BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Psalm 48 is one of the psalms – that is, one of the musical, liturgical texts we think were used regularly during Second Temple times.
Psalm 48 is one of the “songs of Zion,” psalms that extol the characteristics of Jerusalem by its evocative name Zion. Any lists of psalm types are likely to vary from one list-maker to another, but most lists I checked included at least 46, 48, 76, 84, 87, and 122. Psalm 137 (“by the rivers of Babylon”) refers to “the songs of Zion.” Zion is more or less a synonym for Jerusalem, but it literally refers to a fortified hill within the city, and it has also come to have idealized or even eschatological connotations.
If we go with this group of six psalms as “Zion songs,” it might be worth noticing some nearly-common features of their superscripts – that is, the headings that come before the psalms proper. All of them (except 84) are labeled “songs.” (Although they aren’t the only psalms to be so labeled; for instance, the songs of ascent are labeled “a song of ascents.”) Four of them (46, 48, 84, 87) are “of the Korahites,” a division of the Levites known for service as singers, and specifically mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20 (2 Chronicles 20:19) in connection with a miraculous battle in which God defeats the attacking army without the inhabitants of Jerusalem having to lift a finger except to gather up the spoils.
This last is significant, because some of the songs of Zion make reference to what the commentators call “holy war,” which in this context is war that God, as the divine warrior, fights for Israel. Psalm 48 makes reference to such an event (see vv4-7), as does Psalm 76. This “holy war” reference might be a memory of the events in 2 Chronicles 20, or might refer to the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians in the reign of Hezekiah described in 2 Kings 18-19 & Isaiah 36-37, which ends miraculously when the angel of YHWH kills 185,000 Assyrian troops in the middle of the night (2 Kings 19:35, Isaiah 37:36).
On the other hand, the battle mentioned in 48:4-7 might be “an ideal rather than a real battle” (Jewish Study Bible, notes Psalm 48), which adds more weight to the eschatological reading. Rashi reads it as a psalm about the future: “when He builds His city, He will be great and praised because of it.”
According to Till Magnus Steiner, there’s good reason to think that part of Psalm 48 was composed before the exile – since it could be quoted by the author of Lamentations (in Lamentations 2:15, along with Psalm 47 and Psalm 50, it seems). But, in Steiner’s view, there’s also good reason to think that a portion of the Psalm was composed during the exile, in a way that makes the earlier Psalm an affirmation of faith in the teeth of the empirical evidence of Jerusalem’s defeat by the Babylonians (Steiner, 688-690).
If Steiner is correct, the ancient context in which Psalm 48 would have been sung is complex: initially a straightforward song of triumph, later an anthem of persistent confidence, even later an emblem of confidence vindicated.
Calling Jerusalem “far north” (as translated in the NRSV) seems a little peculiar on the surface, since Jerusalem is in the southern part of Israel. Apparently the underlying term, zaphon, is associated with the Canaanite deity Baal. Baal-Zaphon, the mountain of Baal, has traditionally been identified as a mountain in Syria, Jebel Aqra, which is farther north than Jerusalem, if not as far north as, say, Russia. [“Far north” is a relative term, let’s face it.] The term zaphon seems to have taken on the meaning of “north” in Hebrew usage over time for that reason, and might also indicate that the Hebrew psalmist was claiming that Zion is the real mountain of God – the real God.
The reference in v7 to the ships of Tarshish might also point back to the events of 2 Chronicles 20 – in particular, 20:35-37, an account of an ill-fated naval alliance between Kings Jehoshaphat of Judah and Ahaziah of Israel, ill-fated because God destroys the fleet built for an attack on Tarshish. Alternatively, it might simply be a reference to any ships of Tarshish. No one seems to know exactly where Tarshish was, but it always signifies “a renowned coastal city.” Its ships would presumably have been hard to shatter, so that shattering them would be evidence of God’s superior might.
When “the great king” is mentioned in Hebrew scripture it’s frequently a reference to King David, especially in connection with Jerusalem, which David designated as the capital and expanded and fortified. But God is also portrayed as the ultimate king, and in v2, “the great king” seems to be more a reference to God than to God’s mortal agent.
CLOSER READING: There are some recurrent translation issues in this psalm. In v2, what NRSV translates “beautiful in elevation” a phrase that Martin Buber translated as “beautiful summit,” JPS translates “fair-crested,” and Rashi seems to have read as “fairest of branches.” Branches are high, after all. The beauty is clear, the sense of height seems to be clear, but how exactly the psalmist meant us to think about that height seems to be a little less clear.
The word NRSV translates as “victory” in v10, what God’s right hand is full of, is a Hebrew word that in many other contexts is translated “righteousness.” King James and others stick with righteousness; JPS calls it “beneficence.” Perhaps there is something about the context here that makes literal righteousness feel like divine victory or blessing to some translators.
Translators are at a loss about the verb NRSV translates as “go through” – as in, “go through its [Zion’s] citadels” – in v13, since that verb only occurs once in the Bible, right here. It seems to have something to do with some kind of sight-seeing, considering the context, but we may not be able to be precise about it, honestly.
There’s a text critical issue at the end of v14. The NRSV resolves it in favor of the Septuagint and goes with “forevermore.” The variant that resolves it differently reads “over death” or “to the end” (e.g., King James has “even unto death”), which is evocative and suggestive and doesn’t necessarily contradict “forevermore.”
The Uniform Series editors direct our attention to the psalm’s reference to God’s steadfast love in v9, which “we ponder in the midst of your temple.” This verse switches abruptly to direct address to God. Up to now, God has been talked about, in the third person. Now, and in the next two verses, the Psalmist addresses God directly as “you,” and may plead with God to “Let Mount Zion be glad, let the towns (literally, “daughters”) of Judah rejoice.” Presumably: let your judgments be favorable, and thus, cause for rejoicing.
This really is a psalm of place. One of the clearest repetitions in the psalm rests on one of the smallest things, the preposition “in.” The city and the citadels form an interior in vv1 and 3 that is visible from the exterior as beauty and height, and experienced from within as safety and security. That interior is emphasized again in v8, the place we have seen and have heard God’s triumph.
That seeing and hearing are taking place in the past, while the pondering of steadfast love is taking place in the present, and the walking about Zion and counting its towers seems to be something yet to be done. God, however, is God past, present, and future (v8, v14). These shifting tenses, which apply to humans, work to emphasize God’s continuity.
Steiner’s analysis suggests that the psalm creates an idealized or “narrated” space that works as a continuing affirmation of faith in the exilic context.
I wonder whether the only Zion is the physical one, the one that occupies a specific latitude and longitude. Perhaps there is a metaphorical Zion as well, one that is more interior and portable and spiritual – the temple within which people ponder the steadfast love of God.
If so, what would the interior citadels and towers and so on be made of? How would they be constructed? That might be worth considering (see v13).