READ : Psalm 84:1-12
Sometimes, when the mood is just right, we can be overcome with a longing so intense it almost causes physical pain. Yet we do not know exactly what it is we’re longing for. I think I know. What we long for more than anything is the presence of God.
This is the 84th psalm, a song written for worshipers in the Temple in Jerusalem:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young –
a place near your altar,
O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you. . . .
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold from those
whose walk is blameless.
O Lord Almighty,
blessed is the [one] who trusts in you.
Psalm 84, niv
For me, reading the 84th Psalm calls to mind Johannes Brahms’ wonderful setting of its opening verse in his anthem, How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling-Place. Brahms wrote beautiful music to go along with the equally beautiful words of this wistful song. Listening to his anthem is a good way of entering into the spirit of the psalm.
HOW LOVELY IS YOUR DWELLING PLACE
This Psalm, number 84, is a song for worshipers of God. It is the song of a person who loves the Temple, the House of God, who misses it and yearns for it with all his heart. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord . . .” (v. 1ff.). In this song the Psalmist sings of his longing for God’s house, but really for God himself -“my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (v. 2).
Something was preventing this man from going to Jerusalem and worshiping in the Temple there. Perhaps he was in exile, far from home, or maybe he just lived some distance away and was waiting for his turn to come for Temple duty. Whatever the case, he misses the courts of the Lord’s house from which he has been too long absent. The song describes his envy at all those who, unlike himself, live permanently in the Temple precincts, including even the sparrows and swallows that nested in the open-air colonnades which ringed the courtyards of the Temple.
Last year I was in Calcutta, India, attending a meeting in the old Anglican cathedral in the city center. It was a warm, sunny day, and the windows were open. As I sat near the front of the church, I noticed swift-flying birds darting in and out. They had built their nests among the ceiling beams near the east wall, high above the altar. I thought of this verse: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God” (v. 3).
Like those birds, I sometimes long for a place of quietness and safety, a sanctuary from the noise that fills our world. Working and playing, buying and selling, accumulating goods and experiences, chasing ambition, pursuing pleasure, listening to the loud clamor of all the voices telling us where to find it – don’t you ever get tired of it all? Don’t you wish you could stop for a while and let the silence flood over you, and feel awe in the presence of the Creator? But I’m afraid even our Christian worship is often too loud for that to happen.
I remember another experience of worship. We were singing a hymn, an old hymn, as it happens, and one I really like. I was used to singing it vigorously, and at a brisk tempo. But on that occasion the worship leader told us all to sing as quietly as we could, just to whisper the words:
O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be;
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love . . .
And when I got to that point, I found I couldn’t sing anymore, even softly, because of the lump in my throat. The truth of what I was singing came home to me with such force. I did love God, but my heart also had a habit of wandering from him, attracted to all the things the world so insistently claims will bring me happiness and excitement. But at that moment God’s grace was drawing me back to him again and I experienced something of what the psalmist longed for – to be with God.
“Blessed are those who dwell in your house,” this ancient songwriter says; “they are ever praising you” (v. 4). This man’s real longing was not for a place or a building but for the living God. He wanted to stay in the Temple not because of the happy memories or nostalgic associations of that place. Now, there’s nothing wrong with fond memories, but these are not what move the Psalmist. Nor is he filled with the desire to recapture some kind of exciting experience. It’s not so much the songs he misses, or the music, or the sights and sounds and smells of the worship ceremonies. Or, if it is those things, the psalmist only misses them insofar as they enabled him to enter into the deeper reality of knowing God. The reason Temple dwellers were blessed is that they were always engaged in worshiping God, and that enabled them to come into contact with God himself. Their lives were given over to perpetual praise and fellowship with God – the highest joy any creature can attain to.
BETTER IS ONE DAY THAN A THOUSAND
Coming back to the Temple once again, the song writer expresses his preference for that place to all others in no uncertain terms. “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (v. 10). According to a note attached to this 84th Psalm, it was written by the Sons of Korah. The Korahites, as they were called in the Old Testament, were one of the clans of Levites, the priestly tribe. The book of Chronicles describes how the Korahites were assigned the duty of guarding the Temple in Jerusalem, serving as “doorkeepers” there (1 Chron. 9:17ff.). The term “doorkeeper” to us conjures up images of a man in a funny suit standing in front of a hotel entrance, calling taxis and opening car doors for women in fur coats. In fact, the Korahites at the Temple were responsible for all sorts of service. It wasn’t glamorous or exciting work, but it was important.
In John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost, Satan exclaims, “Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” But with those who love God, just the opposite is true. The singer of this song testifies, “I would rather have the lowest job in God’s house than live like a king in the world’s palaces.” Just to be near God, to know him, to live in his presence, even humbly, is better than the very best the world can offer.
There are incomparable privileges and indescribable blessings for those who know and love God. This psalm is rich with both, telling us what God is, what he gives, and what he reserves for those who are his own. He is our sun and shield, the source of all life, and light and blessing, as well as the protection from all harm and danger. He gives favor and blessing, grace and glory. And he withholds . . . nothing. “He doesn’t hold back anything good from those whose lives are without blame” (v. 11, NIrV; cf. Rom. 8:32).
Theologian and pastor John Piper likes to talk about what he calls “Christian hedonism.” That sounds like a contradiction to many people. “Hedonism” comes from the Greek word hedones, meaning “pleasure.” Hedonism is the love and pursuit of pleasure. A hedonist is a person who worships pleasure. Usually these terms are understood in the sensual or physical sense; pleasures of the body and its organs, the eyes, the ears, the palate. And it is true that people who pursue nothing higher than those things are sadly mistaken, and will be cruelly disappointed in the end.
But there is nothing wrong with pleasure itself. God made us for joy! One of the devil’s most damaging lies is that evil is fun and good is boring. Satan would like everyone to believe that God is a cosmic kill-joy who wants to deprive us of everything we would like, that God’s purpose is to make us suffer and be miserable. The truth, as C.S. Lewis said, is that God is actually a hedonist himself. He loves pleasure – real, permanent, abiding pleasure, good pleasure, the pleasure of beauty and love and truth. God wants us to enjoy all these things as well. “He is a hedonist at heart,” wrote Lewis in The Screwtape Letters.
All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like the foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore.”
God is the original pleasure-lover. He wants nothing less for us than to experience the infinite and eternal delight of knowing him and sharing his life. Heaven isn’t like some grim government office (in the tax department, perhaps!) It is a garden of indescribable beauty, a city of unimaginable enjoyment and excitement. The sufferings we go through in this life are mostly the result of our choosing substitute pleasures – things like money and sex and fame – in preference to the God who is the real thing. So God allows us to experience loss and disappointment with earthly things, to teach us that we can only find what we most desire in him. Our deepest longings can only be satisfied by God’s love. If what you want is pure joy, then know that you will find it in God alone.
So like the singer of the 84th psalm, we can look forward to spending our days in the courts of the Lord, where the infinite pleasure of his company awaits us.