Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.
This short Psalm is arguably among the most obscure and difficult in the Psalter. The awkward phrasing, abrupt shifts in language and wording, and—most notably—the apparent ambiguities of thought and expression in vv. 4-6, have all led commentators to theorize that the MT as it has come down to us is corrupt and in a disorganized state. Some have attempted to reconstruct and reorder the lines to produce a more coherent poem (see Kraus, pp. 184-85f). Others (e.g., Dahood, Hossfeld-Zenger) are unwilling to take such a step, or do not feel the need, and attempt instead to make sense of the MT as it stands (with only minor modifications).
Unfortunately, Psalm 87, perhaps due to its brevity, is not preserved among the surviving Dead Sea Psalms manuscripts, so there is no way to confirm whether (or to what extent) the MT may be corrupt. Nor is much clarity to be found in the LXX and other ancient versions, which seem to struggle just as much as modern scholars in making sense of the Hebrew text. I have chosen to work from the Masoretic text, keeping closely to it, and adopting only modest changes in vocalization and line divisions, at several points.
As might be expected, the meter of the Psalm (in the MT) is quite irregular, and, probably to some extent, unreliable. I discuss the rhythm/meter only in a few places below.
This Psalm is attributed to “(the) sons of Qorah”, as were the prior Pss 84-85 and 87. These follow the earlier collection of Pss 42-49; on the Qorah-tradition, cf. the study on Ps 42-43. These Korahite Psalms share a number of themes and motifs, including the Zion-emphasis that we find here in Ps 87. They also deal with the relationship between Israel/Judah and the nations, reflecting certain eschatological emphases or points of reference that indicate a measure of affinity with Prophetic oracles and poems of the exilic (and post-exilic) period. For more on the the relation of Ps 87 to the Korahite corpus, cf. the discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 385-8.
The structure of this Psalm is indicated, in this instance, by the Selah (hl*s#) pause-marker, following vv. 3 and 6. The first section (vv. 1-3) is a short hymn of praise for Zion, and for its special place as the chosen dwelling of YHWH; God’s love for the site of Jerusalem/Zion is particularly emphasized. The second section (vv. 4-6) draws upon aspects of the Prophetic nation-oracles, according to the thematic emphasis of the poems in the exilic (and post-exilic) period which offer the promise that, in the New Age of Israel’s restoration, the surrounding nations will join Israel in worshiping YHWH on mount Zion. The enigmatic verse 7 concludes the Psalm.
“Founded by Him on (the) mountains of holiness,
YHWH is loving (you), O gates of ‚iyyôn,
(more) than all (the) dwelling-places of Ya’aqob.”
The Psalm begins in an unusual manner, with (it seems) an orienting subordinate clause (v. 1b) that modifies the object of the central statement (v. 2a) (“[the] gates of Zion”). I take the initial word to be a verbal noun, a passive participle with 3rd person singular suffix (of agency); cf. Dahood, II, p. 299. It is a feminine form (hd*Wsy+), which presumably refers to the city of Jerusalem (the noun ryu! being feminine); the expression “gates of Jerusalem” in the central line stands for the implied object noun, specified in v. 3, “city of the Mightiest” (i.e., city of God, Jerusalem).
Cities were often personified as women in the ancient Near East, a tendency that goes beyond the grammatical gender here of ryu!. The feminine personification of Zion is perhaps best known through the expression “daughter of Zion” (or “daughter Zion”), frequent in the Prophetic texts (cf. also Psalm 9:14).
The plural “mountains” may be intended as an intensive plural (like <yh!l)a$), as a way of identifying the fortified hilltop site of Zion as the holy mountain of YHWH’s dwelling. In Semitic (and Canaanite) religious tradition, any mountain or hill can serve as a local manifestation of the great cosmic mountain where the Creator (El-YHWH) resides. Such hills are thus holy (vdq), since God has chosen to reside there. Jerusalem was founded by YHWH (vb ds^y`) on this holy site.
The central statement in v. 2a declares that YHWH loves (vb bh^a*) the site that he has chosen, and the city that is built there. The idea of God’s love for Jerusalem (and the Temple) is implied in many Scriptural passages, but only rarely stated directly. Psalm 78:68 is the most notable example, indicatin that His love extends beyond the site of mount Zion to the entire tribe/territory of Judah. There can be little doubt that the Judean royal theology informs this language and imagery a good deal. YHWH’s love is implicit in the fact that He chose Judah and Jerusalem for His dwelling-place (i.e., the Temple sanctuary).
The expression “gates of Zion” refers both to the city (Jerusalem), but also, specifically, to the Temple precincts built on the ancient fortified hilltop-location. The gates are mentioned, along with the feminine representation of Zion (as “daughter”) in Psalm 9:14; see also Lamentations 1:4. On God’s specific love for the Temple sanctuary, cf. Malachi 2:11.
The participle bh@a) may be meant to indicate the regular and continual nature of this love, being part of YHWH’s essential character and His abiding relationship to His people. The fact that YHWH chose Zion/Jerusalem over all the other “dwelling-places” in Israel (Jacob), is an indication that He loves it more than those other sites.
Metrically, vv. 1-2, as they stand, read as a slightly irregular 3-beat tricolon.
“Worthy (thing)s are being spoken in you,
O city of (the) Mightiest!”
Following the MT, the sense of this verse (3+2 couplet) is not clear. The referent for the passive (Niphal) feminine plural participle (todB*k=n]), in particular, is ambiguous. Dahood (II, p. 299) would parse the lines differently, reading the participle as modifying the plural noun tonK=v=m! (“dwelling-places”), with which it agrees. He also revocalizes MT lK)m! (“from all,” with comparative /m!, i.e., “more than all”) in v. 2b to read lk@m@ (Hiphil participle of the verb ll^K*)— “(the One) completing”. By this approach, vv 2b-3 form a 4-beat (4+4) couplet:
“(the One) completing (the) glorious dwellings of Jacob
is speaking in you, O city of (the) Mightiest”
For commentators who prefer to follow the MT, the participle todB*k=n] is typically understood as referring to things (i.e., words of praise, etc) that are spoken. It is thus rendered as a substantive adjective “weighty (thing)s” (i.e., worthy, honorable, glorious things). Who is it that speaks these things? The context suggests that it is YHWH. Since He resides on mount Zion, in the Temple sanctuary, it is natural that He would be speaking there. In this sense, Jerusalem is, indeed His city (“city of the Mightiest”, i.e., city of God).
“I mark (down) Rahab and Bab-il—
(they belong) to (those) knowing me;
see Pelešet and ‚ôr (along) with Kûš—
‘This (one) was born there’.
The next unit of the Psalm (vv. 4-6) is difficult to interpret, leading to a variety of approaches by commentators. Though the language and poetry (as it stands in the MT) is awkward, these lines seem to express the idea that, in the (near) future, the surrounding nations will join with Israel in worshiping YHWH, becoming (in a sense) part of God’s people.
This reflects a longstanding line of Prophetic tradition which developed throughout certain oracles and poems of the exilic and post-exilic periods. It is tied to the promise of the restoration of Israel. In the New Age of Israel’s restoration, the nations will be forced to submit, and they will send representatives to Jerusalem to pay homage and to give worship to Israel’s God YHWH. The classic passage expressing the ideal of the nations coming to join Israel/Judah on mount Zion is Isaiah 2:1-5 (par Mic 4:1-5). The motif of the nations coming to Jerusalem features prominently in the Deutero- and Trito-Isaian poems, along with a universalistic message portending that the nations will find blessing and salvation in the knowledge of YHWH—e.g., 42:1-6; 49:6, 22f; 56:1-8; chap. 60; 66:18-24; cf. also 11:10ff. Another famous (post-exilic) example of this theme is found at the close of Zechariah (14:16-21). The relation of the nations to Zion is also a recurring theme in other Korah Psalms (e.g., 46-48).
I regard verse 4 as comprised of two thematically parallel couplets. In the first line of each couplet, YHWH (or His prophet) makes special note of certain representative nations—Egypt (“Rahab”) and Babylon (line 1); then Philistia, the city-state of Tyr, and Cush (line 3). The name Raha» is a mythopoeic term for the dark/chaotic primeval waters, personified as a sea-monster (cf. Psalm 89:11; Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa 51:9), which YHWH (as Creator) subdued, thus bringing order to Creation (for the mythological background of this imagery, cf. my earlier article). The name Rahab is applied to Egypt also in Isa 30:7.
The guiding verb of the first line, rk^z` denotes having something in mind; in the Hiphil (causative) stem, the force is can be either “bring to mind” or “keep in mind”. Here it seems to be used in the special sense of noting something—that is, marking it down or recording it; the participle ryK!z+m^ is used as the title of an official or scribe who acts as a recorder.
In the second line of each couplet, the nations are being treated as though they belonged to God’s people and were citizens of the holy city of God (Zion/Jerusalem). In line 2, I take the prefixed preposition –l of the participial expression yu*d=y)l= in the sense of “belonging to”; the single word thus forms a distinct phrase, indicating that these nations belong (or will belong) to “(the one)s knowing me” —those who know (and worship) YHWH. In line 4, this same idea is expressed in terms of belonging to the holy city; the people of the nations will be treated like citizens born in the city (“this [one] is born there”).
“Indeed, for of ‚iyyôn it is said,
‘(This) man and (that) man has been born in her’ —
and He, (the) Highest, sets her firm.”
The initial –w is emphatic and explicative, building upon the previous line to explain the significance of the declaration “This (one) is born there”. It refers to the record of a person’s citizenship—that is, the place of his/her birth—specifically, of belonging to the city of God (Zion/Jerusalem).
The final line here, however, remains difficult. What is the precise meaning of the verb /WK in context? Fundamentally, the verb means make/set (something) firm, establishing it as being fixed and secure, etc. The feminine suffix (h*-) presumably refers again to the city (personified as female), and probably alludes back to the idea that YHWH founded Jerusalem upon the holy mountain(s) (see on v. 1 above), thus setting the city on a firm foundation. Possibly this imagery is meant to extend here to a person’s citizenship—that belonging to the city of God is made firm and secure (by YHWH Himself).
“YHWH (Himself) makes an account,
in (His) inscribing (of the) peoples:
‘This (one) was born there!’
This final tricolon reiterates the message of vv. 4-5, stating it now more directly (and less ambiguously). YHWH Himself does the recording of the nations (here, “peoples”), granting to them citizenship in the holy city of God. On an ethnic-religious level, this refers (as noted above) to the Prophetic tradition of the nations coming to Jerusalem (Zion) to pay homage to Israel/Judah and to acknowledge and worship YHWH. It can also be interpreted in a spiritual sense, whereby the “city of God” refers, not to a geographical location, but to one’s relationship (in heart/mind/soul) to God Himself.
“And they are singing as they twirl:
All my springs (are) in you!”
The Psalm ends, abruptly and enigmatically, with this obscure couplet, the exact meaning (and translation) of which is anyone’s guess. For lack of any better option, I have kept quite literally to the MT as we have it.
The reference to singing and dancing seems out of place, but it is fitting to the context of the Psalm itself—as a musical composition (romz+m!) and a poem to be set to music and sung (ryv!). It may imply a liturgical (worship) setting in the Temple precincts, and perhaps this is meant to relate, however tangentially, to the idea of “worthy things” being spoken within the gates of Zion (v. 3, cf. above). Kraus (p. 185), in his reconstruction of the Psalm, has verse 3 follow verse 7, with both occurring in the middle of the composition.
What is the meaning of the final line? Does it represent the words that the performers sing? Is there an allusion to the eschatological image in Zech 14:8, or to a correspondingly similar tradition? Is “my springs” even the correct way to understand and render yn~y`u=m^ here? (cf. the very different explanation by Dahood, II, p. 300). Overall, in keeping with the (eschatological) theme of the conversion/salvation of the nations, it is perhaps best to maintain (cautiously) the idea that the people of God (including members of the nations) will enjoy the blessings provided by YHWH—represented by fountains and streams of life-giving waters—in the holy city; cf. the brief discussion by Hossfeld-Zenger, pp. 384-6.
References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 2. Teilband, Psalmen 60-150, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 60-150, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).