Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung -- By: Ronald B. Allen

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 153:610 (Apr 1996)
Article: Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung
Author: Ronald B. Allen


Psalm 87, A Song Rarely Sung

Ronald B. Allen

[Ronald B. Allen is Professor of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.]

[This is article two in the four-part series “On Paths Less Traveled: Discovering the Savior in Unexpected Places in the Old Testament,” delivered by the author as the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, February 7–10, 1995.]

The first article in this series sought to set the stage for the importance of walking along pathways in Scripture that are rarely traversed. These walks may be taken for two reasons. One is the sheer joy of marking out new territory. The second is the divine duty of making these texts our own familiar friends, lest they be lost to us, and to our posterity, merely from misuse and disinterest.

Among the hymns of ancient Israel that used to be sung in temple worship, Psalm 87 has experienced a peculiar fate in the worship of the church. The words of John Newton’s great hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” have been drawn from this ancient psalm.

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
He whose word cannot be broken
Formed thee for His own abode.

However, the biblical poem on which this worthy hymn is based remains among the most enigmatic of Israel’s ancient temple songs. The classic hymn is still being sung, but the ancient, biblical poem is all but unknown.

When one reads through Psalm 87, the reason for its lack of familiarity becomes clear; it seems to be nearly unintelligible. The first time I spoke from this psalm was in a church in a small town in Oregon. I noticed in the morning bulletin that the

Scripture passage was to be read by one of the men in the church. I watched him walk up to the platform in polished, highly tooled leather boots. I saw the western cut of his shirt and sport coat and saw his Marlboro-man visage—and I feared the worst. I know that the soul of a poet may be found in even the most rugged of men, but the situation did not look good. I realized too late that I should have requested that another passage be read as the morning Scripture rather than this difficult psalm.

But there he was. He looked down at me and then down at his Bible. Then he said something like this: “Howdy, folks. I read over this psalm twice last night. It didn’t mean a thing then. I read it this morning and it still don’t mean a thing. Well, you listen and see.” Then he read the psalm. He looked out at me and then to the congregation and ...

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