John Newton’s hymn text was inspired from Psalm 87 and the theological theme of Zion.
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God.
God, whose word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for his own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.
Zion is used first in Scripture as an alternative name for the City of David or Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5.6-10). Theologically, Zion represents the dwelling place of God. It is where God is in the midst of His people. David made Jerusalem the capital city of Israel. Solomon built the temple within the confines of Jerusalem. Once Solomon completed the temple, the cloud of glory filled it. Jerusalem became the dwelling place of God.
Since all of this is true, many pilgrims (Jew and Gentile alike) traveled to Zion in order to be in the presence of God. Zephaniah 3.9-10 state that a pure language will be restored to all peoples so that all may call on the name of the LORD in unison and to serve Him with one accord. “From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering” (Zephaniah 3.10).
The author of Hebrews refers to Zion as the heavenly, future city. A city built and made by God. It is the better country or the heavenly one. We have access to God as believers. It is unlimited. We do not need to make any pilgrimages to Jerusalem. While we might like to visit Jerusalem, our access to God is unfettered. Earthly Zion is the shadow of her heavenly reality. (See Hebrews 11-12.)
God dwells with us now.
We are part of the Church of Jesus Christ, and He dwells not in a city or a temple, but in us. Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.20). Jesus is the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person (Hebrews 1.3). The riches of God’s grace and love are made known in Jesus Christ, who never leaves us or forsakes us. He draws near to us and makes His presence known to us as we draw near to Him.
God dwells with us forever.
“You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in Heaven, to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12.22-24). This heavenly Jerusalem is not just a spiritual cloud of eyewitnesses; it’s an actual place.
John the Apostle was shown “the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.” It is a city with a foundation built from precious stones and gates of pearl and walls of jasper – a pure gold city (see Revelation 21). The gold is so refined it is like clear glass. The street of this city consists of this pure gold. Imagine the vibrant color and the glorious light of heavenly Zion. Isaiah said, “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you; but the LORD will be to you an everlasting light, and your God your glory” (Isaiah 60.19). John writes, “The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light” (Revelation 21.23).
The Lamb is not only its light; the Lamb is its King. He “has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1.6).
Our Zion is only visible through the eyes of faith. This is our confident expectation, our hope. But if our hope is genuine, we will gladly spend and be spent looking toward that day “when all nations shall flow to it” (Isaiah 2.2). I’d rather be a doorkeeper in this city than to dwell in the tents of wickedness (Psalm 84.10).
Father help us to live as citizens of this future Zion. Peace and prosperity may be ours in a spiritual way today; they will be ours tangibly in that last day. Enable us to set our affections on above things today.