Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha


"1. Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain, 2. beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
3. Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defence.

4. Then the kings assembled,
they came on together.
5. As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
they were in panic, they took to flight;
6. trembling took hold of them there,
pains as of a woman in labour,
7. as when an east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish.
8. As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the LORD of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God establishes forever. Selah.

9. We ponder your steadfast love, O God,
in the midst of your temple.
10. Your name, O God, like your praise,
reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with victory.
11. Let Mount Zion be glad,
let the towns of Judah rejoice
because of your judgments.

12. Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
13. consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
14. that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
He will be our guide forever."

To Israel in Old Testament days the land of Palestine was the holy land that God had given them. The temple was the holy place where they came to meet with God and to worship. Jerusalem was the city of God. It stood high up in the mountains in a beautiful spot, "the joy of all the earth". As other people, like the Phoenicians, thought of a mountain in the "far north" (verse 2) as the place where the gods lived, so to Israel Zion was the place where they felt the living and true God was especially present. Some peoples might call their supreme ruler "the great king" as the Assyrians did (2 Kings 18:28). Some might speak like that of the god whom they worshipped. To Israel Yahweh (Jehovah) their God, the one true God, was beyond all others "the great King", and Jerusalem was "the city of the great King".

Powerful enemies defeated there

This Psalm may have been written at a time when Jerusalem, by the help of God, had been saved when threatened by powerful enemies. So it was in the days of king Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, when the great Assyrian general, Sennacherib, came against it (2 Kings 18 and 19). So it was earlier in the days of king Jehoshaphat when the Moabites and Ammonites came against the city and were defeated and turned back. 2 Chronicles 20:27-28 says about that occasion that the people "returned to Jerusalem with joy, for the Lord had enabled them to rejoice over their enemies. They came to Jerusalem with harps and lyres and trumpets, to the house of the Lord." Here in the Psalm it says that kings came against the city, but saw it and took to flight. They were thrown into confusion as when a powerful wind "shatters the ships of Tarshish" (see Note below). But the city was not great and glorious apart from the blessing of God. It was only great as long as its people realised and relied on the fact that "great is the Lord and greatly to be praised" (verse 1). Proverbs 14:34 speaks of true greatness when it says, "Righteousness" (which means justice on the part of leaders and social justice among the people) "exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people."

God's people encouraged

When enemies who threatened the city were overcome, Israel could see what great things God had done. They could say, "Your right hand is filled with victory." "We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple". What they had heard in the past about the mighty works of God, they had seen now in their own time (verse 8), and so they had this to pass on to the next generation. Their teaching would not just be about the city, but "this is God, our God forever and ever", their "guide" (verse 14) and their "defence" (verse 3) who would never fail. Verses 12-13 may picture a procession going round the city, thanking God for its "towers" and "ramparts" and "citadels". This might have happened regularly year by year in Jerusalem, and perhaps what the people did in the temple was in drama to "re-enact the story" of what God had done for his people (as the New English Bible translates verse 9). We need to record and keep special symbols of God's goodness to us, and tell our story to encourage others, especially our children, that they may trust our God, a God who never fails or deserts his people. He is our God and our Guide, not just part of the way, but all the way through life, to its very end (verse 14).

Our city of God

Jerusalem was a very special place for Israel in Old Testament days. In different ways, both Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, each consider it special to their religion today. Yet as Jesus said to the Samaritan woman in John 4:19-24, there was a the new and direct way of worship that God was showing to the world through his coming. So he told her that people should not make Mt. Gerizim (where Samaritans worshipped) nor Jerusalem, nor any other place on earth, a special place beyond all others for knowing God's presence and worshipping him. He said, "The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth". The Christian church, the fellowship of the people in whose lives God is present, is now like God's city. That is not a building or any holy place. God's temple is the universal fellowship of all who believe that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God". Of such Jesus said, "On this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it" (Matthew 16:18 Good News Bible). Ephesians 2:19-22 speaks of Christians as "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the corner stone". That is the new temple, and in a way it is also the new city of God, the new Jerusalem (see Galatians 4:22-26). Then in the end our heavenly home will be for us "the holy city, the new Jerusalem" (Revelation 21:2), with "the river of the water of life" flowing through it, with the tree of life bearing fruit constantly - as it is pictured in Revelation 22:1-5 - "and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations".

Meanwhile Jesus has promised to meet with his people whenever and wherever they meet to honour his name (Matthew 18:20), and he sends his Holy Spirit into every heart that opens to him in grateful and humble surrender (John 14:22-23). So while we look forward to the day of eternity, when the new Jerusalem, the temple of God will be physically present with us, we should not be depressed if we have no money to go on a pilgrimage to the present Jerusalem, nor feel proud if we can make such a visit! The most precious possession and experience available to us on earth is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). That means also that because Christ is in us by his Spirit, and we are the temple of the living God, we are to keep our bodies holy (1 Corinthians 6:15-20).

Meditation Using the verses of this Psalm try to think what Jerusalem must have meant to people in Old Testament days, and then what the Christian church should be to its members and to the world today, and then think of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ of the heavenly city. From Hebrews 10:24-25 think what is the significance of the local expression of the Church.

For further thought and study

a. In the light of Isaiah 2:2-4 in what way can we see that Jerusalem was intended to be "the joy of all the earth", and through it the praise of God reach to the ends of the earth (verses 2 and 10)? How does that relate to the work of the Christian Church today?

b. In what ways should we be able to say "we have heard", "we have seen", and so we will "tell" of the Lord and of what he has done in the world?


"Tarshish" (verse 7) is probably Tartessus in Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea from Palestine, about the furthest that people in Israel could think of travel by sea. "The ships of Tarshish", quite often spoken of in the Old Testament, were thus ocean-going ships, large ships for those days.