Most of you know I’m somewhat of a sci-fi fan. It goes all the way back to my high school days. I used to try to imagine what the future might be like, so naturally any futuristic movies or TV shows were a magnet for me. In fact, I remember the first time I set foot on the campus of Cal State Northridge, and saw the Oviatt Library, I was transfixed. It was so cool and futuristic-looking. I remember being in there one day, and in my mind I imagined a post-apocalyptic world, in which that library was the only surviving library, and the accumulated knowledge of mankind could only be found in this one place. So, if you needed to learn something, you had to journey across the earth to that one unique building. By the way, J. J. Abrams, who produced several Star Trek movies, must have felt the same way about the Oviatt Library, since it appears in at least two recent Star Trek movies, as the location of Starfleet Academy.
Fast forward a few years; after I became a follower of Messiah Yeshua, and began reading the Scriptures, it dawned on me that in the ancient world, the Tabernacle (and later the Temple in Jerusalem) was the religious equivalent; the one and only place on planet earth for the authorized worship of the one true, living God, the Creator of the universe.
This morning we’re going to meditate on Psalm 84, which expresses the Psalmist’s love and reverence for the Lord, his earnest desire to be able to draw near to Him, and his deep affection for the Beit HaMikdash, the house of the One who is holy –that one unique place in all the earth!
מַה-יְּדִידוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת
How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord. With my whole being, body and soul, I will shout joyfully to the living God.
To yearn for something is to treasure it; to see great value in it and desire it. The psalmist (in this case, one of the sons of Korah) regards the Temple and its various courtyards as lovely – more accurately beloved; principally because of the One who dwells there. Why an all-powerful, sublimely perfect and complete Being would deign to dwell among fallen humanity shows how compassionate, humble and merciful He is. The psalmist is joyfully overwhelmed to be able to worship Adonai, and remembers back to the time when circumstances prevented him from worshiping at the Holy Place, and how he yearned to be there.
These words don’t come from a “religious” man. This isn’t the kind of person who, out of grudging obligation, attends a service once a week so he can check off that box and get back to the things he really wants to do. No way – this is a man who loves to be in the House of God, together with the people of God, and singing and shouting exuberantly to God!
What gives you joy? What would make you shout exuberantly?
If we had to err either to the side of lifeless but proper and respectable religious ritual or to the side of joyful but low-brow, unsophisticated worship, I’ll take the latter any day of the week, and I hope that’s true for you as well. Are you willing, with your whole being, body and soul, to sing and shout joyfully to the living God?
גַּם-צִפּוֹר מָצְאָה בַיִת
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young at a place near Your altar, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God!
Imagine being envious of a little sparrow, not because of its ability to fly, but because within the walls of the Temple, you see that a bird has built a nest, perhaps atop one of the lofty pillars, or on a ledge adjoining the ceiling. Unlike the worshiper, whose access to the courts of the Lord is limited, the little bird gets to be in God’s house at all times.
The photograph I showed at the beginning of the message is of the archaeological site of Hagios Titos – the remains of the Church of St. Titus, on the island of Crete in the village of Gortys. This ancient church was demolished courtesy of the bombing of much of Greece by the Germans in WWII. I had the privilege of retracing some of the journeys of Rabbi Paul in Greece back in 2004. Our group was together for most of the tour of this archaeological site, but then we were given a few minutes to wander on our own, and I came back to the remains of the sanctuary, and the makeshift altar there. In that quiet moment alone, I suddenly heard birds chirping. I looked up, and saw a nest on a ledge just below the dome of the sanctuary and baby birds were in it. Immediately my mind came back to this verse, and it made me weep with appreciation.
Lord of hosts, My King and my God – How amazing that the One who is Sovereign over all the universe, the Lord of heaven’s vast armies, is also the lover of my soul!
אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶךָ
How happy – privileged – enviable are those who get to live in Your house, always singing Your praises!
That word, אַשְׁרֵי (ashray), means so much more than ‘happy’ (which is how it is often translated). It’s closer to the meaning of ‘blessed’ as in Yeshua’s beatitudes. It means to be in a wonderful place; one whose circumstances are truly enviable.
And so, just as the psalmist envies (in a good way) the sparrows and swallows who enjoy closeness to the Lord in His house, he considers the Levites who, night and day, sing praises, and the Cohanim (priests) who offer the sacrifices; the privileged few who at that period of Israel’s history, had much greater access to the presence of Adonai by serving in the Beit HaMikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem where He manifested His presence.
As we come to verses 5-7, the psalmist’s thoughts turn to the faithful ones who, like him, look to Adonai for strength, and whose hearts likewise yearn for Zion, anticipating the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the mo’adim, the appointed festivals.
אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם, עוֹז-לוֹ בָךְ
How happy – privileged – enviable – is the man whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion! When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs.
Once again there is a distinction between mere outward religious formality, and having one’s heart surrendered in trust to the Lord. Where do the thoughts of your heart take you during the day? What highways are you traveling in your interior? Are your values and priorities in concert with God’s? Is He your source of strength? If so, you are blessed – much to be envied.
Literally, it is Valley of Baca, which can also be translated ‘balsam tree’ – a tree which drips a form of resin, and which is known for growing even in very arid places. There was, according to some historical records, a place by that name not far from Jerusalem, populated by balsam trees. For the Israeli pilgrim on his or her way to Zion, even such an arid place held hope.
The ‘tears’ exuded by the tree are likened poetically to tears. Our journey through life in a broken world is like the wilderness wandering of Israel – often marked by sadness, tears, and travail. For every one of us, there will inevitably be seasons of walking through the Valley of Weeping.
But for the man or woman whose trust is in Messiah, even periods of sorrow will yield good. The tears become like springs of water that nourish life; not just for themselves, but everyone around them. Maybe you know someone like that – someone whose kindness and quiet confidence in Yeshua sweetens the moment for everyone they meet.
The early rain also covers it with blessings. They go from strength to strength, every one of them appears before God in Zion.
Rain produces growth. We’ve had an unusual share of it the past two months here in Michigan. My allergies may be wreaking havoc, but it’s a small price for the joy of seeing so many plants and flowers and grass and trees flourish all around here.
They go from strength to strength… Our relationship with the Lord is a nurtured one. It is a living, not static, experience. We are expected to grow, both in our knowledge of Him, and in our knowledge of the Scriptures, and to continue on to maturity. He will cause the growth, but our part is to cultivate the habits (disciplines) that make that possible. Every day read, but more than that – study and contemplate the Scriptures. Every day pray and talk to God, not just at meals or bed time, but talk with Him during the day. Sure, He knows every thought and feeling you have, but tell Him anyway. He doesn’t need your prayers, but you need them. You hear it all the time – people saying, “Prayer changes things”. Prayer changes you, and you’re the ‘thing’ that matters most. Sure, there will be setbacks, but the faithful follower of Yeshua goes from strength to strength.
The psalmist tells us “…every one of them appears before God in Zion.” God will fulfill the desire of everyone whose heart is given to Him. If your heart is on the highways to Zion, you will get there; Why? Because… He who began a good work in you will bring it completion at the Day of Yeshua the Messiah (Philippians 1:6).
יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים צְבָאוֹת, שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; Give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah.
The Psalms aren’t just ancient Israel’s hymnal; they are often prayers, pleading with God to answer favorably. His desire is to return to Zion, to worship God at the place of God’s choosing. Perhaps the present circumstances made it seem unlikely. But God, the King of the Universe, makes all things possible. Calling Him ‘God of Jacob’ adds to the prayer a sense of His faithful deeds across Israel’s long history.
Much of biblical theology centers on remembering what God has done in the past, so as to reinforce and legitimize our faith that He will again act on our behalf. It’s why the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned so many times throughout the Bible. Our faith is stirred up when we remember His mighty deeds.
מָגִנֵּנוּ, רְאֵה אֱלֹהִים; וְהַבֵּט, פְּנֵי מְשִׁיחֶךָ
O God, look upon our shield! Show favor to the one You have anointed.
The psalmist pleads with God to watch over the nation, and especially Jerusalem. The syntax is a little awkward here. I think rather than asking God to look at our shield the better understanding is that God Himself is our Shield, and the plea is that He might ‘look upon’ (protect) His people Israel and show favor to the king. Ultimately, we are waiting for the return to earth of Israel’s ultimate King, Messiah Yeshua, and for the great coronation to come. He is the One about whom God the Father declared His approval and favor, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Our yearning for that coming Day is a parallel to the yearning of the psalmist for the courts of the Lord. And to that theme he returns.
כִּי טוֹב-יוֹם בַּחֲצֵרֶיךָ, מֵאָלֶף
For a single day in Your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else! I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God than live the ‘good life’ in the homes of the wicked.
These are the kinds of juxtapositions with which the Scriptures, and especially the poetic and wisdom books are filled. The smaller, humbler, seemingly less desirable situation is presented as being preferable to the bigger, grander situation. A few examples would be: Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened ox served with hatred (Proverbs15:17), or, A good name is more desirable than great riches (Proverbs 22:1), or, Better is the little of the righteous than the abundance of many wicked (Ps. 37:16).
One single day in the Temple meant more to the psalmist, who yearned for God’s House, than years spent anywhere else on earth, and there are a lot of beautiful places on earth. But nothing compares to just being close to the living God!
He says he would prefer even to be a servant there, opening doors for people in that place of holiness and righteousness, than to live in opulence among the wicked. The sons of Korah were, in fact, those who served in those capacities in the Temple. Some of them were, in fact, gatekeepers. By the way, I should mention before we conclude today, that these are relatives of the very same Korah who was a ringleader in the rebellion against Moses – the very same Korah who along with the other rebel leaders and their families, were judged and supernaturally put to death by God. Gratefully, his relatives in succeeding generations redeemed themselves, and served with distinction in the Temple.
And we know that the so-called ‘good life’ isn’t good in the final analysis. And this should inform our priorities and the decisions we make here on earth. An eternity spent in the glorious regions of heaven and in the presence of God far outweighs any sacrifices we might need to make in this comparative wisp of time that is our life here.
And let me say, before we conclude this Psalm, that rather than a beautiful Temple, it is the presence of God Himself that we should seek, and which should be our priority. Do you remember what Yeshua said to the woman He encountered in Samaria, who wanted to argue geography with Him (Samaria or Jerusalem – which is the legitimate place of worship?). He responded, “A time is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Yes, there will be another Temple (and it will be glorious!), and Jerusalem will be preeminent in the thousand years of Messiah Yeshua’s reign on Earth, and we should rejoice in that fact. But don’t miss the deeper truth of this Psalm: it is being in a right and loving and sincere relationship with God that matters!
כִּי שֶׁמֶשׁ וּמָגֵן יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord gives grace and glory;
A sun and a shield. This is a parallel to Psalm 27, which begins, The Lord is my light and my salvation. Adonai is the Source of blessing and of security. He gives life, wisdom, and protection to those who are His, and who love the place of His habitation. Remember, these are the words of one who loves the House of God.
Adonai gives grace – something we all desperately need. We don’t deserve His favor. We sinned. We joined the ancient rebellion of Satan and the fallen angels. What we deserve is condemnation. But He gives grace. He IS gracious. And it is because He will never cease to be gracious that we have confidence, through Yeshua, that our place in Heaven is secure.
And Adonai gives glory – He gave mankind the realm of this world to cultivate and subdue, which was one form of glory. He made us in His image – Adam and Eve were the very capstone of His creation. That was another form of glory. And those of us who are in Messiah will share in the future glory that is to be revealed and that is a glory we can scarcely imagine! As Rabbi Paul, paraphrasing Isaiah, wrote, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, all that God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Verse 11 continues: No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.
The person who walks with integrity, who fears the Lord (meaning, to respect His authority) and lives his life accordingly, will experience good things. Elsewhere, King David wrote, You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever. And the sons of Korah conclude this psalm in much the same way.
יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם בֹּטֵחַ בָּךְ
O Lord of hosts, how happy – privileged – enviable – is the man who trusts in You!
The person who puts their confidence in the Lord God of Israel is happy; they are at peace; they are secure; they are uniquely well-positioned, both for this life, and life in the World-To-Come. It is truly an enviable thing to have simple, child-like trust in Adonai; and those who do will never be disappointed.
You know how I know these things?
A little bird in the courts of the Lord’s house told me.