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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 48

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Here we have taken the title that appears in the ASV, because it uses the word “Zion,” as a designation of Jerusalem, having a double application, not merely to the earthly Jerusalem, but to the heavenly Jerusalem which is above, “which is our mother” (Galatians 4:26).

This psalm, along with Psalms 46 and Psalms 47, forms a trilogy. All three seem to reflect the euphoria of Israel following the miraculous deliverance from the army of Sennacherib. “Psalms 46 extolled the deliverance; Psalms 47 extolled the power and majesty of Him who wrought it; and Psalms 48 describes the glory of the city which God has so marvelously preserved.”(F1)

Two different historical `deliverances’ are identified by scholars as possibly the occasion for the psalm. Rawlinson seemed sure that the occasion was that described in 2 Chronicles 20:1-28, “Upon which a confederation of three nations, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and the Edomites attacked Israel during the reign of Jehoshaphat. They advanced as far as Tekoa, from which town Jerusalem is visible; but they quarreled among themselves, began a retreat, and then came to blows against each other, destroying themselves.”(F2) The mention of a plurality of `kings’ in Psalms 48:4, and their turning back in `dismay’ (Psalms 48:5) were factors cited by Rawlinson in support of his view.

However, Sennacherib’s army was made up of multiple vassal kings (Isaiah 10:8); and the `dismay’ of Sennacherib could have referred to his consternation following the destruction of his army! Dummelow, Addis, Baigent and others cling to the view that the deliverance during the reign of Hezekiah in 701 B.C. was the occasion.

Either view seems all right to us, for we certainly do not know which is correct; and, for that matter, as we have often pointed out, `it really doesn’t make a lot of difference.’

One thing, however, seems to be dogmatically certain, `This psalm is not a cultic, liturgical celebration of the occasions when pilgrims came to Jerusalem to worship.’ Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that the terminology here is influenced by mythological traditions of pagan peoples surrounding Israel. There is one possible exception to this which we shall notice under Psalms 48:2 b.

There is also an eschatalogical implication in the entire psalm. The earthly Jerusalem is most certainly a type of the Church of our Lord; and there are surely overtones of this poem that speak of the eternal security and glory of the Church.

John Newton’s immortal hymn, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,(F3) set to the music of the ancient national anthem of Austria by Joseph Haydn, stresses this spiritual meaning of Psalms 48.

If the dominant opinions regarding the occasion are correct, then the date of the Psalm would be shortly after 701 B.C.

The divisions of the psalm are Psalms 48:1-8, concluded with the word “Selah”; and Psalms 48:9-14. Leupold further divided the psalm thus:

I. Zion’s glory is the indwelling of the Lord (Psalms 48:1-3).

II. A recent instance of God’s protection (Psalms 48:4-8).

III. An exhortation to praise the Lord for his judgments (Psalms 48:9-11).

IV. The glories of Zion to be transmitted to posterity (Psalms 48:12-14).(F4)

Verses 1-3


“Great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised, In the city of our God, in his holy mountain. Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth. Is mount Zion on the sides of the north, The city of the Great King. God hath made himself known in her palaces for a refuge.”

“Great is Jehovah” The mad frenzy of the Ephesian mob, shouting for hours at a time, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians,” was the insane cry of the pagan world; but here the greatness of Jehovah is proclaimed, along with the proof that God is indeed truly `great.’

“In the city of our God… in his holy mountain” These expressions are not intended to identify the place where God is praised, but the place where God resides. It is the indwelling of God in his chosen city that glorifies and secures the city as nothing else in heaven or upon earth could accomplish. Note also that in Psalms 48:3, God is even “in” the palaces of the nobles as “a refuge.”

Before leaving this verse, we should remember that Jesus himself referred to Jerusalem as, “The city of the Great King” (Matthew 5:35). This, of course, was not spoken of any Davidic king, but of God in heaven.

We would be amiss not to point out that God also in-dwells the New Jerusalem, his holy Church. The Day of Pentecost was the occasion when, “with a rushing sound of a mighty wind, and with cloven tongues of fire,” the Spirit of God descended upon the apostles who were the nucleus of God’s Messianic kingdom; and every child of God on earth also has his measure of the token indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There is also a vast difference. God’s presence in the ancient Jerusalem was confined to the Temple; but now he dwells in the heart of every believer.

“Beautiful in elevation” The elevation of ancient Jerusalem was literal, as the city was actually built on a mountain; but the “elevation” of God’s Church (the New Jerusalem, or the New Israel) is ethical and spiritual.

“The joy of the whole earth” It is almost impossible to apply this statement to the earthly Jerusalem; but Interpreter’s Bible did their best: “This means that from all lands the pilgrims came up with rejoicing and loud singing.”(F5)

Of course, the truth about this was bluntly stated by Adam Clarke who wrote, “There is no sense in which literal Jerusalem was ever the joy of the whole earth.”(F6)

The fulfilment of this in its fullest sense is found only in the joy of Christians worshipping all over the world continually for nearly two thousand years. As Spurgeon stated it, “Jerusalem was the world’s star; whatever light there is upon this earth, it comes from the oracles of the Word of God preserved by Israel.”(F7) This is profoundly true. Christ the Light of the World chose Jerusalem as the place where He would make the atonement for all men. “The Word of God went forth from Jerusalem,” as the prophets declared; and, in the sense of the old Israel’s providing the nucleus and the original membership of the Messianic Kingdom of God, - in this sense, Jerusalem is indeed “the joy of the whole earth.” We might also add, that, `in no other sense whatever could the statement be viewed as the truth.’

“In mount Zion on the sides of the north” Some scholars maintain that “the sides of the north” are here a reference to the location of the Temple mountain in relation to the rest of the city; but that is disputed. A popular view, current among recent scholars, is that there is here a reflection of the mythological tale locating the abode of certain pagan gods “in the far north.” RSV honors that viewpoint by rendering the last phrase here, “Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.” We do not altogether trust the RSV in some renditions wherein they are definitely inferior both to the KJV and the American Standard Version. Addis declared that the text here, “does not even hint at such a rendition.”(F8)

The mythological claims that lie back of this interpretation were mentioned by Leupold. “The expression `the far north’ is an allusion to another mountain, a kind of Olympus (where the Greeks imagined the gods lived), which was supposed to he the dwelling place of certain near-Eastern gods.”(F9) Kidner identified one of those near-Eastern gods as, “Baal who was supposed to live on Mount Zaphon (meaning `north’),”(F10) Leupold further remarked that, “What the psalmist here implies is that what the fables of the Gentiles imagined, was indeed a reality in Zion, for the true God actually lived there.”(F11)

Our own conviction with regard to this is that, “If the RSV is indeed correct, then Rhodes’ comment is appropriate. He wrote: “The Psalmist throws the pagan mythology out the window, and by the use of the expression states that Jehovah God is the true deity, and that Zion is truly `the far north’ where God lives.”(F12)

Verses 4-8


“For, lo, the kings assembled themselves, They passed by altogether. They saw it, then they were amazed; They were dismayed, they hasted away. Trembling took hold of them there. Pain, as of a woman in travail. With the east wind Thou breakfast the ships of Tarshish. Now have we heard, so have we seen In the city of Jehovah of hosts, in the city of our God: God will establish it forever. (Selah)”

For comment on the first three verses here, see the chapter introduction.

“With the east wind thou breakest the ships of Tarshish” This is in all probability merely a figurative expression emphasizing God’s power. There never was a campaign in which a great navy was available to aid the cause of Israel’s adversary. The impossibility of fitting this verse into the supposed occasion for the psalm, whether the reign of Jehoshaphat or of Hezekiah, has caused some interpreters to refer the whole psalm to the eschatalogical conflict of the days of Gog and Magog. The idea of some kind of a proverbial expression of God’s power appeals to us as the best solution.

“God will establish it forever” No doubt ancient Israel made some deductions from this that were totally unfounded. First, it was not an unconditional promise, as far as the literal Jerusalem was concerned. Israel’s rejection of Messiah resulted in the most terrible destruction the city ever experienced; and yet in the sense of its eternal continuity as “The New Jerusalem,” the promise was absolutely and unconditionally fulfilled. We must, of necessity, find overtones of that ultimate fulfilment in the text of this psalm.

Verses 9-11


“We have thought on thy lovingkindness, O God, In the midst of thy temple. As is thy name, O God, So is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: Thy right hand is full of righteousness. Let mount Zion be glad, Let the daughters of Jerusalem rejoice, Because of thy righteousness.”

The cultic notion as applied to this psalm finds here some kind of a drama performed in the temple, ending in a procession around the city. As we have repeatedly noted, there is no solid evidence whatever that such an imaginary tale could be the truth.

“Thy praise unto the ends of the earth” As Adam Clarke noted, “These verses outline the duty of God’s people to praise and honor him for his judgments.”(F13)

“Thy right hand is full of righteousness” This righteousness was of a double variety. Favor and blessing were given to God’s people, but judgment and destruction came upon the enemy.

“Let the daughters of Judah rejoice” “These were the outlying villages and cities in the area of Jerusalem.”(F14)

“Because of thy judgments” “This means, `Because thou hast vindicated thy people and executed judgment upon their enemies.’“(F15)

Verses 12-14


“Walk about Zion, and go round about her; Number the towers thereof; Mark ye well her bulwarks; Consider her palaces: That ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God forever and ever: He will be our guide even unto death.”

“Number the towers… mark her bulwarks” The pride of the psalmist in the strength of Jerusalem was fully justified. When Vespasian and Titus finally destroyed the city, Titus stated that “Only God had enabled him to conquer it.” In fact it was the moral collapse of the city within itself that activated their final overthrow.

“He will be our guide even unto death” The RSV is superior here, rendering the last words as, “He will be our guide for ever.” Of course the passage is disputed; and there are charges that the “text is damaged here,”(F16) that “the words should be omitted,”(F17) or that “the true ending has been lost.”(F18) However, we believe that the correct rendition of this place is that in the LXX, which has, “For this is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide forevermore.”(F19)

Our preference for the Septuagint (LXX) here is founded upon the evident fact that the New Testament here sheds light upon the Old Testament. The Old Israel is a type of the New; and when Christ said to the New Israel, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world, Amen!” he gave us the true meaning of this place. It is not that God will be with his people only until they die, but eternally, even unto the end of the world.

Leupold rendered this disputed phrase, “in spite of death,” declaring that this meaning, “deserves to be retained.”(F20) Dummelow rendered the passage: “For such is Jehovah our God; He it is that shall guide us forever and ever.”(F21)

Ash stated that, “Many manuscripts support the emendation that gives us `forever’ in the RSV.”(F22) The RSV is indeed superior to some other versions; but there is even a better one, namely, the LXX. This is proved by McCaw’s statement below.

McCaw stated that, “Our guide `forever’ (as in ASV) arises from one emendation in the Hebrew text; but a much lesser change gives us `unto, against, or beyond death’ and that is preferable even to the RSV.”(F23) This, of course, also supports the LXX rendition.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 48". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-48.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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