The City God Founds (Ps 87:1)

On the holy mount stands the city he founded;

Psalm 87:1

If you are reading through the book of Psalms and come to this particular song it may cause you to pause for a moment. This psalm is irregular; it sticks out due to its odd construction and content. The first verse is really only three words in Hebrew, a very literal translation would be something like, “His foundation is in holy mountains,” or even, “His foundation is in the mountains that are thereby holy.” The root words are simply; foundation, mountain, holy. Those verses of Scripture that appear odd or perplexing during first read are generally the ones I enjoy meditating upon. This is the reason I have chosen to spend much time parsing out this song from the sons of Korah. Let us begin with this first verse.

It should be clear, as this is a song of worship in the Word of God, the “He” in this opening line is God. So then we must ask, what do we know of God and how does what we know of God relate to this sentence? The Hebrew rightly places the emphasis upon “He founded.” We know God is holy, he alone is holy, and he is three times holy. Therefore, it makes sense what he founds must be holy. God is immeasurable, uncontainable, immanent yet transcendent, glorious beyond the capacity of human reason. If this is all true, what does that tell us about the place he makes for himself to dwell? Likewise, God is immutable, that means he does not change or shift, what he establishes and decrees cannot be thwarted or shaken because there is nothing he did not create and nothing that compares or even remotely challenges his power (Hebrews 12:28). The text of Hebrews emphasizes, if we dwell with God through Christ’s assurance, then we can never be shaken. God founded a city on his holy mountains, therefore it stands and will forever stand.

Moving from the first phrase, what do we know about cities? For all practical purposes a city intends for citizens to dwell therein. Just as a banana split must have bananas, so too, a city must have a population of citizens. What makes this city different than any other city? I think of how Cain founded a city because he had to flee away from the problems he made for himself when he killed his brother (Genesis 4:15-17). He made a city and named it after his son. It was a place founded by a sinner for a sinner to hide himself and make more humans like himself. However, when we take what we know of God and read that he founded his own city it should be compelling about the nature of such a city. We know how lofty and high God is above us, even the city he founds is high above us, yet cities are designed for communion. God desires to fill his city, he made it for that purpose. He founded it and designated it for a particular population.

Where is this city? If we had to place a trajectory or point an arrow at God’s city, the only relatable position we could give is “up!” Why might we think that? Because it is on the holy mountain. Up is vast, grand, immense, wonder-inspiring. Down is stuck in dirt, containable, measurable. This is why the ancients always went to mountains to convey meeting places with the gods, why the kings of Israel and Judah were constantly at odds with God because of all their “high places.” It is on the mountain where the mystical and mythical converged with reality, at least in the perspective of human wisdom. Where does Zeus live, you Greeks? On Olympus, of course! A place too high for man to see.

Since the city is to be in this unreachable location how could it be founded all the way up there? This is the point of the song, God’s people are so cared for and God desires such transformation in his people that only holy things can be given access. At the same time no work of man could attain to the dwelling on the holy mount. However, here is a psalm of worship where the first line calls sinners to sing of God’s city. The Psalmist gives assurance of God founding his residence for the saints. Why is this necessary? Because God forms his own temple, David Dickson explains, the saints own limited strength and earthly supply is not to be a concern.[1] Not only is this telling of God’s desire for his people but it is telling of the compassion observed in and for the Christian Church. The saints were, at this time of writing, coming out of Babylonian exile. God’s people held nothing in their hands and had no sanctuary wherein to worship their God. They had no vast kingdom like in the days of David, no property, but a weary wilderness before the apron of Samaria. Hear the opening line of this song of praise to God…on the holy mount stands the city HE founded!

What is significant about being atop a mountain, even a holy mountain? I answer this question with another question: Who can remove a foundation like Mount Everest? Look atop such a mountain; can you imagine what fortress might use Everest as a cornerstone? God chose in his providence that his church might see his holy foundation as a mountain until the time of promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. After Christ’s incarnation the foundation is shone in him alone. This is telling for two main reasons. First, just as the mountains serve as a foundation uncreated by human hands, so too our salvation is not worked by human reason but by the promises of God shone in Jesus. Second, when saints in the church are in trials and temptations they have a sure and solid refuge in the mountains even if everything else is unsure in their lives, so too Christ in reality is a foundation set in history and foremost in Scripture, his assurance to his saints can be focused upon without fail. None can remove Everest from the ground, much more, none can remove Jesus Christ from eternity.

We need not look for any nation or citizenship upon the earth to found God’s kingdom or to garner God’s favor. The eternal and immutable city is of God’s own design fashioned with Christ as its cornerstone. The qualities expressed of such an extravagant city can only be so because of who founded it. It is unscriptural to adopt a nationalism apart from this city on the holy mountains, as we are to bring acceptable worship (Heb 12:28). Charles Spurgeon notes, “Not on the sand of carnal policy, nor in the morass of human kingdoms, has the Lord founded his church, but on his own power and godhead, which are pledged for the establishment of his beloved church, which is to him the chief of all his works.”[2] You were made for this city.

The faith given to us is gifted so we might desire after the city of God. Hebrews 11:10 echoes Psalm 87, Abraham is obedient through faith, “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Abraham dwelled in tents yet sought to have communion with God in the city God promised to build… even when what stood before Abraham was vast wilderness. We, like Abraham, are a people living in two places, we live in the world yet our citizenship and present comforts are found in the now-and-not-yet City of God (Philippians 3:20). Do you see the promise fulfilled in Christ? The words of God testify our home is secure in the holy mountain of God, in the City of God. We are to live like we dwell there already because God founded it for us and gave us the faith to pursue him there.

This week let us live with assurance of our place before God and we praise the Lord the City stands…and why? Because of who founded it. Cain sought to run away to prevent problems due to his sin. We are to run to the only one against whom we have sinned and within his gates we find his city of refuge, comfort, and peace. Before him we are made holy, to live with him upon the mountains of eternity.

Pastor Chris Osterbrock


All Scripture taken from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[1]David Dickson, A Brief Explication of the Other Fifty Psalms: From PS 50 to Ps 100(London: T.R. and E.M. for Ralph Smith, 1653), 290.

 [2]Charles H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 58-87(London: Marshall Brothers, 1869), 3:478.


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