BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 153 (April-June 1996):131-40

         Copyright © 1996 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.    




                                  PSALM 87  

                   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 Israel that used to be sung in

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,

            Zion, city of our God;

            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 Israel's ancient temple

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

town in Oregon. I noticed in the morning bulletin that the Scrip-


Ronald B. Allen is Professor of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dal-

las, Texas.

* 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 Dallas Theological Seminary, February 7-10, 1995.



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 Zion

                        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 Babylon to those who

                        know Me;

                        Behold, 0 Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia:

                        ‘This one was born there.’"

            5. And of Zion it will be said,

                        "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 [London: SCM,

19591, 579-80).

                           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 Zion (vv. 1-3). The second strophe re-

ports on Yahweh's pleasure in the peoples of Zion (vv. 4-6). The

third strophe exults in Yahweh's determination in Zion (v. 7).




    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 Jerusalem. Why would the eternal, infinite God find

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

Zion's gates that exceeds His love for Jacob's dwellings. Indeed,

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 Zion itself. And the third and greatest love is for the

gates of Zion. We can think thoughts after the psalmist by enu-

merating each of these three items: the dwellings of Jacob, the city

Zion, and the gates of Zion.

            The dwellings of Jacob suggest not merely homes scattered

about the land of Israel, but fulfillment of the divine promise to the

ancients that the people of Abraham through Isaac would one day

enjoy the benefits of life in the land of God's blessing.

            When the ancient pagan diviner Balaam4 looked at the en-           .

campment of Israel, the Spirit of God caused him to acknowledge

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"

(Num. 23:9).

            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 established Israel

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 Zion. The word "Zion" is used by the poets in

the Bible to describe the city of Jerusalem in a most endearing

manner. This word is part of the widespread literary figure that

Jerusalem is Yahweh's beloved "daughter." The phrase "daugh-

ter of Zion" (e.g., Isa. 10:32; 62:11; Zeph. 3:14) is a misleading

translation. Readers may think the poet was speaking of Zion

having a daughter. Actually, however, Zion is the daughter, so the

phrase should be translated "'Daughter Zion."6 As God has a "son"

in the people of Israel (Exod. 4:22), so He has a "daughter" in the

city of Jerusalem. When the poets of the Bible used the term "Zion"

they were speaking of Jerusalem in the most endearing of ways.

            Why did God affirm His love for Zion's gates? Ancient cities

in Canaan and Israel were built for defense against invaders.

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.

Martens, God's Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology, 2d ed. [Grand Rapids:

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 for Israel.

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 Jerusalem; indeed, Zion

is His dear "daughter." But God has an even greater love for

Zion's gates, because the gates allow people to come near to Him in

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 Zion   

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 Zion is the city of the true God.

Christian readers appreciate Yahweh's inordinate love for

Jerusalem not only because they know this was the site of the an-

cient temple of God, but also because it was in Zion, in Jerusalem,

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 Oregon. We began in the moun-

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

of the Oregon Trail on this sesquicentennial anniversary year.

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 Oregon Trail, this

history was now mine, because it is the shared history of the

American people.

                         Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung 137


Psalm 87 presents an epiphany that transcends wagons from

the old West crossing an Oregon hillside. This psalm displays a

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

temple in Jerusalem. Delitzsch wrote of this stunning intrusion

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

vols. (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 3:18-19.

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

in Jerusalem. In the process He "discovered" something to which

He responded with mock incredulity and divine joy.

            What He observed is a multinational congregation in the

Jerusalem temple. This is simply wondrous. All through the Old

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, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Ethio-

pia. Rahab is not the redeemed woman from Jericho. Her name

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).

Since Yahweh had defeated Egypt by the use of water, the poets

of the Bible liked to call old Egypt "that dragon" (e.g., Isa. 30:7),

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

Jerusalem had come from what formerly had been an enemy na-

tion, a nation that had been derided by Israel's poets. Yet, there

they were, the "dragon people" amid the Hebrew worshipers!

            Among them were also people from Babylon, the proverbial

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 word "Babylon."


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

[Chicago: Moody, 1972]).

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 "Babylon the great harlot" (Rev. 17:1-6). But people

from Babylon were there in the Lord's temple, adoring Him.

            They were joined by people from nations as diverse as

Philistia and Tyre. The ancient Philistines were the long-stand-

ing enemies of Israel, particularly during the time of Saul and

David. They had come to the Canaanite coastland from Crete,

and ultimately from the Aegean.. The Philistines are thus an in-

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.

            Tyre calls attention to the Phoenicians, the most sophisticated

and urbane of the ancient peoples of the land of Canaan. The

Phoenicians, who lived in the area of modern Lebanon (or what is

left of that land), were a warring, seafaring people. But even from

among these calloused people some came to Jerusalem to become

part of the worshiping community of Israel's God.            .

            Ethiopia, a portion of eastern Africa, is G11:), which here and in

other places in the Old Testament may mean Africa in general.

            Psalm 87:4 celebrates the ethnic diversity of the peoples gath-

ered in the Jerusalem temple to worship the Lord. With the Jewish

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 Jerusalem in the glorious coming king-    g&

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 Zion were individuals from Egypt and Babylon, from          .

Philistia, Tyre, and Africa. God looks out on His courts, and with

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 Israel.

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 Zion. Here, then, is one passage in Hebrew

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;

82:6). The words, "shall establish her," point to Zion's great fu-

ture. What Zion was in the psalmist's day would become the place

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 Zion in saving faith are regarded by Him "as

having been born there." All believers of all ages have their true

identity in Zion. Wherever a person may have been born, when

that person comes to faith in God the Savior, his or her place is

Zion, the city God loves.



            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 found in Philistia. They

are not in Egypt. None is found in Africa, in Europe, on South Sea

Islands, or in America. Only by coming to Zion, that is, to Zion's

God, can one be born again. In Zion the Hebrew peoples worshiped

the living God in the temple of His presence. In Zion the Lord

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.

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204


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