Reflections on Psalm 87 —
The City of Zion is not an imaginary, mythical place; it is the dwelling place of God, and the source of life and joy for its citizens.
My passport says I’m a U.S. citizen. I enjoy and appreciate the great freedoms this citizenship affords. But when I became a believer in Jesus Christ, my citizenship changed. I became a citizen of a different land. It is called by many names, the most unusual of which is “Zion”.
Psalm 87 is all about Zion. Zion is a spiritual place, impossible to see, but entirely possible to experience. Citizens of Zion know the place well and count themselves blessed to experience its benefits. For those who dwell there, Zion is a well-spring of contentment, affirmation, and happiness.
The term “Zion” sounds a bit archaic and out of context in today’s society. It is religious and mysterious, which is why the makers of the “Matrix” movies thought it a perfect name for their fictitious center of civilization. It is a subject of substantial interest to the authors of Psalms, who refer to it forty-five times. Zion is likened to a city, a mountain, and a castle. It is all three in Psalm 48–a majestic city perched high on a great mountain, with mighty walls strewn with towers and ramparts.
Zion is often compared with the city of Jerusalem (II Samuel 5:7, I Kings 8:1, II Kings 19:21, 31), a significant center of historical and religious importance. However, as are many things in scripture, the physical city of Jerusalem is just a shadow of the spiritual, unseen reality of Zion. Though it is called a “city” (Psalm 87:3), you won’t find it on a map. Zion is set on “holy mountains” (Psalm 87:1), but you can’t climb it. Though it has “gates” (Psalm 87:2), we should not think of it strictly in terms of brick and mortar.
What, and where, is this mysterious place? We will see that Zion, like gravity, is an invisible reality that hides important truths of the Christian faith within her walls. Psalm 87 is not just colorful poetry, not just hearsay, but essential knowledge for the Christian faith.
Psalm 87’s poetic praise of Zion is curiously nestled among the difficult psalms of Book 3–psalms that cry for relief in the midst of God’s wrath. Perhaps its inclusion in Book 3 suggests an oasis exists for those suffering afflictions, a relief and encouragement not too far away.
The Dwelling Place of God
“His foundation is in the holy mountains. The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.”
— Psalm 87:1-3
The first thing we learn about Zion is that God loves it. He prefers her over all other dwelling places in Israel. God selected her Himself as His place of habitation, His desired resting place (Psalm 132:13-14). If you want to find God, look no further than Zion, for it is the place where He dwells (Psalm 9:1, 46:4-5, 74:2, 76:2).
God is not constrained by physical space or time. He fills the heavens and the earth (Jeremiah 23:24), and even the highest heavens cannot contain Him (I Kings 8:27). Yet He has designated a “place” where we can find Him. The only way this makes sense is if God exists beyond the physical constraints of space and time. Finding Him isn’t a matter of journeying. It’s not a holy pilgrimage. As we will see later, the only way to get there is by supernatural means.
Source of Soul Salvation
Zion is not just an exclusive club for God alone, accessible and beneficial only to Him. He has abundantly blessed Zion’s “provision” (Psalm 132:15), enriching it with soul-saving resources for those who seek it. It is where needy ones find satisfaction. It is where the godly ones find joy. It is where the priests find salvation (Psalm 132:15-16). No wonder “glorious things” are spoken of Zion (Psalm 87:3).
That the God of the Universe would care to create such a place for the benefit of mankind is truly a magnanimous act of generosity and compassion. But what is even more compelling is the blessing that Zion is “life eternal” (Psalm 133:3). In Psalm 53, David appeals to God to bring salvation from Zion (Psalm 53:6). We should not think Zion is a fountain that reverses the human aging process a la Ponce de Leon, but rather a source of eternal, spiritual life. It is a source of life, redemption from captivity, salvation from prisons of regrets and past mistakes.
How do we experience this life eternal, this salvation from Zion? How can we get there?
In Psalm 132:17, we see that God raised up the “horn of David” in Zion, a reference to the coming of Jesus Christ. There He prepared a “lamp for His anointed” — an analogy of the fueling, empowering work of the Holy Spirit. These references associate Zion with “abiding in Jesus” (John 15:5) and “walking in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). So, the mystery is solved. The way to Zion is clear. Christians find Zion when they abide in Jesus and walk in the Spirit.
Zion is another name for what Jesus called the “Kingdom of Heaven”, or “Kingdom of God”. It is a spiritual realm not very far from us (Mark 1:15). Paul says we can experience “righteousness, peace, and joy” of God’s Kingdom when we walk in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
The word “salvation” is often assumed to mean a sinner’s repentance to Christianity. But it applies to Christians as well. Anytime a Christian’s soul is in trouble, he needs salvation. It is a salvation of a different sort. It is not becoming a Christian all over again, as if he “lost” his salvation. When an unbeliever is saved, he is saved in spirit and becomes a Christian once and for all. A Christian does not need a spiritual salvation, but he will often need a soul salvation. When his weary soul is afflicted by the afflictions, worries, and troubles of this life, the Christian needs his soul to be saved. Soul salvation is a frequent subject of the psalms, many of which are expressed by men already chosen by God, already destined for life eternal. A few of the appeals to God to rescue, deliver, restore, preserve, and save the soul found in psalms are listed below:
- “Return, O Lord, rescue my soul; Save me because of Your lovingkindness” (Psalm 6:4)
- “Deliver my soul from the wicked” (Psalm 17:13)
- “Deliver my soul from the sword” (Psalm 22:20)
- “[God] restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3)
- “Preserve my soul, for I am a godly man” (Psalm 86:2)
- “For [God] stands at the right hand of the needy, to save him from those who judge his soul” (Psalm 109:31)
The Christian needs soul salvation from Zion, the Kingdom of Heaven. This important realization gives Psalm 87 and many other psalms enhanced meaning and value to the Christian. The Christian who sees his soul’s need of salvation through the eyes of the psalmist finds a great source of relief and strength in the Psalms.
This One Was Born There
“I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me; Behold, Philistia and Tyre with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’” But of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her.” And the Most High Himself will establish her. The Lord will count when He registers the peoples, “This one was born there.”
— Psalm 87:4-6
Another glorious thing about Zion is the possibility to be “born” there. Such are the citizens of Zion. Since Zion is a spiritual place where God dwells, there is nothing natural about this birth.
Everyone has a homeland. In the time this psalm was written, Egypt (“Rehab”), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia were at the forefront of nations. Yet those born in Zion have something very unique about them. They are singled out, unique in that they are born of God, and born at a rate that is closely controlled and monitored by God.
Recently I was in St. Joseph, Missouri, for work. It was sad to see streets lined with vacant buildings, the local economy obviously in decline. Such is not the case with Zion. God establishes Zion. He ensures she thrives, is fully inhabited, flourishing. The citizens of Zion are immeasurable by human means, but they are plentiful. He is adding to her numbers daily, filling her walls with citizens in increasing numbers.
How is this birth in a spiritual place accomplished? How can a human, constrained to flesh and blood, be born in Zion, into the kingdom of heaven? Jesus describes this supernatural process as being “born again” — a concept completely confusing to the religious teachers of His day. According to Jesus, only those who are “born again” can see the kingdom of heaven, and only those “born of the spirit” can enter that place (John 3:3-5).
The leading religious teacher of his day was baffled by Jesus’ remark. He asked, “how can a man enter his mother’s womb when he is old?” (John 3:4). He didn’t realize Jesus was speaking of a spiritual birth, one wrought not by human effort but by a miracle of God. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God…” (Galatians 2:20). We can’t become citizens of Zion on our own. We are birthed in Zion by a process over which we have no control, an external spark, completely attributed to the will of God (John 1:12-13, James 1:18). The one who seeks citizenship in Zion must look to the God who dwells there.
Once you are born in Zion, you become a citizen of Zion. Your birth certificate is registered by the Lord Himself. As He does so, He conducts a census, counting the citizens of His realm one by one. God’s counting is not random nor approximate. He is precise and exact, demonstrated in the numbered of martyred souls that appear in the End Times (Revelation 7:4) and in the precise list of names in His mysterious book, the Book of Life (Revelation 21:27).
The fact that God counts souls is noteworthy. It suggests He knows each of the citizens of Zion by name. He knows every one of them, and when one is lost, he goes and finds it (Matthew 18:12-13). It is comforting to know He will never lose those who are His (John 10:29). He knows His own (John 10:14), even the number of hairs on each head (Matthew 10:30). Every citizen of Zion is personally cared for by the God who lives there.
Springs of Joy
“Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, “All my springs of joy are in you.”
— Psalm 87:7
Those familiar with Zion can appreciate the sentiment of these singers and musicians. Zion is not only a birthplace of souls; it is a source of joy for its citizens. Even more, it is the only source of joy. All other springs promising joy are sour by comparison.
The joy of Zion is a unique kind of joy that can be experienced regardless of circumstance. Even when things aren’t going well in my other place of citizenship, the good ol’ USA. Sadly, very few find it. We do not automatically experience it. To experience its joy, we must approach Zion in worship (Psalm 132:7). There, the needy are satisfied with its provisions, the priests find redemption, and godly ones find joy (Psalm 132:15-16).
I find the dwelling place of God nearly every day when I sit alone with God in the early morning hours, reading His words and writing back to Him my thoughts of the day. I also find it in the tense moments of whispered prayer before an important presentation, following a difficult conversation with a friend, or when anxiously dealing with car problems. I can vouch that Zion is a place of daily redemption. God is in Zion, and He is approachable, inviting, accessible. He “waits on high to have compassion” on me (Isaiah 30:18). Jesus is there, gently calling me to come and lay my heavy burdens aside and find rest with Him (Matthew 11:28-30). The Holy Spirit is there, and when I make myself available to His indwelling and control, I find “life and peace” (Romans 8:6).
Sometimes I wish I could stay there all day long. The demands of life call me away, but not before I am refreshed and recharged with encouragement from God Himself, distributed from His throne in Zion.
I am a citizen of a mysterious place called “Zion”. In a sense, it is like dual citizenship, for I can be a citizen of the USA and a citizen of Zion at the same time. The similarity stops there, however. It’s not an apples to apples comparison–one is physical, the other, spiritual. One is temporal, the other, eternal. I will not always be here, but my citizenship in Zion is permanent.
This puts things in perspective. For one, I know that in Zion there are consequences for my actions long after I die, long after my deeds are forgotten on earth. My faithful deeds will be rewarded; selfish actions will be contended. What I do here matters, both in this life and the next. I will keep that in mind, and “store up treasures in heaven”, just as Abraham did when he believed God against all odds (Romans 4:18-22).
Secondly, I will vote, watch TV, buy cars, and eat pizza like any American. I will see these things as gifts from God, and give thanks to Him for each one. But my life will not be defined by them. I will avoid conforming to this world, not be like the enemies of Christ who set their minds on earthly things (Philippians 3:18-20). Rather, I will live like a citizen of Zion who waits for the things to come.
Being a citizen of Zion essentially makes me an alien in my own country. A wanderer in my homeland. It is an irony realized by all saints since the days of Abraham. I would not have it any other way. I am thankful for the privileges of my citizenship. I will obey my American laws and leaders. I will pay my American taxes. I will enjoy my life in America and exercise my rights as a U.S. citizen. But I will not entangle myself in the endless political bickering, will not fix my hope on its economic health nor a political candidate. I want my heart to rise and fall with the victories and assaults on God’s kingdom, not with the news from Washington. I will get my joy from Zion, and face each crisis with the provisions God offers me there.