You will notice in the inscription to Psalm 84 that, like Psalm 8, it is "according to The Gittith" which, as I have pointed out in connection with the eighth Psalm, is an eight-stringed instrument very much like our modern guitar. This psalm, too, is designed to be accompanied by the music of a guitar. In our day we have come full circle in time and have come back to singing with a guitar accompaniment as in the days of David.
The theme of this wonderful little psalm is the advantages that accompany one who is in touch with the living God, the advantages that belong to the life of faith, the life of fellowship with a living God. The psalm divides very simply into three parts which are marked off by the little word Selah which in Hebrew means "think of that" -- pause and think of what has just been said. In the first four verses, the psalmist is setting before us the advantages of life with God -- God at home within his people.
How lovely is thy dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God. (Psalms 84:1-2 RSV)
What a wonderful expression that is of the excitement produced by the presence of God. Now of course when these psalmists talked about the dwelling place of God they meant the Temple, the building in Jerusalem where God's Shekinah glory was manifest. In the holy of holies within the Temple was a strange and mysterious light which marked the presence of God. Into that holy place, no Israelite was permitted to enter that holy place except the high priest, and he only once a year, and only then under the most rigorous of rituals. When the Israelites came into the Temple, though they could not physically enter the holy of holies to be in the presence of God there, there is no question but that, in their hearts and minds, as they appreciated and understood the truth pictured by their sacrifices and other things, they entered in spirit into the holy of holies. This is what the psalmist is now singing about: "O the joy of having God living in me!"
When we, as Christians, talk about the dwelling place of God, we learn from the New Testament that we are talking about our bodies. Paul says in First Corinthians 6 that our bodies are the "temples" of the Holy Spirit who lives within us. Therefore, we can read the words of this psalm and take them as an expression of the excitement that comes because of the presence of God in our bodies.
There are three things that the Psalmist sees here that mark his experience along this line. But it is possible that you may have God in your life through Jesus Christ and still not have these things true of you because they are made available only by faith. It is as you believe that God is at work in your life and ready to do these things, and you expect him to act this way, that they occur. It is possible for us to have become Christians, but not to be the Christian that we have become. This psalm is written to urge us on to that, and to explain it all to us.
The first thing the Psalmist sees is an inner beauty that God creates by his presence: "How lovely is your dwelling placewhy he's excited about being in the presence of God. The first is the inner beauty God creates by his presence. "How lovely is your dwelling place, O God." The place where God lives, the heart where God dwells, becomes a lovely place, a beautiful spot.
The Apostle Paul, in Ephesians, prays that Christ "may make his home in your hearts by faith" Ephesians 3:17), because that heart will then always be a lovely place. The character of that heart is changed. In practice that means that you will be a lot easier to get along with. You will be less prickly and difficult when God is living in you. You will become a beautiful person in the truest sense of that phrase.
The second thing is, he creates a compelling hunger. "My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord." Have you ever felt this way? Have you known a deep-seated longing to have more of the glory of God, more of the sense of his presence in your life? Have you fed upon his Word and been satisfied, and yet as you went away, felt a hunger for more? We sing this sometimes in a hymn,
We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.
It is a strange paradox, this wonderful ability God has to satisfy us and at the same time make us hungry for more.
Then the third thing is the joyful vitality that the presence of God gives. "My heart and flesh sing for joy to the lving God." This is an exciting experience and is exactly what God has meant life to be. You may have been a Christian for many years, but if you have not yet found this kind of excitement you haven't yet touched the possibilities and resources of a Christian life. This is not an artificial excitement. I do not mean that this is an artificial excitement. It is not something put on -- it is not a mask -- but it is the real thing. This Psalmist is struggling to set before us the reality of the excitement of God's presence.
A young man once wrote me a letter which said something like this.
I'm a janitor and my work is boring to me. I do the same old things over and over. What can you suggest that will help me in this problem of boredom?
That is a perfectly proper question to address to a pastor. If your relationship with God does not help you with that kind of a problem, then it is not much of a relationship. I answered him by pointing out that the secret to the relief of boredom, in my judgment, was given to us in the fourth chapter of John's Gospel. There the Lord meets with a jaded, bored woman who came to a well; She had run through several experiences of marriage already (having had five husbands) trying vainly to find something to satisfy her. Life for her had grown tedious and dull and boring. Jesus said to her,
"If you knew who it is that is asking you to drink, you would ask of me and I would put in you a well of living water, springing up unto eternal life." John 4:10-14)
By that "well," he was referring, of course, to himself. He would enter her heart and he would become to her a well from which she could drink at any time.
Years ago I learned the practical secret of that. Whenever my outward circumstances get boring, I drink from that which is within. I take a good long drink of the living God who lives within; a drink of the refreshing character of his being. I remind myself of who he is and of my relationship with him, and that he is continually there. I have never done that but what my spirit has been refreshed and I have come back to my work -- the same old work -- with a new attitude. That is what the psalmist is talking about here.
The next two verses describe the contentment that the presence of God brings:
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at thy altars, O Lord of hosts,
my king and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in thy house,
ever singing thy praise! Selah(Psalms 84:3-4 RSV)
He mentioned here two birds frequently found in Scripture.
First is a sparrow. Do you remember when the Lord Jesus speaking to his disciples referred to the sparrows? "Not one of them will fall to the ground without your father's will" (Matthew 10:29 RSV), he said, "you are of more value than many sparrows." (Matthew 10:31 RSV). In another place he said, "Are not five sparrows sold in the market-place for a farthing (the smallest value of money)?" (Luke 12:6). By these statements he recognized that the sparrow is a popular symbol for insignificance. Sparrows represent those who feel they are not worth anything. Now, says this psalmist, even the man or woman who feels insignificant finds in God a home, a place of warmth and security, a place where life is fulfilled. You may feel terribly useless, but when you come to God you will find through him a wonderful sense of purpose.
I am impressed, as I read the Scriptures, how many times God passes over the proud, the haughty, the powerful, and the ostentatious, and selects some insignificant, obscure individual and uses him to accomplish his purposes. Gideon was that kind of a man. He was so sure he didn't amount to anything that he protested when God called him to deliver Israel. Moses did the same thing. He had been a king's son in the courts of Pharaoh with all the possibilities of power at his command, but he felt he had blown it when he killed that Egyptian and had to flee to the backside of the desert. You can see that he thought he had wrecked his life -- that there was no more chance for him.
But it wasn't all over in God's scheme; all that had happened was only part of the training course. When Moses had reached the place where God could work through him, God picked him up in his insignificance and began to use him mightily. I am convinced that God never uses anyone continuously until he has put them through that kind of training. It is usually to those who have a deep sense of failure that the call of God comes, for they can understand how others feel.
When did the Lord Jesus say to Peter, "Feed my lambs"? (John 21:15). Was it after Peter had come up to him in all his boastfulness and said, "Lord, look at these other fellows; you can't count on them. But Lord, you can count on me. I'll see you through to the end, Lord." Did the Lord then say to him, "Very well, Peter, very well spoken. I can count on you. Feed my lambs?" No, no! It wasn't until after Peter had denied his Lord and had gone out to weep bitterly in the streets of Jerusalem that the Lord Jesus called him and said to him, "Peter, feed my lambs." Yes, even the sparrow will find a place of usefulness, a home in God.
So, too, has the swallow. Where I once lived, in northern Minnesota, we had many swallows. Every evening you could see them darting about. They are swiftest of birds and exemplify restless activity. They are used that way also in the Scriptures. The swallow represents those people who are restless, who are forever looking for something new. They settle down and try this and that but it doesn't work. They are rolling stones, restless, ever on the move. But even the swallow, says the psalmist, can find in God a home, a place to build a nest and to raise young, a place of purpose and fulfillment.
Through thirty years of observation I can tell you that that is the only place the restless will ever find rest -- in God. They will find in him that rest of which Jesus spoke, "Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" Matthew. 11:28-29). Those are not mere words. It is not just beautiful language designed to stir your spirit a bit on Sunday mornings. Those words are designed for life. If you are restless, there is a message in them for you. God is speaking to you. God wants to give you rest. You won't find it in circumstances, you won't find it in adventure. These things will pale on you. You will find it only, as the Psalmist tells us, "at thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God."
I love that phrasing. He puts together two concepts of God which seem contradictory. It is done two or three times in this psalm.
First he refers to God, "O Lord of hosts." What does that mean? Well, that means the Lord of the multitudes, Lord of the many, Lord of the great crowds, the One on whom all the creatures of earth depend for a living. One mighty in power who is able to meet the needs of thousands and thousands everywhere.
Then he adds to this, "my king and my God." That is a personal note, set in contrast to the Lord of Hosts. One of the glories of God is this wonderful fact, that he is able to do what none of us can do. He is able to give himself wholly to me as an individual. At the same time he is doing it also to you and to everyone else all over the world.
I wish I had that power. I sometimes feel stretched in fifteen different directions. Everyone wants to be my friend and I wish I could be their friend. I'd love to, but I can't. But God can! "My king and my God." No wonder he says, "Blessed are those who dwell in thy house, ever singing thy praise! Selah." What a tremendous thing that is!
Then in the next section he sets before us a description of what happens when God is at work in our hearts.
Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah. Selah(Psalms 84:5-8 RSV)
Here the secret of usefulness is set forth. "Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee."
Now I want to ask you something. Many of you have been Christians for a long time. When you get in difficulties or troubles or pressures, where is your strength? Have you found that your strength is in God, that he is the One who makes a difference?
One Saturday night I came home after a day away from my church responsibilities and I was tired, very tired. My wife told me some of the things that had been happening, some of the pressures that had come that day from the church and from the family. They were the kind of things I would normally want to lay before the Lord and pray about. But I didn't feel like praying. I was tired and I wanted to go to bed. I thought to myself, "What's the use of praying, anyway? I'm so tired that my prayers wouldn't have any power."
Then it struck me; what a thing to say! What difference does it make how I feel? My reliance isn't upon my prayers but upon God's power. It always bothers me to hear Christians talk about "the power of prayer." There isn't any power in prayer. There is power in the God who answers prayer. I was rebuked in my own spirit by the remembrance that it makes no difference how tired I happen to be. So I prayed -- very short, because the power of prayer doesn't lie in the length of it, either. Charles Spurgeon used to speak of those who had the idea that the power of the ministry lay in the lungs of the preacher. But it doesn't lie there, either. Power lies in the God who is behind prayer. "Blessed are the men -- and women -- whose strength is in thee."
Some time ago I was trying to sell my car. Intending to put an ad in the paper I read through several car ads to learn how to phrase it. I noticed a phrase that appeared again and again throughout the ads. It said, "Power all around." At first I didn't know what that meant, and then I realized it meant power steering, power brakes, automatic transmission, power windows, power seats and, in the case of a convertible, a power top. Power all around! All this power is designed to take the terrible strain out of driving so that all you need to do is sit there and push little buttons and things will happen. What a tremendous description of the Christian life! Power all around! "God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control," (2 Timothy 1:7 RSV). Power all around.
Someone has suggested that when you get into difficult places where it is hard to know what decision to make, that you try power steering. "Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it,' when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left" (Isaiah 30:21 RSV). Are you having trouble with a stubborn habit? Well, try power brakes. "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8:37 RSV). Are you bothered by moodiness and discouragement? Try power windows. "And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7 RSV). For a satisfying life, try power unlimited. "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and shall be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8a RSV). Says the psalmist, "these are the men who have their strength in thee."
Then he adds, "in whose heart are the highways..." Take out the words, "to Zion," because, they are not in the original Hebrew. What kind of men are these, with highways in their hearts? All through the Scripture you will find references to the highways, and they always refer to what men do in their lives to prepare the way for God, to give God access to all areas of their life.
You remember when John the Baptist came preaching before Christ, it was said that he fulfilled the words of Isaiah 40,
A voice cries:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40:3 RSV)
The prophet also described how it would be done:
"Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain." (Isaiah 40:4 RSV)
That is what is described in Psalm 84: men and women who know how to build in their hearts a highway for God. How is that done? Well, when you get into the valleys, you bring them up to the level by trust in God: "Every valley shall be exalted." And when you get to a mountain of difficulty, or your find yourself lifted up in pride and self-conceit, you judge it in the light of the word, and bring it low: "Every mountain shall be made low." Thus you make a highway for God to travel in blessing, not only to your heart but to others. Blessed are the men who have learned this secret of usefulness. Their strength is in God, and they have made a highway by which God can work in the valleys and the mountains.
Then the psalmist refers to what happens when this occurs:
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools. (Psalms 84:6 RSV)
The valley of Baca is the valley of weeping. This refers to the ministry that men and women who know how to make a highway for God will have in the lives of others. They will come into the place of sorrowing, of despair, of discouragement, and by their radiant faith and their cheerful outlook, turn it into a place of fountains, of refreshment, of satisfaction. They will do it by means of the Holy Spirit. The early rain is a picture of the Holy Spirit.
This beautiful, picturesque language of Scripture lends itself to exact interpretation if you understand how these symbols are wed in other places. Here is a reference to the early rain and in the prophets there is also a reference to the latter rain. The early and the latter rain is a symbol of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as the prophet Joel makes clear. Pentecost was such an occasion -- pouring out of the Holy Spirit -- and that is what is referred to here. These men and women are able to turn sorrow into joy by means of the Holy Spirit who fills their lives with pools of blessing, and springs (permanent fountains) of joy.
Do you know people like that? What wonderful people they are. It is refreshing to have people who come into your life and with but a word change your whole outlook. I thought of that last week when Dr. Jack Mitchell was here. What a dear man of God and seventy-seven, and yet what a blessing he is whenever he comes, for he opens the windows of God and helps us to see again the glory of the Lord Jesus.
Last week provided a particularly apt illustration of the ministry in the valley of Baca. There was present here last Sunday a young man in both morning and evening services who had been struggling with some very difficult problems in his life. He had come under an awful load of defeat and depression. In the morning service, he was so held by what Dr. Mitchell said, that he came back for the evening service. Those of you who were with us may remember that Dr. Mitchell brought forth most beautifully the forgiveness of God, and how the grace of God sets us free. This young man sat in the second row, his face fastened on Dr. Mitchell, listening and drinking in every word. At the end of the service he said to one of his friends, "What a burden of guilt has been lifted from my life!" The following Tuesday, he met with Dave Roper at noon to have lunch together and talk over his difficulties. As they were riding in Dave's Volkswagen, they stopped at a they stopped at a red light. They were engrossed in their talk when around the corner -- and through a red light -- came a huge, loaded, moving van. It hit the front of the Dave's Volkswagen, drove it under the truck, the door on the right side opened up, and the young man fell out and was instantly killed. Dave was left unhurt, with hardly a scratch.
It was a shocking thing to him, and to us, for our staff had been praying for that young man just that morning. When Dave came back, he said, "The boy we prayed for this morning is dead." Though we were shaken and shocked by what happened, I couldn't help but think of the comfort that had been brought him as Dr. Mitchell had passed through his valley of Baca and had made it a place of springs instead of tears. What a ministry that is.
The Psalmist points out the effect that building these "highways" has on the persons who do it, too: "They go from strength to strength." They get better and better as they experience God's grace until, ultimately, the God of gods is seen in Zion. The manifestation of the invisible God becomes visible through the lives of people like that. When I read this psalm I feel like praying exactly what this Psalmist prays in Verse 8.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah. (Psalms 84:8 RSV)
He asks, in effect, make me this kind of a man. Help me to learn where my strength lies and to build in my heart highways for God so that I can go through the valley of weeping and make it a place of springs and so go from strength to strength until the God of gods is seen. Is that not what you want?
Then let us give ear to this prayer as it is set forth in the closing section,
"Behold our shield, O God," or more literally, "O shield, behold!" It is God who is the shield. The writer is now addressing God and he says:
Behold our shield, O God;
look upon the face of thine anointed! (Psalms 84:9 RSV)
It is a cry for a personal application of these great truths. This is perfectly proper. The Palmist says, "Lord, I see your blessing and power in the lives of others and I want this. Give it to me as well!" It is perfectly right to pray that way. It is never wrong to ask God to do for you what he wants to do for you. It is right to pray, "Lord, I want to find the way into this!"
Then the Psalmist gives two reasons why he wants this kind of life, set forth by the "for's" of Verses 10-11.
For a day in thy courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness. (Psalms 84:10 RSV)
The first reason he wants this is because life with God is incomparably better than anything else. There is no other place to go. One day lived in fellowship with God is the equivalent of almost three years (1000 days) without him. That is worth something, is it not? This man has evidently discovered how rich God can be and remembering it he says, "If every day could be like that, what a difference there would be in my life! Lord, this is what I want. A day with you is worth a thousand elsewhere. I'd rather be a humble door keeper in your house than to have everything else without you, to live in the tents of wickedness. Life with you in incomparably better."
Second, it is inexhaustibly complete:
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly. (Psalms 84:11 RSV)
If I need a sun, if I am in darkness, if I do not know where I am going and I do not know what lies ahead of me, then God can be to me a sun. He is wonderfully adaptable to my need. If I need protection, then he is a shield around me, guarding me, guiding me. Whatever I need he is. That is the good news of the gospel. I love the acrostic that is built around the name of Jesus,
J - Just
E - Exactly
S - Suits
U - Us
S - Sinners.
Is that not right? Jesus exactly suits us sinners! He is designed for us. He is a sun and a shield, and gives grace and glory. Grace is for pressures. It is his power to keep the heart at peace within. That is the inner gift. Glory is the outward expression. God gives grace in order to bring us to glory, not only finally, in heaven, but now.
God is constantly giving grace and glory. He does not take us out of the pressures, but he gives us grace in the midst of them in order that he might bring us to glory (thanksgiving, joy and gladness). This is to be the repeated pattern of the Christian life.
If you are going through a time of pressure, thank God for it and ask for grace. He will give it, and you know that it will lead you on to glory. Our problem is that we are always wanting it to happen now. We want glory all the time. But God knows that is not good for us. So he gives us grace first, and then glory.
This writer sums it all up in Verse 12,
O Lord of hosts,
blessed is the man who trusts in thee! (Psalms 84:12 RSV)
Happy is the man who trusts thee, who has learned that life lived with God has tremendous advantages. Again, this is not designed to make you excited on Sunday morning; this is for all the week. This is for the problems you are now facing. You young people, this is for you at school, to help you with the longings and yearnings of your heart. This is for you in business. You older people, retired, facing loneliness; this is for you. Blessed is the man who trusts in God. That is the secret of life.
Heavenly Father, keep us from taking these words artificially or mechanically. Help us to know they are a testimony given to us to make us see that our lives can be rich and full. Teach us patience in this, Lord. We want richness overnight. Help us to realize that your process is to drop a seed and let it grow, to come at last to fruition. Teach us then to wait, Lord, upon you, but to know that you will bring us to a glory and a richness that is beyond our wildest dreams, more than we can ever express. We ask in your name, Amen.