Zion is mentioned more than any other mountain in the Scriptures, and most often in Isaiah and the Psalms.
It is a principle of sound interpretation to accept Scriptural statements literally unless there is good cause not to do so. While some places named in the Old Testament have a typical meaning, this does not alter the fact that these were and still are literal places. So when we read of Zion in the Old Testament, we must think first of a literal mountain which gave its name to a literal city. And before we consider the significance of the sacred spot we do well to look at the prophetic references to the literal city.
The first mention of Zion in the Psalms refers to the coming day when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ. Just as the prophecy of Joel had only a partial fulfilment on the day of Pentecost, so the prophecy of the second Psalm had only a partial fulfilment in the days of Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas. It will have its final fulfilment when the kings of the earth gather themselves together in arrogant opposition to God, the Almighty, Rev. 19. 19. In answer to this future rebellious alliance of the ungodly, God will announce ‘Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion’, Ps. 2. 6.
To this momentous period the prophetic Psalms 45 to 48 also refer. Just as the twenty-second Psalm had an amazingly literal fulfilment centuries after it was written, so also will these Psalms. The Lord used some of the actual words of Psalm 22 while on the cross; in a similar way the words of Psalm 46 will yet prove a comfort to the godly when devastating earthquakes rock the cities of the nations to herald the Lord’s return to His throne in Zion! This group of Psalms shows us the conquering King overcoming His enemies and then making ‘wars to cease unto the end of the earth’ and being recognised as ‘a great King over all the earth”. At that time we find Zion becoming the seat of government of the King of glory, the metropolis of the whole earth.
Then will be fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah which clearly was not fulfilled in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah: ‘I am returned unto Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jerusalem shall be called a city of truth; and the mountain of the Lord of hosts the holy mountain’, 8. 3. As surely as the King came to Zion literally ‘lowly, and riding upon an ass’ at His first coming, so surely at His second advent will He come to the literal city, and ‘he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth’, 9. 10. Not one jot or tittle shall pass away till all be fulfilled.
Again, as in the days of Solomon, God will be in the midst of Zion and will be known in her palaces as a refuge, Ps. 46. 5, 7; 48. 3. For Zion is the city of the Great King not merely for a few centuries; God has unchanging, lasting purposes regarding it which will not be frustrated by the failure of man: ‘This is my resting place for ever: here will I dwell’, Ps. 132. 14 R.V.
All this becomes doubly significant as we shall see later when we consider the typical meaning given to Zion in the New Testament.
Zion is first referred to in Scripture as a stronghold. David saw the importance of controlling this fortress. It was situated on the south of Jerusalem on the precipitous hill on part of which the temple of God was later to be built. It was the highest mountain of Jerusalem with deep valleys on three sides and its inhabitants were absolutely confident in its impregnable situation. So when David attacked it they taunted him, ‘Thou shalt not come in hither, but the blind and the lame shall turn thee away’, 2 Sam. 5. 6 R.V. marg. Israel had indeed failed to capture the fortress in the days of Joshua, ‘nevertheless, David took the strong hold of Zion … So David dwelt in the fort, and called it the city of David’, 5. 7, 9.
The fortifications of this mountain, ‘beautiful for elevation’, R.V., impressed the writer of Psalm 48. ‘Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces’, vv. 12, 13 R.V.
The Epistle to the Hebrews shows us the significance of this. Unlike Israel of old, ‘ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched (that is, to Sinai, the place of the law), and that burned with fire (that is, to a manifestation of God visible to the natural eye), … and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words (that is, to something impressing the natural ear); … but (on the contrary) ye are come to mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God’, 12. 18-22. Here the believer is introduced to a new, spiritual order of things in evident contrast to the tangible and visible order set up at Sinai. He is brought to a position in marked contrast to the place where God pronounced His demands upon men, and pronounced them in such a way that even Moses said ‘I exceedingly fear and quake’. Thus Zion is typical of the place of heavenly blessing; the place where grace is enthroned. We have come to Zion already; says the Scripture; ‘we have access by faith into this grace (this place of favour) wherein we stand’; Rom. 5. 2. The literal fortress of Zion under the control of David; the man of God’s choice; is symbolic of the sphere where the grace of God is administered through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today grace reigns. But God does not show grace to men by overlooking sin or by lowering His standards of righteousness. Grace reigns ‘through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord’; Rom. 5. 21. It is the outcome of His finished work upon the cross. We are ‘justified freely by his grace’; but it is only ‘through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’; Rom. 3. 24. God’s favour to men cannot be effectively challenged by man or demon for it reigns through righteousness; it is unassailable because it is based on the work of redemption and is dispensed by Jesus Christ the righteous. So the bulwarks of Zion are faint foreshadowings of the bulwarks of grace.
The stability of Zion typified not only the stability of the grace that saves us, but also the stability of those who trust therein; the stability of those who trust not in their own good works for salvation; but who say from the heart, ‘by the grace of God I am what I am’, 1 Cor. 15. 10. ‘They that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Zion, which cannot be removed’, Ps. 125. 1.
Zion, moreover, became the place where God chose to dwell among His people and whither they were bidden to come and worship Him: ‘the Lord hath chosen Zion; he hath desired it for his habitation. This is my rest for ever; here will I dwell’, Ps. 132. 13, 14; In Judah is God known: … in Salem also is his tabernacle, and his dwelling place in Zion’, Ps. 76. 1, 2.
Of believers today God says, ‘I will dwell in them’, and they are being built up as a habitation of God through the Spirit, Eph. 2. 22. The saints at Corinth were reminded that they were the temple, the sanctuary, of God. This was God’s estimate of a local church, a company of believers who met in one place and who had mutual and corporate responsibilities. Thus Zion is similar to an assembly of the saints in which the presence of God is known; compare 1 Cor. 14. 25. Indeed, in Psalm 74, ‘This mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt’ is strikingly linked with the congregation of God, and with His people viewed as His inheritance. Of old the tribes of Israel went up to the hill of the Lord and there in Zion the godly appeared before God. Today He desires His own to appear before Him, each in the assembly where God has placed him. As Israel said when they went to His holy hill of Zion so we should say as we gather ‘in the church’: ‘then will I go … unto God, my exceeding joy’, Ps. 43. 4.
We find in the Psalms and the prophets other characteristics of Zion which foreshadow what should characterize the churches of God. We confine ourselves now to two.
The second Psalm presents Zion as God’s holy hill. On that hill was, and again will be, the house of God; and holiness be-cometh His house for ever. So of the church of God at Corinth we read, ‘If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are’, 1 Cor. 3. 17.
Zion was the place of praise and of worship. ‘Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at his holy hill; … Sing praises to the Lord, which dwelleth in Zion: … Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness’, Ps. 99. 9; 9. 11; 48. 1. Israel’s captors in Babylon desired them to sing ‘the songs of Zion’, but they could not sing ‘the Lord’s song’ in a foreign land where it was impossible to worship God in the way that He had bidden them. So now the local assembly is the place of thanksgiving and of song, 1 Cor. 14, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst leads the praises of His saints to His God and to our God, Heb. 2. 12.
Finally, we read of the place of God’s choice and of His desire, ‘The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob’, Ps. 87. 2. This is full of significance whether we think of Zion as the sphere where God dispenses His grace, or as His dwelling amidst an assembly of His saints. This concern for the gathering centre of the people of God is reflected in the psalmists themselves. David said ‘Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth’, Ps. 26. 8. Later, when broken-hearted because of his sin, he cried in agony to his God, we might have expected him to be completely immersed in the intensely personal implications of his evil conduct. But he saw the effect it must have upon the people of God and upon the testimony in the place where God had placed His name, and he cried, ‘Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem’, Ps. 51. 18.
May a similar love and concern be ours for the gatherings of His saints where He is worshipped and served according to the instructions of His Word today, even as He was served in Zion according to His Word through Moses and David, when the glory of the Lord filled the house!