The situation seems the same as in Psalm xlvi., with which this psalm has many points of contact. In both we have the same triumph, the same proud affection for the holy city and sanctuary, the same confidence in God's dwelling there, the same vivid picturing of the mustering of enemies and their rapid dispersion, the same swift movement of style in describing that overthrow, the same thought of the diffusion of God's praise in the world as its consequence, the same closing summons to look upon the tokens of deliverance, with the difference that, in the former psalm, these are the shattered weapons of the defeated foe, and in this the unharmed battlements and palaces of the delivered city. The emphatic word of the refrain in Psalm xlvi. also reappears here in ver. 3. The psalm falls into three parts, of which the first (vv. 1, 2) is introductory, celebrating the glory of Zion as the city of God; the second (vv. 3-8) recounts in glowing words the deliverance of Zion; and the third tells of the consequent praise and trust of the inhabitants of Zion (vv. 9-14).
The general sense of the first part is plain, but ver. 2 is difficult. "Mount Zion" is obviously subject, and "lovely in loftiness" and "joy of all the earth" predicates; but the grammatical connection of the two last clauses is obscure. Further, the meaning of "the sides of the north" has not been satisfactorily ascertained. The supposition that there is an allusion in the phrase to the mythological mountain of the gods, with which Zion is compared, is surely most unnatural. Would a Hebrew psalmist be likely to introduce such a parallel, even in order to assert the superiority of Zion? Nor is the grammatical objection to the supposition less serious. It requires a good deal of stretching and inserting to twist the two words "the sides of the north" into a comparison. It is more probable that the clause is topographical, describing some part of the city, but what part is far from clear. The accents make all the verse after "earth" the subject of the two preceding predicates, and place a minor division at "north," implying that "the sides of the north" is more closely connected with "Mount Zion" than with the "city of the great King," or than that last clause is.
Following these indications, Stier renders "Mount Zion [and] the northern side (i.e., the lower city, on the north of Zion), which together make the city," etc. Others see here "the Holy City regarded from three points of view"--viz., "the Mount Zion" (the city of David), "the sides of the north" (Mount Moriah and the Temple), "the city of the great King" (Jerusalem proper). So Perowne and others. Delitzsch takes Zion to be the Temple hill, and "the sides of the north" to be in apposition. "The Temple hill or Zion, in the narrower sense, actually formed the north-eastern corner of ancient Jerusalem," says he, and thus regards the subject of the whole sentence as really twofold, not threefold, as appears at first--Zion on the north, which is the palace-temple, and Jerusalem at its feet, which is "the city of the great King." But it must be admitted that no interpretation runs quite smoothly, though the summary ejection of the troublesome words "the sides of the north" from the text is too violent a remedy.
But the main thought of this first part is independent of such minute difficulties. It is that the one thing which made Zion-Jerusalem glorious was God's presence in it. It was beautiful in its elevation; it was safely isolated from invaders by precipitous ravines, inclosing the angle of the plateau on which it stood. But it was because God dwelt there and manifested Himself there that it was "a joy for all the earth." The name by which even the earthly Zion is called is "Jehovah-Shammah, The Lord is there." We are not forcing New Testament ideas into Old Testament words when we see in the psalm an eternal truth. An idea is one thing; the fact which more or less perfectly embodies it is another. The idea of God's dwelling with men had its less perfect embodiment in the presence of the Shechinah in the Temple, its more perfect in the dwelling of God in the Church, and will have its complete when the city "having the glory of God" shall appear, and He will dwell with men and be their God. God in her, not anything of her own, makes Zion lovely and gladdening. "Thy beauty was perfect through My comeliness which I had put upon thee, saith the Lord."
The second part pictures Zion's deliverance with picturesque vigour (vv. 3-8). Ver. 3 sums up the whole as the act of God, by which He has made Himself known as that which the refrain of Psalm xlvi. declared Him to be--a refuge, or, literally, a high tower. Then follows the muster of the hosts. "The kings were assembled." That phrase need not be called exaggeration, nor throw doubt on the reference to Sennacherib's army, if we remember the policy of Eastern conquerors in raising their armies from their conquests, and the boast which Isaiah puts into the mouth of the Assyrian: "Are not my princes altogether kings?" They advance against the city. "They saw,"--no need to say what. Immediately they "were amazed." The sight of the city broke on them from some hill-crest on their march. Basilisk-like, its beauty was paralysing, and shot a nameless awe into their hearts. "They were terror-struck; they fled." As in Psalm xlvi. 6, the clauses, piled up without cement of connecting particles, convey an impression of hurry, culminating in the rush of panic-struck fugitives. As has been often noticed, they recall Cæsar's Veni, vidi, vici; but these kings came, saw, were conquered. No cause for the rout is named. No weapons were drawn in the city. An unseen hand "smites once, and smites no more"; for once is enough. The process of deliverance is not told; for a hymn of victory is not a chronicle. One image explains it all, and signalises the Divine breath as the sole agent. "Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind" is not history, but metaphor. The unwieldy, huge vessel, however strong for fight, is unfit for storms, and, caught in a gale, rolls heavily in the trough of the sea, and is driven on a lee shore and ground to pieces on its rocks. "God blew upon them, and they were scattered," as the medal struck on the defeat of the Armada had it. In the companion psalm God's uttered voice did all. Here the breath of the tempest, which is the breath of His lips, is the sole agent.
The past, of which the nation had heard from its fathers, lives again in their own history; and that verification of traditional belief by experience is to a devout soul the chief blessing of its deliverances. There is rapture in the thought that "As we have heard, so have we seen." The present ever seems commonplace. The sky is farthest from earth right overhead, but touches the ground on the horizon behind and before. Miracles were in the past; God will be manifestly in the far-off future, but the present is apt to seem empty of Him. But if we rightly mark His dealings with us, we shall learn that nothing in His past has so passed that it is not present. As the companion psalm says, "The God of Jacob is our refuge," this exclaims, "As we have heard, so have we seen."
But not only does the deliverance link the present with the past, but it flings a steady light into the future. "God shall establish her for ever." The city is truly "the eternal city," because God dwells in it. The psalmist was thinking of the duration of the actual Jerusalem, the imperfect embodiment of a great idea. But whatever may be its fate, the heart of his confidence is no false vision; for God's city will outlast the world. Like the "maiden fortresses," of which there is one in almost every land, fondly believed never to have been taken by enemies, that city is inexpugnable, and the confident answer to every threatening assailant is, "The virgin, the daughter of Zion, hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn; the daughter of Jerusalem hath shaken her head at thee." "God will establish her for ever." The pledges of that stability are the deliverances of the past and present.
The third part (vv. 9-14) deals with the praise and trust of the inhabitants of Zion. Deliverance leads to thankful meditation on the loving-kindness which it so signally displayed, and the ransomed people first gather in the Temple, which was the scene of God's manifestation of His grace, and therefore is the fitting place for them to ponder it. The world-wide consequences of the great act of loving-kindness almost shut out of sight for the moment its bearing on the worshippers. It is a lofty height to which the song climbs, when it regards national deliverance chiefly as an occasion for wider diffusion of God's praise. His "name" is the manifestation of His character in act. The psalmist is sure that wherever that character is declared praise will follow, because he is sure that that character is perfectly and purely good, and that God cannot act but in such a way as to magnify Himself. That great sea will cast up nothing but pearls. The words carry also a lesson for recipients of Divine loving-kindness, teaching them that they misapprehend the purpose of their blessings, if they confine these to their own well-being and lose sight of the higher object--that men may learn to know and love Him. But the deliverance not only produces grateful meditation and widespread praise; it sets the mother city and her daughter villages astir, like Miriam and her maidens, with timbrel and dance, and ringing songs which celebrate "Thy judgments," terrible as they were. That dead host was an awful sight, and hymns of praise seem heartless for its dirge. But it is not savage glee nor fierce hatred which underlies the psalmist's summons, and still less is it selfish joy. "Thy judgments" are to be hymned when they smite some giant evil; and when systems and their upholders that array themselves against God are drowned in some Red Sea, it is fitting that on its banks should echo, "Sing ye to Jehovah, for He hath triumphed gloriously."
The close of this part may be slightly separated from vv. 9-11. The citizens who have been cooped up by the siege are bidden to come forth, and, free from fear, to compass the city without, and pass between its palaces within, and so see how untouched they are. The towers and bulwark or rampart remain unharmed, with not a stone smitten from its place. Within, the palaces stand without a trace of damage to their beauty. Whatever perishes in any assaults, that which is of God will abide; and, after all musterings of the enemy, the uncaptured walls will rise in undiminished strength, and the fair palaces which they guard glitter in untarnished splendour. And this complete exemption from harm is to be told to the generation following, that they may learn what a God this God is, and how safely and well He will guide all generations.
The last word in the Hebrew text, which the A.V. and R.V. render "even unto death," can scarcely have that meaning. Many attempts have been made to find a signification appropriate to the close of such a triumphal hymn as this, but the simplest and most probable course is to regard the words as a musical note, which is either attached abnormally to the close of the psalm, or has strayed hither from the superscription of Psalm xlix. It is found in the superscription of Psalm ix. ("Al-Muth") as a musical direction, and has in all likelihood the same meaning here. If it is removed, the psalm ends abruptly, but a slight transposition of words and change of the main division of the verse remove that difficulty by bringing "for ever and aye" from the first half. The change improves both halves, laying the stress of the first exclusively on the thought that this God is such a God (or, by another rendering, "is here," i.e., in the city), without bringing in reference to the eternity of His protection, and completing the second half worthily, with the thought of His eternal guidance of the people among whom He dwells.