For my weekly quiet time this week, I’ll blog about Psalm 87. Psalm 87 is extolling the splendor of Zion. Psalm 87:4-6 is an especially intriguing passage that has sparked discussion among scholars and interpreters. Vv 4-6 say (in the King James Version):
“(4) I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; this [man] was born there. (5) And of Zion it shall be said, This and that man was born in her: and the highest himself shall establish her. (6) The LORD shall count, when he writeth up the people, [that] this [man] was born there. Selah.”
I first heard of this passage when I went to an independent Seventh-Day Adventist church in Massachusetts. The pastor appealed to this passage to resolve the “those who never heard” problem—-the question of how God can send to hell those who live in countries that have never heard of Christianity. According to the pastor, Psalm 87:4-6 was saying that God at the last judgment will take into consideration where people were born rather than condemning people who lived in countries that lacked exposure to Christianity.
In my study, I found a variety of interpretations of what was going on in Psalm 87:4-6. Here is a sample:
—-Psalm 87:4-6 is saying that God regards the Jews who were born outside of Israel as citizens of Zion. (“This man was born there”—-“there” being taken as Zion.) God will either restore them to Zion, or he regards their worship in the Diaspora as acceptable, like he considers the worship that takes place in Zion.
—-Psalm 87:4-6 is affirming that God will regard Gentiles as citizens of Zion. (Again, the “there” in “This man was born there” is taken to be Zion.) According to this view, Psalm 87:4-6’s message overlaps with that of the prophets who predicted that Gentiles would come to Zion and worship God. Marvin Tate argues that there may be a precedent in the ancient Near East of regarding a foreigner as a citizen of one’s own country. Tate refers to Neo-Assyrian documents that treat newly conquered foreign peoples as Assyrians. One thing that is interesting about this interpretation is that Psalm 87:4 calls Egypt Rahab, which was a sea-monster who was hostile to God. Could Psalm 87:4-6 be holding out the hope that even those who are hostile to God will worship him at Zion? This is not the only eschatological expectation regarding the Gentiles, for there are biblical passages that predict destruction rather than inclusion of some of the nations mentioned in Psalm 87:4-6. But Psalm 87:4-6 may be one of the Hebrew Bible’s inclusive voices.
—-The Jewish commentator Radak says that the passage means that other nations have a few great men, whereas there are many great men (as v 5 says literally, man and man) in Zion. (In this case, the “there” in the first “This man was born there” is taken to be the foreign countries.)
—-The Jewish commentator Rashi offers the interpretation that vv 4-6 are saying that people who are born in the great lands of Egypt and Babylon are highly regarded, but there will come a time when those who are born in Zion will be highly regarded. (Here again, the “there” in the first “This man was born there” is applied to the foreign countries.)
—-Here’s an idea I have: Maybe the people of the foreign countries are admiring those who were born in Zion. (In this scenario, the “there” in the first “This man was born there” is Zion.)