Longing For the Presence of God


Psalm 84

Psalm 84 has been considered one of the most beautiful expressions of love and heartfelt feelings toward the house of God.   It contains a number of genres; this psalm is part hymn, part prayer, and part lament.   It is very similar in thought to Psalms 42 and 43, which leads many Bible scholars to believe the author is responsible for all three.

The history behind this psalm is unknown, but we can be fairly certain that it was written some time before the destruction of Israel and exile of the Jews, given the many references to the temple, “God’s house.”   It is likely that this psalm was written with a distinct purpose; to be sung or recited while on a procession to the temple, perhaps to celebrate one of the festivals.

1.  Desiring the house of God, verses 1—4

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.

At the very outset of this psalm, we are struck with the affection the psalmist has for the temple, the “dwelling place” of God.  However, as we read this group of verses, we notice that it is the Lord the psalmist loves and it is the Lord’s presence he desires above all else.

The temple was the symbolic of the presence of God in the Old Testament and we should take note of that.  While it is true that after the work of Christ the presence of God dwells in individual believers, there is something special and something powerful about being in God’s house.  Is the presence of God greater and more personal in church than elsewhere?   There is nothing more personal than the living God dwelling within a Christian.  We may not always be conscious of His presence, but He is there nonetheless.  What makes the Church so special in the life of the believer is what made the temple so special in ancient Israel: the presence of other believers.  Note carefully what the psalmist says in verse two, for many of us miss its significance—

My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out    for the living God.

These “courts of the Lord” refer to the public areas of the temple where the people would gather to worship.  He “yearns” and “faints” to be assembled with others worshiping the Lord.  How badly the author wanted to be with other believers is almost too intense to put into words.  Yearning and fainting suggest that a physical pain and a physical weakness accompanied being away from the temple courts and separated from God’s followers.  This man pines to the fullest extent possible be with fellow believers in the house of God.

The author of the psalm found himself envying even the birds that were fortunate enough to make their nests in and around the courts of the Lord.  How fortunate they were, he thought, for they got to live in the presence of God continually.  Not only that, these common, lowly birds lived under the protection of God.

How fortunate is the believer today, who walks in the presence of the Lord all the time.  How blessed is he to enjoy not only the privilege of the presence of God, but also His protection?

2.  Trusting and traveling, verses 5—8

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty;
listen to me, O God of Jacob.

Not only are believers blessed by being in the house of God, they are blessed if their hearts are there.  Those who know their that their strength is in God alone, those who long to be in His presence will find that they are in His presence even while they long to be in His house.  But their longing is active:  the one who desires to be in the hose of God is actively traveling to the house God.

Getting to the temple may be treacherous, however.  The “Valley of Bacca” means literally the “valley of weeping.”  The faith, joy, and determination of the faithful on their way to the house of God can turn the driest, dustiest valley of weeping into a valley of happiness.  Going “from strength to strength” means a continual reliance of the supernatural strength the God provides.  Isaiah 35 is a companion passage to this psalm; in it the prophet encourages the weak to gain strength in their knowledge of God’s presence.  Where do strength, joy, and courage come from?  Not from outer circumstances, surely!  Not from the “valley of weeping!”  For the believer, these essential qualities come from one’s hope in God.  Faith in God can transform the weakest of souls into a paragon of vitality.   Reba Rambo, in her signature song from the late 1970’s captured this idea perfectly:

He can take a heart so cold, as the Tin Man’s,
And warm it up with His love;
He can give you the courage of the Lion,
To stand up in the devil’s face.

And if you have a mixed up Scarecrow’s mind,
Your thoughts He will renew;
If you think there’s no place like home,
You should see the one He’s built for you!

We’re off to the pearly white City,
Where all of our dreams come true;
Words can’t describe its splendor,
It’s the Land of Oohs and Aahs.

Somewhere over the rainbow,
We’ll see the King, Jesus;
He’s not exactly a wizard,
But He can make new creatures out of us!

Or, as the inspired prophet wrote so long ago—

Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.  (Isaiah 35:10)

3.  Reward of God’s presence, verses 9—12

Look upon our shield, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.

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 man who trusts in you.

The blessings of God’s house are exceeded only by the blessing of His own presence, as indicated by the marvelously evocative phrase, “the Lord is a sun and shield.”   A single day of fellowship with God is far better than a thousand days anywhere else!  And in the psalmist’s opinion, serving as a temple guard was much more desirable that fame and wealth.  Why?  Like the lowly birds nesting in the rafters of the temple, the guard lives and works in the presence of God all the time.  What could be better than that?

God “is a sun” is an interesting phrase.  The LXX and the Vulgate translate this phrase, “For the Lord loves mercy and truth,” but the NIV is likely the correct rendering.  From the sun, man receives warmth, light, and beauty.  So God is the source of all of our joy and happiness.  He is also our “shield,” our protection, our grace, and favor.

Another phrase is worthy of our attention—

no good thing does he withhold

There is a New Testament equivalent to this amazing statement—

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  (2 Peter 1:13)

With each statement, there is a caveat, however.  In Psalm 84, God will not withhold any good thing from those whose walk is blameless. In 2 Peter, God has given believers everything they need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him.  In each case, the onus is on us.  We are not receptacles into which God merely pours His good blessings.   We must appropriate them by being obedient and living according to the light we possess.

In concluding his psalm, the writer addresses God as his great and personal king and pronounces a benediction.  The blessings of the Lord all boil to down to “trust.”

This whole psalm makes us pause and wonder about our own attitude toward the house of God, the Body of Christ. Do we have that same longing?   Do we desire to be in God’s house serving?  Do we reflect fondly on time spent in His presence, in His house?   Whether we realize it or not, we are all on a journey.  From faith to faith, we journey together until we reach our final destination, to dwell in the presence of the Lord forever.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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