The psalm just proclaimed is a hymn in honor of Zion, “the city of the great king” (Psalm 48:3), at that time the seat of the temple of the Lord and the place of his presence in the midst of humanity. Christian faith now applies it to the “Jerusalem above,” which is “our mother” (Galatians 4:26).
The liturgical tone of this hymn, the evocation of a festive procession (see verses 13-14), the peaceful vision of Jerusalem that echoes divine salvation — all make Psalm 48 a prayer that can be a song of praise for beginning the day, even if clouds gather on the horizon.
In order to appreciate the meaning of the psalm, there are three helpful acclamations — at the beginning, the center and the end — almost as though offering the spiritual key to the composition and introducing us to its internal atmosphere. The three invocations are: “Great is the Lord and highly praised in the city of our God” (verse 2); “O God, within your temple we ponder your steadfast love” (verse 10); “so mighty is God, our God who leads us always” (verse 15).
God triumphs over hostile powers, even when they seem majestic and invincible.
God's Holy City
These three acclamations, which exalt the Lord but also “the city of our God” (verse 2), frame two great parts of the psalm. The first is a joyous celebration of the Holy City — Zion, victorious against the enemies' assaults, serene under the mantle of divine protection (see verses 3-8). There is a virtual litany of definitions of this city: It is a wondrous height that is erected as a beacon of light, a source of joy for all peoples of the earth, the only true “Olympus” where heaven and earth meet. It is — to use the expression of the prophet Ezekiel — the city-Emmanuel because “the Lord is there,” present in it (see Ezekiel 48:35). However, besieging troops are thronging around Jerusalem, almost as a symbol of the evil that attacks the splendor of the city of God. The battle has a predictable and almost immediate result.
The powerful of the earth, assaulting the Holy City, in fact also provoked its King, the Lord. The psalmist shows the disintegration of the pride of a powerful army with the thought-provoking image of birth pangs: “Trembling seized them there, anguish, like a woman's labor” (verse 7). Arrogance is transformed into frailty and weakness, power into fall and defeat.
The same concept is expressed in another image: The attacking army is compared to an invincible naval armada, on which a typhoon is unleashed, caused by a terrible east wind (see verse 8). What remains, then, is an unshakable certainty for the one who is under the shadow of divine protection: Good, not evil, has the last word. God triumphs over hostile powers, even when they seem majestic and invincible.
Salvation in Zion
The faithful one then celebrates his thanksgiving to the liberating God in the temple itself. He raises a hymn to the merciful love of the Lord, expressed with the Hebrew word hésed, typical of the theology of the Covenant. Thus we come to the second part of the psalm (see verses 10-14). Following the great hymn of praise to God, who is faithful, just and saving (see verses 10-12), there comes a sort of procession around the Temple and the Holy City (see verses 13-14). The towers are numbered, sign of the sure protection of God; the ramparts are considered, expressions of the stability offered to Zion by its Founder. The walls of Jerusalem speak, and its stones remember the events that must be transmitted to “future generations” (verse 14) through the stories that fathers will tell their sons (see Psalm 78:3-7). Zion is the place of an uninterrupted chain of saving actions of the Lord, which are announced in the catechesis and celebrated in the liturgy, so that believers will continue to hope in the liberating intervention of God.
The concluding antiphon is most beautiful, one of the highest descriptions of the Lord as shepherd of his people: “Our God who leads us always” (verse 15). The God of Zion is the God of the Exodus, of liberty, of closeness to the people enslaved in Egypt and of pilgrims in the desert. Now that Israel is settled in the Promised Land, it knows that the Lord will not abandon it: Jerusalem is the sign of his closeness, and the Temple is the place of his presence.
Rereading these expressions, the Christian rises to the contemplation of Christ, the new and living temple of God (see John 2:21), and he turns to the heavenly Jerusalem, which no longer needs a temple or an external light, because “its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22-23). St. Augustine invites us to this “spiritual” rereading, convinced that in the books of the Bible, “there is nothing that only affects the earthly city, because everything that is said about it, or realized through it, symbolizes something that allegorically could also be referred to the heavenly Jerusalem” (City of God, XVII, 3, 2).
St. Paulinus of Nola echoes him, who precisely in commenting on the words of our psalm exhorts us to pray so that “we can be found to be like living stones in the walls of the heavenly and free Jerusalem” (Letter 28:2 to Severus). And contemplating the strength and solidity of this city, the same Father of the Church continues: “In fact, he who inhabits this city reveals himself as the One in three persons. Christ constitutes not only its foundation but also its tower and door. Therefore, if the house of our soul is founded on him and a construction is raised on him worthy of such a great foundation, then the door of entry to his city for us will be, precisely, he who will guide us for ever and will take us to the place of his pasture.”