Psalm 87 –
as Home Jerusalem
1. Of the Korachites. A psalm. A song, 1-its foundation-1 on the holy mountains.
2. The LORD loves2 the gates of
, more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Zion
3. Of3 you glorious things are spoken, O city of
. Selah. God
4. I recall Rahab4 and
to those who acknowledge Me; behold: Babylon Philistia and , with Nubia―“This one was born there.” Tyre
5. But of
, it is said, “Every single person was born in it.” He, the Most High, establishes it. Zion
6. The LORD records in the census5 of peoples: “This one was born there.” Selah.
7. And they, singing as they dance: “All my roots are in you.”
1. Others place a period after "song," and continue either “His” (referring to the LORD, verse 2, i.e., founded by Him) or “its” (the pronoun then referring to
, verse 2). See Commentary, “Layers of Meaning.” Zion
2. Literally, a participle, “is loving of,” parallel to the participles of verse 7.
3. Or “for.” See Commentary.
4. That is,
(see Isaiah 51:9). Egypt
5. Or “history.” See Commentary.
The Psalm as a Whole
Early critical interpreters, failing to find any clear pattern of development in Psalm 87, were wont to rearrange its phrases radically. The chiastic structure noted below belies such a “broken jigsaw puzzle” approach, and the commentary clarifies how the poet communicated his messages not by a consecutive story, but through complex poetic techniques.
Psalm 87 celebrates Zion (Jerusalem) with great enthusiasm.
is loved, glorified the anchor of existence, and the center both of the psalm and of the world. The challenge taken up by the psalm is whether one can belong to a city other than his or her own. Zion
It is not surprising to find the Korachites writing about
. We find other psalms attributed to them with the same theme, some with words identical or parallel to those of Psalm 87. Among these are Psalms 48 (all about Jerusalem ), 46 (“city of Jerusalem ”), and 84 (“dwelling places”). In Psalm 87, the psalmist touches on relationships to God : of God, of the nations, of the Diaspora, of the community, and of the individual. Quite possibly the psalm was inspired by international pilgrimage. Jerusalem
Everything revolves around
. This is the message of the psalm's firm chiastic structure (A-B-C-B-A). In the outermost parallelism, verse 7 reflects verses 1–3, both in the use of participles (see note 2) and in the use of Hebrew terms (bach: in v. 3, “of you”, in v. 7, “in you;" and "sing" in vv. 1, 7). Between those verses, verses 4 and 6 share “this one was born there” and “peoples,” and both recall the census of peoples in different ways. Verse 5, speaking of Jerusalem , then, is clearly the center of the poem, contrasted with other places in verses 4 and 6, where one person or another might have been born. In terms of Zion , everyone was born there! Jerusalem
The use of participles in the opening and closing of Psalm 87 lends immediacy to the poem. In that light, I have translated the imperfect verbs (a biblical mode stretching from present through future) into the present in English, whereas I translated perfect verbs (stretching from the past into the present) as past tense.
The Timing and Nature of God’s Connection to
The psalm openly declares the Lord’s love for the gates of
more than any other place, even within Zion (v. 2). This verse is followed by a subtle use of nearly romantic language. In verse 3, the phrase “spoken of” (dabber bi…) is sometimes used in the Bible as “spoken for,” that is, committed to marriage. The ambiance is one of love and commitment. Further, in verse 4, “acknowledge” is from the root “to know” which can have erotic implications. In light of these uses, the threefold reference to being “born” lends a metaphoric undertone to God’s connection to Israel , recalling devotion and marriage. Jerusalem
The International and National Connections to
There are two very different readings of verses 4 through 6, which possibly coexist in the psalm. If, as I sense, verse 5 is in sharp contrast with verses 4 and 6, the implication of the middle section is that one’s presence in
is sufficient to grant virtual birth therein, whereas birth in other places is simply a physical matter. The sense of the section then would be that the individual pilgrims coming from elsewhere are adopted into Jerusalem , even though God accepts their technical identity as belonging to countries abroad. (In this interpretation, the word “there” in verse 4 indicates in foreign countries, as opposed to “in it,” i.e., in Jerusalem . Verse 6 then becomes an ironic play on words, the same phrase "This one was born there, reversing its meaning, and now indicating "in Jerusalem .") Jerusalem
If, on the other hand, verse 5 is a reconfirmation of the two verses surrounding it, the sense of the section, as interpreted by many commentators, is that the citizens of other nations (as opposed to just the Jews in exile) are adopted into the realm of Jerusalem. (In this case, the word “there,” even in verse 4, indicates "in
," parallel to “in it" in verse 5.) In that regard, it is worth noting that Jerusalem and Egypt , the first two countries mentioned, are the two superpowers that surround (and are often enemies of) Babylon , whereas the three cities or areas that follow represent a wide geographical distribution, from Israel through lands south of Lebanon . In this view, the psalm is taken to be about “the comprehensive range of the Egypt ...which embraces all nations” (Weiser), an “explicit statement about the nations” (Broyles). Kingdom of God
I suggest that the two readings coalesce and are best considered not alternatives, but rather two reflections on
as an axis. Both the Jewish/Israelite Diaspora and the nations of the world are drawn into Jerusalem ’s orbit. Zion
The Many and the One
Psalm 87 uses plural and singular carefully. The singular is used only for God, the city, and the individuals “born there.” All else is in the plural: peoples, gates, dwellings, celebrants, mountains, praises, roots, and so on. In the midst of all the tumult of pilgrimage and the immense geographical scope, which includes the entire
Fertile Crescent, this usage sharply focuses attention on the strong bond among God, the city, and the individual. This thus reinforces the opening and closing and the middle verse.
Overview in Review
Psalm 87 does not proceed as a consecutive narrative. It jumps from statement to statement, with numbers of unclear phrases, and a penchant to cite many voices. Nevertheless, the contentions are clear. Here is a deep appreciation and soaring vision of the place of
. Such affirmation, of course, implies a degree of rejection of other locales. The speaker is brutally clear about the preference of God for Zion over other cities within Zion , and the implied centrality thereof for both the Diaspora and other nations also implies some superiority. Israel
Layers of Meaning
Some of the terms and phrases might have more than one possible implication, in addition to those discussed above (e.g., “spoken of” or “spoken for” in verse 3).
Verse 1 – As indicated in the note, the reference to “its foundation” is unclear. Even the use of “foundation” is unique. The phrase refers either to the place of writing (that is, the poem's foundation, which would be an unusual element in a psalm’s title, but best fits the grammar) or to God (“His foundation” on the holy mountatins or to the city's foundation. In the latter two cases, the phrase would properly not be a continuation of the title verse, but would be read with verse 2 ("Its [or 'His'] foundation being on the holy mountains, the LORD…").
Verse 4 – Either God or
might recite verse 4. (In the latter case, “me” is not capitalized.) Further, several translators prefer “as those who acknowledge (if Jerusalem : ‘as those who are acquainted with’) me” as opposed to “to those.” (If, as according to several commentators, the broad-based pilgrimage reflects a later period in Jewish history, then the probability of interpreting “knowledge of Me” as a reference to God arises, given the frequent use of “knowing God” in later texts, especially Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, both from the end of the First Temple period.) Jerusalem
Verse 6 – The phrase “records in the census” is not clear. It uses two terms, one of which indicates writing and the other, either “count” or “account.” It could refer to either a written history or a census.
Verse 7 – The antecedent of “they” is unclear. The term translated “roots” (as NJPS, with a footnote, "literally, 'sources'") also has a possible range of meanings, including “wells” (i.e., you are the source of all that I drink), “visions” (from the root “eye,” i.e., all my hopes), and “thoughts” (based on a later rabbinic use of this root). The precise meaning of the verse remains obscure, even as the exultation and joy in the connection to
is clear. Jerusalem
* * * * * *
Some take the reference to
as proof of a late date, since the ascendance of that city within Babylon Mesopotamia is best known in biblical history for the period that led to, and included, the destruction of the . However, First Temple has a long history within Babylon Mesopotamia and it is totally reasonable to assume that it is an antiquated reference, just as is the use of “Rahab” for . A stronger argument for a late date is the probable background of a broad-based international pilgrimage to Egypt noted above. As so often, there is no certainty. Jerusalem
(א) לִבְנֵי קֹרַח מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר יְסוּדָתוֹ בְּהַרְרֵי קֹדֶשׁ:
(ב) אֹהֵב יְהֹוָה שַׁעֲרֵי צִיּוֹן מִכֹּל מִשְׁכְּנוֹת יַעֲקֹב:
(ג) נִכְבָּדוֹת מְדֻבָּר בָּךְ עִיר הָאֱלֹהִים סֶלָה:
(ד) אַזְכִּיר רַהַב וּבָבֶל לְיֹדְעָי הִנֵּה פְלֶשֶׁת וְצֹר עִם כּוּשׁ זֶה יֻלַּד שָׁם:
(ה) וּלְצִיּוֹן יֵאָמַר אִישׁ וְאִישׁ יֻלַּד בָּהּ וְהוּא יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עֶלְיוֹן:
(ו) יְהֹוָה יִסְפֹּר בִּכְתוֹב עַמִּים זֶה יֻלַּד שָׁם סֶלָה:
(ז) וְשָׁרִים כְּחֹלְלִים כָּל מַעְיָנַי בָּךְ: