By Christopher Raley
Because the writer of Hebrews contrasts Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion, relating Sinai to the law and Zion to the new covenant in Jesus’ blood (12.18-29), it may be tempting to think of Mt. Sinai as an Old Testament concept and Mt. Zion as a New Testament one.
A quick jump back to Psalm 46 will cure anyone of this notion (or it ought to).
We find this psalm near the beginning of Book Two of the psalter opening a trilogy of psalms that focus on Mt. Zion. These prophetic poems speak of a time to come when God will set things back to rights.
Psalm 46 begins with, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” This is the recurring psalmic description of salvation that is established in Psalm 2 when the poet states, “Blessed are all who take refuge in [the Lord’s Anointed],” i.e. Jesus.
But the psalm’s imagery quickly invokes cataclysm with a sea so out of control it makes the mountains tremble. The ocean is a classic Hebrew symbol for chaos. Rivers, on the other hand, typically invoke nourishment. Hence, the poet begins the second stanza with “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.”
God is the source of nourishment within the fortress he has established around his people, the ideal place to withstand the siege of chaos outside. As the psalmist says, “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter.” But at an utterance of his voice God will melt the earth. God will help Zion “when morning dawns,” an allusion to God’s rescue of His people by closing off the Red Sea against the Egyptians (Ex.14.27).*
The psalmist ends his poem by calling us to “behold” the peace that God’s judgment brings about as if it were now being accomplished. “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariot with fire.”
The psalmist quotes the Lord: “Be still, and know that I am God.” This is not an encouragement to those protected within the city, but a rebuke of the wicked without, just as Jesus did not command his disciples in the boat to be still, but the storm raging around them.*
As the drama of this psalm closes, God claims the throne over the whole earth. In Psalm 47 we see what the enthronement ceremony will be like, and Psalm 48 tells us of God’s reign of justice and peace.
Similarly, the writer of Hebrews sees the psalmist’s prophecy as though it were fulfilled today: “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 the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . .”
*as noted in Derek Kidner’s Tyndale commentary, Psalms 1-72