Geographic names in New Zealand often reflect its native people and European settlement. Some place names were given by Māoris, explorers, surveyors and administrators. Others are named after British places and battles, historical events, immigrant ships, and important people (explorers, cultural heroes, political heroes, government officials, pioneers, and royalty). Each geographic name has a story associated with it. So, where is Zion and what’s its story?
“Zion” is a word that’s associated with God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Hebrew word translated “Zion” Tsiyyon (Strongs #6726) occurs 152 times in the Old Testament (mainly in the Psalms and prophets).
Hill of Ophel
In about 1,000 BC, king David captured the fortress of Zion from the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:6-10; 1 Chron. 11:4-9). The Jebusites were Canaanites (Gen. 10:15-16; Jud. 19:10) and their city Jebus (Jerusalem) was a natural fortress because it was on a ridge that was surrounded on three sides by steep valleys (Kidron, Hinnom, and Tyropoeon). This site was also called the “hill of Ophel”, which was in Jerusalem near the Water Gate and Gihon Spring (2 Chron. 27:3; 33:14; Neh. 3:26NIV). The spring was an essential water supply for the fortress. About 250-300 years after David’s victory, Kings Jotham and Manasseh strengthened the fortifications at Ophel.
When David took up residence at Ophel he “called it the City of David” (2 Chron. 32:30; 33:14). It was his royal city, where he built his palace and ruled over Israel. After David brought the ark to Ophel (Zion), it also became a sacred place where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God (2 Sam. 6:10-19; 1 Chron. 16:1-38). David called it God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 3:4; 15:1ESV). So Ophel (Zion) was the key place in Israel for government and worship during the reign of King David. And it was still called Zion when king Solomon dedicated the temple in 966 BC (1 Ki. 8:1; 2 Chron. 5:2).
So in the first instance, Zion referred to the hill of Ophel which was the site of a Jebusite fortress and the City of David.
During David’s reign the city of Jerusalem expanded towards the north. And after king Solomon built the Israelite temple on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Chron. 3:1), it became known as Mount Zion. This hill had been called Mount Moriah in Abraham’s time about 880 years earlier.
When the temple was dedicated, it was filled with a cloud which represented God’s presence (1 Ki. 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3). In this aspect it was similar to the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38). The temple was God’s dwelling place (Isa. 8:18; Ps. 132:7, 13). That’s where the Israelites went to meet God (Jer. 31:6). And that’s why Mount Zion was called, “the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 18:7). This cloud occupied the temple for about 375 years until it departed in the days of Ezekiel (Ezek. 10).
Because the temple was the centre of Israelite praise and worship, God calls Mount Zion “my holy hill” (Ps. 2:6ESV). The temple gave it holiness. That’s where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God. That’s where Jewish men travelled to three times a year for major religious festivals (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:16). So the temple was the center of their spiritual life. It was the center of Jewish religion.
So in the second instance, Zion referred to the temple mount which was north of the hill of Ophel.
The word “Zion” can also refer to Jerusalem – it’s often used as a synonym for Jerusalem (2 Ki. 19:21; Ps. 69:35; Isa. 1:8; 40:9). This is clearest in poetic passages where “Zion” is the parallel term to “Jerusalem” (Ps. 51:18; 76:2; 102:21; 135:21; 147:12; Isa. 2:3; 33:20; 37:32; 40:9; 41:27; 62:1; Jer. 26:18; 51:35; Amos 1:2; Zeph. 3:14). In these instances, “Zion” and “Jerusalem” can also be figures of speech for the inhabitants of Jerusalem or for the land of Judah or Israel or for the Jewish people as a whole.
Jerusalem is also called God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 48:1NET)(Jer. 31:23; Dan. 9:6; 20ESV). The city is said to be holy because it includes the temple. Joel gives a warning in Zion, God’s holy hill and promises future peace (Joel 2:1; 3:17). Likewise, God promises to return to Zion, the holy hill, and bring back the Jews to restore Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity (Zech. 8:3).
In Psalm 48, Jerusalem is called “Zion”, “Mount Zion”, “the city of the Lord Almighty” and “the city of our God”. In Psalm 87, Jerusalem is called “Zion” and “city of God”. In captivity, the Jews said “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-5). The Babylonians had asked them, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”, but they couldn’t do this because they were committed to not forget Jerusalem.
So in the third instance, Zion referred to the city of Jerusalem or its inhabitants or the kingdom associated with Jerusalem.
Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the name Zion was assigned to its present location across the Tyropoeon Valley (see Josephus). Apparently the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover (Mk. 14:15; Lk. 22:12) and the room where the disciples gathered after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:13) were in this area. So, today the more dominant western hill is called “Mount Zion”.
So in the fourth instance, Zion refers to the hill west of the Tyropoeon Valley. This means that “Zion” has been used to describe three hills in Jerusalem: the hill of Opel, the temple mount, and the western hill.
In the coming millennial kingdom “the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Isa. 24:23). In that day Jerusalem will be the religious and political capital of the world (Isa. 2:2-4; 25:6-8; Mic. 4:1-3, 7). Once again, God calls Zion “my holy hill” (Joel 3:17). That’s where Christ reigns and where people worship Him (Ps. 99:2,9). As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the fifth instance, Zion refers to the city of Jerusalem. This is similar to the third instance only Christ will be personally present, and not just represented by a cloud.
The Greek word translated “Zion” (Sion, Strongs #4622), occurs seven times in the New Testament. Five of these are synonyms of Jerusalem from the Old Testament prophets (Mt. 21:5; Jn. 12:15; Rom. 9:33; 11:26; 1 Pt. 2:6). Another seems to refer to the second coming, which results in Christ’s Millennial reign in Jerusalem (Rev. 14:1). We will now look at the other instance of “Zion” in the New Testament.
In the New Testament “Mount Zion” refers metaphorically to the heavenly Jerusalem, God’s holy, eternal city. Hebrews says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). This is the eternal dwelling place of God and His people (Rev. 21:2 – 22:5).
Just as there is an earthly Mount Zion in Jerusalem, so there will be a heavenly Mount Zion and new Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25-26). As the Bible progresses, the word Zion expands in scope and takes on an additional, spiritual meaning. As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the universe from the new heavenly Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the sixth instance, Zion refers to the new heavenly Jerusalem inhabited eternally by God and His people.
Lessons for us
So the story behind Zion stretches from about 3,000 years ago into the eternal future. Zion was a holy place for the Jews because that was where God dwelt. This was true for the hill of Ophel, the Temple Mount and for the city of Jerusalem. But according to the Bible, God the Holy Spirit now lives in Christians. They are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. This means that instead of holy places, we now have holy people. Does our practice match our position? Do we respect each other as being holy?
In the coming stages of God’s plan of salvation, Zion is associated with both Christ’s earthly reign from Jerusalem and with God’s eternal reign from the new heavenly Jerusalem. Are we looking forward to this time? Does it encourage us in our Christian lives?
Written, August 2016
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho