Psalms Book 3: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on February 10, 2006

Psalms 87:1-7

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 87. It’s been interesting working through these Psalms in the Third Book of the Psalms, and especially these more recent ones: the constantly recurring themes of God’s people’s love for the people of God; God’s delight in His people; the importance of the body of Christ, of the church. And as we look at this Psalm tonight, not only do we think of John Newton’s great hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken (the song is taken right out of the third verse of this Psalm), but we think a little bit of Ephesians. Paul’s themes in Ephesians 1, 2, and 3 cycle around many of the very ideas that are set forth in this Psalm.

Tonight I want to concentrate on three parts in this Psalm. First, in verses 1-3, I want you to see this depiction of the city of God, the city that He has founded. It’s a picture of the people of God. And then in verses 4-6, I want you to see that that city of God is a city of nations. It’s not just a city of Jews; it’s a city of Jews, Egyptians, Babylonians, Sidonians, Ethiopians. It’s a dazzling array of nations. And isn’t that interesting? Right there in the Old Testament this view of the people of God being made up by more than just the Jewish people, made up of more than just the ethnic descendents of Abraham. (And that certainly tells us something about missions, doesn’t it, as we lead up to the Missions Conference?) And then finally, in the final verse I want you to see something of the joy of the city of God and the joy of the people of God in His glory. Those three things: the city of God in verses 1-3; the city of nations in verses 4-6; and then, the city of joy in verse 7. Let’s look to God in prayer and ask for His help before we read His word.

We thank You for Your word, O Lord. We thank You for the way we’ve been encouraged in the last weeks. Lord, we’ve read Psalms which are imprecatory, Psalms which call down judgment on Your enemies, and even in those Psalms we have found sweet messages of truth and grace to help us in the living of these days. Lord, we’ve read and contemplated Psalms written by the janitors of the temple. We’ve been encouraged by how those humble servants of the Lord in the house of the Lord loved serving in the house of the Lord, were delighted to be doorkeepers and bucket-carriers if they could just be near the people of God gathered to worship. And we’ve prayed in our own hearts that that would be more our attitude, that we would just delight when Your people gather to worship; that it would be like meat and drink to us to gather with Your people, to delight in You, to joy in You, to love You, to adore You, to worship You.

And Lord, tonight again You point us to the glory of Your people, and You tell us some things in this Psalm that are just so glorious that they’re downright uncomfortable, and we thank You for that, and we ask that You bring that home; and that You bring it home in such a way that we give all the glory back to You; that we become more committed to tell every man, woman, boy and girl possible, from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, about the saving love of Jesus Christ. We ask all these things in His name. Amen.

Hear God’s word from Psalm 87. It is again “A Psalm of the sons of Korah. A Song.”

“His foundation is in the holy mountains.

The Lord loves the gates of Zion

More than all the other dwelling places of Jacob.

Glorious things are spoken of you,

O city of God. [Selah.

‘I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me;

Behold, Philistia and Tyre with Ethiopia:

‘This one was born here.’

But of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her’;

And the Most High Himself will establish her.

The Lord shall count when He registers the peoples,

‘This one was born there.’ [Selah.

Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say,

‘All my springs of joy are in you.’’”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

This Psalm reminds us that Zion is the destined metropolis of both Jew and Gentile; that the city of God, the people of God, will be made up of every tribe and tongue and nation. It reminds us of the coming conversion of the nations and of their incorporation into the Book of Life. It points us to something of God’s choosing love. It reminds us of how glorious the church is in God’s eyes. It presses us to have an appreciation for that choosing love of God and to attempt with all of our earthly powers and in humble dependence upon the Holy Spirit to have the same view of God’s people that God has of His people. It reminds us of God’s plan to bring in every tribe into His family, and it reminds us of the joy that only those who know the Lord can have. Let’s look at some of those things together tonight.

I. The city of God.

First, starting in verses 1-3, this glorious picture of the city of God. Zion — Jerusalem, the city of David, the capital of God’s people — epitomizes the people of God in this Psalm, and we see something of the glory of God’s people; or, to say it right, we see something of God’s glory in His people — the way that He delights in them, He glories in them, He loves them, He cherishes them — in these first three verses. And in each of those verses I want you to see something just slightly different, but they’re important.

First of all, in verse 1: His foundation is in the holy mountains. The point is not that Zion [that Jerusalem] is in fact the foundation of the living God, as if He rested upon Zion, as if He were somehow dependent or located upon Zion; but the point is that God Himself has established Zion. He has made the foundation of Zion his people, and therefore she is secure.

You know, we often sing,

“How Firm a Foundation, Ye saints of the Lord,

Is laid for your faith in His excellent word.”

And the Lord has laid a foundation for us, but here the emphasis is that God Himself is that foundation. He is our sure foundation. And there’s a better song, even, that we sing that describes that. We sing, “Christ is made the sure foundation….” and that reality is being rejoiced in by the psalmist here. The reason why God’s people are secure is because their foundation is God, and though every other foundation be shaken, nothing can shake that foundation. And so as the psalmist meditates on the city of God and he meditates upon the glory of God’s people, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that God Himself is the foundation of His people, and therefore His people are secure.

But secondly, in verse 2 we see “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwelling places of Jacob.” In other words, there is a special delight that God has set upon Zion. And again, Zion (Jerusalem, at this point) is a picture of His chosen people. He loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwelling places of Jacob. This of course reminds us that Zion has not chosen God, but God has chosen Zion. This is a very old point in the Old Testament, and just to remind you (if you have Bibles), let me take you back to Deuteronomy 7 when this same topic is being taken up by Moses as He explains to the people of God in the wilderness that God did not choose them because of something that they had done or because of some superlative quality that they alone possessed, but He chose them because He loved them. In Deuteronomy 7:6, Moses says

“You are a holy people to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the people who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples or you were the fewest of all the people. But because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

And so Moses is making it clear to the children of God that their status is due to the love of God freely set on them by Him alone. They did not somehow by their loveable-ness evoke God’s love. They did not somehow by their numerous-ness evoke God’s love. They did not somehow by their righteousness evoke God’s love; but God, in His inscrutable wisdom and His unfathomable goodness and kindness, set His love on them.

And, my friends, until our security is in that kind of divine choosing love, we will not be secure. If our security is somehow in something we have done, then we will never be secure because we know that we are fickle. We know that we change. We resolve, and we mean it with all our hearts — and we break our resolves. But if our security is based upon something which is not fickle, which never changes, which is outside of us, which is dependable, which is divine — ah! — then we can be secure in this life.

And so not only does the psalmist start off by reminding us that God Himself has established us, he reminds us here that God has set this unique and special love on His people, and that our security resides in God as our foundation, and God’s love as the thing that has made us to be His people.

But there’s yet one more thing in this first section that I want you to see, and it’s quite glorious. It’s the sentence that John Newton’s hymn is based on: “Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.”

In other words, the psalmist is saying to you ‘Do you realize that though God did not choose you because of something in you, yet nevertheless you are glorious in His eyes?’

And, you know, it’s almost embarrassing. What the psalmist is saying here is that Zion [that God’s people] is exceedingly precious to Him and that He delights in him. The philosophers call it the love of complacency. He actually delights…there’s a quality about which He delights in His people. That quality did not evoke His love, and yet nevertheless He delights in them.

I had the privilege last night to go through the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, in California. And one of the things…I could not speak most of the time. I really couldn’t. We were on a guided tour, and I couldn’t get words out of my mouth. It was an overwhelming experience to relive something of that man’s life and of that man’s presidency. One of the things that came through loud and clear is – that man flat loved Nancy Reagan. He was gaga about her! Hundreds of his handwritten love notes are on display…to Nancy Reagan. Sometimes, three, four, five…how do you lead the free world and write five notes to your wife a day?! I don’t know!! But he loved that woman. He delighted in her.

We were having a conversation earlier in that day, and a friend had commended two particular things to another friend of mine, C.J. Mahaney, that C.J. ought to do every day. When he gets out of bed, he ought to do these two things in the morning. The first thing that this friend had said that C.J. ought to do is commit to love his wife. Now, I happen to know C.J. and Carolyn, and C.J. is crazy about Carolyn! I said, “Now, that’s going to be a tough one to keep, isn’t it, C.J.?” He adores that woman. He absolutely adores her. He delights in her.

And the psalmist is saying, ‘People of God, you need to understand: God delights in you. He glories in you. You’re precious to Him. He makes over you. He’s like a doting husband.’ The psalmist is pointing us to something of the glory of God in His people in this Psalm, the precious-ness of God’s people. And if that is how God thinks about His people, then ought not we to have such a high estimation of His people – of His body, of the bride of His Son, of His church? And that’s very important, because you remember we don’t just love some abstract entity out there called “the church.” That love has to be expressed concretely within the bounds of the local fellowship of believers, the bounds of fellowship which regularly manifest the effects of the fall, where we hurt one another and disagree with one another and let one another down. And yet, never is our estimation of the people of God to be different than God’s estimation of the people of God. And the psalmist is raising our eyes to something of God’s glory in His people as He describes this city of God, this Zion, in verses 1-3.

II. A city of nations.

There’s a second thing I want you to see, though, and that’s in verses 4-6, because this city of God is not just a city filled with Jews; it’s a city filled with the nations. It’s quite striking, isn’t it, in verse 4? “I shall mention Rahab….” That was a way that the children of Israel often spoke about Egypt. That was another name for Egypt. I know that you and I think first of Rahab the harlot, who was spared in the invasion of Canaan. Yes, that’s an Old Testament usage of that name, but very often in the prophets this is the name for Egypt. And so what we’re being told here is that — and notice Who’s speaking here — “I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me [capital ‘Me’].” So who’s speaking? God.

So God is now saying that ‘I am going to number Egypt and Babylon among those who know Me.’ And it doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “Philistia and Tyre and Ethiopia.” All of these, He is going to say, belong in My Book of Life. I am going to register them at the last day.

Is God saying that everybody is saved? No. But what is He saying? That His plan is more than a meager number of children of Israel to be numbered in the Book of Life. There are going to be people from all the nations numbered amongst those who are in the Book of Life, even as He said to Abraham in Genesis 12 that ‘In your name all the families of the earth will be blessed. In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’

And, my friends, one of the things that that reminds us of is that missions is rooted in the Old Testament vision of the people of God as well as in the New Testament, and that we ourselves can never fail to have a concern for the work of world missions, because it is God’s purpose to bring Egyptians and Babylonians and Philistines, and Sidonians and Ethiopians…and on and on and on. It is His purpose to bring them in and to number and register them amongst the people of God. And if that was an Old Testament concern – that the peoples would come to know God – and you find that concern in many books of the Old Testament…in that Book of Esther, that strange but glorious little story where God’s name is never mentioned, but where God’s providence is written all over the book…you remember, we’re told in that book that as a result of Esther’s bravery that many in that kingdom – that pagan kingdom, that non-Jewish kingdom, that Gentile kingdom — that many of them became Jews. In other words, they became believers in the one true God.

Or, we read in Ezekiel that God’s purposes were to make Himself known in the nations. Or we go all the way back to Exodus, and we find God saying, “And then you will know that I am the Lord.” It has always been God’s purpose to make His name known among the nations, and the psalmist is emphasizing that here. And so we must be concerned for missions. It’s not an option for us. And it’s not a New Testament thing, it’s an Old Testament. It’s a Bible thing, Old Testament and New.

But there’s a second thing I want you to see in this passage as well, and that is that the children of Israel in looking at this passage were often tempted to think that even though the nations were going to be brought into and numbered in the Book of Life, nevertheless, the Israelites were going to be better than them, different than them.

Notice how they may have understood these words:

“I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among them who know Me; Behold, Philistia and Tyre with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’ But of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her’; and the Most High Himself will establish her. The Lord will count when He registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’”

Now, in the context of this Psalm it is stressing especially the blessing of being born in Israel. It is the same point we would make today when we talk about a child being born into a believing family. That is an enormous covenant blessing and privilege and advantage, but a child born into an unbelieving family and saved by grace through Jesus Christ is no less a child of God than that child born into a covenant family with ten generations of believing parents behind him. We’re all brought into the same family, all on the same basis. And the children of Israel were tempted to look at this and say ‘OK, the nations are going to be registered in the Book of Life…but we who are born in Israel are going to be better than they. And the way they get into the Book of Life is by becoming ‘us.’’

And you remember the Apostle Paul in the New Testament made it absolutely clear that that was not the case, that both Jew and Gentile (he would say in Romans 2) are equally guilty before God, and that the Law which was the great advantage of the Jew equally condemned Jew and Gentile, and that the basis on which they would be brought into the kingdom would be the grace of God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. And it’s so very important for us to realize that. However the Jews may have misunderstood these privileges, this passage makes it clear to us that God was going to bring the nations to Himself in the most striking of ways: through the humiliation of His Son, through the crucifixion of His Son, through the death and burial and resurrection of His Son. That’s what it was going to take in order to bring the nations to a saving knowledge of God.

And, you know, the people of God in the Old Testament…they just couldn’t take that in in all its fullness until the Lord Himself had come and revealed in His word just how far He would go to save His people.

And that reminds us of one more thing in this section that I think is exceedingly relevant to where we are at this point in world history today. We have been watching the last few days as riots have broken out not only across Europe and the Middle East and into Indonesia, but elsewhere; protests around the world, in embassies all over the world, because of these cartoons of Mohammed. The Muslims have been offended by this, and they have protested, and they’ve raved and they’ve stoned, and they’ve burned and they’ve threatened, and they’ve reviled. And John Piper has just struck me to the quick with his observation on this in an article that he just wrote today called Being Mocked is the Essence of Christ’s Work, But Not Mohammed’s.

Now I want you to think about this for a minute. To bring the nations to Himself, it was of the essence of Christ’s work that He be mocked and humiliated, but that was not the essence of Mohammed’s work. Listen to what Piper says:

“What we saw this past week in the Islamic world, demonstrations over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, was another vivid depiction of the difference between Mohammed and Christ and what it means to follow each. Not all Muslims approve the violence, but a deep lesson remains: The work of Mohammed is based on being honored, and the work of Christ is based on being insulted. This produces two very different reactions to mockery.

“If Christ had not been insulted, we would not have been saved. This was His saving work: to be insulted and die; to rescue sinners from the wrath of God. Already in the Psalms the path of mockery was promised: “All who see Me mock Me, and they make mouths at Me, and they wag their heads.” (Ps. 22:7). “He was despised and rejected by men; as One from whom men hide their faces, we esteemed Him not.” (Is. 53:3).

“When it actually happened, it was worse than expected. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. They twisted a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and kneeling before Him they mocked Him, saying ‘Hail! King of the Jews!’ And they spit on Him (Matt. 27:28-30). His response to all this was patient endurance. This was the work He came to do. “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before His shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” (Is. 53:7).

“This was not true of Mohammed, and Muslims do not believe it is true of Jesus. Most Muslims have been taught that Jesus was not crucified.” [Did you know that? Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified. That’s one way that you can tell it’s a false teaching. They deny the crucifixion of our Lord.] “One Sunni Muslim writes, ‘Muslims believe that Allah saved the Messiah from the ignominy of crucifixion.’ Another adds, ‘We honor Jesus more than you Christians do. We refuse to believe that God would permit Him to suffer death on the cross.’ The essential Muslim impulse is to avoid the ignominy of the cross.

“That is the most basic difference between Christ and Mohammed, and between a Muslim and a follower of Christ, for Christ enduring the mockery of the cross was the essence of His mission. And for a true follower of Christ, enduring, suffering patiently for the glory of Christ is the essence of obedience. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account,” said Jesus in Matthew 5:11. Jesus Himself was called illegitimate in John 8:41; a drunkard, in Matthew 11:19; a blasphemer, in Matthew 26.65; a devil, in Matthew 10:25. And He promised His followers the same: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign the household?”

“The caricature and mockery of Christ has continued to this day. Martin Scorsese portrayed Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ as a man wracked with doubt and beset with sexual lust. Andres Serrano was funded by the National Endowment of the Arts to portray Jesus on a cross sunk in a bottle of urine. The DaVinci Code portrays Jesus as a mere mortal who married and fathered children. How should His followers respond? Well, on the one hand, we are grieved and angered; but on the other hand, we identify with Christ and we embrace His suffering, and we rejoice in our afflictions, and we say with the Apostle Paul that vengeance belongs to the Lord.

Let us love our enemies and win them with the gospel. If Christ did His work by being insulted, we must do ours likewise.

“When Mohammed was portrayed in twelve cartoons in the Danish paper, Jyllands, the uproar across the Muslim world was intense and sometimes violent. Flags were burned, embassies were torched. At least one Christian church was stoned. The cartoonists went into hiding for fear of their lives, like Salmon Rushdie before them.

“What does this mean? It means that a religion without an insulted Savior will not endure insults to win the scoffers. It means that this religion is destined to bear the impossible load of upholding the honor of one who did not die and rise again to make that possible. It means that Jesus Christ is still the only hope of peace with God and peace with man. It means that His followers must be willing to share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death. That’s what Christ had to do in order for the nations to come to Him. That’s why the blood of the martyrs is seed.”

III. A city of joy.

One last thing — we’re way overtime – and that is simply this: this city of God’s people which is made up of the nations is a city of joy. The people of God glory in seeing the nations bow the knee to God the Father and Jesus Christ, and in her there is joy. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. We thank You for the mocked and insulted and crucified Savior who died, who endured humiliation, to bring the nations to Him. O Lord God, bring them in. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing.

Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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