Psalm 87: This One Was Born There / Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

Psalm 87 is the second-to-last of the psalms directly attributed to the sons of Korah, and deals with the considerably important problem of racism.  This particular psalm is one of the most direct statements in the Hebrew scriptures about the ‘nationality’ of believers to God’s way.  By examining this psalm we will help better understand the consistency of the biblical view of citizenship for believers in the Jerusalem that is above.

Psalm 87 is a short and straightforward song, only seven verses long, so this analysis will consist of an examination of what this psalm says, a brief consideration of a parallel psalm that also makes the same point, and then a brief examination of the comments in the Renewed Covenant scriptures concerning the citizenship of believers in heaven.  This psalm can therefore be seen as part of a surprisingly large context of laws that condemn the practice of racism and that demonstrate the unimportance of ethnicity with God.

This One Was Born There

Psalm 87 reads as follows:  His foundation is in the holy mountains.  The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.  Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God!  “I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to those who know Me; Behold, O Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia:  ‘This one was born there.’ ”  And of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her; and the Most High Himself shall establish her.”  The Lord will record, when he registers the peoples: “This one was born there.”  Both the singers and the players on instruments say, “All my springs are in you.”

This psalm is seemingly obscure, and rarely sung in modern churches [1], but its message is plain.  God is telling believers from all countries of the world that they will be counted as being born in Jerusalem as a result of their conversion to the true religion.  God is not a heathen god of ethnicity and race, but all mankind are his children, whether they are born Egyptians or Philistines or any other ethnicity.

The reason that this psalm is important is because of what it gives and what it takes away.  For one, the living water that gives us life eternal comes from God, not from ourselves, and therefore we are not saved because of our ancestry.  Therefore it is grace, not race, that is the decisive element in salvation.  Additionally, while this verse takes away the salvational aspect of physical ancestry (by placing it within the sovereign choice of God), it provides citizenship as an Israelite to any believer.  Not only, therefore, is ethnicity not important to God, but all believers (regardless of their ancestry) are counted as Israelites to God.

This has relevance to some of the harsher laws of God against intermarriage with heathen peoples.  For example, in Ezra 9-10, Nehemiah 13:25-27, and Malachi 2:13-16 we deal with the problem that Jewish men divorcing their Jewish wives to marry the pagan heathen wives of surroundings peoples was itself a great sin that bothered God–both because God hates divorce and because God despises believers being treacherous to their faith by compromising with pagan religion.  The harsh response of Ezra and Nehemiah to this action was in accordance with the law, which placed prohibitions on foreigners entering the assembly of the Lord within a few generations (see Deuteronomy 23:1-8).

Nonetheless, the Bible did not place a prohibition on an Israelite marrying a foreign captive woman [2].  Additionally, the marriages of Salmon with Rehab of Jericho and Boaz (their son) with Ruth the Moabitess did not in any way attract sanction or scorn.  However, in all such cases we are not dealing with a woman who is going to be a snare.  In the case of a captive woman we have someone who is in a subservient position.  In the case of both Rehab and Ruth we have women who were full converts to God’s ways, and Psalm 87 provides the way in which their intermarriage was not sinful or irregular, by providing converts from the heathen nations with Israelite citizenship upon conversion, thus making the biblical prohibitions on entrance into the assembly of Israel dependent on religious beliefs rather than mere ethnicity.  It is only those of pagan beliefs who were excluded from the assembly of Israel, because their religion was a snare to believers.

Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

It is a cruel irony that Psalm 87 is best known as a hymn called “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” written by John Newton Howard (the noted composer of Amazing Grace, and the impassioned antislavery speaker who had himself once worked on slave trading ships himself before he turned into an abolitionist [3].  The cruel irony is not, though, that an antislavery Anglican wrote an excellent setting of Psalm 87.  The cruel irony is that the usual music for this anti-racist hymn is Franz Josef Haydn’s Deutschland (with its familiar first line:  Deutschland Deutschland uber alles), which served as Hitler’s national anthem in Nazi Germany.

Here we have a psalm that is dedicated to the proposition that all mankind is created as the children of God, and that all who believe in God are given Israelite citizen and marked as having been born in Zion, and it is set to music that was used as the national anthem of a neo-pagan regime dedicated to destroying the Jewish people from the face of the earth.  One could scarcely plot a more diabolical irony if one was trying to corrupt and distort the meaning of the psalm.  How many people who sing “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” realize that the hymn is really about the glorious aspect of God granting citizenship, even in the time of the Temple worship, to believers of all nations.

After all, the promise of Israelite citizenship to believers of all nations, as it is a part of the entire Bible (however much it has been ignored and unrealized by many Jews), is not merely a prominent part of Christianity, but it has been a part of biblical religion from the beginning.  All people of the true faith are one nation–the nation of God, Israel, citizens of the Jerusalem that is above.  There is therefore no place for racism or pride in ethnicity among the people of God–and the nationalistic and Nazi undertones of Franz Josef Haydn’s music undercuts the clear message of Psalm 87, unfortunately.

On The Purpose of Psalm 87

The purpose of Psalm 87 appears to be twofold.  The first purpose is to praise God for His salvation, to give honor and show gratitude for God’s graciousness, lovingkindness, and covenant loyalty.  The second purpose of this short psalm is to show that God’s covenant loyalty extends beyond those who are Israelites by blood to those who are believers of other ethnic origins as well.  This psalm therefore deserves to be read along with passages like Acts 10 and 15, Galatians 3, 2 Kings 5, or the book of Ruth, to show that God’s salvation and kindness extends beyond the borders of Israel and Judah to include people of every nation, so long as they come to a genuine belief in the True God and follow His biblical ways.

On The Obscurity of Psalm 87

It is the explicit anti-racist origin of Psalm 87 that probably accounts for its obscurity.  Just as Psalm 88 is obscure because depression is a subject that many believers do not wish to talk about [4], Psalm 87 is obscure because racism is a problem that many people who profess a belief in Christianity do not feel comfortable discussing.  Indeed, one can go into many parts of the world and find the existence of ethnic-based “caste” systems, whether one goes to Mauritania, or India, or Latin America (with the distinction between criollios, mestizos, blacks, zambos, or indios), or in the United States or Western Europe.  Wherever there is pride of race and ethnicity, there is a denial of the common and equal citizenship of all believers in the heavenly kingdom of God.  To deny this common identity is to deny one’s identity as a child of God and a citizen of the New Jerusalem.  Small wonder, then, that this psalm is largely neglected, given its uncomfortable implications for those who possess either latent or active racism but yet wish to profess a belief in the Bible.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let us offer our praise to the Sons of Korah for writing this short and powerful psalm, deliberately pointed and lacking in poetic elaboration, but all the more clear about its point in praising God for His provision of life, and its steadfast granting of the citizenship of Israel to believers of foreign birth.  Let us offer praise to the sons of Korah for providing a hymn that so bluntly and directly cuts the ground out from under those whose racism undergirds an unbiblical faith based on race rather than divine grace.  Let us also take heed to ourselves lest we be caught up in any hypocrisy by showing ourselves to show partiality based on ethnic origin, and considering some people to be first class and others second-class believers based on their ethnic origin.  For as all believers are accorded citizenship in Israel by the terms of Psalm 87, the blessings that are given to the children of Abraham and the people of Israel are for all believers, no matter which tribe or people they may descend from in blood.  This vital point should not be allowed to remain obscure

[1] http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/19-Psalms/Text/Articles/Allen-Ps87-BS.pdf

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/11/spoils-of-war-an-examination-of-the-treatment-of-captive-women-in-deuteronomy-2110-14/

[3] His story is familiar to those who have seen the movie Amazing Grace, or read about the antislavery movement in late 18th century England, as he was in the same circle as Grenville Sharp, William Wilberforce, and the other heroes of the British Abolitionist movement.

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/psalm-88-for-my-soul-is-full-of-troubles/

About nathanalbright

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18 Responses to Psalm 87: This One Was Born There / Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

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  17. herrharrell says:

    I just discovered your blog and have appreciated reading it. Your comments on Heman the Ezrahite were excellent, and I plan to share them with someone I know who suffers from depression. The link to Heman’s Psalm 88 eventually led me here. Another good post, but one with slight factual errors.
    1. Franz Joseph Haydn did not write “Deutschland”. In 1797, he composed a string quartet that used a melody he had previously used as a setting for “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” (God save Franz, the Emperor). Thus, the string quartet was named the “Kaiserquartett”, or Emperor’s Quartet.
    2. In 1841, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote “Das Lied der Deutschen” (The Song of the Germans) and set it to Haydn’s melody. The impetus for the poem was French claims to territory along the Rhine. The song itself was a call to national unity, much like many of the songs of the American Revolution, except this was not a revolution against a colonial power but a defense against an external aggressor and an appeal to set aside internal strife. The third and fourth lines of the poem call Germans to stand together for protection and defense (not conquest). The boundaries given in the song (the rivers Maas, Memel, Etsch, and Belt) were roughly the boundaries of German-speaking areas that were formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire (which had come to an end in 1806 through French aggression).
    3. It was nearly 100 years later that the Nazis misappropriated and reinterpreted the song to support their agenda of conquest. The lines “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt” were not a claim to superiority but a call to national unity – much like Patrick Henry’s famous statement, “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.”
    4. The third stanza, which is the Federal Republic of Germany’s national anthem, calls for “Unity and Justice and Freedom for the German Fatherland. Let us all as brothers strive after them with heart and hand. Unity and Justice and Freedom are fortune’s safeguards – blossom in the radiance of this fortune, Blossom, German Fatherland!”
    (Translations are my own)
    “Das Lied der Deutschen” was not a racist piece of literature; it and its accompanying melody were just one more thing that the Nazis perverted.

    • Thanks for your comments; I will have to look at this and make it more plain, because I did want it to be understood that Haydn created the music in honor of the Kaiser, but that the melody of the song has become problematic (especially but not only in Israel) because of the behavior of the Nazis.

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