Tuesday, February 4, 2014

This Psalm's Not For Us

Psalm 87 is about Zion, the “city of God.” About how it’s such a great city, God’s favorite city, and isn’t it such a great thing to say someone was born there.


So I was born in the northeast United States, and I’ve never been anywhere near Zion/Jerusalem.

Not pictured: God's favorite city. Image source.

I bet the psalmist had no idea that someday the bible would be translated into every language, and people all over the world would read it, the overwhelming majority of which would never go anywhere near “God’s favorite city.”

What can I say? This psalm’s not for us.

Of course you could interpret “Zion” as a symbol for something all Christians have access to, like heaven or being “born again” or whatever. I think that’s a valid interpretation, given our current ideas about God loving everyone in the world. But I don’t think that’s what the psalmist had in mind.

Here’s the thing. Nowadays, Christians believe that God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” But back then, in the time of the Old Testament, it was “us vs them.” The other nations were BAD, and sometimes God told the Israelites to fight them and kill them- or at the very least, not to interact with them too much. Because they would just be a bad influence.

Ah, but now you’re saying “Hey but what about Rehab? What about Ruth? They were foreigners and they were accepted by God/Israel.” Right. Individual people who chose to leave behind their homes and their own cultures and assimilate into Israel were totally accepted.

But what about keeping one’s own culture and following God? Nope, that wasn’t possible in the Old Testament. That started somewhere around Acts 10 and it blew everyone’s mind. And nowadays, Christian missionaries take the gospel to the ends of the earth by learning about the culture of others and finding aspects that reflect God’s character, finding ways that God is already working, and adapting Christianity to that culture. And I believe God lives and works in every culture and every language in the world. And I believe that’s the heart of Christianity.

So something changed, somewhere between Psalm 86 and now. The religion changed, and I’m glad it did or else I wouldn’t be able to be a Christian. Did God change? Was this change somehow brought about by Jesus’ life and death? How? Why?

Because... what if I read the Old Testament, and every time it mentions “foreigners,” I understand that it’s talking about me? You know, because I’m not Jewish.

For example:

Kill everyone who lives in the land God is giving you. 

Do not marry foreigners.

Unless they were captured in war- then it’s fine. 

For those foreigners who live among you- treat them well.

God rewards foreigners who believe in him and serve him. 

What would God have thought about me if I lived back then?

Fortunately, something changed. 

It really hit me when I first started reading the bible in Chinese: Christianity is not a religion primarily for English-speaking Americans. It’s for everyone, every language, every culture- and it continues to blow my mind as I experience Chinese Christianity and how it’s the same and how it’s different.

Image source.

Something changed. Thank God thank God thank God.


This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 87. To read other people's posts, click here: The Inclusivity of God’s Love in the Old Testament.


  1. It is fascinating that you and I came to such different conclusions! Is it possible that we're both right? That there are some verses that reveal God's heart for the outsider, and some that seem like commands to obliterate them, and maybe the confusion of that just can't cross time, space, and culture? Either way, I am also glad for Jesus. He clearly crosses all boundaries and welcomes everyone in.

  2. I enjoyed reading this because we were the outsiders - the foreigners, not automatic heirs, but ... I love that God made a way and from the beginning made a way for those who didn't belong to belong. He does changed. He's never changed. Our perceptions changed. And I sometimes wonder if we haven't made the gospel according to our comfort. One point you make that really strikes a chord is " Individual people who chose to leave behind their homes and their own cultures and assimilate into Israel were totally accepted." We have to choice, and still do today. Maybe we don't totally assimilate or leave our culture, but I think there comes a point where God deals with each of us personally because He's about intimate connection with us - and we grow to be more attached to His ways. Sometimes that means defying human logic. Good for for thought though.

  3. Yes to this Stephanie. So much yes. I think about all the opportunities He made for outsiders to come into community with Him - but it was always their choice. I love that He lets us choose.

  4. I think it was in God's plan all along to welcome every nation. He did say to Abraham that through him, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The reason God was exclusive with Israel was that He had to get them to survive and then to come to the point where it would work to bring the Messiah through them. That meant they had to learn to stop worshiping idols, and that meant they had to separate themselves from other nations. But the plan that God would bless all nations through them was never lost. It's just that Israel lost sight of it for a while.