A Bible Study of the word “Zion” and how it relates to justice

The following information is taken from a PCUSA document called “Breaking down the walls”. It explains how the word ZION is used in the Bible, and how its use has evolved even in the Biblical text ultimately culminating in the person of Jesus (throw down this temple and three days I will raise it up – Mark 14: 58; Matt 26:61; John 2:19). This is important for those of us who sing hymns about Zion and listen to Biblical texts about Zion in church:

Zion—and Justice

The name “Zion” evolved and multiplied in its ancient applications. Originally, it designated the fortress of the pre-Israelite city of Jerusalem captured by David around the year 1000 B.C.E.

“Zion” then came to designate the rather small “City of David” of which the fortress was a part.

When the Ark of the Covenant was shifted to the new temple built by Solomon, the name “Zion” was transferred from the confines of David’s city to the new sacred space lying to its northwest—the temple precincts (2 Sam. 5:7b; 1 Kings 8:1.),  the place on earth where God most fully dwelled (Pss. 20:2–3, 76:2, 78:68–69), the “touchpoint” between heaven and earth (Isa. 8:18; Pss. 48:12–14, 65:1–4, 74:2c, 76:2, 132:13–14; cf. Deut. 12:5; 1 Kings 8:28–29). 

Next, by metonymy—a figure of speech in which the name of one thing stands for the name of another thing with which it is associated—“Zion” came also to designate the entire city of Jerusalem together with its residents (Pss. 50:2, 84:7; cf. Isa. 6:1–8) and then, with the destruction of that city in 587 B.C.E., it came also to serve as a name for the whole people of Israel (2 Kings 19:20–21, 31; Ps. 87:1–3; Isa. 10:24, 30:19, 33:20; Lam. 2:8–10).  Then, too, in the developing eschatology of ancient Israel’s prophets and psalmists after 587, “Zion” named the about-to-be rebuilt (or, for somewhat later prophets and psalmists, the recently rebuilt) city of Jerusalem and temple that served as a focus of hope—hope for the restoration of God’s people after exile (Isa. 51:16; Zech. 2:7 NIV/KJV, 9:13). hope for the advent of peace throughout the world (Isa. 35:10; 46:13; 51:3, 11; 61:1–4; 62:1, 11–12; Joel 3:17; Zeph. 3:14–20; Zech. 1:14–17, 2:10–13)  and hope for a renewed covenant with God (Isa. 2:2–4; Micah 4:1–4; Zech. 9:9–10)

Persons’ right to enter God’s presence within the temple precincts of holy Zion or even to live within the city of Jerusalem was closely linked to their living justly—that is, to their living in accordance with the demands of covenant law. In the eighth century B.C.E., the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the people of Zion would be spared from judgment only through repentance and the leading of just lives (Isa. 1:27–28).

Since justice and righteousness were divine attributes with which God had filled Zion (Isa. 33:5), justice would be the line and righteousness the plummet by which the people of Zion would be measured and weighed (Isa. 28:16–17). Only those in Zion “who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil” would be able to abide in the presence of the God of justice (Isa. 33:14–16; cf. 30:18). A contemporary of Isaiah, the prophet Micah, condemned the rulers and leading citizens, “who abhor justice and pervert all equity” and thereby “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong” (Mic. 3:9–10).

Because of their actions, “Zion shall be plowed as a field” (Mic. 3:11–12). Nearly 100 years later, the prophet Jeremiah called upon the refugees from the former northern kingdom of Israel to repent their evil so that God might again bring them to Zion (Jer. 3:14), and he denounced those of Judah who entered the temple to worship the Lord without having amended their ways and ceased their violations of God’s commandments (Jer. 7:1–15). Two psalms also state explicitly that those who enter the temple precincts—which is to say, Zion—should be persons who practice justice.

“ O Lord, who may abide in your tent?

Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is [just (tzedeq)],

and speak the truth from their heart,

who do not slander with their tongue,

and do no evil to their friends,

nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;

in whose eyes the wicked are despised,

but who honor those who fear the Lord;

who stand by their oath even to their hurt;

who do not lend money at interest,

and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.”

Ps. 15:1–3, 5


“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,

who do not lift up their souls to what is false,

and do not swear deceitfully.

They will receive blessing from the Lord,

and [a just reward (tzdaqah)] from the God of their salvation.”Ps. 24:3–537

Thus, the Older Testament closely connects the concepts of “Zion” and “justice,” for Zion is the principal earthly dwelling place of the God of justice.

The Older Testament also speaks of Zion as a place to which not only Jews but also other peoples and nations will come both to worship God and to receive God’s teaching. Toward the end of the sixth century B.C.E., the prophet we call Third Isaiah proclaimed to those who had returned from exile in  Babylon to the holy mountain that is Zion, “Maintain justice, and do what is right” (Isa. 56:1a). And he proceeded to tell his fellow Jews that what is just and right includes joining God in welcoming to the holy mountain and its sacred precincts those from other lands who love God and strive to keep the commandments, for God’s temple “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:6–8). And according to Psalm 87, “Zion is the mother city of all who know the Lord, wherever they are born”—be that Canaan, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, or any other place.38 Other passages as well share that vision:

“Let this be recorded for a generation to come, …

so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion,

and his praise in Jerusalem,

when peoples gather together,

and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.” (Ps. 102:18a, 21–22)


“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,

and shall be raised up above the hills.

Peoples shall stream to it,

and many nations 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 instruction,

and the word of Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between many peoples,

and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more;

but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,

and no one shall make them afraid;

for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. (Mic. 4:1–4 [see also Isa. 2:2–4])

Thus, according to the Older Testament, the final effect of the exiles’ return to Zion will be the dawn

of an age of peace and a joining with other peoples and nations to worship and study the teachings of the

one true God. It is thus noteworthy that while Jerusalem has indeed become a place holy not only for Jews but also for Christians and Muslims the longed-for age of peace and reconciliation has yet to come.

In the Newer Testament, “Zion” occurs just seven times. Four usages designate not “earthly” Jerusalem but instead “eschatological” Jerusalem. Two of these four arise from quoting the book of Isaiah. According to First Peter, God lays the solid cornerstone of Jesus Christ for all believers in eschatological Zion (1 Pet. 2:6, quoting Isa. 28:16), and from there also, according to Romans, the Deliverer for all of Israel will yet come forth (Rom. 11:26, quoting Isa. 59:21 from one particular manuscript tradition of the Greek Septuagint).

 Then, too, according to Hebrews, it is to eschatological Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, that Christians have  worshipfully “come … to God, the judge of all, … and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22–24a).

Finally, a vision in the book of Revelation describes eschatological Zion as the launch point for God’s end-time action to rid the world of evil. The Lamb (Christ) takes his stand on the solid high ground of “Mount Zion,” surrounded by 144,000 righteous faithful (Rev. 14:1), while the dragon (Satan) takes his stand on “the sand of the seashore” (Rev. 12:18), viewing from there the two beasts that are his proxies (symbolizing perhaps Rome’s emperors and priests of the imperial cult, Rev. 13:1–18). This vision of the Lamb on Mount Zion affirms Zion as the seat of justice for the world and anticipates Revelation’s later vision of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9–22).

The other three usages of “Zion” in the Newer Testament do designate “earthly” Jerusalem. Two of these occur in gospel accounts of Jesus’ dramatic entry into that city on “Palm Sunday” (Mt. 21:5, quoting compositely from Isa. 62:11 and Zech. 9:9; and Jn. 12:15, quoting compositely from Zeph. 3:16  and Zech. 9:9).

In calling to readers’ minds Zech. 9:9–10, both gospel texts affirm that Zion’s peaceable Messiah is the one who creates true shalom for the nations. The third “earthly” usage occurs in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom. 9:33), where he uses the same prophetic image found in First Peter (Isa. 28:6) but employs it quite differently. Paul, interpreting this Isaian image through the lens of Isa. 8:14, speaks of God’s laying in Zion, earthly Jerusalem, “a stone” that is a stumbling block to Jewish faith—namely, the crucified and risen Christ. All three of these instances of “Zion” arise from quoting books of the prophets.

It appears that during the first century C.E., Christian authors rather fully transferred the locus of God’s concrete presence in the world of space and time from the place of Zion—that is, Jerusalem—to the person of Jesus, who had been crucified and raised from the dead just outside Jerusalem. The Roman destruction of Zion—that is, the temple in Jerusalem—in 70 C.E. doubtless hastened that process.


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