Jerusalem had become the jewel of Israel, the biggest and most glorious city ever built in that strip of land between the Mediterranean to the west and the desert to the east. No other city matched its grandeur, especially during the golden age of Solomon. And no temple in the region drew as many people in worship or witnessed as many sacrifices. Jerusalem was queen.
Then Nebuchadnezzar happened.
When the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem under the rule of their expansionist king, the city fared poorly. Upon surrender, the walls were torn down. The temple was razed to the ground. Its wealth was stolen. And the king and the elite of the city were marched off into exile. A ruined city and ruined people were all that was left.
It’s hard to imagine Psalm 48 being sung after this, for Psalm 48 is an ode to Jerusalem. In fact, when the poet in Psalm 137 rails against his Babylonian oppressors for wanting him and his fellow Jews to sing some Zion songs for their sport, I imagine Psalm 48 would be at the top of their playlist. It would sound ironically foolish and overly optimistic in view of the devastation Jerusalem had endured.
Psalm 48 glories in Mount Zion, the butte on which Jerusalem is built and where the temple sat on its peak. The psalm dwells on two main aspects of Zion: It was the seat of the Lord’s authority as the Great King of the earth and it was the center of his worship as the God whose praises fill the earth.
The first two verses set up the psalm. Though Jerusalem is never mentioned by name, it is referred to as the city of our God and the city of the Great King. It is “beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth.” For Jerusalem existed as a monument to God’s love. He loved his people enough to save a ragged band of unwashed slaves and turn this motley crew into a real people, a holy nation. He loved them enough to associate himself with them and be their God. He loved them enough to give them his Law, showing them the best and wisest way to live life. He loved them enough to rule them, which was less about gathering power to himself than it was about protecting them from their enemies and providing for their poor.
In verses 3-8, we see the Great King in action. He himself is her fortress, even more than her tower citadels can be. He is victorious in battle against her enemies, causing them to tremble and smashing their ships. The section ends with “God makes her secure forever.” It’s a bold promise, but one the psalmist seemed confident in making, considering the exodus and the many smaller salvation events throughout Israel’s history.
In verse 9, the shift is from power shown in protection to worship. “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.”
In verses 12-13, the psalmist takes a walk around the city and his chest puffs up with pride. It’s beautiful! It’s exquisite! It’s the gem of the world. Simply having the honor of visiting her is a story to be told for generations.
And then the psalm ends with these words: “For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.”
The city was to be a expression of the eternal rule of our God. Just as it is beautiful, so is he. Just as it is strong, so is he. Just as it lasts forever, so will he. But that all crumbled into nothing when the city was destroyed.
Or did it?
Against all expectations, the worship of the Lord didn’t just survive Babylonian exile, it thrived because of it. Where the Hebrew people had long struggled with idolatry, looking for other gods here and there to take care of them when Yahweh seemed to be letting them down, idolatry ended with the exile. It was a refining fire that burned it out of them.
Again, this was unexpected. The temples in Babylon all outdid the Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. It was tiny and provincial in comparison. The priests and the pomp of the worship of Marduk and other gods in Babylon made Israel’s praise look like a backwater talent show — without much talent.
But God engaged in a great debate with his people through the Isaiah, seem primarily in Isaiah 40-55, claiming that he was no small regional deity, but the Lord of heaven and earth. And he won! The ashes of Jerusalem proved not that he couldn’t take care of his people or himself, but that he was far bigger than that small region. This was news to them, for all gods were regional deities in the minds of those in the ancient Near East. But somehow the collapse of Jerusalem pointed to a larger reality.
But this didn’t mean God’s people gave up on the idea of Jerusalem. Two more temples would be built in the city, neither of which matched the splendor of Solomon’s temple. The walls would be rebuilt (and thrown down) a few more times.
Jesus would walk her streets. He would cry over her. He would look at the temple and say that it would be torn down and rebuilt in three days. But this time, he would be referring to himself. He was the temple, for he was the presence of God among his people, not the building.
So, when the temple and the city were devastated yet again, this time by the Romans in 70 A.D., those early followers of Jesus didn’t despair. But neither did they give up the vision of Jerusalem. God was building a new Jerusalem (see Revelation 21), one that would be perfect and eternal and never to be bested.
This new Jerusalem would be a perfect cube (Rev. 21:16). And if you search your Scriptures, you’ll find that the only cube in the Bible is the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God himself. The city is no longer the place of the temple, its entirety has become the heart of the temple, the dwelling place of God (Rev. 21:3). And not only that, but the city itself covers the entire earth (12,000 stadia by 12,000 stadia is how big the world was thought to be at the time).
Just like during the time of the Babylonian exile, the idea of Jerusalem went deeper into the imagination of the people of God. The city became bigger than a city in their minds. It became the incarnation of what it is that God is doing in the world. Where we now see the world in rebellion, rejecting God’s rule and worship, the city will one day cover the entire earth, filling all creation with the rule and worship of our Lord.
Right now, we see it only imperfectly and in part. But the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, seen as small and insignificant but growing up unnoticed and even unwanted until it dominates the landscape.
God is building his city right here and right now. It’s emerging all over the place and in all kinds of people. And one day lovely Jerusalem will dominate the landscape with its beautiful strength.
For this God is our God for ever and ever;
he will be our guide even to the end. [Psalm 48:14]