Psalm 84: 1. How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
3 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,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.]
7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!
9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favour and honour.
No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
12 O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
In a Sunday School class that he led last year, Frank Howard asked each of us to name our favorite book of the Bible. When it came my turn, I said, “The Psalms.” Why? I love the Psalms because of everyone we meet there.
First of all, in The Psalms we meet God, of course. Sometimes God speaks directly in the Psalms. But we also meet God through other people addressing him. We meet God through the names for God in the Psalms. In verse 3, God is addressed as King; in verse 7, the psalm addresses God as “the God of Jacob.” You know, Jacob, the scoundrel from whom you would not want to buy a used car, who cheated his elder brother, Esau, out of his inheritance. Yet the God of Jacob also put Jacob through a process of transformation and purification so that Jacob would reconcile with his brother and make restitution. So, in Psalm 84 we meet by name the God who loves us just as he finds us, and who loves us too much to leave us that way.
The most common name for God in Psalm 84 is “Lord of Hosts.” It is used four times. God is Lord of the Hosts of heaven, that is, angels, seraphim and cherubim. Not the cute and chubby children you see in the Hallmark cards and Precious Moments figurines. Rather, the spine-tingling, awe-inspiring holy beings of spirit and light who do God’s bidding, the heavenly army that routs darkness and devils with the fear of the Lord. Such a God, and his heavenly host, are good allies to have on our side, especially in the journey that this Psalm describes.
We also meet God, named in verse 11 as “sun,” meaning, our light and warmth, the source of all life, movement and growth in this world. In the same verse, God, is called, “shield,” that is, protector and defender of his vulnerable, unarmed people in their pilgrimage. Between God our shield and the Hosts of heaven, we’re covered.
In the Psalms we also meet ourselves. All the experiences and emotions, all the treasures, trials and tribulations, all the delights and difficulties of life find reflection and expression in the Psalms. Even our most angry, doubting, vengeful words to God, even at God, are God’s word to us. Like those in Psalm 69: “Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents…. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living…”
That’s in the Bible? Oh, for embarrassing! Or, how about comforting? Because such raw, raging prayers tell me where to take my angry, doubtful, ugly, vengeful feelings: to God, lest I take them to anyone else. There’s no hiding them from God anyway. So, in the Psalms, we meet our true selves, the good, the bad and the ugly.
In the Psalms we also meet some people who, at first glance, don’t look a lot like ourselves. I’m thinking of ancient Hebrew pilgrims. Thousands of Hebrew pilgrims would ascend to the temple atop Mt. Zion for any or all of the three annual ceremonies, celebrations and sacrifices, like the Feast of Tabernacles, in the fall, the spring pilgrimage of Passover, then the early summer pilgrimage and festival of Pentecost. On the journey there and back they would sing or pray any of the 17 songs at least of pilgrimage among the 150 Psalms of the Bible.
Psalm 84 is one song of pilgrimage. I wonder if it was for the pilgrimage to the Feast of Tabernacles, because of verse 6 and the mention of “the autumn rains,” or, as some translate it, “the early rains.” Early in the growing season of winter wheat, that is.
However long or tiring the walk to Mt. Zion, our ancient pilgrim ancestor can’t wait to hit the road. The song begins with: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts!” By that is meant the temple, on Mt. Zion. Even with the threat of bears or brigands or blisters, we hear in verse 2: “My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” That is, everything within the pilgrim, mind, soul, emotion, and body, even every cell, from head to toe, longs for God and for God’s beautiful, majestic dwelling place, there to worship, to adore, to celebrate and to sacrifice with the throngs of worshipers.
That sounds strange to modern, Western ears, that anyone’s body, as well as their soul, should long for God and for God’s dwelling place. We tend to separate mind from body from spirit. But such separation would be alien, even scandalous to the pilgrims of Psalm 84. God made every part of us, God loves every part of us, and God redeems every part of us. That’s why the gospel proclaims the resurrection of the body and the redemption of all creation, rather than just an afterlife in which our transparent, disembodied spirits float among the clouds like Casper the Friendly Ghost, playing harps. If God made us body, soul and spirit, and loves us, body, soul and spirit, then God will bring every part of us home to be with him, body, soul and spirit.
Our pilgrim ancestor’s love and longing for the courts of the Lord borders on jealousy. In verse 3 we hear, “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, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”
The pilgrim’s jealousy is for the birds. Literally. If sparrows and swallows can fly in and out of the temple freely, even nesting near the altar in the holy of holies where only the high priest can go, just one time a year, why can’t I?
This pilgrim may even be a bit jealous of the priests and Levites, about whom we hear, in verse 4, “Blessed are they who dwell in God’s house, they are forever praising you.” If the birds, the priests and the Levites can stay and worship, celebrate and adore God, why can’t I?
Well, that’s coming.
If “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” Verse 5 says that before one foot goes before another, the journey to Mt. Zion begins in the heart. “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage,” the song says. How about this translation: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you…. in whose hearts are the highways to Zion?” I like that because, what if we never make a journey to the other Zion, the original one in the Holy Land? And if we did make that journey, what more of God would we receive there than what God’s Spirit can give us even here, even now?
To get here this morning for worship, maybe we came down Barlow or Meridian or Whiskey Hill Road. We could have just rolled over and stayed in bed, except that in our spirits we heard a call from down a path running through our hearts, a road already traced in our souls. Even if we have lived somewhere for all our lives, in the same home or neighborhood where our friends and family are born and buried, to be a Christian is to be on a lifelong pilgrimage, even if it is a pilgrimage in place.
The pilgrim way, however, has some rough patches. One of which is called, the Valley of Baka, in verse 6. Some of your translations may say, “The Valley of Weeping,” or “of tears,” because the word, Bakah, could mean weeping, or tears. Or it could mean the alder trees that look like weeping willows, but which grow in dry, barren places; both are called “Bakah.”
And there I just blew through half my Hebrew.
What if the road goes through “The Valley of Tears, or Weeping?” Could our tears be what make the difficult, dry patches of our pilgrimages, “a place of springs,” like the autumn rains that cover the valley of weeping with pools? Our tears of suffering, loss and longing? That’s why I keep a box of Kleenex in my office. It’s also why, whenever people cry in my presence, and they say, “I’m sorry, Pastor, I told myself that I wouldn’t come apart like this,” I say, “Actually, I think that tears mean that parts and pieces of ourselves are coming back together.” Tears often mean that we’re standing on holy ground in our pilgrimage, on the highway through our hearts to God’s dwelling place.
But the highway through our hearts to God’s lovely dwelling place is not all low and barren ground. Verse 7 says, “They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” Some of your translations will say, “they go from height to height,” or, “from stronghold to stronghold till each appears before God in Zion.” Because there was often some kind of stronghold, or shelter, for resting or sleeping, atop the hills and mountains along the path of pilgrimage.
I have it on the authority of a Trappist monk in Iowa that we should go with the phrase, “they go from strength to strength,” because of what he told me in a session of spiritual direction I had with him in 2004. It was just when I had started my first sabbatical, while taking a retreat at his monastery, before I was to travel to several countries in Africa. I expressed my nervousness about the upcoming trip, and he quoted the words of this Psalm, “they go from strength to strength.” Then he added, “That’s a promise to the effect that every experience that God brings us through on our earthly pilgrimage prepares and strengthens us for future stages of the journey. God has already given you lessons and resources through previous stages of your pilgrimage that will help you with the next.” Even if we had to water those previous stages with tears. Our journey is preparing us to be like those birds nesting in the holy of holies, or those priests and Levites who are ever praising God.
And now for the next person we meet in Psalm 84: Jesus. He walks, talks and prays through all the Psalms. From before the time of Christ, The Psalms have been the prayer book and hymn book of our Hebrew brothers and sisters. Whenever we read in the gospels that people went looking for Jesus and found him off by himself, in the wee hours of the morning, praying, it’s a safe bet that he was praying the Psalms. Whenever Jesus quoted the Old Testament to show how it predicted or foreshadowed him, most of those quotes came from the Psalms. They were not only his prayer book, they were his script. Jesus walks through the Psalms as “the Righteous One”… …the Persecuted One whose only hope of rescue and vindication is God… the King…the worshiper, the prophet…. and the pilgrim.
Jesus is named twice in this psalm, in verse 9, as “shield” and “God’s anointed.” The words, “Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed,” is a prayer for Israel’s kings, who were called “our shield,” and “God’s anointed.” That’s what the word, “Messiah,” or “Christ,” means: God’s anointed one.
There went the other half of my Hebrew.
Yet, for five centuries after the return from Exile, Hebrew pilgrims prayed these words on their pilgrimage for their king, “their shield,” “God’s anointed,” yet there was no king. Not until Jesus came and walked the pilgrim way with them, the last pilgrimage resulting in his coronation—with thorns—and his enthronement—on a cross. Jesus, then, is the answer to the prayer of Psalm 84:9, for the king.
However long and hard the journey may be, our pilgrim mothers and fathers could honestly say, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” From the other side of that door come the sounds of feasting, celebrating, joyful adoration, timeless wonder, heart-stirring songs of love and gratitude, plus the smell of nourishment so sweet and savory that our hunger grows with each breath. If the house of God, where we nest like the birds, is our ultimate address, then for now we are only renting temporary accommodations at the threshold to God’s house.
Last week I said that my last few messages here would be from Bible passages that have inspired, sustained, guided, comforted and encouraged me on my pilgrimage, some of which I have been privileged to walk with you. Psalm 84 has been one such touch stone for me, especially in times when anxiety, change, longing and loss have been strongest. Or, in those times when I have felt least adequate or effective, or most insecure, confused or uncertain about what to do or how to proceed.
I hope it has a similar impact for all of us. Or, we could try to stuff our longings and insecurities with drugs, with nonstop entertainment and digital distraction, with compulsive pursuit of pleasure, power, prestige or possessions. But as long as we remain at the door to God’s house, waiting to go all the way in, we will never be 100% satisfied with anything that this world offers. We will never feel entirely, completely at home in this world, not even on the land of our birth. Our efforts to perfect the world, the church, each other and even ourselves will always fall short and be complicated with dilemmas and unintended consequences. Like the pilgrim who says, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere,” we know, deep down, that we were made for something better, even perfect. Even the most beautiful places and people we have seen, the most wonderful feelings and sensations we have had, the most inspiring insights and experiences we have known, and our greatest achievements and accomplishments, can only point toward, or hint at, what’s inside the doorway to God’s house. As St. Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Yesterday, at a conference gathering, I talked about retirement with a gentleman who is fifteen years ahead of me in that part of the pilgrimage. He said, “How will I remain relevant and effective in making the world a better place?” Yes, of course. I hope we care about this world and about those who come after us. Of course I hope we want to pass on the blessings and the bounty that previous generations accomplished for us. They didn’t get everything wrong.
But it struck us, and we agreed, that we may just be most relevant and impactful when we are oriented down that pilgrim highway through our hearts to the courts of Lord, toward the doorway to God’s house, than if we orient toward the world and seek most to be relevant, effective and impactful to it, on its terms, for its approval. We agreed to focus more on how God is relevant and effective to us, and let God make that relevant and effective in the world.
Right now it doesn’t look like we’re having an easy time making the world better. If we are to stay on the highway through our hearts, following Jesus, our shield and God’s anointed, duty and demands alone won’t drive us very far from behind. We are only drawn forward by love and longing, desire and delight, toward our permanent address at the end of the highway through our hearts. God and God’s lovely dwelling place, are the true love and longing of every heart. Don’t settle for cheap substitutes, nor for cheap flophouses and dumpy hotels on the way. If God’s house is for the birds, then it’s for us, too.