Theme: In Praise of Zion
From this week’s lessons we learn that this Song of Zion is fundamentally a song of praise to God, who watches over his people in all times and forever.
Scripture: Psalm 48:1-14
After the opening couplet in praise of God, which sets the tone for the psalm, the psalmist praises God’s city itself. The first part of this praise is in verses 2-8. It has three sections.
Praise of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not the highest point of the hill country of Israel, though it is 2,500 feet above sea level. If you approach from the south, from Hebron, you actually go down a bit to reach it. But the city’s setting is such that one seems always to be impressed with its “loftiness,” the word the psalmist uses. From the north, west and east, and even from the immediate south, the way to Zion is uphill, which is why the Psalms always speak of going “up” to Jerusalem. There on the lofty hills of Zion the towering ramparts of the city rose, and the breathtaking beauty of the city beckoned.
Yet the beauty of Jerusalem was not in her physical appearance alone, any more than true beauty is to be found in mere appearances today. The real beauty was the beauty of the Lord, who had chosen to reside in Zion: “God is in her citadels; he has shown himself to be her fortress,” he says (v. 3).
Remembrance of a great deliverance. That last line leads naturally to what the poet wants to say next, for the statement “he has shown himself to be her fortress” leads to the question, “How has he shown himself to be her fortress?” The answer is: By the recent deliverance of the city from our enemies. This deliverance seems to link Psalms 46, 47 and 48 together, though it is impossible to say with certainty what specific deliverance they refer to. The two possibilities are: 1) the deliverance of the people from the armies of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir in the days of Jehoshaphat, as described in 2 Chronicles 20; and 2) the deliverance of the people from the armies of Sennacherib in the days of Hezekiah, as described in 2 Kings 18, 19. The reference in Psalm 48:4 to “the kings” (plural) joining forces to advance against the city seems to fit the combined armies of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir better than the single army of Sennacherib. But these armies were turned back before they actually “saw” Jerusalem. So the specific references in this psalm, as well as those in the others, are indecisive.
The most striking feature of the account of this deliverance is the use of four terse verbs in verse 5. In fact, the verse consists almost entirely of these verbs. The effect is not as vivid in the English translations as it is in Hebrew, particularly since the New International Version only gives us two sentences. But in Hebrew the words are similar to the well-known report of Julius Caesar about his victories in Gaul: veni, vidi, vici (“I came; I saw; I conquered”). Only here the kings did not conquer; they fled from the city in terror. The verbs literally say, “They saw [Jerusalem is implied)]; they were dumbfounded; they were overwhelmed; they fled in panic.”
The fast, abrupt pace of the language captures the confusion and fearful flight that must have overtaken the enemy armies when God moved against them.
Two effective images round out this description: 1) a woman in labor; and 2) the scattering of the mightiest ships before a powerful Mediterranean east wind (vv. 6, 7). The first image portrays the fierce enemy warriors as helpless to avoid or delay their hour of destruction. The second image suggests the overwhelming scope of their rout. The ships of Tarshish were the mightiest ships of the day. This is why Ezekiel, echoing the words of Psalm 48, also describes their destruction as an amazing judgment by God: “Your oarsmen take you out to the high seas. But the east wind will break you to pieces in the heart of the sea” (Ezek. 27:26). Interestingly, the idea is then picked up by the apostle John in Revelation in connection with the fall of Mystery Babylon, which represents the godless world system (cp. Rev. 18:17-20; Ezek. 27:29-36).
History provides us with a later, literal illustration of such massive naval destruction. In 1588 the “invincible” Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon under orders from the Spanish King Philip II to invade and subdue England. It consisted of 130 great galleons and supply ships, 7,000 sailors, and more than 17,000 soldiers. The British fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake met it in the English Channel and engaged it in a series of battles extending over about a week in late July. The Spanish ships were massive and well-armed. The English ships were light and more maneuverable. The battle went to the English who successfully destroyed and captured many ships.
However, the real victory came when the weather changed and the Spanish ships were blown up the Channel toward Scotland, which they attempted to round and thus return to Spain by passing across the North Sea and down the westward coast of Ireland. Scores of these ships were wrecked on the Irish coast and their crews were massacred. Others sank at sea. Less than half managed to return to Spain and Portugal, and the defeat was so complete that prior Spanish domination of the “ocean sea” was ended.
Most modern authors attribute the English success to their superior navy. But it is significant that the English themselves attributed the victory to God. We know, because they struck a medal to celebrate the defeat of the Armada on which were the words: “God blew upon them and they were scattered.” It is the way the psalmist viewed the destruction of the enemy kings.
Why does the psalmist say that the city is beautiful?
What does Dr. Boice find striking about verse 5, and why?
Reflection: Recount ways that God has delivered you, and praise him for his grace.