By Gordon Franz
Most Bible believers who live outside the Land of Israel may read Psalm 125:2, “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds His people from this time forth and forever,” and think, “Humm, that’s a comforting and encouraging passage. The Lord surrounds His people. He protects us and watches over us forever.” Yet they may not fully appreciate the word picture used by the psalmist in the first part of the verse.
The ABR sifters had the privilege of being guided through the City of David excavations by Aran Yardeni, an archaeological staff member of the TMSP and a graduate of Bar Ilan University. We started at an overview of the City of David on the top of a house situated only meters from where David’s palace once stood (Mazar 2007:52-66). As we read Psalm 125 we looked to the east and saw the range of the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4), the southern spur being called the Hill of Corruption (II Kings 23:13). To the north, we observed Mount Zion, also called Mount Moriah or the Mountain of the LORD (Psalm 48:1, 2; II Chron. 3:1; Micah 4:2). To the west was the Western Hill called the Mishnah in the Hebrew Bible, and usually translated into English as the “Second Quarter” (Zeph. 1:10; Jer. 31:39; II Kings 22:14). Finally, to the south of the city, off in the distance, was the Hill of Evil Counsel. Today the United Nations headquarters for the Middle East is situated on this ridge!
The psalmist composed this psalm in the City of David and literally saw the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and used this word picture to convey a dynamic and powerful spiritual truth; the Lord surrounds His people forever! What an impact that had on each of the sifters.
Hebrew Hymnbook for the Temple
The book of Psalms was the Hebrew Hymnbook for both the First and Second Temple and is still used in the synagogues today. Each psalm was composed by a real people, who were experiencing real events in real places. This article will present some of those places and put the psalm in its historical context.
Beautiful in elevation – Psalm 48:2
A popular song in Evangelical circles is based on Psalm 48. You know the one: “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised …” After touring the City of David, a person will never sing this song the same way again. On the tours of the City of David that I guide, after walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel and visiting the Pool of Siloam, I usually start walking back up the steep road to the Dung Gate at a very brisk pace. I wait until somebody in the group “complains” and says, “Stop, slow down, this is such a steep hill to climb!” At that point I stop and read Psalm 48 to the group. Verse 2 says, “Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth; Is Mount Zion on the sides of the north, the city of the Great King.” From the Pool of Siloam to the top of the Temple Mount is a 106 meters elevation change. Mount Zion was on the north side of the City of David”.
The psalmist, one of the “Sons of Korah,” probably lived in the City of David. He would, on occasion, walk up the hill from his house to Mount Zion, the City of the Great King, in order to minister in the Temple. It was with joy that he took this strenuous walk because he knew he was going to the place where the LORD resided. Thus he described this elevation as “beautiful.” Fortunately for the ABR sifters, Aran arranged for a bus to drive us up the beautiful elevation!
A City Compact together – Psalm 122:3
The City of David looks like an elongated tongue protruding from the Temple Mount. In antiquity, there were houses built on terraces on the slopes of the city. It seems that houses were practically built one on top of the other. This is reflected in the words of Psalm 122: “Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together” (v. 3). Dr. Yigael Shiloh, the former excavator of the City of David, used to tell his volunteers that excavated with him, “If you want to know what the Cityof David looked like ‘compact together,’ look across the Kidron Valley to the Silwan Village. It too is built on a slope and the houses appear to be built one on top of the other.”
At Home in Death – Psalm 49:11
One afternoon we visited the excavations at Ketef Hinnom below the St. Andrew’s Scottish Presbyterian Church. Here we studied a series of burial caves from the time of the Judean Monarchy. One cave in particular was of interest because the two oldest Biblical texts were discovered there in 1979 (Franz 2005:53-59). When we visited the City of David two days before, we noticed a house in Area G that was built following the pattern of typical Israel four-room house. Interestingly, the pattern of the burial cave is similar. After I pointed out the similarities between the house and the burial cave, I read Psalm 49:11: “Their inner thought is that their houses will last forever, Their dwelling places to all generations.”
In this psalm, the wealthy materialistic person at the end of the 8th century BC knew that their earthly dwelling place would one-day collapse because it was made of stone, mudbrick, wooden beams and a dried mud roof with grass on top. This person desired to “live eternally” in his earthly body (Ps. 49:9), yet reality told him otherwise. Desiring a more permanent dwelling, knowing that one-day death would be the end results, a burial cave was hewn out of the rocky escarpment outside the city and was patterned after his earthly house. He wanted to feel “at home in death!” (Franz 2005: 59).
By contrast, the psalmist puts materialism in its proper perspective when he concludes the psalm by saying, “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave (Sheol), for He shall receive me. Selah. Do not be afraid when one becomes rich, when the glory of his house is increased; for when he dies he shall carry nothing away; his glory shall not descend after him. Though while he lives he blesses himself (for men will praise you when you do well for yourself), he shall go to the generation of his fathers; they shall never see light. Man who is in honor, yet does not understand, is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:15-20).
Cave of Adullam – Psalm 57
After David feigned madness in Gath of the Philistines and fled through the Elah Valley, he hid in a cave at Adullam with 400 of his family and friends (I Sam. 22:1, 2). On another occasion, David was in the cave while the Philistines were occupying his hometown of Bethlehem. David wanted a drink of water from the well of the city, so three of his mighty men fetched him some water. When they returned, David poured out the water before the Lord (I Chron. 11:15-19). Perhaps on one of these occasions David composed Psalm 57. While the superscription of the psalm does not say when this occurred or which cave David was in, the psalm follows Psalm 56 which was written when David was captured in Gath (I Sam. 21:10-15). The order of the psalms seems to hint that it was written when David fled from Saul and hid in the cave of Adullam.
Green Grass in the Wilderness – Psalm 103:15-18
David composed a beautiful psalm extolling the character and attributes of God (Ps 103) in which he contrasts the unchangeable and eternal God with humans that are like grass and flowers. In verses 15-18 David draws on his experiences in the Judean desert. During the winter months, the desert is green with grass and there are an abundance of flowers if it was a good rainy season. Soon after Passover, the hot, dry Hamsin winds come off the Arabian Desert and scorch the grass and flowers so they wither away. David sang, “As for man, his days are like grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the [Hamsin] wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting”. The Prophet Isaiah makes a similar analogy, but he contrasts the shortness of life with the eternality of the Word of God (40:6-8).
When we went on our Dead Sea Field Trip in June the Judean Desert was dry, brown and desolate. There was not a blade of green grass, or a single flower to be seen! Some of the sifters questions what I said about the grass and flowers. Fortunately our tour hostess, Stephanie, had visited Israel in the springtime a few years earlier and was able to vouch for this phenomenon.
The summer months are the setting for another psalm composed by David when he was in the Wilderness of Judah. He wrote: “O God, You are my God; early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water” (63:1).
Masada and the Psalms
I should preface my comments about the passages on Masada in the psalms by recounting a story. While teaching at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem, I was invited to speak to a Christian tour group in one of the local hotels. The tour host never took his groups to Masada because, as he put it, “The site is post-resurrection [of Jesus], thus unimportant.” One elderly lady in the group asked me quite piously and condescendingly, “You don’t take your groups to Masada, do you?” I knew where that question was coming from. I smiled and said, “Of course I do, it’s a very important Biblical site. King David visited the site on at least three occasions and composed several psalms that mention Masada!” The shocked look on her face was one of those priceless Kodak moments! J She told the group leader of our conversation. He examined the passages and from that point on, he took his groups to Masada.
The word “Masada” in the Hebrew Bible is generally translated “stronghold” or “fortress” in the English Bibles. David visited the site on at least three occasions. The first time he saw it was when he was fleeing from Saul. After his family joined him in the cave of Adullam (I Sam. 22:1, 2), David decided to take them to the Land of Moab and ask the king of Moab to let them stay under his protection in his land. David and his entourage would have gone past Masada as they forded the Dead Sea at the Lisan (“tongue”).
As David passed by, he would have noted the strategic and military value of Masada. The mountain plateau was situated 360 meters above the plain floor on the southeastern edge of the Wilderness of Judah, opposite the Lisan of the Dead Sea. Strategically, from the top of the site, David would have a commanding view of the Dead Sea region and the eastern slopes of the Wilderness of Judah. If there was any large troop movement by Saul, or even the Philistines, he could quickly escape across the Lisan to Moab. Militarily, he also noticed the site had steep sides all around it with only one accessible path to the top on the eastern side of the mountain, today called the “Snake Path.” It was easily defensible from any attackers because of its elevation and the single path to the top. The defenders on top could easily roll down boulders of rocks to stop any attackers.
David made good on his observations and stayed at the “stronghold” (Masada) after he left his parents in Moab. As long as there was water on top of the mountain, David felt safe and secure and did not want to leave. It was not until the prophet Gad came and told David to leave, that he left for the Forest of Hereth in the Land of Judah (I Sam. 22:4, 5).
The second time David and his men went to Masada was after he spared Saul’s life at Ein Gedi. The Bible says, “And Saul went home, and David and his men went up to the stronghold” (I Sam. 24:22). Here was the “parting of the ways” between Saul and David. Saul goes northwest, back to his palace at Gibeah of Saul, and David goes south to the stronghold situated 18 km to the south of Ein Gedi.
The third time we know of David at Masada is after he was anointed king of all Israel in Hebron. The Bible says, “All the Philistines went up to search for David. And David heard of it and went down to the stronghold” (II Sam. 5:17). Notice the topographical indicators in this passage. Hebron (Tel Rumeida) is situated 944 meters above sea level. The base of Masada is 300 meters below sea level. David literally went down to Masada.
Masada was extensively excavated by Professor Yigael Yadin in the early 1960’s. Most of the excavations concentrated on the Early Roman period remains built by Herod the Great and used by the defenders at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in AD 73. Yadin, however, also found 10th century BC, Iron Age pottery scattered on the surface (1966:202). Perhaps some of the 10th century pottery was left by David and his men.
David composed at least four psalms in which he mentions Masada. The first psalm is Psalm 18. This psalm was written on the “day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (18: superscription). In it he sings, “I will love You, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress (Masada) and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold (lit. “high tower”)” (18:1, 2).
The second psalm is Psalm 31. Again David sings, “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be ashamed; Deliver me in your righteousness. Bow down Your ear to me, Deliver me speedily; Be my rock of refuge, a fortress (Masada) of defense to save me. For you are my rock and my fortress (Masada); Therefore, for Your name’s sake, Lead me and guide me” (31:1-3).
The Hebrew word “Masada” is also used in Psalm 66:11 and is translated into English as “net” (NKJV; NASB) or “prison” (NIV).
The third psalm that uses Masada is Psalm 71. It is uninscribed, but most likely written by David. In it he sings: “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be put to shame. … Be my strong refuge, To which I may resort continually; You have given the commandment to save me, For you are my rock and my fortress (Masada)” (71:1, 3).
The fourth psalm composed by David that mentioned Masada is Psalm 144. In this psalm he sang: “Blessed be the LORD my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle – My loving-kindness and my fortress (Masada), My high tower and my deliverer, My shield and the One in whom I take refuge, Who subdues my people under me” (144:1, 2).
One other psalm mentions a “stronghold.” Psalm 91 is uninscribed, but some commentators attribute it to Moses and suggest it is a continuation of Psalm 90. The superscription of that psalm says: “A Prayer of Moses the man of God.” In Psalm 91 it starts out: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress (Masada), My God, in Him I will trust” (91:1, 2).
This would have been a psalm David knew by heart. He understood theologically that the LORD was his fortress / stronghold and his trust was in God. Perhaps when he saw Masada for the first time, it reminded him of the Lord. After staying there on several occasions, he came to realize, as secure as this rocky plateau may seem, the Lord truly was his Masada!
The Ein Gedi Cave and Ibex
Another stop on our Dead Sea Field Trip was the overlook at the Ein Gedi Field School. There was a great view of the waterfall in the Nahal David, the spring and tel of Ein Gedi and the ancient terraces on the slopes of the mountains. Somewhere in the area, David hid in a cave when he fled from King Saul (I Sam. 24). Psalm 142 was composed “in a cave”. This might have been the context of this psalm.
The name Ein Gedi means the “spring of the young goat.” Whether it is the domesticated goat or the ibex, the mountain goat, is unclear. David mentions them in Psalm 104:18, as does Job (39:1). Ein Gedi is a nature reserve so the animals are protected, so we were fortunate to see a few ibex “up close and personal’.
Casting Our Sins into the Dead Sea
The prophet Micah admonished the people of Israel to “cast all our sins into the depth of the sea” (7:19-20). The word-picture that Micah has in view is the sacrifice in the Temple. The priest would offer a sacrifice for a person, but the blood of the sacrifice could only “atone” (cover) for the sins of the offerer, but it could never take the sins away. From the Temple Mount, the blood was washed down a pipe into the Kidron Valley and this blood mingled with the water as it flowed through the Wilderness of Judah to the Dead Sea. This sea is the deepest surface of water anywhere on the face of the earth, some 400 meters below sea level. It is also the saltiest body of water and nothing lives in it.
In the Temple economy, sins were covered (“atoned for”) but never taken away. That is why the offerer had to offer a new offering each time he fell into sin. Yet when the Lord Jesus Christ, God manifest in human flesh, died on the Cross, He paid for all the sins of all humanity (I John 2:2) and there is no need for any more sacrifices (Heb. 10:1-18). God has forgiven, and forgotten, all the sins of those who put their trust in His Son. The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the New Covenant that was made with the House of Israel and Judah, and by extension, those in the Church. In it, God proclaimed that the “sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:34; quoted also in Heb. 8:12 and 10:17).
What the prophet Micah is saying is this: based on the mercy of God, our sins are cast into the depth of the [Dead] Sea. What God has forgiven, God has forgotten. God does not want His children to go fishing for something that does not exist (our sins)! We can thank the Lord Jesus for paying for all our sins and be assured of the promise of God, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to [continually] cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
Summing Up the Field Trips
One of the sifters, Paula Owen, commented that this trip was: “An incredible journey of a lifetime – that would be the bottom line description of the TMSP!! I can truly say that never have I learned so many valuable Biblical facts at one time, as I did on this trip!! By Day #2 my brain went to the overload mode in the pure excitement and pleasure of this archaeological adventure. It was so overwhelming!”
The history, archaeology and geography of the Land of the Bible can enrich ones reading of the Word of God. The psalms were written by real people, experiencing real events in real places. To see the psalms in their context could enhance our worship of the Lord God.
We took the words of Psalm 48 to heart and acted upon them. “Walk about Zion, and go all around her. Count her towers; mark well her bulwarks; consider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following” (48:12, 13). I trust the background information and the spiritual truths learned by each sifter will be passed on to other people, and thus, another generation.
2002 “At Home in Death”: An Archaeological Exposition of Psalm 49:11. Bible and Spade 15/3: 85-91.
2005 “Remember, Archaeology is NOT a Treasure Hunt!” Bible and Spade 18/2: 53-59.
2007 Archaeology, Assyrian Reliefs and the Psalms of the Sons of Korah. Bible and Spade 20/1: 13-24.
2007 Preliminary Report on the City of David Excavations 2005 at the Visitors Center Area. Jerusalem and New York: Shalem.
1966 Masada. Herods Fortress and the Zealots Last Stand. Jerusalem: Steimatzky. Reprinted 1984.
This article appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Bible and Spade, vol. 22, no. 1, pages 14-19.