Psalm 87 - Zion, City of our God
The psalm that we have read very obviously speaks about Zion. One of the great things about the Book of Psalms is not only that the church is to use it in her worship, but as the church uses the Book of Psalms she learns about herself, as well as about many other subjects, from the psalms that she sings. The appropriateness of the psalms for the worship of God is not just confined to the kind of subjects they contain, as far as singing the praises of God is concerned; they are also psalms that teach us as we sing them, in respect to God and his salvation and his church, even to the coming Messiah as the Old Testament saints looked forward.
As we come to this particular psalm, we can see that this is the case: it teaches us about the church of God, represented by the references to Zion. It is a psalm which sets out for us various things that are always important to bear in mind in our understanding of the church of God.
1. The Church as God's Residence (Verses 1-3)
The psalmist begins by speaking immediately about God, who has set this residence for himself, who has established this residence for himself. God has chosen and created this specific place for himself that his name would be there, that his worship would be there, that his presence would be manifested there, and that his people would be gathered there.
Zion's setting, literally, was in the mountains, in the vicinity of Jerusalem. You find other passages in the Bible such as Psalms 48 and 132 where Zion is spoken of as a fortress and Jerusalem surrounded by the mountains. The emphasis here is more on the fact that God has singled this out for himself, has chosen it for himself; it hasn't come about by human invention. It is not something that has come about through the will of man, through something that religious people in every age have added to and invented and set up for themselves; it is HIS foundation. It is of his establishing.
In verse 2 he goes on to speak not only of God's choice of Zion and his establishing of her, but the Lord loving the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. There is an emphasis there that the Lord has delight in meeting with the gathering of his people together as his people, even above the delight he undoubtedly has in meeting with a soul individually here and there by themselves.
In other words, you and I have to say with the conviction of Scripture itself behind us, that we have the assurance of the Lord himself that he has delight in the gates of Zion, in the place where he has put his own presence to be manifested there in this church he has established in the world, and the part of it, indeed, that we belong to ourselves, even above meeting with ourselves individually and personally as souls who do business with him.
Then you see, there are glorious promises in verse 3. Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Every city in the world has a motto. Some are very good, some are very fanciful. But this city in which God resides, the city of Zion, the church of God, she has a motto as extensive as all the glorious things that God has placed in her. She can come before God to be gathered in worship of him; she can go to the nations that surround her and she can say: this is my motto, this is what I actually have written over me by the finger of my God, all the glorious things that are spoken of me in God's promise and in God's Word.
Is that not a wonderful thing? What can be more precious to us, other than the Saviour himself than the glorious things that are spoken of the city of God and the fact that they belong to you and me? What can be more glorious in your own estimation, other than the fact that Christ himself is your dear Saviour, than to say of yourself as you believe in him and trust in him that as part of this great residence of God where he has chosen to live and to dwell, that glorious things belong to you. Don't hesitate to say that this is applicable to yourself if you are a child of God and live by faith in Christ. Don't let the enemy of your soul suggest to you that this only applies to apostles and to a select few among the people of God. Tell your enemy and anyone who suggests otherwise to you that this belongs to the least saint in the kingdom of God, that glorious things are spoken of this residence, of this Zion, of this church.
Then there is one other thing, in verse 5, which speaks about God establishing her. That is a word that means more than simply to set her on a foundation. It means actually to build her up, to establish her in completion, eventually, of all that he has begun. It is indicative of the Lord following through with his work of building this city, this residence for himself, until it is perfect, until every single things about it that he has purposed has been brought to pass, come what may, whatever forces are met with, whatever attempts are made to overthrow it, whatever things seek to frustrate it in their own purpose and in their own plans, the Lord himself, the Most High shall establish her.
That is very important for you and I, particularly in the generation we belong to, for you and I to think of all that surrounds the church at the present time of enmity and opposition, of unbelief and atheism, of every other kind of defiant opposition and enmity. What do we come back to? To this – that the Highest himself shall establish her.
2. The Church as Mothering Spiritual children
Verses 4-6 emphasise the matter of births. You look at them and you say, whatever else is true about this Zion, it is a place where there are births, and where births are crucial to its life and to its continuance. And you must take this into the spiritual reality of the church as a spiritual body of Christ, and you say that whatever else is true, the church is an entity within which births take place. These births having taken place, those who are born are then taught, and equipped and brought to maturity by the God who is their Father. The church is that place within which these births take place and where he mothers them, especially through the preaching of the Gospel, the fellowship of God's people together, where there is a mothering under the grace of God for the people of God in this life.
How thankful you and I should be that our sanctification does not take place all by ourselves. We are not isolated by the Lord in such a way that we do not have much contact with other people of the same persuasion, with other children of this father. What a great benefit, not only to meet together as the people of God in the residence of God, but to be, in God's description of it, that upon earth within which children are born and reared for his own glory.
The psalm mentions, very surprisingly, certain nations: Rahab (which stands for Egypt) and Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia; the way this is put, in the context of the other verses is to the effect that all of these regions will yet come, from the perspective of the Old Testament, to have people born in Zion. From all backgrounds, from all peoples of the world, from all nations and tongues, from all races of men God is establishing Zion, comprising people of all these different types, for one church for himself.
One of the great emphases of the New Testament is that God has torn down the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile. Through the cross of Christ the grace of God has come to be spread across the world upon all peoples so that there will be one body, one people, one church of the living Father and the living Christ, one Head, one Spirit, one body, one Father of all. Here, anticipating this, are these great words of Psalm 87.
Some of these nations are spoken of in the Old Testament as the enemies of the Lord. The Lord is going to bring vengeance and indignation upon them. Yet even from their midst will arise people who will be children of God himself. This is why the Old Testament, and the Book of Psalms, contains so many glorious missionary passages. One of the commentators on the Psalms, William Binnie, says something like this: "What a wonderful thing it is to note that although the Old Testament church was not herself a missionary church, yet the flame of her piety was fed by missionary psalms". By psalms which brought her to see the emphasis that the saving grace of God was for ALL peoples of the world. This one and that one, even from among the enemies of the Lord, shall be born there.
And you see how individual he makes it – THIS man and THAT man there was born. You cannot enter into the kingdom of God on somebody else's birth. It is you and I as persons and as individuals that must be born again, and without it, though we may form part of God's covenant people outwardly, yet it will be to our great disgrace eternally if we had the advantages of a mother but were never nourished by her, and chose not to be fed by her hand and put ourselves beyond the mothering of grace in the church.
There is also an emphasis on equality. There is no-one that has more of a status in the eyes of God as far as acceptance with him, and justification and all that goes along with that is concerned – you are all one, says the apostles to the Galatians, in Christ Jesus. We should know, if we have been born in Zion, mothered under the grace of God in mother Zion the church, that everyone who belongs there by the grace of God in Christ is a brother or sister to us, and we are commanded to regard them as born in Zion with ourselves, and to love them as such.
3. The Church Beloved by Her Children
The final verse of the psalm is not that easy to interpret or even to translate, but as it is here it shows us the primary emphasis in it: As well the singers and the players on stringed instruments shall be there; all my springs are in thee.
There are at least two things that arise from that: firstly, the joyous hope of the psalmist is centred on Zion, on the church and on what is true of that church. Where the covenant people of God are, where God himself dwells in the midst of his people, where his gospel is proclaimed, where his people meet together as God's habitation in the world, there our delight must be. There our conviction must be that God has chosen it, that it is a mothering for his children, that our delight is to be in it. Here is a joyous hope in the Gospel, where the church is situated, where the people of God worship him.
There is also what you could call a jealous love. One of the great features of Psalm 51 which we tend perhaps to pass over too quickly is the way that it ends. We all know how it begins David's great confession to God. But how does it end? Do good, in thy good pleasure, to Zion. Of all the occasions in the Old Testament that you would expect a man to be taken up so much with himself that he would not have a mind for anything else, it would be David here. Yet this is what he says: "Do good, Lord, to Zion".
We do well tonight, friends, you and I together, to regard the church in the biblical way: God's residence, mothering spiritual children, to be beloved by her children; and if we are these children, these are our duties as well as our privileges. Amen.