When the psalmist wanted to declare the power of Yahweh in Psalm 89 to emphasize the security of David’s throne, he literally searched high and low for images. The high heavens praised the wonders He had done for Israel, and God’s divine council of holy ones applauded His might (v. 5-6). Yahweh quelled the swelling and tumultuous sea below, crushing Rahab, the personified power of Egypt, at the Red Sea (v. 9-10). All the heavens above and the earth below belonged to Him, including everything found in it, for He alone created them (v. 12). Everything in the world proclaimed His power. As a part of this cosmic hymn of praise, the psalmist looks about his own world and in verse 12 exclaims, “The north and south—You created them! Tabor and Hermon shout Your Name!”
Here translation issues arise. The words usually rendered “north and south” in Hebrew are zaphon and yamin. Zaphon is usually identified with Mount Zaphon (which is indeed to the north of the Holy Land), and (as Kidner says in his commentary on Psalm 48) “was a traditional expression in Israel and among her neighbours for God’s royal seat: in Isaiah 14:13 it is equivalent to ‘heaven’”—a kind of Middle Eastern Olympus. It is possible that yamin (literally “right”—i.e. south as you face east) refers to a mountain somewhat south of Mount Zaphon. It is also possible that the words merely refer to north and south directions: the Targum takes Tabor and Hermon to denote west and east, so that the psalmist is here describing the four points of the compass. Scholars (of course) disagree among themselves, some interpreting zaphon as a reference to Mount Zaphon, while others interpreting it as directional north.
We are on surer ground (as it were) in approaching Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon. Though Tabor is not huge (1843 feet high, compared to Hermon’s 9100 feet, Gerizim’s 2849 feet, and Ebal’s 3077 feet), it is prominent as it sits in the Jezreel Valley—as visitors to the Holy Land can attest (see photo inset). For Christians of traditional mindset, it is also famous as the historical site of Christ’s Transfiguration.
Some have preferred a site on Mount Hermon as the site of the Transfiguration, but the geography of the larger narrative is against it. Christ was with His disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi in the vicinity of Mount Hermon when He elicited from them a confession of faith in His Messiahship (Mark 8:27f), and the Transfiguration took place about a week afterward (Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28). It is not likely that Christ lingered in the vicinity for a week after eliciting the confession of Caesarea Philippi with His disciples; and the next miracles place Him in the villages of Galilee (Mark 9:14f, 30). The text says that the next morning, at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration, He met the rest of His disciples and a crowd of people asking for an exorcism (Mark 9:14f). Mount Hermon is some 40 miles away from the villages of Galilee which is where the miracles seem to have been located. This was too far to travel in a morning’s walk. Mount Tabor, on the other hand, is located in the Jezreel Valley, quite handy to the Galilean villages where the text locates the miracle of exorcism. For this reason I suggest that the Church’s traditional identification of Tabor as the Mount of Transfiguration is to be preferred.
Mount Hermon, happily, offers fewer puzzles for plain exegesis. Being the tallest mountain in the area, it featured prominently in the life of the local peoples around it. In an age when people situated their deities on the tops of mountains (remember Olympus?), Hermon was an obvious candidate for cultic sacrifice by the locals. The Sidonians called the mountain “Sirion”, and the Amorites called it “Senir” (Deuteronomy 3:9). The name of a local Canaanite deity “Baal-Hermon” (compare Judges 3:3, 1 Chronicles 5:23) indicates that the worshippers of Baal had a shrine there. This perhaps explains the name “Hermon”, which means “sacred, consecrated, dedicated” (thus Tate in his commentary on Psalm 89). Something that was h-r-m had been put under the ban and was taboo. It belonged to God alone, and no one else could touch it. Hermon had a reputation of being a holy mountain.
It is just here that we see the true (and polemical) significance of the psalmist’s declaration. All the mountains belonged to God, for He was the Maker, Possessor, and Lord of the whole earth. Tabor—rising prominently and dominating the Vale of Jezreel—shouted for joy, acclaiming its lord. Hermon too, whatever the worshippers of Baal might think, belonged to Yahweh, not to Baal. Though the devotees of Baal-Hermon might camp there and offer sacrifice to Baal, the mountain did not recognize them. Hermon itself recognized only Yahweh, and shouted for joy when it heard His Name.
Here we see once again the cosmic and exorcistic cleansing characteristic of the entire Bible. Men in their delusions might worship the sun, the moon, and the stars, but these heavenly bodies answered only to Yahweh. Pagan nations might fill and populate the world with deities, but true faith empties the world of all deities but the one true God. The stars were not to be rejected because pagans worshipped them in their blindness, for these stars were telling of the glory of Yahweh and proclaiming that they were the work of His hands (Psalm 19:1). No mountain is to be rejected because men foolishly worshipped other gods such as Baal there. Hermon gave its dew as a blessing and life to those who served Yahweh, even to those as far away as Mount Zion (Psalm 133:3). And Hermon was an exotic locale; a man might romantically summon his bride from distant Lebanon, from the top of Senir and Hermon, from the lion’s dens and lairs of leopards (Song of Solomon 4:8), but even exotic Hermon found its home under Yahweh’s care. In declaring that Tabor and Hermon shout to Yahweh, the psalmist cleansed them of historical taint, and invited the whole world and everyone in it to join in this cosmic chorus of joy.