The next psalm Nahum Sarna considered in On the Book of Psalms was Psalm 48. This psalm’s basic type is that of praise for Zion. This is an element of several psalms.
In regard to Psalm 48, there are two particularly puzzling things.
First , the psalm speaks of Mount Zion “in the north” (v. 2). Michael Goulder used this to claim that the Korahite priests (this is a psalm of Korah) presided at the sanctuary in Dan, Israel’s most northern shrine. The reference to the north somehow never got changed when they moved south after the Assyrian conquest.
Goulder’s theory about the psalms of Asaph I largely accept, but his attempt to locate the sons of Korah in Dan rested on not very much.
Nahum Sarna gave us a better explanation. Literally, the verse says that the Mount Zion, the city of the great king is on the summit of Zaphon. Zaphon is a mountain in Syria where the Orontes river flows into the sea. But its main meaning is mythological. In Phoenician and Canaanite religion it is the dwelling place of Ba’al and the gods. It is the mythical far north where divine beings dwell. It has the same kind of meaning as Mount Olympus or Asgard. Zion, then is the place of divine dwelling somewhat demythologized in Israel to signify the presence of the one God, the great King, at Jerusalem.
Second, the psalm seems to describe a military campaign against Jerusalem. The failed Assyrian campaign against Hezekiah’s Jerusalem fits except for the reference in v. 7 to the “ships of Tarshish”. I usually think of Tarshish as Jonah’s destination before the fish swallowed him, but Sarna saw it as a more general term. There are at least three ports around the Mediterranean that have names that sound like “Tarshish” (think Tarsus, for instance). Sarna hinted that etymologically, these names signify ports from which smelted metal was shipped. So Tarshish would be a metal-smelting site and v. 7 would describe a storm sinking a fleet carrying heavy war materials.
The Bible tells about another such disaster. King Jehoshaphat built a fleet of “Tarshish ships” on the gulf of Aqaba. But a storm destroyed them (1 Kings 22:48, compare with 2 Chronicles 20:36-37). Ezekiel 27:25 also speaks of “Tarshish ships”. There is no historical record of Assyria losing a fleet of such ships around the time of Hezekiah. But it easily could have happened.
So the 48th Psalm may have been for marking the anniversary of the deliverance of Jerusalem from the siege of Sennacherib. In vs. 9-11 the pilgrims overlook the city and express joy. In v. 12 ff., they reach the city. They walk around it, count its towers and other features, and reflect on what a miracle it is that the city stands.
The purpose of the psalm is not just to note a historical event. It is to grasp the significance of that event for the next generation: that “such is our God, our God forever and ever; he will guide us until we die” (v. 14).