A sermon on Psalm 87 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 25 July 2021
There are many ways to get rid of your enemies. But the best way is to turn them into your friends.
This is what God has been doing since the first people turned against him and went their own way without him. Ever since he has been pursuing human beings, showing them his love to change their minds and bring them back to himself. This is what God did in the Old Testament when he would not let go of the people of Israel even though they rebelled against him so many times. This is what God did in the ministry of Jesus, when he invited the poor and the outcast into his friendship. This is what God did for us through the gospel, promising us life and forgiveness, and welcoming us into his family. This is what God will do until the end of time. He will turn his enemies into his friends and he will turn unworthy sinners into his sons and daughters. So that they will all sing his praises and confess that every good thing they have comes from him.
That’s what Psalm 87 is about.
Verses 1 and 2 say,
He has set his foundation on the holy mountain; the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
“He” is, of course, the Lord, the God who created heaven and earth, the God of all people living everywhere, but who chose the people of Israel out of all the nations to be his ambassadors to the world. To Israel, he gave his promises.
I will be your God and you will be my people.
To them, he gave his commandments.
Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.
And out of all their towns and villages, he chose Jerusalem to be the place where his temple would be built. His dwelling place. The focus of his love. The centre of his attention. And the source of his blessing to the world.
“He has set his foundation on the holy mountain” means that the Lord has built his temple on Mt Zion, which is one of the hills in Jerusalem. “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” means that Jerusalem is the focus of his love, out of all the towns in Israel, out of all the cities in the world because his temple was there.
Now it’s important to remember that the Lord didn’t choose Jerusalem because it was great. Much like Australia’s capital city, Canberra. Canberra wasn’t chosen to be the capital because it was great. It is not near any fabulous beaches. It doesn’t have an important port like Melbourne or a harbour like Sydney. It only has a nice lake because they dug it up and filled it with water. No one did a survey to find the best city in Australia and then put the capital there. Canberra, in fact, was chosen because it was in the middle of nowhere. It was nowhere great. And if Canberra has become great since Federation, and that is debatable, it is because it is Australia’s capital.
In the same way, God did not choose Jerusalem because it was great. Rather, it became great because God chose it. And the Lord’s temple wasn’t built in it because it was holy. But Jerusalem was holy because the temple was built in it. But this is what God does. He creates out of nothing. Or he takes what is ordinary and unimportant and makes them special. And he takes outcasts and misfits and makes them his children. We are not his because we are holy. We are holy because we are his.
Verse 3 says,
Glorious things are said of you, O city of God:
Those words could mean, but probably don’t, that Jerusalem is famous and people everywhere say great things about it. Verse 3 more likely means, “Listen to these glorious words about Jerusalem that are coming right up.” Which is what the NIV Bible means by putting a colon at the end of verse 3. That colon means that the sentence hasn’t finished yet. It means that what is mentioned in the first half of the sentence is made clear in the second half. It means that the glorious things that are spoken will follow in the next few verses. Because God will make a big promise and it is worth paying attention to.
Verse 4 says,
I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me, Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush – and will say, “This one was born in Zion.”
These are the glorious things spoken of Jerusalem. This is the big promise in Psalm 87. “I” here is again the Lord. Glorious things are spoken of Jerusalem because the Lord is the one who says them. His promise in this verse reveals his purpose, his plan, and Jerusalem’s part in those plans are glorious.
Rahab is a fancy word for Egypt. I had to look that up to find that out, but that’s okay. No one can know everything. And now that I know it, you know it too. Egypt and Babylon and Philistia were the bullies in Israel’s playground. Bigger countries that tried to invade Israel and push them around. Egypt was an ancient civilization that grew up along the Nile River in Africa, south west of Israel. Babylon was both a city east of Israel, and an empire that threatened to swallow Israel up. Philistia was a smaller neighbour, but always ready for war. Never able to completely conquer Israel, and never conquered. Tyre was a trading port near Israel and Cush was a country far away in Africa, south of Egypt. Tyre and Cush were never really Israel’s enemies. They just represent the foreign countries, some of which are close to Israel and some of them are far away.
What verse 4 means is that people from Israel’s enemies will trust in the Lord and that people from countries both near and far will be counted among Jerusalem’s citizens and therefore God’s people.
To my ear, the expression “this one was born in Zion” sounds like something that would be recorded in a census. Now in Australia, we are having a census next month. The government wants to know who we are where we live and how old we are, so they can plan for what services we need for the next few years. The purpose of recording who was born in Jerusalem is about keeping track of who belongs. Who belongs to God’s people. To say about someone who wasn’t born in Jerusalem that they were born in Jerusalem, isn’t telling a lie. It’s just a fancy way of saying that they belong, that they will be treated like the native born people of Israel. Although they were born far away, although they live among people who were at war with Israel, to acknowledge the Lord, to confess that he alone is God, is to be included among God’s people. As if their birth certificate was officially altered to record a different birth place. So that although they were born a foreigner, a stranger to God’s promises and excluded from his blessing, they’ve been born again as one of God’s people who truly belongs.
This then is the Lord’s final victory. Not that he raises up a great general to lead Israel’s army on the conquest of the world, but that his love conquers the rebellious hearts of people everywhere and makes his enemies his friends. And he promises to break down every barrier that excludes people from his blessing.
Verse 5 suggests that this isn’t just a good thing for the foreigners, but that it will be good for Jerusalem.
Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.”
This is Jerusalem’s purpose. This is why the temple was built within it. So that it could be the source of blessing for the world. Like an empty land that needs inhabitants. Like a country that needs immigrant workers. Jerusalem needs citizens, otherwise God’s purposes will come to nothing. An empty city is not a city. And an empty church is not a church, but just a building. So Jerusalem’s purpose is fulfilled in Israel’s enemies being enrolled as its citizens. And as Jerusalem fulfils its purpose, it is blessed. It is established and made firm. Its prosperity is linked to its ability to grow.
The first church that Karen and I served in didn’t want to grow. They had everything they wanted in their small little club. New people were seen as a threat, like outsiders who didn’t belong. The little success we had wasn’t seen as a good thing, but a bad thing. Every church needs to grow, and growth will mean new people. This is not just a good thing. It is the only thing. God will only establish us as he brings strangers in and makes them part of our family. Not because they were born one of us, but because they have been born again one of us just like the rest of us.
Verses 6 and 7 say,
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.” As they make music they will sing, “All my fountains are in you.”
Verse 6 repeats the glorious things spoken earlier. People from distant countries will be enrolled as citizens of Jerusalem. Verse 7 then declares the end result: a choir of people from every nation singing the praise of the Lord who has fulfilled his promise to bless the world through Jerusalem.
The words “All my fountains are in you” mean “every good thing I have is a gift from God through his promises to Jerusalem.” It’s like what Ezekiel says in chapter 47. Ezekiel was taken in a vision to Jerusalem, to a new rebuilt temple and he saw water flowing east from its entrance. As Ezekiel followed it further east the water became deeper and deeper until it became a great river that flowed into the Jordan River and down into the salty Dead Sea and turned its water fresh so that fish swam in it and trees grew on its banks. Turning the desert into a fertile plain.
The promise of Ezekiel chapter 47 is the same as Psalm 87: God will bless the world through his temple from Jerusalem. He will bring life to what is dead and that river of blessing will flow from God’s presence in Jerusalem.
And it is a promise fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. He is the new temple, the dwelling place of God in the world. As Jesus said in John chapter 2,
Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.
He didn’t mean the building. He meant his own body. What the temple was meant to be, Jesus actually was, God with us, God among us, God gracing us with his presence. Jesus died in Jerusalem. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came down on the disciples in Jerusalem so that they spoke different languages. And out of Jerusalem, the disciples took the message of the gospel into the world, like a river of blessing, bringing life to what was dead. so that people from our country, who speak our language, might be included in God’s people. Not by birth. But by new birth. Not because we were born in the earthly Jerusalem. But because we were born again as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Every blessing we have through the gospel: forgiveness, the hope for eternal life, the love of God filling our hearts, the presence of his Spirit, the encouragement of the church, membership in his kingdom, and adoption as his children, all these rivers of life flowing into our lives, transforming what was dead in us and bringing it to life, so that we are born again, is a direct result of God keeping his promise in Psalm 87.
A lot of things in life are not about you. But ultimately, Psalm 87 is about you. And it’s about me. It’s about us because it’s about God’s promises to us. We aren’t from Egypt. We aren’t from Babylon. But we acknowledge the Lord. We aren’t from Philistia or Tyre or Cush but we have been enrolled as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem We unworthy sinners, foreigners, strangers, have been included in the list of God’s people. So that we might sing, “All my fountains, every blessing I have, are in God’s promises to Jerusalem, fulfilled in Jesus Christ and applied to us by his Spirit.”
But this is what God has been doing since the first human beings rebelled against him and began perishing without him. God has been pursuing them to turn his enemies into friends. This is his victory over the world. In the process, he has made us his friends, and citizens of his heavenly kingdom. What that requires of us is the grace to accept new and strange people as fellow citizens of God’s kingdom and members of his church. As we do so, we will be established. Because it isn’t just the best thing for us. It is the only thing. And so we will sing with all the redeemed, “All my fountains are in God.”