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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 87

Psalms 87

Sion, the much valued city of God, is protected and honoured by him, Psalms 87:1-3. The fulness of the heathen shall one day enter into it, find in it their true home, and all the fountains of their salvation, Psalms 87:4-7. Psalms 87:1-3, the contents of which are general, are to be considered as forming the introduction. The main thought is that contained in Psalms 87:4-7, the glorifying of Sion by the reception of the heathen into the number of its citizens; and a well-defined form and arrangement of this thought forms the proper kernel of the Psalm, viz., “Sion, the birth-place of the nations,” which occurs in every one of the three verses ( Psalms 87:4-6), which are bounded by a Selah behind and before.

The formal arrangement is, upon the whole, easily discerned; the number seven of the verses is divided by a three and a four. ( Psalms 87:7, as far as the main idea is concerned, is intimately connected with Psalms 87:3-6; it contains the praises of Sion as sung by its new citizens.) If we search deeper, it is manifest that the numbering pervades the words as well as the verses. The whole is grouped mind the ( Psalms 87:4) 4th verse, which stands in the middle, and contains twelve words. The three preceding verses have the Numbers 7, 7, 5, and the three following verses have exactly the same (in Psalms 87:5 the איש ואיש is considered as one word, and in like manner the ילד־בה ). If we consider the 7 and the 5 as the broken 12, the whole becomes characterised by the 7 and the 12, the signature of the covenant, and of the people of the covenant. The seven is, according to common rule, divided by the three and the four. Everything here agrees too harmoniously together to admit of the arrangement being the result of chance. The view is one of considerable importance in more respects than one. Thus it attests the originality of the Title in Psalms 87:1, and, consequently, of the titles generally; for the title forms part if the artificial structure of the Psalm, a structure which falls, to pieces as soon as the title is removed. In like manner it sets aside arbitrary attempts, such as that of Ewald, who magnanimously endeavours to cover over out of his own resources, the pretended defect at the beginning of the Psalm. And it also explains, adequately, the very concise form of expression throughout the Psalms which certainly looks like one, the words of which had been numbered.

The title furnishes no means for expounding historically the Psalm. For the song of the Sons of Korah, to whom it is assigned, was heard at very different times. Yet an historical exposition is demanded by the contents. For hopes such as those here expressed, suppose some actual occasion by which their flame, always glimmering under the ashes, might be kindled up in the soul of a prophet, or of a Psalmist who is particularly dependent upon such actual occasions. These actual occasions are of a twofold character: either the depth of misery, the sad contrast between the idea of the people of God, and their appearance, which powerfully constrains heaven-enraptured souls to seek compensation in the future, and opens their spiritual eye to behold the glory pointed out to them by God, (this is the history of the Messianic prospects immediately before the exile, during it, and shortly after its close), or some great present salvation, in which the believing soul sees a prelude and a pledge of the perfection of salvation, and by which it is lifted up to the active exercise of hope in regard to it. The spirit and tone of the Psalm render it manifest that it was an occasion of the latter kind, as at Psalms 68, Psalms 72, that existed in the case before us; the former is, generally speaking, rather prophetic than lyric; poetry is dependant upon the popular tone of mind, and is drawn forth by it, while prophecy corrects it. The whole character of the Psalm agrees with the title, which designates it a Song of Praise. There are no traces of tears recently dried up in the clear countenance of the Psalmist, as there were, for example, in that of Jeremiah, when he began to sing the song of Israel’s deliverance. Triumphant joy pervades it from beginning to end.

If we endeavour to define more closely the historical occasion, everything leads us to the joyful events under Hezekiah. We cannot fix upon an earlier time. For before this time Babylon could not have been named, as it is here, as being, next to Egypt, the representative of the power of the world. Its rising grandeur became first known in the time of Hezekiah. In the (Psalms 48) forty-eighth Psalm, which was composed by David, Egypt and Cush still appear, Psalms 68:31-32, as the representatives of the might of the world: in Asia at that time it had no adequate representative. Further, the name Rahab, haughtiness, pride, by which Egypt is here designated, occurs for the first time in Isaiah 30:7, in a prophecy belonging to the time of the Assyrian oppression under Hezekiah, and this passage is undoubtedly the fundamental one on which the others, the passage before us and Psalms 89:11, depend,—the name does not occur in Isaiah 51:9-10: comp. at Psalms 74:13. Isaiah indicates pretty clearly that he is the author of the name, when he says: therefore I call it Rahab. And in like manner, we cannot come down to a later time. The deliverance under Hezekiah is the last great joyful event previous to the captivity; and the name by which Egypt is here designated forbids us again to descend to a period later than that event. The name “haughtiness,” “pride,” was suitable only so long as Egypt continued to be a formidable power (and that Rahab is to be explained in this way is manifest from Job 9:13; Job 26:12; Isaiah 51:9; comp. at Psalms 74:13, besides Isaiah 30:7); the word is never applied to a ferocious aquatic animal, a sea monster; by the battle at Karkemish or Circesium on the Euphrates, the haughtiness of Egypt was humbled, its pride was broken. The name appears, indeed, in Psalms 89:11, but only in reference to the haughtiness and pride of the past, the incarnation of which was Pharaoh in the time of Moses: but here the allusion is that even this still haughty and proud power shall take upon itself the yoke of the Lord,


Egypt, with all its haughtiness and pride.

Further, it is evident from Psalms 46, Psalms 75, Psalms 76, which were all composed at this time, that the Psalm-poetry received a mighty impulse from the events under Hezekiah, and was at that time awakened out of its long slumber. The first of these Psalms, like the one now before us, belongs to the sons of Korah, and shows that these men at that time, were found among the organs by whom the joy of inspired men and the confidence of the people received their adequate expressions. This Korahitic-Jehovah Psalm is intimately connected with that Korahitic-Elohim Psalm, not only in spirit and tone, which it possesses in common with Psalms 47 and Psalms 48, the ancient models after which the Korahitic Psalms of the time of Hezekiah were composed, but also in particular expressions, such as the praise of Sion (comp. Psalms 46:4-5,with Psalms 87:1-3 here), the name “ the city of God,” which is given to it here (comp. Psalms 46:4 there with Psalms 87:3 here), and the words “he establishes it,” here in Psalms 87:5, and there in Psalms 46:5.

If we suppose the Psalm to have been composed on the occasion referred to, it will appear quite intelligible that the Psalmist should, break out so suddenly at the beginning with praise of the security of Sion: he merely lends his mouth in this case to the full heart of the people; verse second also, “The Lord loveth the gates of of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob,” is seen in its true light, for this preference for Sion was at that time verified—its gates remained closed upon the enemies, while all the rest of the country was subject to their sway,—the heart alone remained uninjured. In like manner, also, the expression in Psalms 87:5, “He establishes it, the Most High,” receives its foundation.

That time also was peculiarly well-fitted to develop the germ of the main-idea of our Psalm, the hope, namely, which always slumbered among the people, of the conversion of the heathen to God and to his kingdom. The ancient promise, “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed,” had at that time found a prelude of its fulfilment. The common enemy of the human race had been cast to the ground for the sake of Sion; the heathen shared in a blessing which was in the first instance imparted to her. That they were not wholly hardened against this favour, but that they responded to the exhortations of Asaph, “Let them bring gifts to the Dreadful One,” Psalms 76:12, is evident from 2 Chronicles 32:23, “And many brought gifts to the Lord to Jerusalem.” What time could be better fitted than this to awaken the hope of the future conversion of the heathen?

Finally, if we assume the occasion referred to have been the correct one, a surprising light is thrown upon the enumeration of the nations, which thus is saved from the appearance of arbitrariness. The nations enumerated are only such nations as were bound up in community of interest with Israel at that time and are hence the same as the “many” of Chronicles. The Egyptians formed always the chief object of attack to the Assyrians, and were severely threatened by Sennacherib. The Ethiopians at that time were closely bound up with the Egyptians (comp. Rosellini i. ii. p. 105), and Torhaka, king of the Ethiopians, was, according to Isaiah 37:9, in the train against Sennacherib. The king of Babylon, whose rising power the spiritual eye of the prophets had already before this time beheld in the fore-ground of the future, and whom they had represented to themselves as the heir of the decaying Assyrian (comp., for example, Is. 39:23, Is 39:17; Micah 4:10), sent a present, after the Assyrian catastrophe, to Hezekiah, and sought to enter into closer terms of friendship with him. Isaiah, in chap. Isaiah 14:29, threatens the Philistines with dreadful misery from the Assyrians, and it is evident, from chap. Isaiah 20:1, that this threatening was fulfilled.

Rich Tyre would, in all probability, come in next after Judah.

Thus, therefore, everything unites in favour of the assumption of the composition at the time referred to, in favour of which it may still be added that some passages remind us very strikingly of Isaiah.

Verses 1-3

Title. By the sons of Korah, a Psalm, a Song of Praise. Ver. 1. His founded (city), upon the holy mountains. Ver. 2. The Lord loves the gates of Sion more than all dwellings of Jacob. Ver. 3. Glorious things are said of thee, thou city of God.

The suffix in יסודתי , Psalms 87:1, refers not to Sion, which every where throughout the Psalm is plural, but to Him of whom the soul of the Psalmist, and of the people at that time, was so full that every one would immediately think of him, even when he was not expressly mentioned, the Lord; comp. Psalms 87:2 and Psalms 87:5, and Isaiah 14:32, Isaiah 54:11, where the founding of Sion by the Lord is, in like manner, mentioned. We cannot translate: his founding, for the noun יסודה never occurs; it must be: his founded ( city), as a simple participle. The founding of Sion took place in a spiritual sense, when it was chosen to be the seat of the sanctuary; comp. the being born used of the spiritual birth in Psalms 87:4-6. It was at that time that the place, though it had previously existed, received its true foundation. It is better to supply “ is founded,” out of “his founded city,” than to insert the mere “is:” comp. יסד with ב of that on which it is founded in Isaiah 54:11, “I will found thee on sapphires.” As in other passages Sion is always spoken of only as the holy mountain of the Lord (comp., for example, Psalms 2:6, Psalms 43:3), and as the Psalmist, throughout the whole Psalm, has to do, not with the whole of Jerusalem, but only with Sion, Mount Sion here must be understood as alone meant. The Psalmist speaks of mountains, because Sion is one part of a mountain range, comp. Robinson ii. 15. The whole was indebted for its dignity to this particular part. The sanctity of the mountain range, of which Sion formed the kernel (the remaining portion was merely the shell) denoted its separation from all the other mountains of the earth, its inapproachable character, its impregnable security against all the attacks of the world. For this sanctity it was indebted to the choice of God, fixing it as the seat of his church upon the earth. The mountain is holy “as the mountain which the Lord chooses for his seat,” Psalms 68:16. The praise which is here bestowed upon Sion belongs peculiarly to the church of God upon the earth. As it belonged to Sion only in so far as it was the seat of the church, so it belongs to the church only in so far as it is really the church.

On the expression, “The Lord loveth,” in Psalms 87:2, comp. Psalms 78:68. The gates are specially mentioned because it was against them that the assaults of the enemies were in the first instance directed. If they remained safe, the whole city was safe: comp. Isaiah 60:18. —“There is spoken,” in Psalms 87:3, stands instead of “men speak.” The נכבדות is the accusative; comp. Ewald, 552. The form of expression is designedly general: by God, by man, among Israel, among the heathens, Sion gets glorious praise. Glorious: because the Lord protects thee, wonderfully maintains thee, shall at a future time wonderfully increase thy citizens; comp. the glorious praise of Sion in Psalms 48 and Psalms 46 which may serve as a commentary. Of thee:—comp. on דבר with ב of the object. We may also translate, “ in thee,” the glorious things of God’s wonderful protection and blessing upon thee; comp. Psalms 48:3, “God is known in her palaces for a refuge.” “Thou city of God” (comp. Psalms 46:4, Psalms 48:1) contains the ground of the fact that there is said something glorious of Sion or in Sion.

Verses 4-7

Ver. 4. I announce Rahab and Babylon as those who know me, behold Philistia and Tyre with Cush: this one was born there. Ver. 5. And of Sion it is said: every one is born in her, and He establishes her, the Most High. Ver. 6. The Lord shall count in the writing down of the nations: this one was born there. Selah. Ver. 7. And singers and dancers: all my fountains are in thee.” At the time when these hopes were expressed, the number of the members of the kingdom of God had been very much melted down. The ten tribes had already been led away into captivity, and Judah remained alone in the land. In these circumstances the longing after the fulfilment of the old promises of a posterity to Abraham as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea, must have been awakened with peculiar power, and must have seized with especial ardour upon everything, such as the above mentioned events in the time of Hezekiah, which furnished a foundation on which such a hope could rest, and brought into view a compensation for the loss of Israel in the coming in of the heathen. In like manner in the present day, the melancholy condition of the church among ourselves makes us look with earnest longings towards heathen lands, and observe every sign which intimates that the Lord will there collect new members for his church.

In the first half of Psalms 87:4, the Lord speaks, and from the second half to the end the Psalmist; for it will not do to suppose that the Psalmist begins with “and” in Psalms 87:5. The difference, however, is one purely formal, so that it would scarcely be proper to read the address of the Lord with inverted commas. The Psalmist who speaks in the spirit of the Lord, merely continues what the Lord had begun. The חזכיר , is to mention, to announce, as Psalms 20:7; Psalms 45:17; Psalms 71:16; Psalms 77:11; Jeremiah 4:16. The לידעי is as my knowers, such as know me, like יצא לחפשי to go out as a free man, Exodus 21:2. On to know the Lord, compare at Psalms 36:10; Isaiah 19:21 is parallel: “And the Lord shall be known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day.” The translation of Gesenius must be rejected: I will make them known to my (old) acquaintances. For the mere announcement is not sufficient; the quality must be pointed out. Isaiah 19:19, &c., is, for example, really parallel; where Egypt and Assyria, instead of which we have here Babylon on the ground already mentioned, serve the Lord, and Israel is third in the covenant; and also Isaiah 44:5, “this one shall say I am the Lord’s, and this one shall call himself by the name of the God of Jacob, and this one shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel.” After “behold Philistia and Tyre with Cush,” we must supply: this shall be said by them; compare מדבר in Psalms 87:3, and יאמר in Psalms 87:5. This supplementary clause is indicated by the quotation given of the words which these utter: this one was born there. Tyrus had already been named in Psalms 45:12, as among the nations which shall in future times turn to the Lord and his kingdom. The Berleb Bible: “The Syrians had already furnished workmen and materials for Solomon’s temple, as a good ‘type that they also would join in the fellowship of the Church of New Testament times, of which the Canaanitish woman formed the first fruits.” On the conversion of the Cushites, compare Psalms 68:31; Psalms 72:10. Berleb: of which the eunuch of Queen Candace, Acts 8:27, was the first fruits. “This one” does not refer to individuals, but to the ideal persons of the nations who had formerly been spoken of, and with whom the Psalmist has throughout to do; compare particularly, “when the people shall be recorded” in Psalms 87:4. The “being born” stands here in. anticipation of the New Testament doctrine of the second birth in a spiritual sense: besides the passage before us, it occurs only in Job 11:12, “and the vain man shall be wise, and the wild ass born a man.” Sion is the birth-place of the higher existence of the heathen, their spiritual mother city. They shall be there born anew as children of God and children of Abraham.

In Psalms 87:5, the great favour which the Lord shows for Sion in making her the birth-place and the true home of the heathen, is again touched upon for the purpose of placing it in connection with a second favour, that namely of strength and maintainence. It is in this connection, that what is new and advanced in the thought lies. Calvin: “It often happens, that in proportion to the rapidity with which cities rise to distinguished eminence, is the shortness of the continuance of their prosperity. That it may not be thought that the prosperity of the church is of such a perishable and transitory nature, it is declared that the Most High himself will establish her. It is not surprising, as if it had been said, to find other cities shaken, and subjected from time to time to a variety of vicissitudes; for they are carried round with the world in its revolutions, and do not enjoy everlasting defenders. But it is the very reverse with the new Jerusalem, which, being founded upon the power of God, shall continue when even heaven and earth shall have fallen into ruins.” On אמר with ל compare Psalms 3:2; Psalms 71:10. We may also translate here, “ to Sion,” although in point of form the address is not directed to Sion. The ואיש איש is to be considered as one noun, and signifies each and every one (comp. Esther 1:8; Leviticus 17:10, Leviticus 17:13),—man is added to man, nation to nation, comp. at Psalms 87:4. He, he himself and no other, not a weak human being. The Most High—comp. Psalms 47:2.

In Psalms 87:6, which Luther has wholly misunderstood, ספר has its usual sense, to count, compare 2 Samuel 24:10, where it is used of David numbering the people. The Lord numbers the nations 1, 2, 3, &c., and in doing so, in assigning in the case of each the reason why he counts it in, he makes the remarks: this one was born there. The כתוב is not a noun (no such noun occurs), but an infinitive: in the noting down of the people—not when he notes down, but when they are noted down. The Lord merely presides at the taking up of the lists, and intimates who are to be marked down. There lies at the foundation a reference to the usual enumeration and citizen-rolls, compare Ezekiel 13:9, which gave a poor and miserable result as compared with the high expectations and hopes which had been called forth in the church of God at its commencement. There comes at last, however, a numbering which satisfies all these hopes. Whole hosts of nations shall be added to the kingdom of God.

Psalms 87:7 is so far separated from Psalms 87:4-6, as is intimated by the Selah, as that there is nothing more said in it of Sion as the birth-place of the heathen; it is so far connected, however, as that the matter spoken of is still the relation of the heathen to Sion. It contains the words with which these new citizens of Sion praise it as the fountain of all their salvation: and singers and dancers (at the head of every great procession of the heathen), speak thus: all my fountains are in thee. The mention of singers and dancers leads to a joyful procession, in which the redeemed from the heathen, as Israel did on a former occasion after their passage through the Red Sea, Exodus 15:20-21, express their gratitude to the Lord and to his church. In such joyful processions the singers here first named occupy the chief-place; compare at Psalms 68:25. What these did with their lips, the ring-dancers expressed in music and by mimicry; compare Psalms 149:3; Psalms 150:4, “let them praise his name in the dance.” As: the one no less than the other. חלל is a verbal noun from Pil. of חול , compare מחוללות , the ring-dancers in Judges 21:23, which, according to Judges 21:21, is to be derived from חול . Psalms 30:11, and the example of David, 2 Samuel 6:16, render it manifest that the ring-dance was not confined to young women, but was also engaged in by men. The fountains are the fountains of salvation, which revive the thirsty soul and the thirsty land; compare Psalms 84:6; Isaiah 12:3, “with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” In Ezekiel 47, there flows a fountain proceeding out of the sanctuary in Sion, spreading the blessings of fertility and life through the wilderness into the Dead Sea, the two emblems of the heathen world. Compare on the representations of the blessings of the kingdom of God by the emblem of a stream, at Psalms 36:8; Psalms 46:4. The בך can refer, as in Psalms 87:3, only to Sion: in the Lord and thus in Sion his church, which he has made the depository of all his treasures; compare Isaiah 45:14. Calvin: “Now that we know that whatever has been foretold by the Spirit has been fulfilled, we are more than unthankful if experience superadded to the words of Scripture, does not still more confirm our faith. For it is not possible to say how gloriously Christ by his appearing has adorned the church. Then the true religion which had hitherto been confined within the narrow boundaries of Judea, spread over the whole world. Then for the first time God, who had hitherto been known only by one family, was called upon in the different languages of all nations. Then the world, which had hitherto miserably rent in pieces by the innumerable sects of superstition and error, was gathered together into a holy unity of faith.”

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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 87". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.