Great Is the LORD! (Ps. 48)
All this carries us beyond the mere city of Jerusalem, if read with understanding. For one thing, the city is not the Jews’ delight alone; it is “the joy of the whole earth” (v. 2). And God is not only to be praised by his own people; he is to be praised everywhere (v. 10).
Even more, as Derek Kidner suggests, in this psalm Zion itself seems to become more than a mere earthly capital, and the struggle described becomes more than local. It concerns the whole earth and the whole span of time. Thinking ahead to the final chapters of Revelation, which describe heavenly Jerusalem, Kidner says, “The outlines of ‘the Jerusalem above,’ with its great walls and foundations which are ‘for ever,’ are already coming into view.”1
There is yet another way the psalm exceeds our expectations. Ostensibly in praise of Jerusalem, Psalm 48 is in reality a psalm in praise of God, for this is what Jerusalem stands for. We see this as early as verse 1.
I. Jehovah Encamped in Zion (Ps. 48:1-3).
A. A Great Captain Deserving of Great Praise (v. 1).
The words "great" (<H1419>), and "greatly" (<H3966>) with which the Psalm begins, are not cognate words. They may be translated similarly here, but they are not at all identical. The thought appears to be that the greatness, the might, and the majesty of Jehovah demands that praise of Him should be rendered exceedingly, abundantly, and in magnitude. The praise of His people should accord with the excellence of His Person.
B. A Great Capitol Delivering Great Governance (v. 2).
As Kirkpatrick says, "If we render, on the sides of the north is the citadel of the great King, (it is) a description of the position of the Temple".
C. A Great Calmness Derived from Sure Safety (v. 3).
II. The Enemies of Zion Terrified (Ps. 48:4-6).
A. Gathering Reconnaissance (v. 4).
B. Giving the Retreat (v. 5).
C. Growing Apprehension (v. 6).
This deliverance seems to link Psalms 46, 47, and 48 together, though it is impossible to say with certainty what specific deliverance they refer to. The two possibilities are: (1) the deliverance of the people from the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir in the days of Jehoshaphat, as described in 2 Chronicles 20, and (2) the deliverance of the people from the armies of Sennacherib in the days of Hezekiah, as described in 2 Kings 18–19. The reference in Psalm 48:4 to “the kings” (plural) joining forces to advance against the city seems to fit the combined armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir better than the single army of Sennacherib. But these armies were turned back before they actually “saw” Jerusalem. So the specific references in this psalm, as well as those in the others, are inconclusive.
III. God Establishes Zion Forever (Ps. 48:7-8).
A. Thwarted Assault (v. 7).
That puny kings of earth should array themselves against the citadel of the great King is ironical. "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: The Lord shall have them in derision" (Ps 2:4). Yet their arrogance will persist, until, in Revelation 19:19, the kings of the earth make war against the King of kings and are destroyed by His sword of judgment. Here they assemble (<H3259>), united in a formal confederation to move across the frontier to Jerusalem, but their intentions are aborted by a sight of the Holy City. "They saw!" "They were astonished!" "They were dismayed!" "They fled!". Many commentators follow Calvin in finding it all reminiscent of Caesar's "Veni, vidi, vici—I came, I saw, I conquered". But here the Emperor's boast is reversed. They came, they saw, and they retreated. Gripped with fear, and seized with pain as a travailing woman, they fled in panic. There is no detail or description of battle. Was it just that sight of Jerusalem which alarmed them, beautiful and impregnable on the hill, with Jehovah in His citadel? He who could scatter the mighty armada of Tarshish with His east wind could similarly dispose of these enemy kings. The ships of Tarshish are, to quote Dr Cohen, "A symbol of great size and strength. Tarshish (see Jonah 1:3) is usually identified with Tartessus in south-west Spain, famed as a port, and its ships renowned as the largest of that age. God swept the powerful army aside like a storm which wrecks these vessels".
History provides us with a later, literal illustration of such massive naval destruction. In 1588 the “invincible” Spanish Armada set sail from Lisbon under orders from the Spanish King Philip II to invade and subdue England. It consisted of 130 great galleons and supply ships, 7,000 sailors, and more than 17,000 soldiers. The British fleet under command of Sir Francis Drake met it in the English Channel and engaged it in a series of battles extending over about a week in late July. The Spanish ships were massive and well armed. The English ships were light and more maneuverable. The battle went to the English, who successfully destroyed and captured many ships. But the real victory came when the weather changed and the wind blew the Spanish ships up the Channel toward Scotland, which they attempted to round and thus return to Spain by passing across the North Sea and down the westward coast of Ireland. Scores of these ships were wrecked on the Irish coast, and their crews were massacred. Others sank at sea. Less than half managed to return to Spain and Portugal, and the defeat was so complete that prior Spanish domination of the “ocean sea” was ended.
Most modern authors attribute the English success to their superior navy. But it is significant that the English themselves attributed the victory to God. They struck a medal to celebrate the defeat of the Armada on which were these words: “God blew upon them and they were scattered.” That is the way the psalmist viewed the destruction of the enemy kings.
B. Testimonies Acknowledged (v. 8).
IV. God's Praise Exhibited to the Ends of the Earth (Ps. 48:9-11).
A. A Praiseworthy Tenderness (v. 9).
B. A Praiseworthy Name (v. 10).
C. A Praiseworthy Judge (v. 11).
V. Encouraged by the Strength of Zion (Ps. 48:12-14).
A. An Impenetrable Fortress (vv. 12-13).
B. An Illuminated Way (v. 14).
When the Lord does great things for church or nation, He means that all the faithful, however humble their station, should take courage from it, should repose in Him fresh confidence, and cling to Him with firmer hope, and say, 'This God shall be our God for ever, He will guide us even unto death'".