The psalms of David are filled with a longing to abide in God’s presence, within His house. In Psalm 26:8, David declares, “O LORD, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.” In the following psalm, David professes this yearning to be the singular drive of his heart, saying, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (27:4). Another psalm, by the sons of Korah, expresses the same desire no less ardently: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God,” and pronounces, “Blessed are those who dwell in your house” (84:1–2, 4). Such longing for life with God in the house of God concludes what is perhaps the most well-known and beloved psalm: “And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (23:6).
Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ and union with Him by the Holy Spirit, sinners may become the children and household of God.
Far from hollow sentimentality, David’s desire was fueled by a robust theology, by his understanding of God’s character as well as of His purposes and promises for His people. Indeed, such a hope of dwelling with God was revealed by God Himself. After God delivered Israel through the waters of the sea, Moses led the people in a divinely inspired song, which taught that the LORD, in His steadfast love, would lead the people He had redeemed, guiding them to His own “holy abode,” even the “sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established” (Ex. 15:13, 17). Israel had been redeemed to dwell with God. Marvelously, David understood that his desire to dwell with God was paltry in comparison with the Lord’s own zeal as the One who—wonder of wonders—said, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8). As Israelite pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem for the annual feasts, Solomon’s temple on Mount Zion served as a symbol for God’s ultimate purpose to dwell with His people. Significant for this theology, an imposing, bloodied altar stood in the courtyard before the entrance to God’s house.
In Psalm 23, David sets forth the hope of dwelling with God in a twofold manner. First, God’s house is portrayed as the journey’s end for His people. Using the shepherding imagery of the exodus itself, David portrays the Lord as his Shepherd throughout this life. The imagery then changes to that of hospitality: as guidance culminates in arrival, the Shepherd becomes host. Intriguingly, the transition from the metaphor of a sheep led by its shepherd to that of a guest honored by his host occurs “through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4). For David, then, the hope of dwelling with God in the house of God was a future-oriented reality, an eschatology. David’s expectation was sure since he, as a shepherd himself, understood that arrival was not a burden placed upon sheep—fearful, witless, and wayward as they often are. Rather, the guidance, care, and protection of the sheep, along with their destination, was a charge laid upon the shepherd.
Secondly, God’s house is presented as the beginning of eternal glory. To be sure, the delights and joys of God’s house are tasted in this life, especially among God’s people in Sabbath worship. Moreover, the Lord had indeed spread a table in the wilderness throughout the journeys of Israel, but these instances, blessed as they are, are mere foretastes of the feasting God has prepared for His people in the ‘“house” of a glorious new creation. Anointing the head with oil and pouring into the cup until it overflows are token descriptions meant to portray lavish hospitality (v. 5). God is here depicted as an ancient Near Eastern host who generously honors and satiates his guests with extravagant abundance. Elsewhere, David elaborates, saying that God’s people “feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Ps. 36:8). The word David uses here for “delights” is built from the same root for Eden, the paradise of God where humanity once enjoyed the delights of His fellowship. Our journey’s end is also a new beginning, the beginning of supremely blessed life with God and His people in a paradise more glorious than Eden.
Yet, even “honored guest” does not quite capture either David’s hope or his heart. Such lavish hospitality is, rather, poured out upon sons and daughters. Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ and union with Him by the Holy Spirit, sinners may become the children and household of God, born of God (John 1:12–13; Eph. 2:19). Like the returning Prodigal Son held in a prolonged embrace by his panting father, so our journey’s end and eternity’s beginning are really a coming home—and even God’s house is lacking until all His children come home. Led by the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, who laid down His life for His sheep, God’s people will indeed enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise (John 10:1–18; see Ps. 100).
Dr. L. Michael Morales is professor of biblical studies at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, an adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is author of Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?