BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 153 (April-June 1996):131-40
Copyright © 1996 by
A SONG RARELY SUNG
Ronald B. Allen
The first, article in this series sought to set the stage for
the importance of walking along pathways in Scripture that are
rarely traversed. These walks may be taken for two reasons. One
is the sheer joy of marking out new territory. The second is the
divine duty of making these texts our own familiar friends, lest
they be lost to us, and to our posterity, merely from misuse and
Among the hymns of ancient
temple worship, Psalm 87 has experienced a peculiar fate in the.
worship of the church. The words of John Newton's great hymn
"Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" have been drawn from `
this ancient psalm.
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
He whose word cannot be broken
Formed thee for His own abode.
However, the biblical poem on which this worthy hymn is based
remains among the most enigmatic of
songs. The classic hymn is still being sung, but the ancient, bib-
lical poem is all but, unknown.
When one reads through Psalm 87, the reason for its lack of
familiarity becomes clear; it seems to be nearly unintelligible. ."
The first time I spoke from this psalm was in a church in a small
Ronald B. Allen is Professor of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dal-
* This is article two in the four-part series "On Paths Less Traveled: Discovering
the Savior in Unexpected Places in the Old Testament," delivered by the author as
the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at
132 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA I April-June 1996
ture passage was to be read by one of the men in the church. I
watched him walk up to the platform in polished, highly tooled
leather boots. I saw the western cut of his shirt and sport coat and
saw his Marlboro-man visage--and I feared the worst. I know
that the soul of a poet may be found in even the most rugged of
men, but the situation did not look good. I realized too late that I
should have requested that another passage be read as the morn-
ing Scripture rather than this difficult psalm.
But there he was. He looked down at me 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 me and
then to the congregation and said, "See what I mean? It still don't
mean a thing." Then he went and sat down.
I was a bit shaken, but as I walked to the pulpit, I thought this
man had actually set things up quite well in developing a level of
interest. It was just that I would have to deliver, or else.
Psalm 87 is a truly marvelous poem, but it presents problems
of several sorts. First, it shows an unusual compactness of ex-
pression. Poetry is generally marked by an economy of words,
but this psalm has an unusual brevity, even an abruptness in its
treatment.1 Second, the poem draws on literary and theological
imagery that may not be readily apparent to modern readers.
Third, the poem relies on a concept that is truly unexpected, the
literary device of a divine visitation amid God's people.
1. His foundation is in the holy mountains.
2. The LORD loves the gates of
More than all the dwellings of Jacob.
3. Glorious things are spoken of you,
0 city of God! Selah
4. "I will make mention of Rahab and
0 Philistia and
‘This one was born there.’"
5. And of
"This one and that one were born in her;
And the Most High Himself shall establish her."
6. The LORD will record,
When He registers the peoples:
"This one was born there." Selah
1 Artur Weiser writes, "The language of the poet is anything but flowing. He
molds his brief sentences in such a daring and abrupt manner that only a few char-
acteristic features are thrown into bold relief while their inner connection is left
in the dark" (The Psalms: A Commentary, Old
Testament Library [
Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung 133
7. Both the singers and the players on instruments say,
"All my springs are in you."2
Psalm 87 has three strophes or poetic movements of unequal
length; the first two are indicated by the term "Selah" at the end of
verses 3 and 6. The first strophe presents an affirmation of Yah-
weh's impassioned love for
ports on Yahweh's pleasure in the peoples of
third strophe exults in Yahweh's determination in
YAHWEH'S LOVE FOR
The first verse presents an example of the terseness that
marks this psalm. Literally the verse reads, "His foundation .. .
in mountains of holiness." The term "His foundation" has no
antecedent, there is no verb, and the plural form of the term
"mountains" is problematic.3 But the point is clear: God has made
His place in
such importance in a mere place among the hills of faraway Ju-
dah? And even if we knew the answer, some might ask, Of what
importance is that today?
Verse 2 is even more striking, speaking as it does of the ongo-
ing love (the verb is an active participle) that Yahweh has for
three objects of God's love are given in this section of the poem.
One is His love for the dwellings of Jacob. Another, which is im-
plied, is for
merating each of these three items: the dwellings of Jacob, the city
The dwellings of Jacob suggest not merely homes scattered
ancients that the people of Abraham through Isaac would one day
enjoy the benefits of life in the
When the ancient pagan diviner Balaam4 looked at the en- .
that he was not looking at merely another nation. He saw that Is-
2 Unless otherwise noted, English quotations are from the New King James Ver-
sion of the Bible.
3 Grammatical and syntactical issues are discussed in more detail in Willem A.
VanGemeren, "The Psalms," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E.
Gaebelein and Richard P. Polcyn (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:561-64.
4 My argument that Balaam was a pagan diviner is developed in my essay, "The
Theology of the Balaam Oracles," in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of
Charles Lee Feinberg, ed. Paul Feinberg and John Feinberg (Chicago: Moody, 1981),
134 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA /April-June 1986
rael was distinguished from among the nations: "For from the top
of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him; There! A
people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations"
The phrase "all the dwellings of Jacob" in Psalm 87:2 may be
a poetic extension of that earlier observation. The tone of this
psalm is affirmative, even idealistic. God had
as a nation apart from all other nations, dwelling exclusively for
Him as His people in His land. This picture of Yahweh's re-
deemed people, living in communion with Him, enjoying life in
the land He gave them forms what Martens calls "God's de-
Thus this passage affirms Yahweh's love for the dwellings of
Jacob, in direct fulfillment of His promises to Abraham (Gen.
12:7; 15:18-21; 17:8).
The second affirmation of Yahweh's love in the passage is
implied; this is for
the Bible to describe the city of
manner. This word is part of the widespread literary figure that
translation. Readers may think the poet was speaking
having a daughter. Actually, however,
phrase should be translated "'Daughter Zion."6 As God has a "son"
in the people of
they were speaking of
Why did God affirm His love for
in Canaan and
Cities were often built on high hills near roads, water, and arable
land. These four factors-height, roads, water, and farmland-
would figure again and again in decisions of ancient peoples to
rebuild on sites that previously had been destroyed by wars with
enemies or calamities of nature.
These wooden barriers., even when equipped with iron fit-
tings, were the weak points of the city. For this reason the ancient
engineers designed imposing towers and complex structures to
5 Martens develops his excellent approach first from Exodus 5:22-6:8 (Elmer A.
God's Design: A Focus on Old Testament
Theology, 2d ed. [
Baker, 1994], esp. 17-30). "It is the thesis of this book," he writes, "that the fourfold
design described in Exodus 5:22-6:8 is an appropriate and also adequate grid ac-
cording to which to present the whole of the Old Testament material" (ibid., 27).
6 This is an appositional genitive. See Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An
Outline, 2d ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), 11, sec. 42.
Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung 135
protect these gates from fire, hacking instruments, and battering
rams. So one might ask, Are these massive, complex structures
that surround the gates and protect the city serving as the focus of
God's love in this passage? No, it is the gates themselves.
In the gates there is something more important to God, more
loved by Him, than even the realization of His design
Gates were used not just to keep invading armies and wandering
brigands from entering the city; the gates were also the means for
rightful people to enter. They were the means of access to the city.
The gates made it possible for people to come near to God.
There is thus a profound progression in verse 2. God loves the
dwellings of Jacob, for this was the realization of His purpose to
bring His people to His land. God loves
is His dear "daughter." But God has an even greater love for
holy worship. God is ever seeking true worshipers (John 4:23).
The beauty of the words of Psalm 87:3 is inescapable in stan-
dard translations, despite a grammatical difficulty in the He-
brew text. These are the words: "Glorious things are spoken of
you, 0 city of God!"7 The second movement of the psalm (vv. 4-6)
identifies those glories and why they are spoken. The glories are
the assertions concerning the work of the living God in bringing
about the new birth of peoples of the nations who
have come to
through its open gates to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
The phrase " 0 city of God" uses the definite article with the
Hebrew term "God." This word Myhilox<hA has the distinctive use of
the article, meaning "genuine deity."8 That is, there is some-
thing thing important in
the notion that
Christian readers appreciate Yahweh's inordinate love for
that the Lord Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead.
7 The problem is that the term "glorious things" is plural and the participle is
singular. Should we read, "Glories is spoken of you"? Some emend the passive
(Pual) participle to the active (Piel) with God as subject, "He [the Lord] speaks glo-
ries of you." But it may be possible to leave the difficult Hebrew phrasing as it is
and to understand this as an example of an implied, impersonal subject: "He is i
they are / speaking glorious things of you." This implied, impersonal subject may be
taken as a plural, "wonderful things they tell of you." This is the view of Hans-
Joachim Kraus, cited by VanGemeren, "The Psalms," 563, n. 3. Williams speaks of
passive, impersonal constructions in which the apparent object is really the subject
and follows the verb without concord (Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 13, item 59); but
his examples are of the determinative accusative, marked by the "sign" of the defi-
nite direct object. Genesis 27:42 serves as an example. Perhaps Psalm 87:3, in po-
etry, intentionally omits the sign of the definite direct object before the accusative.
8 See Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An
Outline, 19, item 88.
136 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1996
This second movement of the poem includes quotation
marks, and a new speaker, the Lord Himself, is presented. This
marvelous verse suggests an epiphany of the sovereign Lord
among His people.
In August 1993 I was with a group of three hundred cyclists on
a five-hundred-mile ride across
tains east of Pendleton and made our way west along secondary
roads and through small towns until we reached the Pacific coast.
The most memorable event in our journey occurred near the end
of our first day's ride. We had been riding for about seventy
miles on a glorious, warm day. Suddenly I was aware of a num-
ber of cars moving along our road, which had seen very little traf-
fic; among the cars passing us 'were a number of sheriff vehicles.
I signaled one deputy to roll down his window. I shouted, "What's
going on?" He shouted back, "The wagons are coming!"
The wagons! We knew about a reenactment of the founding
A train of authentically recreated wagons was retracing the
journey that had first been taken in 1843. But we had no idea that
our route of cycling would intersect that afternoon with the route of
the wagon train. Most of the riders I was with went on to the camp,
but one rider and I decided to wait and meet the wagons. We
chained our bicycles to a fence post and scrambled up a hillside to
meet with our past. Along the way we actually walked on wagon
ruts that were 150 years old; so many wagons with such heavy
loads had compacted the earth so soundly, that despite generations
of tilling, the ruts were still visible.
High up on the hillside we sat down, waiting and looking
eastward up the hill. At last we heard some sounds, clanking and
hoofs, murmured voices and muffled sounds. Then there was the
rise of a cloud of dust. We saw the ears, then the heads of the
horses of the lead riders, then the riders, and at last, the wagons.
It was an epiphany of the grand history of the American West. It
was a moment of sheer magic. Tears came down our cheeks.
Like excited children, we started running to meet the horses and
wagons, and we ran along with. them as they descended the hill. I
remember one cowboy shouting, "Get those bicycle riders out of the
way; they will scare the horses!"
We experienced a "visitation" from the past, a reenactment of
Western history that had now become "our history." Though none
of my ancestors came across the West on the
history was now mine, because it is the shared history of the
Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung 137
Psalm 87 presents an epiphany that transcends wagons from
the old West crossing an
stunning picture of a divine visitation. Here the Lord of glory
came down to visit His people as they were worshiping in His
temple. But the surprise of this psalm does not end with the divine
visitation. The psalm records the grand notion that God Himself
was in a manner of speaking, "taken back" at the peoples who
were present to worship His name.
From time to time the Bible uses poetic language that has an
almost childlike naivete with reference to God's interaction with
mankind. The Hebrew word often used to describe this "intersec-
tion" of God with mankind is dqaPA, "to visit." Since God is not
limited by space or time, the use of the verb dqaPA with God as the
subject is a condescension to finite understanding. It is a way of
indicating a more immediate sense of God's presence. For exam-
ple, ple, when God brought about the completion of His promise to
Abraham and Sarah so that the two of them in their advanced ages
might finally become the parents of the child of promise, Genesis
reads, "And the Lord visited [dqaPA] Sarah as He had said, and the
Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken" (21:1).
At other times the idea of a divine visitation may be in view,
even without the verb dqaPA. Genesis 6 describes God's evaluation of
the utter sinfulness of mankind that led to His overwhelming
judgment in the great Flood. "The Lord. saw that the wickedness
of man was great in the earth" (v. 5) and "so God looked upon the
earth, and indeed it was corrupt" (v. 12). That is, without using
the verb dqaPA Genesis 6 indicates that God came near, in a sense,
for a "visit" to observe mankind's profound wickedness.9
A key to understanding Psalm 87 is to identify the speaker in
verse 4. A comparison with the wording of verses 5-6 leads to the
conclusion that the speaker is none other than the Lord. That is,
Psalm 87 presents Yahweh visiting His people at worship in His
of God into the psalm. "Jahve [Yahweh] Himself takes up the dis-
course, and declares the gracious, glorious, world-wide mission
of His chosen and beloved city: it shall become the birthplace of
all nations."10 Whereas in Genesis 6 Yahweh came down to ob-
serve wickedness among mankind leading to overwhelming
judgment, the divine visitation in Psalm 87 depicts righteousness
leading to further divine blessing.
9 Psalms 14:2-3 and 53:2-3 refer to a similar divine investigation of the wicked-
ness of mankind.
10 Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton, 3
138 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1996
The pictorial language of this psalm provides an example of
an irruption of the presence of God among His people.11 Though
God is everywhere, there is still the concept of a more immediate
sense of His presence in theophany, epiphany, and irruption.
In a lovely poetic manner this poem presents Yahweh coming
to His temple to observe the congregation gathered to worship Him
He responded with mock incredulity and divine joy.
What He observed is a multinational congregation in the
Testament period foreign nationals were being attracted to wor-
ship the living God, especially during the reigns of Solomon and
Hezekiah. The times of peace, of a flourishing economy, of peri-
ods of religious vitality-these were times of great evangelism
among foreign peoples in biblical times.12
The list includes Rahab,
is not the redeemed woman from
was bHArA. But the Rahab in Psalm 87:4 is bHara,13 one of the scrip-
tural terms for a "dragon," similar to the terms "Leviathan" and
Nyn.iTa (Job 9:13; 26:12; Ps. 89:10; Isa. 27:1; 51:9). This is not the place
to recount the use the poets of the Bible make of dragon imagery,
except to say that this imagery, drawn in part from Ugaritic
mythic poetry, was used as the classic put-down of the Egyptians
whom God destroyed at the climax of the Exodus (Exod. 14-15).
Yahweh had defeated
of the Bible liked to call old
in a mocking, derisive contempt for a people who had dared to
stand against the living God.
But here is the wonder: The term bHara, "the dragon people," is
used here of those who have come to worship the Lord. That is, this
psalm turns the joke on its head. Some of the worshipers of God in
tion, a nation that had been
they were, the "dragon people" amid the Hebrew worshipers!
Among them were also people from
seat of apostasy (Gen. 11:1-9). [f one wanted to convey the concept
of idolatry briefly, all he need do was to say the
11 "Eruption" refers to a blowing out from within, as in a volcano, whereas
"irruption" is the breaking into from without, as in God's action.
12 George M. Peters's presentation of centripetal force in world missions in the
time of the Hebrew Scriptures is fascinating (A Biblical Theology of Missions
13 Ronald B. Allen, "The Leviathan, Rahab, Dragon Motif in the Old Testament"
(Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1968).
Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung 139
Even in the New Testament the ultimate expression of idolatry is
described as "
They were joined by people from nations as diverse as
ing enemies of
They had come to the Canaanite coastland from
and ultimately from the
stance stance in which "Europeans" enter the biblical record; for the
most part they were exceedingly wicked. But here in Psalm 87
some of the Philistines were worshiping Yahweh.
and urbane of the ancient peoples of the
who lived in the area of modern
left of that land), were a warring, seafaring people. But even from
among these calloused people some came to
part of the worshiping community of
other places in the Old Testament may mean
Psalm 87:4 celebrates the ethnic
diversity of the peoples
ered in the
believers were peoples from a variety of places and cultures, a
prefiguring of the complex of peoples from the world who now
worship the Savior in the church, and ultimately that varied popu-
lation that will inhabit
dom of the Savior.
The wording of verse 4, "to those who know Me," might better
be rendered "as those who know Me." Among those who entered
the gates of
great joy He sees those who have been born in foreign places but
who are now found among His people.
More surprising than anything else in this psalm is what
God said three times about these people: "'This one was born there"
(vv. 4-6). This repetition is remarkable, given the psalm's pen-
chant for terseness. Amazingly God imputes to foreign-born be-
lievers that they are the same
as the native-born peoples of
This strongly repeated idea conveys the dramatic message of this
undeservedly obscure psalm, the message of being born again.
These people who had come to faith in Yahweh as proselytes
had been born in a variety of places, among ethnic peoples, across
the known world. But in their coming to faith in the living God,
He, Yahweh, declared them born "again." They were "born
there," that is, in
140 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / April-June 1996
Scripture to which Jesus may have alluded when He expected that
Nicodemus knew about being "born again" (John 3:3, 10).
In verse 5 the word for "Most High" (NOyl;x,) is used particularly
with reference to God's power over the nations (Pss. 47:2; 78:35;
The words, "shall establish her," point to
where an increasing number of peoples would come from the na-
tions to adore the living God. This is prophetic of the coming of Je-
sus, of the spread of the gospel, and of His coming rule as Savior-
King (Isa. 2:1-4). In Psalm 87:6 the psalmist wrote, "The Lord
will record, when He registers the peoples." Those who have en-
tered the gates of
having been born there." All believers of all ages have their true
that person comes to faith in God the Savior, his or her place is
The cryptic words, "All my springs are in you" (Ps. 87:7), are
not so confusing when read in the light of other Scripture. The po-
ets of the Bible often portrayed salvation pictorially as a spring, a
fountain, a source of fresh water in an arid land.
The fountains of God are not to be
are not in
Islands, or in
can one be born again. In
the living God in the temple of His presence. In
Jesus fulfilled prophecy and met the demands of the living God in
His sacrificial death, burial, and glorious resurrection.
Those who know the Lord join the list of peoples from biblical
times to their own--they are Zion-born. And this old poem, elu-
sive as it seems at first to be, is the certain song of redemption.
See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal Love,
Well supply thy sons and. daughters,
And all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age.14
14 This is the second stanza of the hymn "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,"
written by John Newton.
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