S. D. Ellison

Children of Zion: Home and place in the Psalter

On a recent visit to Enniskillen Castle it became apparent that Fermanagh could be considered the home of Christianity in Ireland. At least, Christianity’s early home in Ireland. Indeed, there were some excellent models, pictures and examples of Round Towers in which early Irish Christians took refuge. Obviously this has changed somewhat—and whether anywhere in Ireland can really be considered the home of Christianity anymore is perhaps debateable.[i] Nevertheless, there is a greater, grander home of Christianity for which we long and to which we look with sure and certain hope. In doing so, perhaps we have the encouragement to make our temporary home a little more Christian.

Many Christians equate their greater, grander eternal home with heaven. Tradition, hymnody and awaiting the return of Jesus Christ have all reinforced this nomenclature. We are regularly reminded from pulpits and at funerals that a heavenly home awaits the Christian. More accurately, however, we should be speaking of the New Heavens and the New Earth—this will be our eternal home. That being so, throughout Scripture this eternal home carries different designations, and in the Psalter the eternal home of God’s people is evidently Zion.

What remains in this article can be divided in to two parts. First, I will outline the way in which the Psalter presents Zion—or, better still, the ultimate Zion—as the eternal home of God’s people. Christianity’s eternal home is the City of God. Second, I suggest that this is perhaps best understood as something of a utopia. The Psalter presents Zion in exquisitely exalted language that can be difficult to categorise and appears almost sarcastic in the face of historical reality. It is for this reason I propose that Zion may be one thread of utopian hope running through the Psalter. The conclusion drawn is that the Christian’s home, according to the Psalter, is Zion. As the Psalms are read as a book it becomes clear that Place and Utopia reveal our eternal home. We are children of Zion.

The Psalter Points to Zion

Zion is a principal subject in the Book of Psalms. This focus on Zion is of course twinned with a focus on the Davidic king, for God’s royal promises are fulfilled in his anointed king who reigns from Zion. Nevertheless, although the Psalter is concerned with people, it is equally focused on place. The significance of Zion in the Psalter is evident in its presence throughout all five books.

Book One sets the tone as it conveys that the LORD not only reigns himself from Zion but has set his king there and so salvation originates from Zion.[ii] Book Two praises Zion, predominantly praising its singularity—it is unique.[iii] In Book Three the psalmists plead for God to remember Zion and then recall her glories. While Psalm 79 records that Jerusalem lies in ruins, the final reference in Book Three anticipates Zion being established once more.[iv] Given the dire descriptions of Zion in the previous book, Book Four focuses on the LORD’s relationship with the city. It particularly notes that the LORD has not abandoned it.[v] The highest concentration of references to Zion occurs in Book Five where it appears as the source of salvation, blessing, serenity and victory.[vi] There is a climax to the language employed in describing Zion in Book Five—it is an idyllic place. 

More than simply documenting the occurrences of the term, we want to grasp more firmly what the Psalter has to say about Zion. In short it teaches that God’s people are children of Zion, it is our home. It is, however, a home like no other since it possesses qualities that distinguish it from every other locale on earth. There are at least four features of Zion that the Psalter impresses upon its readers.

First, the Psalter asserts that Zion is chosen. This establishes the significance of the city. More than this simply being an honorary title, however, Zion is God’s chosen dwelling place. This is the specific way he has chosen Zion—it is his home. The LORD’s presence is manifest in the physical temple. Symbolically, this assures readers that despite the chaos of human history there is another order of things in which God, by his sovereign power, is accomplishing his indefectible purposes. The temple specifically, and Zion more broadly, represents an oasis of tranquillity in an undulating desert of turbulence. Psalm 46 perhaps portrays this reality most memorably. Although the entire earth appears to be moving, collapsing even (vv. 3–4), Zion remains unmoved because there God dwells (v. 6). As the elect city Zion is God’s dwelling place, it therefore stands as a sign that the chaos of this present age will be transformed into the serenity of the LORD’s ordered society in the coming age.

Second, God’s dwelling in Zion not only highlights his choice of this city but also implies that Zion is inviolable and eternal. The Psalter presents God as the God above all gods (e.g., Psa. 82). Consequently, Zion, the home of this glorious God, is to be acknowledged as qualitatively superior to all other cities. Moreover, it is inviolable and eternal because of God’s presence. Again, Psalm 46 exemplifies this reality. The opening statement of confidence (v. 2) is founded on the LORD’s presence (vv. 5–6). Despite the encroaching danger (vv. 3–4), therefore, victory is assured (vv. 6b–11). As becomes apparent when reading later Scripture, and Jewish intertestamental literature, God’s repulsion of Zion’s enemies develops into a powerful eschatological image of final victory. The Psalter’s reader is thus assured that the LORD rules and reigns over all so-called deities and such confidence gives shape to the life and faith of its reader. The conviction that Zion is inviolable and will abide forever plants a seed of hope that, as we will see below, the current chaos will give way to a future utopia.

Third, Zion is home to the Davidic king. The Psalter establishes an intimate link between the Davidic king and Zion. This is noted in Psalm 2, established more thoroughly in Psalm 78, lamented in Psalm 89 and celebrated in Psalm 132. The presence of God and the permanence of Zion are therefore in some way connected to the reign of a Davidic king. In the second half of Psalm 132, for example, we read the LORD’s decrees concerning both the Davidic dynasty and Zion (132:11–18). The divine warrant for the Davidic dynasty to rule from Zion becomes Israel’s hope during the exilic period as they long for home—Zion is the place from which the LORD’s anointed, Davidic king will perform the LORD’s will. Psalm 101 offers a glimpse of this just Davidic king with Psalm 102 offering hope for a renewed Zion. Just as God and Zion are inseparable, so too are the Davidic king and Zion. Indeed, it cannot be insignificant that the thrones of God (temple) and David (palace) sit alongside each other in Zion.

Fourth, considering the historical reality of Jerusalem’s destruction and given the first three features already noted, there must be a future element to all that is said about Zion. The fall, destruction and desecration of Jerusalem set in parallel with the Psalter’s presentation of Zion as chosen, inviolable, eternal and the seat of the Davidic Dynasty creates an almost unbearable tension. Unless, of course, these idealised portrayals are shaping a future utopian hope. Throughout the Psalter Zion is said to possess qualities that distinguish it from every other locale on earth. Most notably, God has chosen it, dwells there and will protect it. The Zion of the Psalter could be better understood as a new and glorified Zion. The Psalter’s presentation of Zion may be best viewed as promises of a new a glorious era in which Zion will be all that it should be: a rightly ordered society—a utopia. This would fit with the historical realities experienced by Zion, such as the exile, hence displacing the Psalter’s view of Zion to the future.

All of the above is concentrated in the Songs of Ascents, Psalms 120–134. The city is a focal point, alongside the Davidic dynasty, in the Songs of Ascents. This series of psalms then addresses the issue of Zion’s restoration and in doing so assures its reader that ‘Zion remains a focus of YHWH’s purposes for the future: . . . YHWH has not abandoned his promises or his people.’[vii] It is the location of the idealised, future kingdom of God that the Psalter promises and for which God’s people hope. In the Psalter’s hallelujah conclusion, everything that has breath praises the LORD for his anticipated eternal reign from Zion.[viii] The Psalter points to a Zion in which we would want to make our home.

The Psalter Paints a Utopia

The term utopia is a tainted term in contemporary conversation, perhaps especially among Christians. Sullied by ugly political connotations it is a term in need of redemption. The reason the term utopia needs redeeming is because the Christian’s true home is utopia. According to the Old Testament utopia is located in Zion. This is where we, as Christians, are headed. Our yellow-brick road leads to Zion.

Thomas More’s Utopia, first published in 1516, is the example par excellence of utopian literature. There remains some debate about the exact meaning of the term as it may derive from two Greek words, one meaning good place and the other no place. Given More’s book closes with a character observing: ‘I readily confess that in the Utopian commonwealth are very many features which in our societies I would wish rather than expect to see.’[ix] If utopia is therefore considered an ideal place that does not, as of yet, exist then the ambiguous good place/no place distinction deepens its meaning. Already it is not difficult to comprehend how a new and glorified Zion can be considered a biblical utopia—an idealised place that does not as of yet exist. But the Psalter paints a utopia with many more layers.

The Psalter paints a society that is built on order. This, for example, is established in its two-part introduction in Psalms 1–2. Psalm 1 depicts the ideal man who meditates on the law day and night and so prospers. Given similarities between Psalm 1 and Joshua 1 (particularly v. 8) we might consider the ideal man to be an ideal royal man—such a suggestion finds support in pairing Psalm 1 with Psalm 2, whose focus is the king.[x] Order is established in Psalm 2 as God enthrones his chosen king in Zion and calls him to rule in righteousness. The pattern is simple: God appoints a king, the king rules in Zion, the society knows success. This order is apparent in Psalm 72 as the righteous king judges the people (v. 2), defends the poor (vv. 4, 12–14), brings peace (vv. 7–11) and secures the production of food (v. 16). The Psalter paints a picture of an ordered society.

Psalm 72 is an appropriate psalm from which to pivot to the not unrelated issue of justice. Any utopia is predicated on perfect justice. It would appear that Psalm 72 could be employed as a prayer, and in verse 2 this is evident with many English translations opting to translate it as: ‘May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!’ The righteous king of Psalm 72 does not merely judge people but does so with justice. Similar themes resurface in Psalm 101 as David sings of the LORD’s justice (v. 1) and promises to walk in justice himself (vv. 2–4) and ensure others under his power do likewise (vv. 5–8). Of course, this psalm follows a number of psalms that praise the LORD as the one who reigns in justice (93–99). Therefore, the Psalter not only paints the picture of an ordered society, but a society ordered on justice. 

A justly ordered society requires righteousness. Once more this is evident in the Psalter. The terminology is repeated throughout the Book of Psalms. It begins in the introduction where the righteous and the wicked are very clearly separated (1:5–6). The encouragement is that the LORD knows the righteous (v. 6). That is, they are his. This should be unsurprising given the LORD himself is righteous and loves the righteous (11:7). Therefore, God leads his people in paths of righteousness (23:3). The LORD simply loves righteousness and justice (33:5). The theme of righteousness is then explicitly linked to Zion and the Davidic king in Psalm 132. 

The previous three paragraphs make one very simple point: the Zion envisaged in the Psalter is a utopia. In Zion there exists a justly ordered society founded on righteousness. This assertion is poignantly depicted by noting how Zion’s enemies fare in the Psalter.

According to the Psalter there will be no enemies in Zion for God, by the hand of his chosen Davidic king, will have vanquished them all. Indeed, the defeat of enemies would appear to be a key element of utopian hope.[xi] While enemies are frequently present in the Psalter there is the repeated promise of victory (e.g., 3:7–8; 4:1; 5:4–6; 6:9–10; 7:1, 6–7). The agent in defeating these enemies is the Davidic king (e.g., 110). The Psalter asserts that the LORD, his chosen king and their people will be victorious over the enemies they face. The trajectory throughout the Psalter might be summarised by looking at Psalm 2 in which the enemies set themselves against the LORD and his king (v. 2) and Psalm 149 in which the enemy kings are bound in chains (v. 8). Defeating enemies does not necessarily mean eradicating them. Enemies may be defeated by making them friends. At different junctures throughout the Psalter enemy nations are seen praising God (e.g., 65:1–2, 5; 66:1; 67: 4, 6; 148:11–13). Psalm 87 dramatically depicts this scenario as it describes Zion as the mother of the nations, and it is there that they might be assimilated into God’s people once more.

I suggest we might wish to reclaim the term utopia, lending it biblical categories. If we do so, we might find that rather than operating as a twisted political term burdened with economic connotations we might discover a biblical utopia. To do so begins to make sense of the Psalter’s portrayal of Zion. The Christian’s hope then is not a physical city in the Middle East that must be resurrected to its former glory. It is a heavenly city, as the author of Hebrews designates it. The Christian’s home is a new and glorified Zion that we will experience in all of its fullness as the New Heavens and the New Earth—it is a biblical utopia painted, in part, by the Psalter.  

We are Children of Zion

Not far from where I now live there is a Round Tower. It sits in a field, fenced off from the surrounding housing developments with a winding path that passes the base of the tower. In stark contrast to the homes round about it, the tower is empty. Home to no one, except possibly a few bats. It is no longer home to Christianity nor Christians. Where then is our home to be found?

The reality is that the globe we live on is not our home in its present condition. No, as the Psalter demonstrates, we are Children of Zion. We look forward to a greater, grander eternal home in which God himself dwells, that is inviolable, eternal and ruled by the perfect Davidic descendant. A place in which perfection rules, justice prevails and there is the utter absence of all things displeasing. It could rightly be called Utopia, elsewhere in Scripture it is designated the New Heavens and the New Earth. In the Psalter it is simply Zion. But, for the Christian it is where we want to be. Happily, then, the Psalter assures us that we are her children, and she is our home.

[i] Cf. Crawford Gribben, The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[ii] Psa. 2:6; 9:11, 14; 14:7; 20:2.

[iii] Psa. 48:2, 11–13; 50:2; 51:18; 53:6; 65:1; 69:35–36. The virtually synonymous Jerusalem is mentioned in 68:29 and city of God in 46:4; 48:1, 8.

[iv] Psa. 74:2; 76:3; 78:68; 84:6, 8; 87:2, 5. Again, Jerusalem occurs in 79:1, 3 and Zion is labelled the city founded by God in 87:1.

[v] Psa. 97:8; 99:2; 102:13, 16, 21. In 101:8 it is designated the city of the LORD.

[vi] Psa. 110:2; 125:1; 126:1; 128:5; 129:5; 132:13; 133:3; 137:1, 3; 146:10; 147:12; 149:2. Jerusalem is named a further ten times, 116:19; 122:2, 3, 6; 125:2; 128:5; 137:5, 6, 7; 147:2.

[vii] Philip E. Satterthwaite, ‘Zion in the Songs of Ascents’, in Zion, City of Our God, ed. Richard S. Hess and Gordon J. Wenham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 127.

[viii] See Psa. 146:10; 149:2; 150.

[ix] Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Clarence H. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 135.

[x] Also consider the command for the king to be well acquainted with Scripture in Deuteronomy 17:14–20.

[xi] See the character Raphael Hytholday’s comment about the Utopians ‘snatching certain and undoubted victory from their enemies’ hand, the conquered turn the tables and conquered the conquerors.’ in More, 113.


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