In Psalm 84 the poet expresses her love for God’s “dwelling place.” In fact, her longing to be “in God’s courts” is so deep that she insists that it fills her soul, heart and flesh, in other words, her whole being.
While David had wanted to build a dwelling place for the Lord, God had said “no.” In fact, instead of letting David build that home for the Lord, God promised to build a “house” for David that’s an eternal royal dynasty. However, in 2 Samuel 7:13 God did promise David that his son Solomon would eventually build a dwelling place for God’s “Name.” I Kings 8 describes the Israelites’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem to witness that temple’s dedication. As Solomon dedicates that temple, he prays that God will hear and answer the prayers of those who worship the Lord in that dwelling place.
Yet Psalm 84’s language suggests that the poet is somehow unable to join others in praying to the Lord in God’s dwelling. He doesn’t, however, explain just why he can’t join other pilgrims in going up to Zion. Is he in exile far from home? Or is a foreign power making it impossible for the poet to make that pilgrimage? We simply know that while psalmists often express praise to God, this psalmist largely expresses his pain at being unable to worship in God’s dwelling place. In fact, the poet expresses no overt praise to God, only pleas for God to say “yes” to his prayer for a reunion with God’s presence in God’s house.
The psalmist describes God’s dwelling place as “lovely.” The Hebrew word for that adjective is yadid, a word the Old Testament typically uses to describe people. It often means “beloved.” So the psalmist views God’s dwelling much the way she’d view a dear family member or friend.
Because the psalmist loves God’s dwelling place, she expresses her, dare we say, jealousy of sparrows and swallows. After all, while she can’t go up to God’s dwelling, those tiny birds have a home near its altar. In fact, perhaps ironically, those tiny birds find nesting places close to the very spot where God’s fire consumes worshipers’ sacrifices. In that otherwise “dangerous” spot, even the sparrows and swallows for whom Jesus insists God cares find a protected home, while the poet can’t get anywhere near it.
The poet also expresses his jealousy of people who have relatively easy access to God’s dwelling. After all, while some make regular pilgrimages there and others serve as the temple’s doorkeepers, the psalmist finds himself on the outside looking in, perhaps with the look of a hungry child peering in through the window of a candy store. The poet considers those who are able to make pilgrimage to God’s dwelling to be “blessed,” or perhaps more accurately, “happy.”
Of course, the poet recognizes such pilgrimage is arduous. While we’re not sure to what exactly “Baca” refers, it’s clearly an extraordinarily dry place. Yet as pilgrims’ strength wanes there, the poet notes that God graciously provides for them, much as God provided for the Israelites on their way from Egyptian slavery through the wilderness to the land of promise. God somehow even causes springs to bubble up in the wilderness and autumnal rains to soak it so that pilgrims find all the strength they need to complete their journey to God’s dwelling.
The psalmist longs to join other worshipers in making such a pilgrimage to God’s dwelling place because though the journey is strenuous, even just one day in God’s house is better than a thousand days anywhere else. She asserts that it’s, in fact, better to be on the temple’s fringes than to be in the middle of the home of wicked people.
Interestingly, in the midst of expressing his longing to join other worshipers in God’s dwelling, the psalmist also prays that God will bless Israel’s king. Perhaps that’s because only as God the cosmic King blesses Israel’s earthly king will the psalmist ever be free to again make pilgrimage to the temple. Only as God the heavenly king makes Israel’s king prosper can all of God’s Israelite children make pilgrimage to God’s dwelling.
Of course, God’s dwelling place that was Jerusalem’s temple no longer exists. In fact, in a place that’s now hotly contested by three of the world’s major religions, only part of the last temple’s wall even exists. So how can Christian citizens of the 21st century appropriate this psalm in a way that honors both its original context and the Spirit’s longing to apply it to worshipers’ lives?
Some Christians have traditionally seen God’s “dwelling place” as both the heavenly realm and, someday, the new heaven and new earth. In that sense, the pilgrimage to God’s house is the Christian’s earthly pilgrimage from life to death, from now into the new creation. The longing the poet expresses to be in God’s dwelling place would then be the longing God gives God’s children to be with the Lord.
Others interpreters point to Psalm 84’s emphasis on God’s dwelling as a place where God’s sons and daughters worship the Lord. They suggest that worshipers should see this psalm as referring to the supreme good of experiencing God’s presence in corporate worship. God, after all, doesn’t just live in us, by God’s Spirit, making us in a real sense God’s dwelling places. God also promises in Christ to be wherever even just two of three of God’s children come together in Christ’s name.
Of course, those who preach and teach Psalm 84 want to be careful not to draw a straight line between God’s temple dwelling place and church buildings. While God graciously invites God’s children to worship the Lord in churches, among other places, it’s the gathered worshipers rather than buildings with which God primarily identifies himself and God’s presence.
Perhaps, however, we might “stretch the envelope” a bit to suggest that the psalmist’s longing to be in God’s dwelling parallels modern worshipers’ longing for a close relationship with the Lord. After all, Jesus Christ was God’s “tabernacle” among God’s children during his lifetime. So we might think of a longing to be in God’s dwelling as a longing to be “in Christ,” in an intimate, faithful relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Given those (and other possibilities), how might those who preach and teach Psalm 84 think about the psalmist’s longing in contemporary terms? We might see it as the expression of God’s children who are unable to join the Christian community for corporate worship. Illness, work and even persecution preclude some Christians from joining fellow Christians in experiencing God’s dwelling place that is corporate worship.
Yet we might be able to stretch that longing even farther? What about those who long to feel God’s presence but feel only absence and alienation? And what about those who long to believe but find themselves somehow unable to do so? Might we recognize that they too long for God’s dwelling with them? God, after all, created people for a faithful relationship with himself. Anything less than such a relationship precludes the complete blessedness or happiness to which the psalmist refers at the end of Psalm 84.
A few years ago my family and I visited China. Our visit stretched over Christmas Day. As we strolled around an ancient walled city among people on whose lives Christmas Day seemed to make little impact, it hardly felt to us like Christmas.
However, near the end of our visit, we glimpsed an ordinary brick building with a red cross on top of it. We quietly opened its door to peer inside. When Christmas Day worshipers saw us, they warmly welcomed us in, ushered us to seats near the front of the sanctuary and gave us hot tea to drink. There we joined them to worship Jesus Christ.
There was nothing particularly lovely about the church building. In fact, its Christmas decorations seemed to us almost garish. The congregation appeared to be made up of quite ordinary people. We didn’t understand even one word of the service. Yet it was the most “lovely” dwelling place of God I’ve ever visited. The Holy Spirit, after all, seemed to fill the place and its worshipers.
Perhaps those who preach and teach Psalm 84 might reflect on their own similar experiences. Maybe it was in an ordinary or even ugly building. Perhaps fellow worshipers were very unfamiliar. Yet you sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit that made it one of God’s lovely dwelling places.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 23, 2015
Psalm 84 Commentary