Psalm 87

Psalm 87 is one of those psalms, when you are reading through the Bible, that you read, scratch your head, and then move on to the next psalm. Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Cush – what do those words mean?

I found on the internet the story of a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary who preached from Psalm 87 in a small town in Oregon, in the northwest of the US. As he sat in his seat he read in the bulletin that the psalm would be read by one of the men in the church. When the time came, a man stood up and walked to the platform. He was wearing polished, highly-tooled leather boots. He was wearing a shirt with a western cut. He had the build and look of a Western cowboy and the professor became anxious about how this psalm would be read. He wondered if he could ask for a different Scripture to be read but it was too late.

The man stood at the pulpit. He looked down at the professor and then down at his Bible. Then he said something like this: “Howdy, folks. I read over this psalm twice last night. It didn’t mean a thing then. I read it this morning and it still don’t mean a thing. Well, you listen and see.” Then he read the psalm. He looked out at the professor and then to the congregation and said, “See what I mean? It still don’t mean a thing.” Then he went and sat down.

That’s an honest assessment of Psalm 87. There are some parts of the Bible that we can read and be blessed by the truth that is so clearly evident. There are other parts of the Bible that we have to read and study to discover the truth that is hidden to us because what we are reading was written 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. The cultural context of the scripture we are reading is unfamiliar to us and the words have little meaning.

But Psalm 87 is a beautiful psalm containing wonderful, exhilarating truth that gives each of us great hope.

Let’s dive in and be refreshed and encouraged.

He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
2 The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.
3 Glorious things are said of you,
city of God:

I talked two weeks ago about David bringing the Ark of the Covenant up the hill into Jerusalem. It was kept in a tent until David’s son, Solomon, built a temple for the Ark. Jews traveled, even from more distant lands, to come to Jerusalem and the Temple for the three annual festivals. Jerusalem was the heart of Israel.

The psalmist writes “the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.” Why does God love Zion more than any other part of Israel? I wrote in the RICEmail a couple weeks ago that I dislike Casablanca. I far prefer Rabat. But that is me. What I think about Casablanca does not mean that much.

But what would you think if God spoke to you and said he loved Rabat more than your part of the world? What would you think if God said he loved Europe more than Africa, or he loved Asia more than North and South America? If God had a ranking of continents and nations he liked more than others, we would say, “That isn’t fair.”

This is the reaction that some other religions have had to Judeo/Christian faith. Hindus who have many centuries of pursuing God in their history, long before Abraham was born, are offended by the idea that God did not reveal himself to them rather than a nomadic Semite in Canaan. If Jesus is God, why did he not come to Hindus who have pursued God longer than anyone else? Why did God reveal himself to Abraham and not a Hindu in India, a Buddhist in Asia, A Mayan in South America, or a pagan Norseman?

Psalm 68 addresses this question. (Psalm 68:15–16)
Mount Bashan, majestic mountain,
Mount Bashan, rugged mountain,
16 why gaze in envy, you rugged mountain,
at the mountain where God chooses to reign,
where the Lord himself will dwell forever?

Mount Bashan is a snow-capped peak that looks down on Mount Zion, a mere hill in comparison. Why did God not choose a more grand mountain? What is so special about Mount Zion and the Jews that he chose them and not any other people or place in the world? This is a question that gets us nowhere.

But you and I can be grateful that God did not restrict his love to one nation. God did not chose to be born in India, or in Korea, or in Europe, or in Africa, or in any other part of the world. But God, from the beginning, intended that his invitation to come to him and live with him in eternity would be extended to the entire world. That is what is celebrated in Psalm 87.

Of all the people in the world, God chose Abraham to be the father of his chosen people. Each country had their own god. The Philistine god was Dagon. Among the Hittite gods were Arinna and Ellel. The primary gods of the Canaanites were Baal, Asherah, and Astarte. Israel’s god was Yahweh.

When Jonah took a ship into the Mediterranean Sea to run away from God’s call for him to preach to the Ninevites, a storm came up and the sailors each called on their own nation’s god to save them. They were upset with Jonah because he was asleep in the hold of the ship rather than calling on his national god for help.

But the god of Israel was not a local god. The god of Israel was the all-powerful, creator God who existed before the creation of the universe in which we live. God chose Abraham but God’s love extended and extends to every human who has ever lived on this planet.

God chose Abraham to be the father of Isaac, the father of Jacob, all the way down to Jesse the father of David and then all the way to (Matthew 1:16)
Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

Jesus came to live among the Jews, God’s chosen people, but throughout his teachings and interactions there are hints that God’s love is not restricted to the Jews. And when Jesus resurrected from the dead, he appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus and gave him the call to take the gospel into the Gentile world.

Jesus came to save not just the Jews but all mankind. This takes us to Psalm 87:4.

4 “I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’

Who are the ones who will acknowledge God?

Rahab. Who is Rahab?

In Isaiah 30:6–7 we read:
A prophecy concerning the animals of the Negev: (the Negev is the desert on Israel’s border with Egypt)
Through a land of hardship and distress,
of lions and lionesses,
of adders and darting snakes,
the envoys carry their riches on donkeys’ backs,
their treasures on the humps of camels,
to that unprofitable nation,
7 to Egypt, whose help is utterly useless.
Therefore I call her
Rahab the Do-Nothing.

Why is Egypt called Rahab?

In some Old Testament passages Rahab refers to a demonic monster of the sea. In Isaiah 51:9–10 we see this and see also the connection with this monster and Egypt.
Awake, awake, arm of the Lord,
clothe yourself with strength!
Awake, as in days gone by,
as in generations of old.
Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster through?
10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made a road in the depths of the sea
so that the redeemed might cross over?

When Israel made their exodus from Egypt and were pursued by Pharaoh’s army, the sea stood between them and freedom. They were trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the sea. But then the monster of the sea was defeated, the waters parted, Israel passed over to safety, and Pharaoh’s army was drowned.

The psalmist says that Israel’s enemy, Egypt, Rahab, will be among those who acknowledge the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Not only Rahab, but also Babylon will be represented among those who will acknowledge the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The great powers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon warred with each other and used Israel as a pawn in the game. When these superpowers marched through the area, Israel suffered. Eventually Babylon conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and took the leading Jews captive into Babylon where they spent seventy years before coming back to rebuild the temple. We will come to this period in Israel’s history next month when we will preach from the minor prophet Zechariah.

To the ears of those who heard this psalm read, it was astonishing. Israel’s superpower enemies will be represented among those who acknowledge the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even Egypt and Babylon will acknowledge the God of Israel.

But not only Egypt and Babylon, also Philistia will be represented. The Philistines were the nation Israel was never able to subdue. The Philistines defeated Israel in a battle and captured the Ark of the Covenant. Saul fought against the Philistines. David fought against the Philistines. In 1 Kings 4:21 we read:
And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.

Philistia was a longstanding enemy of Israel, a personal enemy of Israel, a neighbor who never stopped threatening Israel. In Israel’s ongoing conflict with Philistia, some battles were lost and some battles were won, but Philistia was never subdued. Solomon ruled over the territory from the Euphrates River up to the border of Philistia, as far as the border of Egypt. Solomon ruled up to the border but not past it. But Psalm 87 says there will be some among the Philistines who will be represented in Zion.

Tyre was a merchant nation and represents other nations who were friendly to Israel. In 1 Chronicles 14:1 when David was king we read,
Now Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar logs, stonemasons and carpenters to build a palace for him.

Israel’s enemies and nations friendly to Israel will be among those who acknowledge the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And then the psalmist includes Cush, Ethiopia, which represents all the far off lands of the world. Israel’s enemies, Israel’s friends, and the distant nations of the world will be among those who will acknowledge the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

4 “I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’

Psalm 87 declares that the people of the world will acknowledge the God of Israel as their God and God will say,
‘This one was born in Zion.’

What does this mean? Does this mean people from all over the world will move to Israel and have children who are born in Jerusalem?

It is clear that Zion represents a community and not just a place. Psalm 87 is a prophetic word that sees to the time when the writer of Hebrews would compare Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Law and Mt. Zion. (Hebrews 12:18–23)
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.

From what I have read, Jews read this psalm and viewed it as an affirmation that Jerusalem will forever be the home of Israel. Jews who assimilated into other countries would return to Jerusalem.

But we understand Zion as being more than Jerusalem and view it as the community of all those who follow Jesus, from all the nations of the world.

5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”

I don’t have any Jewish genes in my genome and I have never been to Jerusalem, but when I surrendered to Jesus in my second year of university, I was born in Zion. God did not appear to my ancestors to reveal himself as he did to Abraham. My ancestors were not God’s chosen people. But in the work of God, through Abraham and Moses and building on the Law of the Old Testament and the words of the prophets, the church was born and all are included in that church. We can all be born in Zion.

The writer of Psalm 87 repeats three times that one was born in Zion and each time it builds on the previous time.
This one was born in Zion.’ ”
5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”
6 The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.”

“This one was born in Zion.”
He repeats this for emphasis.
“This one and that one were born in her.”
In Jerusalem where God’s presence rests in the Ark in the Holy of Holies in the Temple this one and that one were born. In God’s presence we are born in Zion.

And then more powerfully, “The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.”

In the ancient world, royal estate cities, like Jerusalem, typically housed the administration and their citizens enjoyed certain privileges, including exemption from taxation, forced labor, military duty as well as being beneficiaries of the most beautiful and elaborate building projects. Records were kept to see who had the right to these privileges. So what the psalmist is saying is that the people of the world will have their names written in the record of Zion, giving them all the privileges that come from being born in Zion.

On Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem he was preaching to the Jews in the Temple when they became angry at what he was saying. The Roman guards came to break up the conflict and Paul was about to be flogged one more time in his life. (Acts 22:25–29)
As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

Paul was not made a Roman citizen, he was born a Roman citizen.

Because of the work of Jesus we are not just invited into Zion as guests, even honored guests. We are not given a resident card to allow us to live in Zion. We are born into Zion. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19–20
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

We are full citizens of Zion with all the rights and privileges that come from being citizens of Zion.

Our names are written in the register of the peoples. John wrote in his revelation (Revelation 21:22–27)
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

When we submit and surrender to Jesus, our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life and we can enjoy all the delights of heaven. The nations will make Zion their eternal home and lift up praise to Jesus who loved all the nations of the earth. (Revelation 7:9–10)
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

This is a glorious psalm that gives hope to all people from all nations. God chose Abraham to begin his work among the people of the earth, to draw them to himself. But from the beginning it has been God’s plan to invite not just the Jews but all the people of the earth to enter his kingdom. We are all invited. We are all loved. We have to choose to accept God’s invitation, but we are all invited. God has no favorites. Or, I could say, as I said to my two daughters, “You are each one my favorite.” We are each one God’s favorite.

Psalm 87 concludes with
7 As they make music they will sing,
“All my fountains are in you.”

The great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language will lift up praise to God. They will sing praise to God.

“All my fountains are in you” tells us that there is water, living water, that flows in Zion. This takes us to Psalm 46:4
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.

We have the privilege, because of what Jesus has done for us, of being born in Zion where there is eternal life.

What does this inclusive truth say to us?

God’s heart is for all the nations and tribes of the earth. There is not a nation, tribe, or person on earth God does not want in his kingdom. This is very clear from Psalm 87 and the rest of the Bible.

The questions we have to ask ourselves is, “Do we have God’s heart? Or do we hold on to national, tribal, ethnic, and personal prejudices?” Be honest with yourself. We all have prejudices against other nations, other tribes, other people. We may not act on them, but they are still there.

One of the reasons I love RIC is the national and racial diversity we are privileged to enjoy. When I was in business, before coming to Morocco, I regularly received letters from Nigerians trying to scam me. Because of the repeated attempts by Nigerian gangs to take advantage of unsuspecting people, I came to Rabat with a distrust of Nigerians and then discovered that a Nigerian became one of my closest friends. I had mistrust of people from India because of all the idol worship and then made close friendships with people from India.

Over my years at RIC I have become less American and more a citizen of God’s kingdom. My identity is more as a follower of Jesus than anything else. This opens up the world to relationships with people from all nations that will last into eternity.

I encourage you to look past your national citizenship, your tribal affiliation and make relationships with followers of Jesus who come from all over the world.

Currently, there is tension between the US and North Korea and Russia. But if I met a follower of Jesus from North Korea, we would experience a bond that would overcome our national tensions.

A few years ago, before Russia took over the Crimea, I was at a conference by the Black Sea and met a man from Russia who had been a soldier in the Soviet military. He was taught that Americans wanted to kill Russians and I told him about having drills in grade school where we were taught to hide under our desks in case Russia bombed us with a nuclear missile. This was a ridiculous exercise that would not have helped us at all if there had been a nuclear attack, but it did teach us that Russians were our enemies.

And there we were in a restaurant by the Black Sea, sharing a drink, and enjoying the fellowship that came from being brothers in Christ.

Rejoice in the truth of Psalm 87. Use your time at RIC to benefit from the diversity God has blessed us with. Get to know the people God loves from other countries and continents. Take advantage of this slice of heaven God has blessed us with at RIC.

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