Saturday, April 13, 2019

The LORD as the Soul's True Home (Psalm 84)

At the risk of oversimplifying things, I would mark out the course of this glowing psalm in terms of homing toward God, as in the title above, first as homesickness, then as a pilgrimage, finally as arrival. Each stage has its own beatitude, either to clinch it (vv. 4, 12) or to introduce it (v. 5).

Restless for home (Psalm 84:1–4). This temple servant, like the author of Psalms 42–43 (perhaps it is the same man), has found out just how much the Lord’s house has meant to him, now that he is far away from it. But the One whose dwelling place it is—“the living God”—is the true magnet of his soul. Like someone in love, envying the happy lot of those who have daily sight and sound of the beloved, he pictures the very birds that are unwittingly God’s guests in the temple courts—a poignant thought for him, yet a token of divine welcome for those who, like him, are of small account. “With Thee,” it has been said, “is light, is space, is breadth, and room for each thing fair, belov’d and free, to have its hour of life and bloom.”

But happiness, of the real depth that can be called blessedness, is only found where God is known and loved; so the beatitude, “Blessed are those who dwell in your house” (Psalm 84:4), is for those whose hearts respond to Him, “ever praising you.” In passing, we may wonder whether those who spent their days at that temple loved it—and Him—as this exile did; and having raised that question we may find it rebounding on our privileged selves.

Meanwhile, the exile’s homesickness must not become self-pity. His longing to meet God is something to act on; therefore a robust beatitude comes hard on the heels of the first one, congratulating those “who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5). This gives its character to the next stanza.

Homeward bound (Psalm 84:5–7). Whether he can make the expedition himself or not, he can join it in heart and mind, which he now proceeds to do. As we picture this pilgrimage with him, and relate it to our own, some memorable phrases light up its resources, hardships, and rewards. First, and indispensably, there is divine strength for the journey (“strength … in you”, Psalm 84:5). And what stretches before us is not a trackless wilderness but “highways” (Psalm 84:5) well trodden and well prepared, for we are not the first to pass this way, nor are we uninvited. 

In less pictorial terms, think of not only God’s direct provision but of the waymarks left for us by former pilgrims, in the shape of testimonies and hymns, warnings and examples. We shall not be spared the “Valley of Baca” (Psalm 84:6), whose name suggests both a vale of tears by the sound of it in Hebrew, and a place of thirst (by the word for balsam trees, which grow in arid places). This very spot, we learn, can be transformed, whether as the pilgrims dig deep to “make it a place of springs,” or simply as heaven’s rains arrive to “cover it with pools.” There must be few believers who have not found this transformation to be true of some sad point in their career, or who may not need reminding of its intended blessings now. Incidentally, pools and blessings are almost identical forms in Hebrew, and in fact blessings is strictly the word found here.

So the journey that God plans for us is one that goes “from strength to strength”—suggesting perhaps a progress from one kind of strength to another, as youthful vigor develops into stamina; or as “perseverance” produces “character, and character hope” (Romans 5:4). But its whole point is not the traveling but the arriving, and not the celestial city as such, but God Himself before whom “each” will appear. (The plurals of vv. 5–7a give way to the singular in 7b.) “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And compared with thee, I desire nothing else on earth” (Ps. 73:25). Both here and hereafter, in Him we have reached home.

Notice, though, how the earnest little prayer of vv. 8–9 reveals a mind enlarged, not shut in to its own experience. On reaching, so to speak, God’s audience-chamber, his first thought is for another: for his hard pressed king, and so, by implication, for his people. Then he can give himself to celebration.

Home at last (Psalm 84:10–12). The sweeping comparisons of v. 10 are no exaggeration, for no mere quantity of what is second-rate (“a thousand”) can disguise its mediocrity, and no amount of ease in the wrong camp can make up for its futility. As for being content to be a “doorkeeper” for God, Jesus’ words about true greatness make it a high honor (Mark 10:44). When we add to all this the prospect of heaven itself, v. 10 becomes a positive understatement.

The climax is v. 11. Every glorious word enlivens our confidence in the Lord, with whom the psalm has come to its journey’s end. Explore what is packed into those expressions, “sun,” “shield,” and (with KJV) “grace” (2 Cor. 12:9) and “glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). In the light of these, and of the “blank check” of v. 11b, we have every reason to echo the last beatitude, (v. 12): O LORD of Hosts, happy the man who trusts in thee!