Theme: The Church on Earth and the Church in Heaven
In this week’s lessons we look at the nature of the church, which is itself a picture of the eternal City of Zion, of which every Christian is a citizen.
Scripture: Psalm 87:1-7
There are any number of ways to partition this psalm, short as it is. The New International Version divides it into two stanzas (vv. 1-4 and vv. 5-7). But the psalm’s themes unfold almost verse by verse, and I think it best merely to take the ideas in sequence. The first occurs in verses 1 and 2, which are the theme verses of the psalm. Their point is that God has chosen and established Zion. Therefore, by inference, Zion cannot be shaken even though the entire world should unite in arms against it. It is this that caused Newton to write
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
In the Hebrew text, verse 1 begins with the words “his foundation,” no doubt for emphasis. We can hardly read this without thinking of Hebrews 11:10, which praises Abraham because “he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” The Hebrews chapter makes clear that it was a heavenly city rather than an earthly residence that Abraham was seeking. So we learn at once that 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? It should be something very precious to them, and they should pray for its welfare. But the earthly is only a small foretaste of the heavenly, and we should be looking from the earthly to those invisible glories that will never pass away.
The next verse of the psalm (v. 3) is a cryptic statement of praise for Zion and is the verse Newton began with in the hymn I have been referring to. Verse 3 reads: “Glorious things are said of you, O city of God.” What is it that God (or others) have said in praise of Zion? A few representative statements are these: “It is beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth. Like the utmost heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King” (Ps. 48:2); “For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling” (Ps. 132:13). Isaiah 2:1-3 says:
In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
Not only did Newton choose verse 3 as the theme of his great hymn on the church. Saint Augustine also chose it as the theme verse for his great masterpiece of Christian historical philosophy, The City of God. He wrote that “two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”1 His use of the term, like Newton’s use of it, reminds us that even greater things have been spoken of the church than have been said of earthly Jerusalem.
The author of Hebrews makes this point explicitly, referring to this psalm: You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24).
Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that although “glorious things were taught in [Jerusalem’s] streets, and seen in her temples,” yet this is “more true of the church: she is founded in grace, but her pinnacles glow with glory….Whatever glorious things the saints may say of the church in their eulogies, they cannot exceed what prophets have foretold, what angels have sung, or what God himself has declared. Happy are the tongues which learn to occupy themselves with so excellent a subject.”2
1Saint Augustine, The City of God, book 14, chapter 28, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 2, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 282, 283.
2Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2a, Psalms 58-87 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), p. 478.
Why can’t Zion be shaken?
What is the first theme of this psalm?
Of what is Jerusalem a symbol? How does this relate to the local church?
How is Zion described and praised in this psalm?
Reflection: How does the local church reflect the heavenly city? How does it also, by its imperfections, prove that we are to look ultimately toward the city that does not have foundations?
For Further Study: If you would like to add James Boice’s classic three-volume set on the Psalms to your personal library, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is offering it for 25% off the regular price.