Jerusalem's most beloved name, “Zion,” evoked history, tradition, pride, faith, and loyalty in her people. “Zion” designated the Jebusite fortress, straddling the hill crest between the Kidron and Tyropeon Valleys captured by David (2Sa 5:5-9). The name was extended up the hill to what became the temple mount and eventually to the whole city of Jerusalem and its residents. Of course references to Jerusalem and Zion abound in the Psalms. (Some of these will be noted, as they reflect themes found in the songs at hand.) But these Songs of Zion are uniquely devoted to extolling this city of [God] the Great King (48:1-2). No other city or place, including the temple, receives this adulation. The poets include language of ancient tradition to enrich the lines, one indication of the distinguished topic. The Creation story's life-giving river (46:4; cf. Ge 2:10; Eze 47:1-12); Canaanite religion's Northern Mount of the Gods, Mount Zaphon (48:2); and antiquity's Salem of patriarchal fame (76:2; cf. Ge 14:17-20) all appear here. The fact is that “Zion Songs” existed and were known as such, were even famous among Israel's neighbors and enemies. Babylonian soldiers may have overheard these songs sung for encouragement by besieged Jerusalemites before the collapse of 586 b.c. In Babylon these captors demanded, perhaps at spearpoint, the exiles in forced march (?) by the canals to sing ...one of the songs of Zion! (137:3). What humiliation to face those extravagant lyrics now.
The Songs of Zion exalt her in part because of the city's relation to David, Israel's first “real” king, and the model for all who followed. It was he who presided over the transport of the ancient ark of the covenant from Kiriath-Jearim to “the City of David” (2Sa 6), fulfilling the ancient vision (Dt) and uniting the tribal worship. As a matter of fact, David's transport of the ark, God's covenantally buttressed choice of David, and God's choice of Jerusalem stood closely intertwined in the hearts of the faithful (132).
The Zion Songs, however, celebrate this city primarily because of its special relation to Yahweh, God of Israel. Zion belonged to Yahweh. Zion was his—“the city of our God” (48:1-2, 8; 87:3; cf. 2:6, my holy hill), the object of his special love (87:2), chosen (78:68-70; 122:3-5; 132:13-18) and established (87:5) by him. Thus selection and preservation of David's capital city, designed to unite the scattered tribes, could not be seen simply in political or sociological terms. This place with its role in the life of Israel (and later Judah) was Yahweh's.
In Zion Yahweh was uniquely present (46:5; cf. 99:2; 135:21). Known specifically as Yahweh's dwelling (76:2), the temple of Solomon stood here (cf. 102:21; 135:21). For that very fact Jerusalem was extolled (48:9; 84:1-4), and it was sufficient reason to pray for Jerusalem's peace (122:9). Specifically, Yahweh dwelt between the cherubim (99:1). At the dedication of the temple Solomon acknowledged the utter inability of any human construction to “house” Yahweh, God of heaven and earth (1Ki 8:27); God would still see and hear “from heaven” (1Ki 8:29-30). Even so, Yahweh was felt also to be uniquely present in his house, present in a way unknown elsewhere. There Yahweh was seen; there he revealed himself uniquely (48:3; 84:7; cf. 50:2; 102:16). This speaking, disclosing presence of Yahweh we have already seen expressed in liturgy, where God (we assume through his priests and prophets) directly speaks to worshipers with instruction or rebuke or encouragement (e.g., 32:8-9; 60:6-8 = 108:7-9). From Zion Yahweh exercises sovereignty among all the nations of the earth, achieving his victory and accomplishing his will (46:9; 48:10; 76:5-6, 11-12; cf. 9:11). From this place he brings salvation (53:6; 134:3).
Thus, these Songs of Zion celebrate Yahweh's unique presence in Jerusalem, and rightly so, for much depended on that presence. Zion's stability and security are connected directly in these songs to Yahweh's presence in spite of international turmoil (46:6; 48:4). The congregation's safety was at stake (46:7). God himself was the citadel's defense (48:3; 76:3). These themes, among many others, no doubt, brought Zion intense love and deepest loyalties from her residents and those who made frequent pilgrimages there. The poets of these works describe her beauty and majesty with extravagant endearment (48:2, 12-14; 84:1-4; 87:1-3; cf. 50:2). The songs express intense longing for Jerusalem, for Yahweh's house, and for their good (84:1-4, 10; 122:1-2, 6-9). The absolutely sacred and unimaginably precious nature of Zion, her temple, and even her songs stands behind the potent emotions driving Ps 137:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy. vv. 5-6
Christian readers recognize passages of the Songs of Zion from music of the church, classical and modern, appropriating this ancient city as something of the capital of the universal people of God. Their faith can no longer be confined to the chief city of any political state. The final Son of David foresaw the day when persons would worship neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria (Jn 4:21-24). Worship in the Spirit and according to the truth would not be tied to one place. Further, the people of God themselves, Messiah's people, would be in reality the temple of God, individually (1Co 6:19) and collectively (1Co 3:16; Eph 2:19-22; 1Pe 2:4-5). The vision of history's climax exalts this truth. There the New Jerusalem is no place at all, but the redeemed people of God of all ages and cultures become in reality the eternal dwelling of God and the Lamb (Rev 21). These ancient Songs of Zion seem still capable of expressing much of the truth of that reality, as they are sung now to a theologically different key.