in his trespasses. The Lord said, “I will bring back from Bashan, I will bring them back from the depths of the sea, that your foot may crush them in blood, and the tongues of your dogs may have their portion from your enemies.” They have seen Your procession, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary. The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the maidens playing timbrels. Bless God in the congregations, the Lord, from the fountain of Israel. There is little Benjamin, their leader, the princes of Judah and their company, the princes of Zebulun and the princes of Naphtali. Your God has commanded your strength; strengthen, O God, what You have done for us. Because of Your temple at Jerusalem, kings will bring presents to You. Rebuke the beasts of the reeds, the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples, till everyone submits himself with pieces of silver. Scatter the peoples who delight in war. Envoys will come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God.

(Psalm 68:19–31)

In these verses, it seems that the Ark has been brought into the temple, and now David highlights some of the consequences of God’s victory. We learn here how we are to respond to the victory.

Daily Thankfulness

First, we see that we should respond with daily thankfulness for our salvation (vv. 19–23). David speaks of the Lord as “the God of our salvation.” Our God is tireless in His love for His people. On the contrary, He is tireless in the punishment of His enemies. We should therefore be thankful that we are His children, not His enemies!

The description here of God’s punishment of His enemies is quite gory, but that is the way that victory usually is. It is helpful for us to reflect on these verses when we feel overwhelmed by enemies of the gospel. Gospel-centredness offers a biblical perspective when things appear to be falling apart.

But gospel-centredness also creates in us a wonderful gratitude for our salvation. God’s purpose is to save His people from their sins, and we should be thankful for that.

Continual Praising

Second, we should be a continually praising people (vv. 24–27). The image in these verses is of people praising God as they witness the Ark entering the sanctuary. Once again, this would fit the historical picture of David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, as recorded in 1 Chronicles 13:9 and 15:16–18.

We should not miss the mention here of Benjamin and Zebulun in addition to Judah. All of God’s people joined in the praise. What a glorious sight it must have been to see; and what a glorious sight it is to behold the Lord’s Day honoured as the Lord’s Day by the Lord’s people.

Spreading His Fame

Third, we should be continually seeking God’s strength in order to spread the fame of His name (vv. 28–31). The language here appears to be in reference to pagan idolatry. “The beasts of the reeds,” “bulls” and “calves” are likely all references to idols.

But idolatry will not have the last word. Instead, people will come to worship God, to stretch out their hands to Him, to sing praises to Him. The point is clear: One day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:9–11). The gospel has the power to save and it will save all those whom God has chosen.

The Bible does not teach universalism, but it does that that God will receive homage from all peoples, and this will occur by means of the church. As the church prays and preaches, people will come under the sound of the gospel and God will chose those whom He has appointed to eternal life.

Do we believe that? Are we really praying for the salvation of God’s enemies? There is biblical warrant for praying for God to vindicate Himself by judging His enemies, but how much more glorious it is when God chooses to save those who oppose Him.

Jesus Christ is worthy. We must therefore be willing to give up all so that the heathen will ultimately stretch out their hands to God.

The Happy, Holy and Humbling March

In the closing verses, David shows that this is a happy, holy and humbling march. He writes,

Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth; Oh, sing praises to the Lord, Selah, To Him who rides on the heaven of heavens, which were of old! Indeed, He sends out His voice, a mighty voice. Ascribe strength to God; His excellence is over Israel, and His strength is in the clouds. O God, You are more awesome than Your holy places. The God of Israel is He who gives strength and power to His people. Blessed be God!

(Psalm 68:32–35)

The epilogue says it all. Kidner writes, “If the opening chorus was Israel’s alone (1­–6), the concluding one is universal, in keeping with the tribute scene just visualized.”4

God’s immense power and intense care are here highlighted. And it is clear that these things cannot be confined to a single space. And though the “holy places,” at least in old covenant times, was important, even then “You are more awesome than Your holy places.” The Person was far more important than the place. And how much truer that is today.

Let us remember that, as important as the church is, we must not miss God in this good place. It is ultimately God who blesses, not the church. We are thankful for the church and we understand its importance, but we cannot value the church above the one who purchased the church with His blood.

Let us also recognise, quite frankly, that the church will fail us. But the God of the church will not.

Finally, let us understand that, in whatever place we find ourselves in this world, God is there. Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and in earth, and so no matter where we find ourselves, we are under His authority there.

Boice summarises it well:

The point, of course, is that what is so beautifully described in the psalm has its ultimate fulfillment in the work of Jesus Christ, for which all the Old Testament pictures are but prophecies. It is he who has delivered us from slavery t sin and brought us from Sinai to Mount Zion, where we are to dwell forever. May Jesus Christ be praised!5

Show 5 footnotes

  1. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:553.
  2. It is also possible that David was speaking prophetically here of the temple yet to be constructed in Jerusalem. We know that he ultimately desired to build a temple, but God instructed that his son be the one to carry out this project.
  3. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 242.
  4. Kidner, Psalms, 244–45.
  5. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:559.