This psalm is called a “song” and is attributed to the “sons of Korah.” These sons probably were the descendants of the Levite who rebelled against the divinely granted authority of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 16:1-3; 26:10, 11) The Septuagint adds the words deutéra sabbátou (second of the sabbath or [for the] second day of the week).
The composition memorialized YHWH’s deliverance of Jerusalem. This could fit the time YHWH’s angel struck down 185,000 men of Assyrian monarch Sennacherib’s force or when the Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites came against Judah during King Jehoshaphat’s reign and then, in confusion, slaughtered one another. (2 Kings 19:35, 36; 2 Chronicles 20:1, 2, 22, 23) The plural “kings” in Psalm 48:4(5) would seem to favor developments in the time of Jehoshaphat.
YHWH is great and greatly to be praised, evidently because he is the Almighty and on account of the remarkable deliverances he has brought about for his people. In Jerusalem, here designated as “the city of our God, the mountain of holiness,” his greatness would rightly be recognized and his worshipers would praise him. By reason of the temple on Mount Moriah, the city was YHWH’s representative dwelling place and a holy mountain.
At an elevation around 2,500 feet above sea level, Jerusalem did surpass the height of many capital cities in the ancient world. The beauty of its lofty location, to which the psalmist refers, doubtless is to be attributed to its being the site of the temple. In this case, the Hebrew word for “earth” (’érets) is best understood to mean the land of God’s people. To them, the city, as the center of worship, would have been the source of joy or exultation. If the expression “far north” is to be viewed in a literal sense, the allusion could be to Mount Moriah, the temple site in the northeastern part of Jerusalem. As God’s representative dwelling place, Jerusalem was the “city of the great King,” for the Almighty is the Sovereign without equal.
Within the city’s strongholds (probably including the fortress-like palaces [as also in verse 13(14)]), God had revealed himself to be an inaccessible height or a place of safety, providing needed protection from the enemy. If it had not been for divine assistance, even the well-fortified areas of the city would have fallen into enemy hands.
The kings would have been enemy rulers who formed an alliance and assembled with their armies against God’s people. Their intent would have been to conquer Jerusalem.
The sight of the city filled them with astonishment. They were dismayed, resorted to flight, and were seized with trembling and pains like those of a woman in labor. It would not have been the actual appearance of the city that had this effect on the enemy, but the psalmist appears to have portrayed the impact on them from the standpoint of what the Most High effected. The enemy suffered defeat, and this defeat originated with YHWH, whose representative dwelling place was Jerusalem. So it was as if the city itself had a terrifying impact on the invaders.
Apparently the invading forces are likened to large ships that plied the Mediterranean and sailed as far as distant Tarshish (possibly the Iberian Peninsula). Like such ships that can be wrecked by a powerful east wind, the armies of the attackers suffered defeat.
From their forefathers, the Israelites had heard about past deliverances. Now, as the psalmist expressed it, they had seen or witnessed the same intervention “in the city of YHWH of hosts, in the city of our God.” This gave rise to the confident assurance that he would establish the city for endless time to come.
While assembled at the temple, the psalmist and other worshipers considered God’s compassionate concern, steadfast love, or “mercy” (LXX). This suggests that they thought appreciatively about his saving acts — deeds that were an expression of his compassionate care for them.
God’s name or his reputation as a defender and deliverer of his people is grand, and so is the praise commemorating his awe-inspiring deeds. This praise extends far and wide, “to the ends of the earth” (the land areas known to the psalmist). The reference to God’s hand being “full of righteousness” apparently signifies that his deeds, including his acts of deliverance, are an expression of what is just or right.
In this context, Mount Zion’s rejoicing would be on account of the deliverance the people had experienced. The “daughters of Judah” could refer to the women of the land or to the towns of Judah. Israelites in other locations had also been threatened by the enemy and so had good reason to be glad on account of God’s judgments (expressed against the foe).
Apparently all those who had witnessed God’s marvelous deliverance were encouraged to look at the city, for it and all of its defenses had remained secure. They were to go around the city, counting its towers, taking note of (literally, “set in your hearts”) its rampart or fortification and examining its strongholds (the same Hebrew term as in verse 3). This would put them in a position to tell the next generation about the strength of the city, probably meaning the strength attributed to God’s dwelling in the city representatively.
He alone is the God whom his people would acknowledge forever and ever. He would lead or guide them until they die or all the days of their life.
Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.
There is uncertainty about the significance of “selah,” the Hebrew expression at the end of verse8(9). The Septuagint rendering diápsalma is thought to mean “pause” or “musical interlude.”
In the last verse, the Septuagint reads, “He will guide us forever” (not “until death”).