Psalm 48 – God’s City
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. A song. A psalm. Of the Korahites.
2. The Lord is extraordinary1 and much praised in the city of our God, His holy mountain,
3. lovely in heights, delight of all the earth, Mount Zion, far end of Tsaphon,2 abode3 of the great King;
4. God, within its citadels, is known as a haven.
5. Behold, the kings conspired4; they advanced together.
6. As soon as they saw, so they were stunned; they were terrified, they panicked;
7. a trembling took hold of them there, pains like a woman in labor,
8. as when an east wind shatters the Tarshish ships.
9. As we have heard, so we have seen, in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God―may God establish it forever! Selah.
10. We sense Your faithful care, O God, in Your Temple.
11. As Your reputation, God, so Your praise reaches to the ends of the earth; righteousness fills Your right hand.
12. Let Mount Zion rejoice, let the towns5 of Judah exult, because of Your judgments.
13. Walk around Zion, encircle it; count its towers,
14. set your heart to its ramparts; go through6 its citadels, that you may recount this to a future generation:
15. that this is God, our God forever; He will lead us evermore.
1. That is, "great," but not the same Hebrew as “great” in verse 3.
2. Literally, “North,” foreign term for the gods’ abode—see commentary.
3. Means “city,” but translated “abode” to differentiate from synonym used in previous verse.
4. Or “assembled.”
5. Or “daughters” (i.e., women). (“Daughters” meaning “outlying towns,” is usually used in conjunction with a city, not a region).
6. Or “scale” (uncertain).
Psalm 48 describes two encounters with Jerusalem, one of foreign kings and one of Israelite pilgrims. It is a testimony to the impressions that the city made and the errant conclusions one might draw from what seem to be miraculous moments. Because the psalm makes use of less familiar terms (partially drawn from pagan culture) as well as an unarticulated historical precedent, I first clarify these and then proceed to an interpretation that takes note of the psalm's structure. I add final notes which include biblical echoes of the psalm and striking literary usages.
Terms: Clarifications and Assumptions
“Zion” is a pre-Israelite name for part of Jerusalem that comes to be identified, particularly in poetry, with the city as a whole (but sometimes with central aspects: divine abode, Temple site or mount, political capital, etc.). It is the only direct appellation used here for Jerusalem.
The tone and a number of terms at the beginning of Psalm 48 seem to reflect the pagan cultural milieu surrounding Israel, particularly the term “Tsaphon” (literally "North," but used in Canaanite and other cultures as the home of the gods) and the superlatives, which physically do not befit Jerusalem, a city set lower than neighboring mountains. There is widespread agreement that "Tsaphon" is either a dead metaphor (as a modern English speaker might use “Olympus” with no pagan implication) or cooption. (“The ’true Tsaphon’ is not elsewhere—it is here in Jerusalem.”) Similarly, the exaggerated praise befits the idealization of capital cities in many cultures, particularly when such cities are associated with the Divine. (“No biblical writer or audience would have failed to realize that the language employed was poetic and mythic, not to be understood literally,” writes Sarna, p. 156. Actually, there are always some who mistakenly take such hyperbole literally, but most people do understand the exaggeration.)
There is no agreement either on the location of “Tarshish” or on the import of the adjective: ships “at” or “originating from” a place, or a type of ship named for a location. In any case, the implication of strong ships (destroyed in a huge wind) is clear. (There are at least two foreign locations called Tarshish in the Bible.)
Commentators differ sharply as to whether the description of the arrival of the kings reflects historical fact or literary fiction.
Since the fourth century (Theodore of Mopsuetsia), many commentators have identified this psalm with the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib’s troops, as described in II Kings 18–19 and Isaiah 36–37, and as is broadly confirmed by Assyrian sources. (See my comments on Psalm 46.) To repeat in brief, in 701 BCE these forces besieged Jerusalem as part of a hugely successful sweep across the area. For reasons still unclear, the troops abandoned the siege, leaving Jerusalem as an exclusive survivor of this campaign, conducted by the then “superpower” of the world. The people understood this as God’s hand acting in history. Commentators who see Psalm 48 as a response to these events attribute the exaggerated faith in Jerusalem’s invulnerability to this miracle, and many see Psalms 46–48 as a trilogy deriving from that period.
Others conclude that too many details do not fit and either seek (fairly unsuccessfully) other historical precedents of threat or see the entire description as a metaphorical story. Some attribute less aggressive motives to the kings (as per the footnote, verse 5, they translate “assemble,” not “conspire,”) and see the visit as fairly innocent, or at most, a scouting mission. It seems to me that the emphasis on might at the end befits a significant military threat and I therefore see the kings as a (real or imagined) danger. Although the connection to the events of 701 rings true to me, it is not proven. In any case, this psalm is spoken from a later perspective—not by actual witnesses to the events, but by those who heard, came, and saw that the reports they received were true. It is the long-term effect of the belief that God did and will protect Zion from even the mightiest enemy that is vital, be it a response either to a miraculous single event or to generations of survival in that militarily volatile region.
The Structure and Its Implications
Psalm 48 has a clear structure. The psalm is enclosed by the (single Hebrew) term “our God” (verses 2, 15). A middle verse (9) both echoes “city of our God” and “LORD” from verse 1, and is echoed in the last verse, both by “forever/evermore” (Hebrew, ‘ad olam/ olam va’ed) and the inverse appearance of two Hebrew terms, “our God, God,” and “God, our God.” Evidently, whoever placed the musical indication “selah” after verse 9 understood that it closed the first section. Further, the two halves thus formed both begin and end with the first-person plural (“we/our”).
The two sections dwell on different subjects: the visit of the kings to the city and their reactions, and the reactions of Israelite visitors (or perhaps pilgrims or worshippers) to Jerusalem. For whatever reasons the kings came, they experience fear and terror.
The second half differs significantly. The visitors "sense" three attributes of God (appearing consecutively in verses 10, 11, 12—faithful care, chesed; righteousness, tsedek; judgment, mishpat), which appear elsewhere in the Bible as a group (e.g., Jer. 9:23; Hos. 2:21; Ps. 33:5). Thus the Israelite speakers essentially tilt the focus―away from power and toward God's qualities. Victory sparked the thanksgiving, but the celebration is value based! The “praise” of verse 2, perhaps thought to refer to victory of the first half, is gently also applied (verse 11) to God’s attributes.
The speakers claim that their presence in this city brings to mind an entire worldview, that of God’s essential qualities.
The speakers claim that their presence in this city brings to mind an entire worldview, that of God’s essential qualities.
The last part of the second half, however, refocuses on strength—if not the story indicated above, then the physical strength of the city. Particularly in light of the double entendre of verses 13 and 14 (which could be said by the speaker of the psalm to the people or by the people to the visitor kings), there is an appealing multivalence as to what is being celebrated―God’s glory, His attributes, or His victory. Perhaps the speakers could not, or would not want to, distinguish among them.
In any case, the end is chilling. Enthusiasm takes wing, extending far beyond optimism and on to certitude. Strength becomes infallibility, survival becomes invincibility. So carried away does the speaker get that he allows himself a phrase he would never utter as prose and which he certainly did not mean literally: looking at Jerusalem, he says, “that this is God.” While one could conceivably associate "this is God" with the attributes of verses 10 through 12, the phrase's immediate antecedent is physical Jerusalem. (One may wish to compare Psalm 48 with Psalm 33, where the three attributes appear in verse 4 and which shares themes: God’s guiding hand, victory over enemies, “forever,” etc. The tone is markedly different.)
Thus the psalm ends as a testimony to where expanded pride and celebration took the speaker. At a later time, Jeremiah (7:1-15) had to confront the people’s erroneous assumptions that Jerusalem was unconquerable. Historians, I suspect, hear echoes in the end of the poem of unwarranted assumptions of invulnerability throughout the ages.
* * * * * * * *
1. Biblical Echoes
Beyond the three attributes of God noted above, I call attention to the following.
The terms “terrified,” “trembling took hold,” “pains and "establish it"” (verses 6, 7, and 9)) appear in the Red Sea victory over Pharaoh (Exodus 15:14–15, 17), an apt precedent.
The description of Jerusalem as “delight of all the earth” is recalled tragically after its destruction (Lamentations 2:15) and “delight” becomes one of the anticipated future descriptions of rebuilt Jerusalem in Isaiah (60:15, 65:18, 66:10).
The statement that “the Lord is extraordinary and much praised,” was evidently a popular description and also appears in Psalms 96:4 and 145:4.
2. Creative Use of Language
There are several striking repetitions. Among them, “see” (verses 6, 9) contrasts the kings and the Israelites. The repetition of “king” (verse 3, 5) creates a two-pronged comparison, based on a double entendre. “Great king” (verse 3) in neighboring foreign (Hittite) literature can refer to the human king, but in the Bible it refers to God. Thus the foreign kings observe (and are compared to, via the terminology) either God or King David, and possibly both are implied. Repetitions of "earth" (verse 3, 11), “Zion” (verses 2, 12, 13) and “so” (ken, verses 6, 9, 11) tend to bind the poem together.
Two phrases might be understood in two different ways: verses 13 and 14 (as discussed, to the people or to the kings) and verse 9a (said by the kings, who spoke before, or by the worshippers, who speak thereafter). The poet possibly meant to imply both in each case.
There are at least three Hebrew word plays based on sounds: “known” and “conspired” (verses 4, 5 – noda, no’adu); “trembling” and “its ramparts” (verses 7, 14 – chel, cheilah); and “count” and “recount” (verses 13, 14 – both from root s-p-r). Further, there are possible echoes in Zion (Tsiyon) and Tsaphon, verse 3; "they… were stunned (hema… tamahu), verse 6; and "shatters" (tishaber), Tarshish, and "as" (ca'asher), verses 8 and 9.
The expansive opening praise of Jerusalem is tightly constructed as a chiasm—verses 2a and 4 speaking of God and verses 2b and 3 speaking of Jerusalem.
Martin Palmer (“The Cardinal Points in Psalm 48,” Biblica  1965, p. 357) points out the use of four terms in this psalm, which elsewhere indicate the four directions. Tsaphon (verse 2) means "north," and the east wind (verse 8) is cited. "Right” (verse 11) can mean “south” in other contexts. The term “future” (verse 14 – acharon, which literally means “after” or “behind”), can mean “west” in other contexts. If purposeful, this inclusion befits the scope of the psalm.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) שִׁיר מִזְמוֹר לִבְנֵי קֹרַח:
(ב) גָּדוֹל יְהֹוָה וּמְהֻלָּל מְאֹד בְּעִיר אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַר קָדְשׁוֹ:
(ג) יְפֵה נוֹף מְשׂוֹשׂ כָּל הָאָרֶץ הַר צִיּוֹן יַרְכְּתֵי צָפוֹן קִרְיַת מֶלֶךְ רָב:
(ד) אֱלֹהִים בְּאַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָ נוֹדַע לְמִשְׂגָּב:
(ה) כִּי הִנֵּה הַמְּלָכִים נוֹעֲדוּ עָבְרוּ יַחְדָּו:
(ו) הֵמָּה רָאוּ כֵּן תָּמָהוּ נִבְהֲלוּ נֶחְפָּזוּ:
(ז) רְעָדָה אֲחָזָתַם שָׁם חִיל כַּיּוֹלֵדָה:
(ח) בְּרוּחַ קָדִים תְּשַׁבֵּר אֳנִיּוֹת תַּרְשִׁישׁ:
(ט) כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְנוּ כֵּן רָאִינוּ בְּעִיר יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת בְּעִיר אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֱלֹהִים יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עַד עוֹלָם סֶלָה:
(י) דִּמִּינוּ אֱלֹהִים חַסְדֶּךָ בְּקֶרֶב הֵיכָלֶךָ:
(יא) כְּשִׁמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כֵּן תְּהִלָּתְךָ עַל קַצְוֵי אֶרֶץ צֶדֶק מָלְאָה יְמִינֶךָ:
(יב) יִשְׂמַח הַר צִיּוֹן תָּגֵלְנָה בְּנוֹת יְהוּדָה לְמַעַן מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ:
(יג) סֹבּוּ צִיּוֹן וְהַקִּיפוּהָ סִפְרוּ מִגְדָּלֶיהָ:
(יד) שִׁיתוּ לִבְּכֶם לְחֵילָה פַּסְּגוּ אַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָ לְמַעַן תְּסַפְּרוּ לְדוֹר אַחֲרוֹן:
(טו) כִּי זֶה אֱלֹהִים אֱלֹהֵינוּ עוֹלָם וָעֶד הוּא יְנַהֲגֵנוּ עַל מוּת: