Translation of Psalm 48 with comment
A song. A psalm of the Korahites.
Yahweh is great
And most worthy of praise
in the city of our God!
The mountain of his holy presence,
A lovely eminence
Is the joy of the whole land;
Zion hill, away in the North,
Is the city of the mighty king.
Within her palaces God shows himself
her sure defense.
For yes, the kings gathered
they marched on together;
they saw and were astonished;
they were dismayed and fled;
panic gripped them there
writhing as in childbirth.
You shattered the ships of Tarshish
with a wind from the East.
Just as we have heard
so we have seen it
in the city of Yahweh of armies
in the city of our God
which God will make firm forever.
Inside your temple, God,
we have remembered your faithful love.
Just like your name, God,
so your praise goes out to the bounds of the land.
Your right hand is full of justice.
Let Zion hill be merry
Let Judah’s daughters dance with joy
because of your just judgements.
Walk around Zion
Go about her
count her towers:
Fix your thoughts on her walls
perambulate her palaces
so that you may tell the next generation:
this is God,
our God forever and ever;
He guides us.
Although the reader may have no allegiance to Zion, or may be as I am, an enemy of all Zionism, the psalm retains its ability to touch the heart.
Perhaps the memory of Sennacherib’s retreat from his attack on Jerusalem in 701BCE is the source of the lines about kings fleeing from the city.
The psalms celebrate the temple worship, the physical structure of the temple and surrounding buildings, and its prominence on Zion hill. The descriptions given are typical rather than detailed: there are no clues as to whether the first or second temple is intended. Scholars however seem to agree that this may be an early composition, in which case the first temple would be the focus of these verses.
The temple cult with its ordinary sacrifices and special feasts brought the peoples of Israel and Judah together as the people of the One God, who had chosen them as his own and given them his Teaching. The beauty of God’s house and its worship conveyed to the people the beauty of God’s holy presence, which they could not take for granted but rather saw as evidence of God’s faithful love.
I have chosen to translate the Hebrew “eretz” here as “land” rather that “earth” because I think the psalm is particularly focused on Israel/ Judah, whose people enjoy the privilege of knowing their God.
The psalmist depicts the enemy kings as deprived of force and driven into a panic by the sight of Zion and its temple, where God’s presence forbids the oppressor to advance further. It is not the valour of the nation but greatness of her God which protects the people. The wrecking of the ships of Tarshish ( perhaps modern Cyprus or even Spain) is not mentioned elsewhere in the bible, but provides a vivid image of God’s protection at a distance from Zion.
“just as we have heard /so we have seen it “ is a phrase very deliberately constructed to define the faith of Israel, in which each generation hears the story of God from the previous one; confirms its truth with its own eyes; and is then ready to pass it on to the next. Neither tradition nor personal experience is given pride of place, but both are recognised as essential. The memory of “faithful love” is celebrated in the Temple and confirmed in the present experience of being God’s people. They experience God’s justice in his opposition to the great pagan powers, and his just judgements in the use of the Teaching to settle disputes and crimes. The emphasis on the merriment of Zion and the delight of the people makes this faith seem winsome.
Is there are hint of exile yet to come, in the injunction to imprint Zion on the heart and mind? Or is it simply encouragement to appreciate the loveliness of God’s dwelling place, for the benefit of the generation to come? In either case it allows the worshipper to say, “This is God” – not a mystical vision, nor an isolated word of faith, but a people gathered around the signs of the One who cannot be seen: the temple, its worship and the Teaching.