Psalm 87:2 gives expression to a sentiment of God that is worthy of Christian reflection:
The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.”
In speaking of Zion, the psalmist is thinking about the holy city of Jerusalem (v. 1). This city is the place where the temple resided that David prepared for and Solomon constructed, and is clearly Jerusalem for it is called “the city of God” in verse 3. This divine love for the holy city is stated in comparison to the dwelling places of Jacob. These dwelling places of Jacob referred to the families and their homes throughout Israel.
In the New Testament age with the coming of Christ, we understand this verse to speak to the heavenly Zion, or the church, in contrast to Christian homes. For this statement finds its ultimate, prophetic fulfillment in the church. Spurgeon says, “God delights in the prayers and praises of Christian families and individuals, but he has a special eye to the assemblies of the faithful. He has a special delight in their devotions in their church capacity.” In short, God is saying he loves the church more than he loves families.
So how are we to understand this?
Begin by noting that this verse is is a statement of comparison, not opposition. For God does love families. God loved the families that descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses told Israel, “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9). The Old Testament is a testimony to the Lord’s love of families. And God still cares for Christian families. The gospel at Pentecost was preached to families. Peter told the assembled crowd pierced with the gospel, “these promises are for you and your children” (Acts 2:39). The Spirit-filled apostle was thinking of families as he preached, for he knew that God keeps covenant through families that honor him. He promises to save them (Acts 16:31). What blessings and love He gives to families!
Yet he loves the gates of Zion more. For how he loves his church! We are told that he gave his Son for the church in sending him and having him shed his blood for his people. That’s why the Apostle Paul told the elders at Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
We can see that he loves the church more than families. He identifies the church as his people (1 Pet. 2:9-10). He considers the church his temple (1 Pet 2:4-5). He gives greater gifts to the church in providing shepherds and abilities to care for one another (Eph. 4:11-16). He calls the church his body and bride (Eph. 5:22-27). His gospel can divide families and yet cause strangers to be brothers and part of the family of God (Matt. 10:34-39; Eph. 2:11-22). His sacraments representing his blood are given to the church (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Cor. 11:22-33). His eternal plan is centered around the church, with families as we know them no longer existing in heaven (Rev. 22:16-21; Matt. 22:30).
Though we have to work out carefully what this means for how we show love to our own families and the church, we should at least begin by remembering where God’s heart is.