The Psalm we heard this morning begins with a call to praise God. The place where God dwells is declared to have taken on God’s character – Holy – beautiful – elevated. Zion is these things because God abides there in the temple. It is God’s presence that suffuses the mountain and the city with these characteristics. There might be great architecture and craftsmanship but it is God’s presence that makes it holy, beautiful, and lifts it above its surroundings. And recognising these things, and praising them in the city is a praise of God – the God of the mountain, of the city.
It is the joy of all the earth – This is an international Psalm – it is making universal claims for God. At that time each country and people group had it’s own local god or gods. In claiming Zion is the joy of the whole earth, the writer is making an astounding claim. The God that we are called to praise in this Psalm is not just the God of this people, of this land, of this time, but the true God of the whole of creation.
This claim is strengthened in the next line of verse two, where we find this strange phrase– Mount Zion, in the far north. Now, I suppose that in some senses everywhere (apart from the south pole) is north of somewhere, but when you look at a map of the middle east, Jerusalem, which is built on and around Mount Zion, isn’t really in the far north. If anything it’s in the south of the country. So what does this mean? Well, I’m afraid it’s a problem with the translation. The word in Hebrew is “Zaphon”, in fact if you read this verse in the NIV it says, “like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion”. Now, “Zaphon” does have a secondary meaning in Hebrew of “north”, but that is not its primary meaning. It’s primary meaning is the name of the this other mountain, Zaphon. Which clears up the geography.
But why did the writer compare Mount Zion to the heights of Zaphon? Well, unlike Mount Zion, Mount Zaphon wasn’t an actual place, it was the mythological home of the god Baal – a bit like Olympus in Greek myth was the home of the Greek Gods. From the ancient texts it does appear that there were various hills and mountains called Zaphon at different times – but it is unlikely that any of these were the “original” Mount Zaphon – that was a myth. The point is that by comparing Zion to Zaphon, the Psalmist is saying that Zion is a real place where God’s presence can be experienced on earth – Zion is the reality, the fulfilment, the truth of the desire of all the peoples on earth for there to be a place where God’s presence can be encountered.
In the next two sections we are shown a contrast between two different ways that people respond to God’s presence as the writer describes the approach of two different groups of people to Mount Zion.
The first group of people are those who approach Zion with pride, with conquest in their hearts. They want to dominate, to rule, to conquer. They may be kings of nations, generals of armies, but when they come face to face with the reality of the power of the presence of God, they are undone. Their pride melts into fear and panic. They flee, trembling, anguished – like a flotilla of ships scattered by a gale, they cannot abide.
In contrast, the second group of people are those who approach Zion with humility, with worship in their hearts. They want to meditate, to be loved, to praise. They are pilgrims, worshippers, and when they come face to face with the reality of the power of the presence of God, they are fulfilled. Their humility sees victory and righteous judgements. They abide, praising, gladdened – a company together with the perfect guide who will not allow them to become lost.
When we read these verses it is easy to put them far from us. They were written centuries ago, in a foreign language, in an alien land. And yet, when we scratch below the surface how close to home they can strike. If we approach God with pride in our hearts, if we want to control others, if we seek to bend God to our will, then we will find ourselves scattered and trembling.
And yet, if we approach God with humility and worship, we find ourselves drawn in, restored, welcomed.
As a little side note, I find it interesting that the writer uses different pronouns in these two sections. In the first section it’s all “they”. They did this, they did the other, they got their comeuppance. In the second section it’s all “we”. We’ve done these things, we’ve been rewarded. I wonder if, like me, you are ever tempted to put the negative things, the accusations, the blame on them and they, and claim the positive things of life, the high ground, the righteous indignation for us and we.
I wonder if you’ve ever come across these irregularly declined verbs:
I am firm.
You are obstinate.
He is a pig-headed fool.
I am a Romeo
You are a Lothario
He should be locked up
I wonder what the equivalents we have in our thinking that excuse our own behaviours and hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves? Perhaps we have to be a little careful of that.
Anyway, back to the main thrust of the Psalm. The call to praise has gone out, the call to the world to praise the universal God. A contrast has been painted between those who approach God with pride and those who approach in humility, and the different experiences of God’s presence that comes from these different approaches has been portrayed. Now the end of the Psalm returns to a call to praise, but now it is not just a geographically universal call – the whole earth – but an eternal call – it is for the whole of time- our God is for ever and ever.
It seems to me that that there is a recognition here that the physical city will not last. The worshipper is instructed to consider well her ramparts. The temptation when looking at magnificent, awe inspiring buildings – especially defensive ones, is to believe that they are impregnable, impenetrable, imperishable. The temptation for the people of God was to trust in the stones rather than in their Rock. To trust in the buildings rather than the One whose presence makes those buildings secure. But a careful consideration defies this temptation. The writer knows that towers do not stand for ever, walls crumble, brick is eroded. And so, the next generation is to be told that it is God who is to be trusted and relied on, not buildings of brick or walls of stone, but God – who is forever and ever, whose steadfast love never fails.
That is the scope and theme of the psalm, and I think that there have already been some things to provoke and challenge us in that. However, I’d also like to draw out three little phrases from it and invite us to consider them more closely, and our lives in their light.
The first is from verse 8, “as we have heard, so we have seen” I wonder if you remember the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. They have this strange conversation about water, and her past, and true worship, and then she goes back to the town and tells everyone to come and meet Jesus, because she said, “he’s told me everything I’ve ever done”. The townsfolk go and see Jesus and many became believers because, they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of just what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” “as we have heard so we have seen”. We are called to share what we know of Jesus in words of truth and acts of love, and to invite people to come and see for themselves, so that they too can believe and know and see for themselves God’s steadfast loving kindness.
The second is from verse 9, “We have thought on thy steadfast love, O God, in the midst of thy temple” When the Psalmist was writing about the temple he was talking about the physical building in Jerusalem. But that isn’t the temple any more, it isn’t the dwelling place of God. No building is. Not a huge great beautiful cathedral, not a humble village church building. So where is the temple? What does Paul write to the church at Ephesus?
“Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being himself the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
We, the church, are the temple. We are the dwelling place of God. We are made holy, beautiful, lifted up by that presence. Some will react to that presence and be drawn in, some will be terrified of it and shy away. But it is here, in this company, that we are to think on God’s steadfast love.
The third is from the last verse, “that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever.” I was so encouraged when we had the Eyton history day a couple of weekends ago. Lots of people, lots of good conversations, we raised some money, great cake. But there two other things as well. One was the number of younger folk who came. The second was the place of St Catherine’s in the history. It was, and is, integral. On the displays, it didn’t feel like that there was the village history over there and the church history over here. They were intertwined, pictures of the building and references to the church popping up all over the place. That is something to be cherished. It is God whose steadfast love has sustained this worshipping community, it is the eternal God who will sustain it into the future. We are already sharing this truth with the next generation. I’d like to encourage us to continue doing that, and perhaps even get a bit bolder in doing so – stepping out in trust in the God who is our God forever and ever.