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In the Far North

“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).

The Great King is to be Feared

“For Yahweh Elyon is to be feared — Great King over all the earth.”

(Psalm 47:3 {verse 2 in English Translations})

 

As kids we were always told that it wasn’t nice to call people names — at least bad names… Yet, there is a practice of scripture of attributing names of honor to God. These names are names that reflect the attributes and character of our God, not the progressive development of a religion like some of the liberal “scholars” would suggest. And what we find in this verse is a grouping of three names that are bound together.

Yahweh is a name we are used to seeing. This is the “I am that I am” name that God gives to himself and provides to Moses, recorded in Exodus 3:14. It is a name that reflects God’s covenantal character of God as well as the eternal nature of his being. God always was, God is, and God always will be. While our existence is measured and bounded by time; time is a creation of God and has no bearing on his being — time has a beginning…God does not. Thus he tells us that we are to know him by Yahweh and by that name he is to be remembered throughout the generations (Exodus 3:15).

The name that is attached to Yahweh is Elyon (pronounced with a long “o”). Usually we render this “Most High,” and that is an accurate rendering of the title. I chose to leave the word untranslated, rather, to help set it apart as part of God’s glorious title of honor here. Elyon was a term reserved for God himself and was not to be given to men. It reflects that God is not the greatest in a set of like beings, but he is a being par-excellence — one of kind and incomparable to others. God stands alone as God. He is mighty and true and if you are going to fear any, this is the one you should fear. Jesus echoes this when he states: “do not fear the one who can kill the body, but fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28) — Yahweh Elyon is the one of whom Jesus is speaking.

The final title is that of “Great King.” Many translations render this as, “a great king,” and that would be a legitimate translation were the subject being spoken of God himself. God is not just one of many great kings, but he is the great king — he is King over all the earth. While the definite article “the” is not present in the text, the context of the text sets this phrase apart as being a title attributed to God, thus neither article (“the” or “a”) is necessary and we see this again as a title of glory and honor.

You know what is interesting, though… As Christians, we are usually very quick to proclaim that Jesus is indeed the King of all Kings and the King over all the earth, but we rarely act as if he is the King over our lives. Kings make rules and Kings demand the obedience of their subjects. Yet how often we go about our lives acting as if we are our own and making decisions based on our preferences rather than on the basis of obedience to God’s command? I think that there is an explanation for our behavior, though — we do not obey our king because we do not fear him… A double-whammy — a double sin.

Loved ones, our lives are not our own. If we call ourselves Christians, then our lives belong to the one whose name we have taken and into whose name we have been adopted. The house rules demand that we obey if we love Christ (John 14:15). Will we? Will you? Do you fear your heavenly Father in a holy and reverent way that motivates you to a lifestyle that will honor him? In the end, such is the mark of a believer. May we indeed be able to sing the words of the psalmist from the bottom of our hearts in the deepest sincerity in our life here and eternally.