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The famous hymn writer John Newton (1725–1807), slave trader turned ardent abolitionist, begins one of his best-known hymns with the words: “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God.” These opening words draw on various biblical passages, especially Psalm 87:3. As Newton’s hymn reveals, in Christian thought the name Zion, alongside the designation “new Jerusalem,” has come to denote the eternal city of God, the goal of God’s creative and redemptive activity. Zion is the holy metropolis where God’s ethnically diverse people will live in God’s presence free from all the pain, the suffering, and the death associated with this present world. In the light of this future paradise, Newton’s hymn concludes: “Solid joys and lasting treasure none but Zion’s children know.”

The name Zion did not always denote the eternal city of God. In the Bible, we first encounter the term in 2 Samuel 5:6–7, which speaks of how David “took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the City of David.” Zion occurs here as the name of a fortress on a mountain ridge that formed part of ancient Jerusalem. Due to their geographical connection, Zion and Jerusalem are occasionally used in parallel to denote the same place (e.g., 2 Kings 19:21).

Through time, during the period when Davidic kings ruled over Judah, the designation Zion took on special significance because of its association with God’s temple in Jerusalem. Something of Zion’s importance is conveyed in Psalm 48:

Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised

in the city of our God!

His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,

is the joy of all the earth,

Mount Zion, in the far north,

the city of the great King.

Within her citadels God

has made himself known as a fortress. (Ps. 48:1–3)

The picture of Zion as the elevated, holy city of God, with its high citadels and solid ramparts, provides the starting point for understanding the importance of the eternal city that is central to Christian thinking about the life to come. The movement from an “earthly” Zion to what might be thought of as a “heavenly” Zion is predicted by the Old Testament prophets, especially Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 2:2–5; 60:15–20; 65:17–25; see Ezek. 16:59–63; 20:40–44; Zeph. 3:14–20; Zech. 1:14–17). Around the end of the eighth century BC, Isaiah denounced the inhabitants of earthly Zion/Jerusalem for their moral corruption and alienation from God. Comparing the inhabitants of Jerusalem to those of Sodom and Gomorrah, Isaiah proclaimed:

How the faithful city

has become a whore,

she who was full of justice!

Righteousness lodged in her,

but now murderers.

Your silver has become dross,

your best wine mixed with water.

Your princes are rebels

and companions of thieves.

Everyone loves a bribe

and runs after gifts.

They do not bring justice to the fatherless,

and the widow’s cause does not come to them. (Isa. 1:21–23)

Later, using the image of a specially constructed walled vineyard, Isaiah describes how God will abandon the city, heaping destruction on its wayward inhabitants (Isa. 5:1–7). Pulling no punches, Isaiah conveys from God in various oracles a series of chilling pronouncements against Jerusalem.

Zion is the holy metropolis where God’s ethnically diverse people will live in God’s presence free from all the pain, the suffering, and the death associated with this present world.

Beyond judgment, however, the prophet Isaiah holds out hope of a transformed Jerusalem/Zion. He does so in two distinctive ways. First, he anticipates the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem after its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Unexpectedly, Isaiah predicts that this restoration will be initiated by a gentile king named Cyrus (Isa. 44:28). Moreover, Isaiah describes him as the Lord’s anointed (Isa. 45:1). The idea of a gentile king’s restoring Jerusalem and being the Lord’s anointed is noteworthy. In the Old Testament, the concept of anointing is normally associated with Davidic kings, and from it we get the designation Messiah, which means “anointed one.” From what is said by Isaiah, we might well imagine Cyrus to be a gentile Messiah who comes to the aid of Jerusalem. Second, Isaiah anticipates the creation of a new Jerusalem through a future Davidic king (e.g., Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–5), who will fulfill the role of a suffering servant (Isa. 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12). Importantly, this Jerusalem will be a cosmopolitan city, having citizens drawn from the nations of the world. Strikingly, amid the inspiring descriptions of this future city, Isaiah associates this righteous Jerusalem/Zion with the creation of new heavens and a new earth. Through Isaiah, God promises:

For behold, I create new heavens

and a new earth,

and the former things shall not be remembered

or come into mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever

in that which I create;

for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,

and her people to be a gladness.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem

and be glad in my people;

no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping

and the cry of distress. (Isa. 65:17–19)

At the heart of God’s creation of the new heavens and the new earth will be a new Jerusalem/Zion.

While heavenly Zion is presently being populated by believers who have departed this life, the final reality of the city awaits God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

God’s words in 65:17–19 point us in two different directions. On the one hand, looking forward, they anticipate what the Apostle John records in Revelation 21. In a vision, he witnesses this world being replaced through the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. Importantly, this new heaven and new earth involves a holy city that is called Jerusalem.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev. 21:1–3)

As the last of John’s visions, this portrait of a new Jerusalem points toward the climax of God’s redemptive activity. On the other hand, looking backward, God’s words in Isaiah 65:17–19 echo the opening sentence of Genesis. They recall God’s creation of the world that we inhabit. Various elements in the opening chapters of Genesis reveal that when God created this world, He did so with the expectation that He would dwell on it alongside a human population that would experience His presence. God’s plan for the earth was the construction of a holy city where He would dwell surrounded by those who joyfully serve Him. What begins in Genesis 1 finds its completion in the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21–22.

According to the opening chapters of Genesis, despite being specially privileged by God above all other earthly creatures, Adam and Eve betrayed their Creator. As Genesis 3 reveals, by listening to the mysterious serpent, they alienated themselves from God. Subsequently, their descendants built a city that is the antithesis of what God intended. We have become accustomed to calling the city Babel, but we should note that the Hebrew name babel is translated elsewhere in the Old Testament as Babylon. Despite the brevity of the report, Genesis 11:1–9 reveals the hubris of humans who believe that they can usurp God. We witness the people of Babel/Babylon plotting to invade heaven through the construction of a high tower (Gen. 11:4). While God intervenes to limit human aspirations, nevertheless, from Genesis to Revelation, the city of Babel/Babylon features as a symbol of human defiance against God. In the Old Testament, the Babylonians are responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem, God’s temple city, in 586 BC. Against this background, however, the exiled Daniel foresees a time when Babylon will be destroyed through the coming of God’s kingdom (see Dan. 2:1–45). In the book of Revelation, Babylon is portrayed as a gaudy prostitute (Rev. 17:1–18:24), an image that stands in sharp contrast to the coming of the new Jerusalem, which is compared to “a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).

The expectation of a future city of God runs throughout the Bible. The author of Hebrews observes that the patriarch Abraham looked forward to “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). This city is associated with “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). A little later, the author of Hebrews mentions “Mount Zion,” which he describes as “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). He later adds, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). The author of Hebrews perceives heavenly Jerusalem to be existing outside this world, in what we might consider to be the afterlife. Yet the city to come will ultimately take an earthly form.

In his vision of a new heaven and a new earth, the Apostle John speaks of the holy city descending from heaven. This brief comment recalls how the Apostle Paul draws a distinction in Galatians 4:25–26 between an earthly Jerusalem and a heavenly Jerusalem. Elsewhere Paul sees himself and other believers as citizens of this heavenly city (Phil. 3:20). While heavenly Zion is presently being populated by believers who have departed this life, the final reality of the city awaits God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

When we grasp the wonderful significance of the concept of Zion in the Bible, it is easy to understand why Newton passionately declared: “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God.”

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