Glad, Grateful, Guards of God's Gracious, Glorious Gates - Psalm 87
Here humble hearts explode into exuberant ecstatic praise - astonished, soaring, sons of Korah bless their amazingly good God.
The structure of the Psalm is easy enough to discern: it can be summarized as follows in a brief, numbered-point, fashion.
1. Servants of the City - Title: either penned or mouthed by wide-eyed descendants of Levi.
A Psalm of the Sons of Korah. A Song.
2. Survey of the City - Verses 1-3: place of priority in God's purpose of election is given to Jerusalem.
Verse 1 - Its Grounding: from the time Abraham attempted to slaughter boy Isaac on Mount Moriah, to the epoch-defining moment when David pitched God's Tent on Zion, to the erecting and rebuilding of the First and Second Temple, the God of the Covenant had fixed His heart on its walls for a dwelling.
On the holy mount stands the city that He founded.
Verse 2 - Its Gating: not a city in the land was forsaken by the LORD, but, in the loving choice of Salem, divine affection scaled the heights. Doubtless the gates of Bethlehem, where Boaz swapped sandals to redeem Ruth, were dearly beloved of God (Ruth 4:1-4). Astonishing though it may seem, even the bars and hinges of wicked Samaria's doors, where dogs lapped Ahab's blood, were not entirely unloved by God (1 Kings 22:37-40). Certainly, Kiriath Jearim was hugely privileged to house the Ark of God for 20 years (1 Samuel 6:1-7:2). Yet, more than all the rest, the place were David had His throne, and Yahweh positioned His House, loving-kindness was set and excelled all the rest of Judah's gates.
The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.
Verse 3 - Its Glory: prophets, past and present, foretold future honors and pledged already partly-realized heights: here worship would be centered, pilgrims be assembled, rituals be instituted, law be disseminated, priests be consecrated, and grace be experienced, to fix saints hearts on Christ and His final, perfect, sacrifice. Truly, of its ancient gates, no greater glory can be expressed.
Glorious things of you are spoken, O City of God. Selah.
3. Subjects of the City - Verses 4-6: a city-wide census is taken and citizen status and safety secured.
A census is in view, both of alien residents from far flung parts - in fulfillment of the covenant promise to Abraham, believers from near nations, are gathered in by God, and issued with birth certificates - from Egypt (Rahab), Babylon and Cush, gentiles are included among native-born Israelite saints, to worship God Most High, or El Elyon of Melchizedek (Genesis 14):
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold Philistia and Tyre, with Cush - "This one was born there" they say. And of Zion it shall be said, "This one and that once were born in her"; for the Most High himself will establish her. The LORD records, as He registers the peoples, "This one was born there." - Verses 4-6.
4. Singing in the City - Verse 7: a Psalter samba rounds off this messianic Mardi Gras.
The whole of Israel, whether natural or naturalized, unites with a single voice and dance, to bless the City of God, but especially the God of this City - from Him life-waters flow, and around Him they coalesce to celebrate.
Singers and dances alike say, "All my springs are in you."
Perhaps you're wondering what's so wonderful about that - yes, my mind is informed, but you still need to touch my heart. Well, if you bear with me, friends, for a few moments more - the key to scaling the heights is the title at the start...
The Sons of Korah - that is striking, is it not?
The Sons of Korah were Zion's City-Gatekeepers (1 Chronicles 26:1-19)
The passage mentioned above delineates how at the 4 compass points sons of Korah were stationed as guards (with daily changing of the guard), verses 12-19.
EAST GATE - 6 guards were stationed here and the task given to Shelemiah.
NORTH GATE - 4 guards were set there and overseen, originally, by a shrewd counselor Zechariah.
SOUTH GATE - 4 guards (plus 2 = 6 OR plus 2 + 2 = 8) were assigned to Obed-Edom (his son took up residence in the gatehouse).
WEST GATE - 4 guards were positioned on the side with the colonnade where the road ascended near the gate of Shallecheth.
Perhaps it is not hugely significant that it was the Sons of Korah to whom this song was given or from whom it originates - can I suggest, however, it is probably is a most important note: in all the tribes of Israel, no-one was better positioned to comment on the city, than the descendants of Levi; and among all the sons of Levi, no group of priests was better qualified to undertake the task of extolling Zion's gates.
It was here, for centuries, perhaps, that Korah's sons had seen the pilgrims come and go from the Holy City of God: it was their privilege to stand guard, to prevent unwelcome or unwarranted intrusion or invasion into the city precincts of Zion's Temple. Down the generations they had observed the saints coming to the feasts to offer sacrifice. The gates of Jerusalem were their raison d'etre and vocation - to guard God's gates of grace was their means of living, constant occupation, and inestimable privilege. Their hearts, when right, were wedded to those gates. Was there a people-group more qualified, than this Levitical, Korahite, clan, to praise those gates they loved; or any family of sons so well-positioned to invite the church of God to singing and dancing in Yahweh's House? And yet, in case we miss it, we must mention a further, more notorious, report torn out of the Sons of Korah family scrapbook...
Wonder of Wonders
They were, you see, sons of Korah: they were sons of the rascal and rebel who had risen up against Moses, and not content with a regular Levitical role, sought to usurp power and raise insurrection in the camp. Korah's name was mud. Korah's band was bad. Korah's name was a byword. The account of the incident is given by Moses in Numbers chapter 16 - there is a further, follow-up, passage in Numbers chapter 26. There are a number of vital facts that are easy to miss, forget, dismiss or overlook. When we grasp them, like spiritual condiments, perfume or color, they add flavor, contour and wonder to this text:
Korah was the bad guy, along with his co-insurrectionists, for whom the earth opened so the rebel was swallowed-up.
The Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. And he spoke to the congregation saying, "Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins." So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. And Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons and their little ones ...As soon as he had finished speaking all of these words, the ground under them split apart, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly ...And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense ...Now those who died in the plague were 14,700, besides those who died in the affair of Korah." Numbers 16:25-35, 49.
Perhaps you are thinking, "Where, on earth, is the wonder of wonders in that?" Well, perhaps in the shock of the sight of the sinkhole of Sheol you have missed an important detail - who was it, exactly, who was swallowed by the earth? All the rivals who presumed to dare offer up incense? Certainly! The main ringleaders and their families together with all their belongings? Absolutely! But... only Korah, his offspring were exempt.
Here is the wonder, the sons (of the wicked ringleader who had drummed up the rebel band) were spared - and not only that: the sons of Korah were spared, but also spared to serve, and to write and sing this psalm about the glorious gates of God.
So do you see the point? It is from an experience and stand-point of selective, sparing, electing-to-serve, grace that, for Korah's sons, their charge and vocation on the daily rota, as keepers of Zion's gates, becomes a wonder of God's sheer pardoning grace.
Moses takes up the story, again, in Numbers 26:9-11, to stress one of Numbers main themes - in spite of the sin of the first exodus generation that fell, the promise of the land, that was uttered by God, could never be thwarted by sin: whereas the first generation fell (along with Moses, Miriam and Aaron), the second generation followed Joshua and Caleb, as promised, into the Land of Canaan. This, then, is the chief theme of Numbers: Sinners may fall but the Savior will not fail - the surviving sons of Korah are living proof, and a real-life illustration, of this 'wilderness wanderings' account:
The sons of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan and Abiram. These are the Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who contended against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah, when they contended against the LORD and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died, when the fire devoured the 250 men, and they became a warning. But the sons of Korah did not die. Numbers 26:9-11.
The sons of Korah were saved and spared - they survived to serve! They were assigned this glorious task of glorying in Zion's gates! Their humble hearts knew they did not deserve that noble task - outside the precincts, stationed at the perimeter of Salem, delighted to count the heads who were admitted to its citizenship as true worshipers of God. The grace of God turned shameful Sheol into salvation, service and singing (of Korah's kindred) among the saints.
- Are you rejoicing, with singing and dancing, at your amazing privilege, though a sinner, to be numbered among the saints, and be listed among God's elect? If you were born a Jew, you must rightly wonder 'why not?'.
- Are you a native citizen of one of the Gentile Kingdoms - born in the US, UK or Antipodes, or in far off parts of Asia, or a little nearer in Africa or the Middle-East? Delight and celebrate in the God of Covenant Grace who has elected those, not just from the Ancient Near East but from all continents of the world, with a geographical scope, of which the sons of Korah barely dreamed.
- Do you wonder that such a multitude was gathered from Egypt and Ethiopia, Assyria and Africa, Babylon and Tyre? The apostle John reminds us, in the passage of 144,000 redeemed (Revelation 7:1-17), that the enumerated membership of the whole symbolic church is a number that none can count: the vast company of citizens of God's Kingdom have now been assembled from every nation, tribe and tongue on earth (Revelation 7:4). In the OT period, those registered in the church gathered for typical feasts which only pointed to the Cross: today each new-born saint, should bubble over thanksgiving, that the Lamb of God has come: the Living Word has been born in our own flesh, to suffer, die and rise, before ascending to God's right hand. Wonder of wonders it is that once-wicked, now reborn, saints have been washed by Jesus' blood. Will this astonishing truth not make you shout for joy in Zion's gates?
- If the city on earth was only a type of the heavenly Zion, have we not greater cause, as we come to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven, to glorify and magnify the God of Grace, and delight in His Church? As the writer to the Hebrews says:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel ...Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:22-29.
5. Finally, in the greater light of Calvary, make fresh discovery of what your own guilt really cost, and for which Jesus endured your sinful sinkhole to spare your soul. Be humbled by the fact that Messiah was punished in your place that Yahweh might accept and adopt you as sons and servants of the Living God. Reflect on your own offences, original & actual, forgiven & to-be-forgiven, indwelling & habitual - given all this guilt, and such great Gospel grace, for which Christ shed his blood, is there not more reason to sing a more jubilant song and dance a more lively dance than the Korahites of this Psalm?
As the former blaspheming, slave-trading, profligate, wicked, drunkard John Newton wrote:
Savior, if of Zion's City, I, through grace, a member am, let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Thy Name. Fading is the worldling's pleasure, all his boasted pomp and show. Solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion's children know.