Bill McFarland

August 8, 2004

Have you ever noticed how many of our favorite songs refer to Zion? The one which we have just sung together said, "O Zion, lovely Zion, I long thy gates to see; O Zion, lovely Zion, when shall I dwell in thee?" Another says, "We are marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion." Or there is another one which says "Zion's call is ringing, clearly ringing, coming from the throne above." I think we get the impression that Zion holds some powerful symbolic significance to the Lord's people.

You get that idea, too, in just reading the New Testament. For example, the writer of Hebrews, in what he calls a word of exhortation, reminds disbelievers that they are in a journey which is worth the effort. In one of his strongest and most motivating passages, he writes this: "For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, 'If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.' Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, 'I tremble with fear.' But 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 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, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." (Heb. 12:18-24). Notice that the writer contrasts what happened at Mt. Sinai with what we have in Mount Zion and the blessings of the city of the living God. Notice he says in verse 22, "But you have come to Mount Zion," not that we "will come" to it.

Now that leads us to ask a question, "What is there about this picture which is so meaningful to the Lord's people? What are we talking about when we sing of Zion and say that we are marching to Zion and look forward so hopefully to that day when we come and dwell in Zion?

Some Background

A little bit of background here will help us. Zion is a prominent theme in the scriptures. It is mentioned nearly 160 times, and it is a favorite term in the psalms and prophets of the Old Testament, in other words, passages that use poetic or symbolic language. We are not sure about the original meaning of the word "Zion," but I think a good guess is that the root idea means to "protect" or "a stronghold." When we first read about Zion in II Samuel 5:7, it is a Jebusite fortress, a stronghold of the Canaanites is located there.

Zion was the southern most and the highest of the five hills upon which the city of Jerusalem was to be built. David conquered that Jebusite fortress, and Zion became known as the city of David, according to I Kings 8:1. And when he brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord there to the City of David, then Zion came to be known as the "City of our God" (Psalm 48:1). It was the chosen habitation of the Lord, his resting place, Psalm 132 says. It was the place where he had made his name to dwell. It was his holy mountain or holy hill (Ps. 2:6), the place where God sat enthroned (Ps. 9:11).

Later, when, Solomon completed the construction of the temple at Mt. Moriah and when the ark was brought from the City of David to Moriah, then the temple mountain, too, came to be called Zion ( Ps. 78:68-69). And then, it was quite natural for Zion to become a synonym for the whole city of Jerusalem, the capitol of the nation. Zion was referred to as the perfection of beauty (Ps. 50:2). It was the place where God made himself known as a fortress (Ps. 48:13).

Zion, then represented the heart and the life of the whole nation of God's covenant people. The entire population of the city with their spiritual life and their collective character was often referred to as "the daughter of Zion" by the prophets. So, you can see that this one term gathered up all together the entire concept of a covenant people of God with all of their hopes and dreams and responsibilities. All of that is included in the thought of Zion.

A Vehicle For Truth

And if you think about, you can see why this term would become the perfect vehicle for communicating precious truths about God's relationship to his people. How do you get across to mankind what it means to stand in a right relationship with God, to be his people, and to be blessed by him, and to be living for him and serving him? Well, as Burton Coffman pointed out, "Zion enshrined the deepest, emotional affection of the whole Hebrew nation." So if you were a writer of one of the songs or if you were an prophet and you wanted the truth to make an impact on the people, then Zion would be your perfect vehicle.

We might try to describe it this way: "To come to Mount Zion is to come before God and to enter his presence and to approach his throne. To come to Mount Zion is, there in the presence of God, to enjoy all of the benefits of fellowship with him and to experience all the blessings that come in deep worship and service of God." We might let the scriptures speak about some of these matters in the best way we can. In Isaiah 33:5-6 the writer said, "The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness, and he will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is Zion's treasure." You can see there the thought of it being the place where God is present with his righteousness and his justice.

In Psalm 132 beginning at verse 13, the Bible says, "For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place; this is my resting place forever; here I will dwell for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provisions; I will satisfy her poor with bread. Her priests I will clothe with salvation, and her saints will shout for joy." There is the thought of being in God's presence.

One of the beautiful statements of the prophets is found in the Old Testament book of Zephaniah. The prophet was talking about what happens when the people of God have gone through difficulty and then he has brought them back home. Zephaniah said, "Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will see; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing." There is the privilege or the benefit of being in God's presence. And I want you to especially notice those phrases: he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will quiet you by his love, and he will exult over you with loud singing; be blessed by God and for him to take pleasure in his people. That is what it means to be in Zion.

And that thought always leads, it seems in the Bible, to the thought of worship of God and making God known to the world. Being in God's presence quite naturally means that we respond to him and we make him known. Perhaps this is the real key to worship in spirit and in truth, and the real key to evangelism in our lives is remembering that we have come to Mount Zion. In Psalm 48, the first three verses start by praising the beauty of the city of God, and then at verse 9 beginning, the Psalmist says, "We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness. Let Mount Zion be glad! Let the daughters of Judah rejoice because of your judgments! Walk about Zion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will guide us forever." Think about the statements that are made here about contemplating God's goodness and greatness, realizing this is our God, this is what he has made, and then going to make that known among all people. In Psalm 102:16-22, a similar picture of worship and evangelism growing out of being in God's presence is found. This time the psalmist says, "For the Lord builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; he regards the payer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord; that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord, and in Jerusalem his praise, when peoples gather together and kingdoms, to worship the Lord." Zion is the concept of being in God's presence, thinking on him, being grateful to him, worshiping him from the depths of our hearts, and then going to tell other people.

The second thought about Zion that grows out of especially the psalms and the prophets, is that to come to Mount Zion is to be recognized as a child in God's family and a citizen in God's kingdom. In Psalm 87:5-6, there is a very vivid statement of the idea that in Mount Zion God writes down the names of those who were born into his family. It is as if he has one of the little registers or family records that a lot of us have, and as children are born we write down their names. This is a picture of God doing something similar in Zion. "And of Zion it shall be said, this one and that one were born in her; for the Most High himself will establish her. The Lord records as he registers the peoples. This one was born there." Imagine that. When I confess the name of Jesus and I am baptized into him and born into his family, the Lord adds me to his body and records the name - "this one was born in Zion." The kind of character that we are supposed to show and the kind of responsibility that we are to meet in our lives as God's children comes from the fact that our names have been written in Zion.

Psalm 15 is a beautiful and meaningful short psalm. The psalmist starts in verse 1 by asking, "Who shall ascend God's holy hill?" Remember what we found out that holy hill was? It is Mount Zion. "O Lord, who will sojourn in your tent? Who will dwell on your holy hill?" And then he answers his own question. This is what challenges us. "He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change (he keeps his word even if it costs him); who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent (he takes advantage of nobody). He who does these things shall never be moved." There is the character that is recognized for a citizen of Zion.

A third thing that we can observe about what it means to come to Mount Zion is that this thought is a way of talking about coming home. It is a way of speaking of the fulfillment of all of God's promises. It is a way of saying that here is someone who finally experiences rest and who through all of his life knows what real security and peace with the Lord is all about. Psalm 125:1 says, "Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever." Don't live in a house that gets old and kind of falls down around you. Live in a place that abides forever.

Joel 3:16 spoke of the security of the Lord's people, "The Lord roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem and the heavens and the earth quake. But the Lord is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel." Remember I said the thought is "to protect" or to be "a stronghold." Zion means the Lord is my protection. He is my stronghold.

In Isaiah 35 there is a wonderful picture of the highway of holiness, a way where fools won't err in it, a way where no lion or thief attacks the person who walks on it to destroy them. Isaiah 35:10 said, "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads. They shall obtain gladness and joy and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." Surely all of us recognize that as a great promise. It has to mean that those things that cause the sorrow and sighing would flee away, too.

That is what it means to come to Mount Zion - to come into God's presence, to worship him, to tell about him, to be recognized as a citizen of his kingdom, and to experience peace and the security of real salvation.

A Challenging Bible Doctrine

Right at this point is where the thought of Zion becomes, not just a beautiful idea, but one of the central and most challenging of all Bible doctrines. When we sing about Zion, it should not merely be something that sort of pleasures us with the thought of heaven. It is a challenge to how we are living.

There are three great thoughts that come from this in the Bible that have to do with God's purposes for our lives. The first one is the fact that someone who comes to Mount Zion must have believed on Christ and not be ashamed of it. The idea that all of us, when we die, come to Mount Zion so let's sing about it, is not what scripture is saying. What scripture is saying is that God is going to do something in Mount Zion which will then either become the foundation for our lives or the stumbling block that brings about our destruction. God promised he would lay such a foundation stone in Zion (Is. 28:16). Peter described how that promise was fulfilled: "For it stands in Scripture: 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame'" (I Pet. 2:6). He is talking about Jesus, of course. And he is saying that this will either be the stone that the builders will reject and he will become a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (I Peter 2:7-8), or he will be the precious foundation, the tried cornerstone that gives direction and security to the life of a believer. Zion means that God has done something through Jesus that makes all of us responsible, and we will reveal our real character and our eternal destiny based on our response to him. Is he the foundation of my life or is he an obstacle to my doing what I want to do? Is he a stumbling block to me? That is a heart-searching question.

Secondly, scripture teaches that someone who would come to Mount Zion will need to be living in obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ -- not merely saying "I believe in Jesus" but actually living his life in keeping with what the Lord has taught. In Isaiah 2 beginning at verse 2, there is a wonderful statement: "It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the heights of the mountains and shall be lifted up above the hills and all the nations shall flow to it and many people shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the god of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths for out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.'" Out of Zion there goes forth a law. Jesus taught in Luke 24:47 after his resurrection, before his ascension into heaven, he taught his disciples that repentance and remission of sins was to be preached in his name among all the nations beginning from Jerusalem. From Zion shall go forth the law. The apostles were commissioned to teach people about Jesus, to baptize them into his name, and then to teach them to observe all things whatsoever he has commanded us. That teaching is what brought forth the Lord's church in this world.

Citizens of Zion are people who are to believe on Jesus to the point that they obey him in their everyday lives. His law, his word becomes the rule by which we live. He becomes our foundation and then his will is our guide. When we have come to Mount Zion, we have come to a new covenant and to blood that speaks (Heb. 12:24). We are to obey Jesus.

And third, a citizen of Zion will need to be committed enough to endure every trial. To believe in the Lord and not be ashamed, to obey his word in our lives, but then to endure every trial. There is a great picture in Revelation 14. These people have already endured persecution and temptation and difficulty. They have been through so much. Now they are encouraged by a vision that John sees: "Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads." We go on through this and find out they are singing a new song on Mount Zion and that all of the creatures in heaven joined in to sing this song. We find out that these are people who have not defiled themselves, who follow the lamb wherever he goes, and in their mouth there is no lie found. They have been redeemed and they have been faithful.

That very passage is the one upon which these words are based. "On Zion's glorious summit stood; A numerous hosts redeemed by blood! They hymned their King in strains divine; I heard the song and strove to join." The idea is that, having come through all difficulty, having faced every obstacle, and still being true to the Lord, these people stand on Mount Zion and sing praises to the lamb and to the Father. We are to seek to join them in their enduring commitment to the Lord.

Robert Milligan observed, "In covenant we have already come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to a countless host of angels composing as it were a joyful and festive assembly around the throne of God, and to the church of the first born whose names are registered in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant; and to the blood of sprinkling which speaks more encouragingly than even Abel speaks by his faith and obedience. Who then would ever think of turning back to the weak and beggarly elements of this world? Who would renounce his holy society in these high and holy relations for the society and fellowship of Satan and his angels. May God save us all from such folly and madness." That is well said.

Zion means that all of God's promises are finally fulfilled. You and I can be in possession of them. I wonder if, like the song says, we are willing to hear them and to strive to join in. Maybe you are here today and you want to make Zion the place where your citizenship is, and you want to worship and serve God and make him known in your life. If you are ready to repent of sin and to be baptized into Christ, please do it today. If there is some other way we may be of help to you, will you let it be known right now?