In poetic Old Testament literature, Zion is consistently used in a figurative sense, especially in the Psalms. For example, while Psa 48 most likely originates from a Canaanite background (Roberts, “Zion”), it testifies to the powerful force of a tradition that regarded Zion as the place where Yahweh accomplished mythical feats of triumph over His adversaries (Psa 48:4–8); it also portrays it as a place that has some physical representation still in existence (Psa 48:12–13).

The prophets, who also utilized poetry (Lowth, Isaiah), likewise regarded Zion in this typified manner. In his treatment of Obadiah, House notes that “Zion is not simply Jerusalem … Rather, Zion is the place where Yahweh lives with his faithful people in the absence of sin and danger” (“Obadiah,” 543; compare Gal 4:26). Whereas the name Jerusalem can summon both positive (Isa 40:9) and negative (Isa 10:10–11) outlooks, the name Zion is almost unanimously used by the psalmists and prophets in a positive sense (e.g., Psa 50:1–2; Zech 2:10; compare Lohse, “Σιών, Siōn,” 300, 311ff). In its various forms, Zion becomes the hopeful outlook of Israel. This is undoubtedly challenged in the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Lam 1:4–17; 2:1–18), but even in the exilic and postexilic periods Zion gains momentum as a figuration of a hopeful future (Zech 9:9–13; see Petersen, Zechariah, 4–5; Hanson, Dawn, 280ff). Through its transformations, Zion becomes a flexible concept that can serve thematically to unite disparate pieces of Old Testament literature (Wolters, “Zechariah,” 863).

New Testament

“Zion” appears just seven times in the New Testament (Matt 21:5; John 12:15; Rom 9:33; 11:26; Heb 12:22; 1 Pet 2:6; Rev 14:1), where its function is theological rather than geographical. This in part is due to the extensive political developments of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period; but more so to the early church’s radical reorienting of the location of worship away from Jerusalem and toward the person of Jesus (compare John 4:21–24). In a wider theological context, the early church viewed the future hope of Israel—a Zion where God and His people dwell in an eschatological sense—as already inaugurated in the person and work of Christ (compare 1 Cor 10:11; Hays, Corinthians, 162). This can be seen in the fact that five of the New Testament’s seven usages are in quotes of Old Testament texts that are believed to be fulfilled in Christ (Isa 28:16; 59:20; Zech 9:9; compare Psa 14:7; Isa 40:9). In light of this new reality, Paul can allegorically reread the Ishmael and Isaac narratives (Gal 4:21–31), assigning the former to the “present,” captive Jerusalem, and the latter to the “free” Jerusalem, which is “above”; the latter of these may readily be taken as a synonym for Zion (Heb 12:18–24 parallels this dichotomy of Sinai and Zion traditions).

Shepherd, C.E. 2016. “Zion.” In The Lexham Bible Dictionary, edited by John D. Barry, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, Lazarus Wentz, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.