For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 48 and its interpreters. I have two items:
1. I have encountered the same kinds of interpretations of Psalm 48 that I have for other Psalms: that the Psalm is eschatological in that it concerns God’s future deliverance of Israel from her enemies, which will precede God’s establishment of a sort of paradise in which the nations will submit to Israel and worship her God; that the Psalm pertains to a specific event in history, such as God’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrian King Sennacherib; that the Psalm is about God’s general protection of Jerusalem and subjection of chaos; and that the Psalm relates to the church and to Jesus Christ.
But I’d like to mention two interpretations of Psalm 48 that stood out to me. One interpretation viewed the Psalm in terms of God protecting Jerusalem from Israel’s national enemies. According to this interpretation, when the kings in vv 4-6 are afraid, that means that God has scared them from attacking Jerusalem, which contrasts with the pilgrims in the Psalm who actually come to God’s holy city and are encouraged to walk through it and look at its various parts. In this interpretation, God preserves Jerusalem from danger.
Another interpretation, however, is that Psalm 48 concerns the fall of Jerusalem. In this view, the kings of vv 4-6 are shocked at Jerusalem’s desolation, and, in vv 12-13, Israelites are encouraged to look at the city so that they can tell their children about it after it falls, thereby offering their children a vision of what God will rebuild in the future. I do not know much about this particular interpretation, but its idea appears to be that Psalm 48 is about Jerusalem’s fall and restoration. After all, v 7 refers to God breaking the ships of Tarshish, which may be about God defeating certain enemies of Israel (whether they are from Tarshish, or merely have large Tarshish-style ships that are able to go long distances). Some have even interpreted the exhortation in vv 12-13 to walk about the city in light of Nehemiah 12, in which post-exilic Jews dedicate and rejoice in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.
2. Psalm 48:2 says (in the KJV): “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.” The Hebrew word for “north” here is Tzaphon, which, in ancient Ugarit, was the name of the mountain of Baal where the divine assembly met. There are different ideas about what is going on in Psalm 48:2. Some just take “tzaphon” to mean “north” and contend that the point in Psalm 48:2 is that Zion was north of the city of David (Radak), or that the Temple was north of Zion (E.W. Bullinger), or that winds from the north hit Mount Zion (Theodore of Mopsuestia), or that the “north” refers to the fact that sin offerings and guilt offerings were made on the north side of the altar (Leviticus 1:11), resulting in happiness for the one offering the sacrifice and for the entire world (Rashi and the Midrash on the Psalms). Augustine comes up with an elaborate spiritual interpretation of Psalm 48:2. On the basis of the rebellion against God in “tzaphon” (the north) in Isaiah 14:13-14, Augustine argues that the north is a place of evil, whereas the south—the location of Zion—is good. Yet, Augustine notes that clouds of gold come from the north in Job 37:22, and, since gold is good, Augustine concludes that Jesus Christ must have plundered the north, that place of evil. Even though Augustine does not take this insight into a universalist direction, I appreciate his sentiment that God turns places of evil into places of good.
Others believe that “tzaphon” in Psalm 48:2 refers to the Ugaritic realm of the gods. For support of this view, some point to v 14, which mentions death, an enemy of Baal. The idea is that the Psalmist is saying that Zion is the true Tzaphon, the same way that others in the ancient Near East applied the label of “Tzaphon” to specific mountains (such as Casios, in Ugarit). I like how Peter Craigie framed the issue when he said that “The psalmist affirms, in effect, that the aspirations of all peoples for a place on earth where God’s presence could be experienced were fulfilled in Mount Zion, the true Zaphon.” That was true of historical Israel, whenever God visited the earthly sanctuary on Zion. It coincides with the Jewish and Christian eschatological hope that God will one day make his home with human beings on earth. And Craigie also notes that Psalm 48 has been used by Christians for Pentecost, a day that commemorates when God sent the Holy Spirit to empower the church. For Craigie, Psalm 48 is about God being with us.