Psalm 84

June 24, 2001


The great quest tales like The Death of Arthur and in our own day, The Lord of the Rings, center around a great task to complete. And in the accomplishment of the task there are adventures and dangers. Psalm 84 reads like a quest tale. The quest is to find God in his courts. Along the journey of pilgrimage are dangers, the rough places of the world.

In verses 1-4 there is the beginning of the quest where a pilgrim seeks to find a way to fulfill a great longing. In verses 5-8 there is a brief telling of the danger of the journey which are summarily mentioned as a Valley of Baca, or, as the Revised English Bible (REB) has it, “the waterless valley.” The valley represents the deserts of this world which we must all go through. Then in verses 9 -12 we have the end of the journey, the coming to the Eden where God’s presence lights the courts of God.

There is a longing in us humans for a distant place, where we may feel the ripple of breeze through the fruitful trees and where we may have a distant view of the hills, blue against the horizon, and hear the sound of birds in the air. There w may know the fulfillment of all our longings. It is Psalm 84, and many other passages of Scripture which portray these things for us. The Scriptures understand what we hope for in our hearts for our creator also superintended the writing and the two speak of the same quest.

Let us study this poem for it is deep.

The REB has verse 1 right, I think, “Lord of Hosts, how dearly loved is your dwelling place.” This dwelling place is the object of the quest. People love God’s dwelling place because God is there and so the Psalmist longs to set out on this quest for the courts of God. Within us we have some awareness that God will satisfy our longings. The hint of that is in verse 2, again from the REB, “I pine and faint with longing for the courts of the Lord; my whole being cries out with joy to the living God at the deep memory of them.” At how many things do we cry out for joy? At the remembrance of things past? At the deeper remembrance of things hoped for? In my personal experience, when one has known God, there is in that knowing a sense that you are found and true joy comes into your life. And you want to talk about what brings joy to you. Isn’t that true for the grand experiences of this life: love, or the wonder of new places, hills and sunsets, and relaxation from work and stress? We talk about such things; but each of those experiences contains a fingerpost, pointing on to something else. Secular people stop searching for this something else. They become fully satisfied by the excitement of the temporary pleasure of sex or money or power and they will never know the crying out for joy of the Psalmist when he finds the dwelling place of God because they have stopped looking long before.

Can you feel the satisfaction in the words of verse 3, “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow has a nest....” I was in San Juan Capistrano one spring when the swallows returned. It was 1961, I think, a beautiful, sun-lit morning. I had come down to visit the old mission, not knowing of the swallows and they came flying in by the thousands. It was a sign of spring, a sign that something more than Disneyland was drawing creatures to California.

My experience with churches is that they attract pigeons! Not long after Harold Ockenga came to Park Street Church in 1936, the Boston Globe did an article on him, commenting that he had done one thing successfully at the church thus far, got rid of the pigeons who nested in the steeple and splattered the sidewalk at Tremont and Park Street. The Hebrew word the Psalmist uses for sparrow comes from a verb which means “to peep” or “to twitter” and it can refer to a number of common birds. And that’s the Psalmist’s point, they’re common birds. God welcomes common beings. Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentions that the priests were as active as Ockenga trying to discourage the sparrow from nesting in the temple area, but they were as unsuccessful at getting rid of sparrows as they were in getting rid of Jesus. So there in God’s courts the birds nest.

In verse 4 we learn that the Psalmist remembers the singing of the courts of God - the “ever praising you” of the pilgrims who come to worship.

The last time Nancy and I were in England in 1997, we went one Sunday evening to Ely Cathedral, arriving at the time of Evening Prayers. There were maybe 20 people in this huge cathedral, all tourists, as nearly as we could tell. They sat in the pews listening to the wonderful music, but when a particularly long Scripture reading came, one by one they left until only Nancy and I and two or three others remained. It was as if the tourists were saying, “the music is all right, but what’s with this Bible reading?” We listened because the reading was part of the praise to God and we felt our desire for God satisfied by both the singing and the reading of God’s Word. A few years earlier our whole family was in Salisbury Cathedral, a cathedral filled with sarcophaguses and flags and the light from stained glass windows. At one o’ clock a priest came into the pulpit and said to the 50 people there, “for a thousand years prayers had been said in this cathedral and now is the time for prayers.” He encouraged the people there to join in, or pause in what they were doing to let the prayers go forth. Some rude tourists kept on chatting and walking, but most of the 50 people, including us, paused and joined in with the prayers, saying “Amen” as they finished in a few minutes. This is all part of the “ever praising you” of the Psalmist’s vision.

In 1865 Johannes Brahms began to compose a German Requiem based upon Psalm 84. Another text he used was from Isaiah 40, “all flesh is as grass.” It took three years to finish the work. The piece begins with a funeral march in B flat minor based on Psalm 84 and comes in the fourth movement back to Psalm 84 as a pastoral scene. It was this work which established Brahms as a composer of major stature.

In verses 5-8 the dangerous quest journey begins. The way lies through the Valley of Baca, or as it is in the REB, “the waterless valley.” But the journey begins in verse 5 with people whose hearts are set on the pilgrim way, or as I am trying to visualize this, their hearts are set on the quest journey. If we take Frodo’s sense of this as he sits, dismayed, in the Council of Elrond, in the first book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is neither brave nor heroic; but his heart tells him that he was meant to take the Ring on its journey. And so he goes and on the way he finds help, and not the least of the help he finds is the providence which guides him through difficult times.

So the pilgrim of the Psalm. He is going up to Jerusalem with a yearning in his heart for God, but his way lies through this Valley of Baca. Baca is the Hebrew word for weeping. This is the way the word is used in Psalm 80:5, where God feeds people with the bread of tears. And in Psalm 95:6 we may translate “ let us weep before the Lord our Maker.” (Usually this is translated “kneel” but the Hebrew word is the word for weep.)

How do they get through this Valley of Baca? In a number of Louis L’Amour’s western novels, the good character, fleeing Indians or the bad guys, goes into the desert and there L’Amour describes the hunger and sense of futility - many do not get through. The ones who do are sustained by a hope in which they refuse to give up. Sometimes, unexpectedly, they find water by following bees, or animal tracks to a water hole. Verse 6 of the Psalm says (in the REB), “the Lord fills it [the waterless waste] with springs.” And then, verse 6, the early rains come, and they come earlier than usual, helping the pilgrim on his way. This is the providence of God.

So the pilgrim goes on, gaining strength as he goes - “from strength to strength” the New International Version has - until, in verse 7, he arrives in Jerusalem. See, in the Psalms, most of the action that there is in The Lord of the Rings is missing. The Psalmists have other concerns. Psalm 84 would make a short movie. There was only the Valley of Baca, and though for many travelers that valley is long, the Psalmist treats it briefly as if to say, even in his choice of words, what the writer of Hebrews says of Jesus and the cross, “despising its shame because of the joy set before him.”

So in the last verses of the Psalm, from 9-12, the dangerous journey is completed. The pilgrim arrives in Jerusalem and there he prays, and in his prayer he thanks God for this place of worship. So fulfilling is the experience of worship there in the courts of God that he reflects, “one day here in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere,” and he considers staying right there. Here he is close to God, and only the responsibilities of daily life and his family will call him back after he has spent days in worship.

John Mason Neale translated an old Latin hymn, “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” which portrays the hopeful longing by Christians in the dark days of the seventh century. Contrasted with the poverty, squalor and sickness of that age, with the social chaos and the brutality of the barbarian invasions, like that which had destroyed Rome two centuries before, Christians longed for something more. One verse of the hymn goes:

“To this temple where we call you, /Come, O Lord of Hosts today; With your wonted loving-kindness /hear your people as they pray, and your fullest benediction /Shed within its wall alway.”

Why is this pilgrim so eager to remain at the temple, to live and to work there? Because God is there, and because of the fringe benefits. One of the fringe benefits is in verse 11, “no good thing does he withhold from those whose life is blameless.” And, what is so appealing about being close to God? There, in God’s presence, is protection from danger: verse 11, God is a shield. And not only that, there is sustenance for life: “God is a sun.” I think that the pilgrim is caught in the tension of the middle ages by the thing that drew the desert fathers into the desert. They fled civilization to meditate alone upon God and the desert was a place where one was removed from the temptations of daily life. It rarely worked. People bring their temptations with them. They escape the world and discover that the flesh and the devil are still powerful.
It rarely worked for another reason. God calls his people to serve others. To do that we need to be in the midst of daily life where people are. If monks and nuns and others have a calling, it is God himself, by some special call, who brings them to it; but for my part, I think there is a better way which is the reformation’s emphasis on the holiness of every profession which serves other people. The Psalmist, however, does not pose this question.

For his part, having set out upon a quest, the Psalmist finds at the end that he is refreshed the way a person is who goes to a Christian camp or conference, or one who goes on pilgrimage. Or a Christian might be refreshed by taking a day off to go away and read the Scriptures and meditate on them. What do you expect to receive when you are with God? Is it not that which your heart cries out for? It is a good thing to set time aside to be near God.

In August of 2000 a Chinese Christian began to meet with some 30 people in a dirty unheated room with two bare light bulbs that provided not enough light to allow people to read Bibles. By December the number had grown to 700 and the Christian leading the meetings needs to preach every night because the room is too small for everyone. The people who come live in a murky shanty town. They are people who have come from the country to find jobs in the city but they cannot afford to live in the city. This man who preaches has been sick from preaching every night with no help. Is the place where he and these 700 people meet beautiful? No, but they long to meet together. And that’s what moves this Psalmist. We in the Grantham Church have a beautiful building to meet in and friends to see when we come together. We do not suffer hardships because we worship together. To come here we don’t have to come through a Valley of Baca each week. Do you find it true that one day here is better than a thousand elsewhere? I’m working on that myself. It is the Psalmist who helps me and all of us get our priorities straight.