“Fair of height is the joy of all the earth — Mount Zion in the far north;
the city of the great King.”
(Psalm 48:3 [verse 2 in English])
What does the psalmist mean when he speaks of Jerusalem as “in the far north”? Surely, Mount Zion is not in the far north, nor is it even in the northern portion of Israel. One could perhaps assert that Mount Zion is in the northern portion of the region of Judah, though that still does not seem to fit the reading of the text. Some commentators have suggested that this is a reference to the Temple being in the north-eastern corner of the city of Jerusalem, but again, such a reading seems out of place with the lofty language of the text.
The phrase, “the far north” is used 5 times in the Old Testament. Three of those cases are found in Ezekiel (38:6,15; 39:2) and seem to be used in a literal sense, speaking of the tribes from the far north that God would bring down and use to judge Judah for its sin. The fourth use of this phrase, though, is found in Isaiah 12:13. Here we find a more figurative use of the language. In this passage, God is speaking judgment upon the “son of Dawn,” or, in Latin: Lucifer. It speaks of how he is fallen from heaven (verse 12) because he set in his heart to ascend to heaven, above the stars of God, to set his throne on high — “in the far north.”
Thus, in Isaiah we find the phrase speaking not of the earthly mountain of God, but of the heavenly reality that the earthly mountain is meant to reflect. Again, that fits the context with the verse that has gone before, speaking of the glory of God’s dwelling place — a spiritual dwelling place represented on earth in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple located on Mount Zion.
This phrase, then, sets the context for that which is around it. “Fair of Height,” or perhaps we might say, “Majestic,” is the joy of all the earth. Why is God’s eternal throne room the joy of all the earth? To quote from Psalm 117 — because God has been faithful to us — God’s own. The pagan idols cannot bring blessings to the pagan peoples and thus the pagan peoples can never be a source of joy and blessing to the world. But God’s people can be and in fact, that is part of the promise that God makes to Abraham — that the world will find their blessings in his seed. Why, because the God of Abraham is not an idol made by human hands — he is the one who made human hands in the first place. He is the God who sees, who hears our prayers, and who acts in the world of men. Thus, part of our message to the unbelieving world around us is and must be, “if you seek joy in your life, come to my God and find it.”
Who then is the Great King? It is God himself. Psalm 47:2 speaks of Yahweh as the Great King over all creation and similarly, Psalm 95:3 speaks of God as the Great King over all the Gods! God is enthroned in Zion (Psalm 9:11), above the cherubim (1 Chronicles 13:6), and he does so forever (Psalm 9:7). Thus, even when the Temple was torn down, God remained enthroned…why? It is because the throne in the Temple is nothing but the shadow of the eternal realms on high — in the far north (figuratively at least).