As a Christian, you might have noticed that there are a lot of Christian ministries, churches, and individuals who are associating themselves with the name Zion. You might also have noticed that a lot of modern day Christians are referring to Yahweh as the Light of Zion or the God of Zion or the something else of Zion. So what’s with all the talk about Zion? What exactly is Zion anyway? Most importantly, is God a fan of our ongoing obsession with this term? Or is this just one more misguided Christian tradition that we need to move past? The purpose of this post is to help you get Zion in proper perspective.
A PILE OF DIRT
Let’s start with some basic facts. Zion is nothing more than a pile of dirt and rocks. It’s a hill, not a mountain. It’s one of countless bumps in the earth’s terrain. Zion is not God, it’s not an extension of God, it’s not holy, it’s not magical, it’s not special, and today it’s not even the site of anything that has spiritual value to Christians. It’s just a mound of dirt.
Now humans have been naming bumps in the land since the beginning of this world. Everest: now there’s an impressive peak, standing at over 29,000 feet (8,848 m). The world has many lofty peaks in it, but Zion is not one of these. Zion is a mere 2,500 feet tall. Imagine climbing up the Eiffel Tower two and a half times and you’ve climbed up Mount Zion. Or float up to the very tip of the Empire State Building 1.7 times and you’ve hiked Mount Zion. Sure, it’s a definite ascent, but it’s no Everest.
AN OLD FORT
Now when you’re fighting battles, there are many advantages to being at a higher elevation than your enemies. It’s a lot easier to shove boulders downhill than it is to shove them uphill. Human civilizations have long made use of hills as strategic defense points, and Zion was no exception. Before the Jews took it over, a group of folks named the Jebusites had built a fortified city on Zion. But then King David came along and took Zion away from the Jebusites. Seeing the value of being elevated, David kept the buildings and dubbed the site the City of David. Later on the area would be built up and renamed Jerusalem.
A WORSHIP SITE
Now when you want to increase the visibility of a glittering national monument, building on a hill is a smart choice. So when it came time to pick a location to build a glorious, gold encrusted temple to the national God of Israel, David selected Mount Zion. Parking Yahweh’s Temple on a mountain made it far more visible than burying it in a valley. Of course Zion was not the only mountain around, but since it was so close to the capital city of Jerusalem and the royal palace, it seemed like the ideal place. David’s son Solomon oversaw the actual construction of the Temple, and once it was constructed, the worship of Zion began.
FROM DIRT TO DIVINE
As we said before, Mount Zion is just a pile of dirt and rocks. Should we be worshiping, adoring, and fawning over a pile of dirt and rocks? No, we really shouldn’t. Worshiping created things is never appropriate, whether it’s a cross, a bible or a mountain. As Christians, we should only ever be worshiping and adoring our Gods—not a bunch of physical objects that we’ve decided to associate with Them. But this is not how the Jews thought.
The Jews of the Bible were highly superstitious people who were always eager to stamp the “sacred” label onto anything that impressed them. For example, in Genesis 28 we read about a time when Jacob (who was the first ethnic Jew) spent a night sleeping on the ground with his head on a stone. Sounds rather uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Well, during this stony slumber, Jacob had a wild dream in which he saw a ladder extending from Heaven to Earth. He also heard Yahweh speaking to him in the dream. When he woke up, he marveled over the dream. Then he leapt to this absurd conclusion:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of Heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17)
This statement reveals how flawed Jacob’s theology was. Of course God was in that place—God is everywhere all the time. But in the world Jacob lived in, people didn’t consider gods to be omnipresent. Instead, gods were viewed as having turfs which they resided in—rather like human gang turfs work today. When wars happened, the god of the turf being attacked was expected to defend his territory against other invading gods. Gods weren’t viewed as leaving their turfs unless they were traveling along with a group of their followers. Jewish armies, for example, believed that Yahweh traveled with them when they went to war. To ensure that Yahweh would accompany them, they’d bring along His Ark of the Covenant—the gold covered box which was viewed as God’s earthly throne. But having a visual object serving as God’s throne also worked against them because when the Philistines captured the Ark, Jewish soldiers saw Yahweh being carried away to Philistia on His gold box throne. All of Israel was then traumatized by the idea of Yahweh walking out on them (see Revere Yahweh or Die: Lessons Learned when the Philistines Stole the Ark).
In the Bible we read about people who are putting their faith in all kinds of false theories about how things really work. Since the Bible focuses on Jewish history, it is Jewish superstitions which get the most attention. To learn the right lessons from the Bible, you need to ask God to help you recognize when someone is clinging to wrong beliefs so that you don’t just believe everything some Jewish fellow says in Scriptures. To avoid imitating the idolatrous practices of the Jews, you need to remember that worship is only appropriate for Creators, not the created. Yahweh, Jesus and the magnificent Holy Spirit are Creators, which is why we ought to be worshiping Them. But mountains, stones, crosses, buildings and cities are created things, which is why it is never okay to worship them.
Now in the account of Jacob’s dream, we first find him making some silly assumptions about God. He basically wakes up from the dream God gave him and he thinks, “Wow! I’ve accidentally stumbled onto a God’s turf—His actual headquarters! In fact, it seems like I’m standing on the actual launching pad that God uses to float up and down to Heaven!” Is this absurd? Of course. Just because Jacob dreams of a ladder doesn’t mean there is an actual ladder connecting Heaven to Earth. But now watch what he does next, because this will help you understand why the Jews went so crazy about Mount Zion:
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then Yahweh will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will give You a tenth.” (Gen. 28:18-22)
So what just happened here? Jacob just played the part of a horrible spiritual role model. First, notice how he took his stone pillow, upended it to be a special monument, and then drizzled oil onto it. What was that about? Well, this oil drizzling thing was a way that superstitious Jews marked something as being “sacred.” When you think “sacred,” you might as well think “magical,” because that is how Jacob’s looking at this rock. When God talks about making things sacred, He just means setting something apart for special use. But here in Genesis 28, there is more going on. Jacob thinks he’s standing in some magical portal and he wants to mark the spot so he can find it again later. Because his head was lying on a particular stone when he had the ladder dream, he has decided that the stone played some special role in making that vision happen. So he anoints the stone with special oil to mark it as the “magic rock”—the rock that he is now viewing as being associated with God. By anointing the stone, he’s hoping to please the God who he thinks is associated with it. He then makes a vow to God in the presence of the stone which he is now treating as some kind of magical talisman. All of this is idolatrous rot. The stone is just a stone. Jacob does not have magical powers, and neither does his oil, so his drizzling oil on a rock accomplishes nothing more than making the rock slick and greasy. But in Jacob’s mind, God will be impressed by magic oil touching the magic stone, and now that Jacob is paying homage to the rock, his vow will be heard by God. This is how this kind of superstitious logic goes, and it’s pure hooey.
Now we can tell how rotten Jacob’s soul attitude towards God is by his snarky little vow. First, he comes up with a list of demands. He wants God to travel with him, to protect him, to give him food and clothes, and to make sure that Jacob returns safely to where Jacob wants to go, which is his father’s house. And what does Jacob offer God in return for God giving Jacob everything his greedy heart desires? Well, Jacob generously offers to own Yahweh as his personal God. Well, whoop-de-doo. How Yahweh managed to contain His joy at being owned by a twerp like Jacob is hard to imagine. But then it gets better: generous Jacob goes on to say that he will assign God a special spot to dwell in right where the magic rock is. Think about that. The only reason Jacob is impressed with the stone is because he’s decided God’s Presence is already residing in this special place. So Jacob’s basically offering to give God permission to be where God already is. What generosity. But wait—there’s one more fabulous gift that Jacob is ready to put on the table after God meets all of his demands. That final gift is a promise that Jacob will give God back one lousy tenth of all that God gives him.
Okay, so let’s summarize. In return for God blessing all of Jacob’s personal plans and filling his life with material blessings, God is going to earn the great privilege of having Jacob associate himself with Him. He’ll also get Jacob’s permission to exist somewhere that He already exists, and Jacob will label 10% of his wealth as belonging to God. Now wait a second—doesn’t God already own everything that exists? Yes, but most people pretend that He doesn’t. So you see, it’s really quite generous of Jacob to acknowledge that 10% of his stuff is really God’s property instead of pretending that none of it is. In other words, God should be pleased that Jacob only claims ownership of 90% of what really belongs to God, instead of claiming the full amount. Are you seeing the problem here? Jacob is a spiritual brat whose vow is more than a little insulting. If Yahweh wasn’t the extremely gracious God that He is, right about now Jacob would be reduced to an oily smudge on the ground that the magic stone would fall down on top of.
So what does all of this have to do with Mount Zion? Well, just as Jacob started deifying a rock just because of one dream, the Jews got pretty crazed over Mount Zion once Yahweh’s Temple was built on it. In both cases, what we find is an association being made between God and created things, and then the created things being turned into idols and magical talismans. Even today you can find Jews who pray after physically turning their bodies in the direction of Jerusalem and its famous Temple Mount. What is the point of trying to face in a certain geographical direction? Do people really think God will pay more attention to their prayers if they’re facing the physical spot where a Temple to Him was once built? Yes, they do. This is what happens when you confuse the Creator with the created: you start getting so obsessed with the created that you end up insulting the Creator.
The physical building that Solomon constructed to serve as a house for Yahweh became a huge deal to the Jews—so much so that their obsession with created things expanded beyond the building and included the hill that the building sat on. Mount Zion—that irrelevant mound of dirt and rocks—became so associated with Yahweh Himself that the Jews became spiritually dependent on both the hill and the Temple that stood on it. Anytime we decide that we can’t worship God without physical props, that’s idolatry. There is nothing supernatural about a manmade building. There is nothing magical about a mound of dirt and rocks. But the more we obsess over the physical, the less we respect God, and soon the Temple, Zion, and the physical city of Jerusalem were all more important to the Jews than Yahweh Himself.
Nehemiah is a good example of what misplaced obsession does to people. In his memoirs, we find Nehemiah describing himself as going around in a depressed funk even though God is pouring blessings down on his life. Nehemiah was the member of a minority group which multiple empires considered to be their trophies of war. The fact that he was Jewish should have caused him to be a total outcast, but instead God arranged for Nehemiah to end up with a super sweet position as right hand man to the king. There he was, living the royal life as a friend of the emperor. But was he happy? No, he was full of gripes once he learned that his precious Jerusalem lay in ruins. To the Jews, the physical monuments were far more important than God Himself. Sure, Nehemiah didn’t mind complaining to Yahweh and asking Him to get Jerusalem back on its feet. But cherishing his personal walk with Yahweh above some silly manmade walls? That was not going to happen. Nehemiah decided that he just wouldn’t be happy until those walls were rebuilt. God generously arranged for Nehemiah to go rebuild them and today all you hear about is what a miraculous story that was. No one talks about how messed up it was that Nehemiah was depending on a pile of stones for joy in life.
ZION IN THE BIBLE
To understand how expansive the Zion obsession was for the Jews, we need only observe all of the ways the term Zion is used in the Bible. As we do this, we learn that the Jews kept adding new associations to Zion over time. Here are some of the more common usages:
1. Zion is Yahweh’s Headquarters
Because the Temple was parked on Mount Zion, the Jews soon began using the term “Zion” like Yahweh’s physical address on earth.
May He send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion. (Ps. 20:2)
2. Zion is the Pride of the Planet
If it’s important to the Jews, it must be important to the entire planet, right? So since the Jews are obsessed with Zion, everyone else must be as well. And of course once we choose idols for ourselves, we often exaggerate their splendor. As mountains go, Zion really isn’t all that impressive. But listen to how the Zion obsessed author of Psalm 48 talks:
Beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth, like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King. (Ps. 48:2)
And in Psalm 50, the idolatry continues:
From Zion, which is perfect in beauty, God shines forth. (Ps. 50:2)
Really? Zion is perfect in beauty? What exactly does that mean? Does that mean it has no weeds growing anywhere—no scars on its slopes? Pull up some images of Mount Zion on the internet and you’ll find it’s far from perfect or beautiful. Instead of being covered with lush vegetation or frosted with snowy peaks, Zion gives us a view of dry dirt peppered with shrubs, dying grass, asphalt highways, old buildings and traffic. A well tended flower garden could easily surpass Zion in beauty. But when you start worshiping created things, you start calling those things perfect, even though such a title really only belongs to our Creators.
3. God is in Love with Zion’s Buildings
Now once the Jews obsessed over Zion, they naturally projected their absurdity onto God Himself, which brings us to Psalm 87, in which a Jewish man describes Yahweh as actually being in love with a portion of a manmade structure that sits on Zion.
Yahweh loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwellings of Jacob. (Ps. 87:2)
So does God really love buildings? No, that’s a human problem. We are the ones who become way too emotionally bonded with inanimate objects. God knows that a rock is just a rock.
4. Zion is Alive and Reacting to God’s Actions
Ever find yourself projecting human emotions onto inanimate objects? “My car isn’t in the mood to drive today. My phone hates me. This pen is out to get me.” The Jews did this kind of thing with Mount Zion as well. They liked to imagine that that mound of dirt and rocks was actually responding to things Yahweh said and did.
Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of Your judgments, Yahweh. (Ps. 97:8)
5. Zion is Someone Yahweh Should Be Nice To
Once we pretend that God can love dirt, and that the dirt is having emotional responses to what God does, why not take it one step further and order God to be nice to the dirt?
You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favor to her; the appointed time has come. (Ps. 102:13)
But wait—why should God have compassion on a hill? Because the Jews are obsessed with it. Psalm 102 was written after the Temple on Mount Zion had been demolished, and the Jewish author feels that Yahweh ought to hurry up and fix his broken idol. Notice how he phrases this prayer as more of a prophecy than a request. He’s not asking God to help—he’s ordering Him to.
You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favor to her; the appointed time has come. For her stones are dear to Your servants; her very dust moves them to pity. (Ps. 102:13)
So even though Yahweh makes His hatred of idolatry well-known to the Jews, this Jewish author says that God should hurry to turn Zion back into a glorious monument because the Jews are obsessed with a bunch of dust. Wow. Clearly God’s preferences have been totally forgotten in the midst of all this dirt worship.
6. Zion is Invincible
As our previous psalmist demonstrates, no one wants their idol to be in bad shape. So we pretend that our idols are perfect and invincible.
Those who trust in Yahweh are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. (Ps. 125:1)
We could go on, but you get the idea. The Jews worshiped Zion while they grossly disrespected God’s feelings about idolatry. Today, undiscerning Christians are imitating the idiocy of the ancient Jews in many areas. We not only ooze over some silly hill, but we talk as if some physical book is God’s equal, we treat crosses as magic talismans, and we talk like God is extra present in the manmade buildings that we gather in. If you are serious about honoring God in your own life, perhaps it’s time to consider dropping Zion from your list of favorite words.
Imitating the Idolatry of NT Jews: All Scripture is God-Breathed
Taking the Apostles off the Pedestal: Power Struggles in the Early Church
Taking Moses Off The Pedestal (Jude 1:9)
Psalm 137: Dashing Infants & Disparaging Yahweh
What’s holy about holy water? (Understanding Labels in the Church)
Understanding Idolatry: The Problem & the Cure