When we are in love—especially when that love is raw and new—we count the days and hours until the time we will see our beloved again. The strange thing about this kind of longing is that it is created by someone, and it can only be solved or filled by that same person.
The longing a lover feels for his beloved is what the psalmist feels in Psalm 84. His language is love language: “How lovely is your dwelling place. . . . My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord” (emphasis added).
This psalmist knows God and has been, one could say, wounded by His presence, so that the only balm is to return to that presence. He longs for it. He yearns for it.
The great church father Gregory of Nazianzus described this feeling in his poem De rebus suis as knowing in his inmost being “the sharp stab of desire for the King.” C.S. Lewis gave fine expression to this desire in his Reflections on the Psalms: “I have rather—though the expression may seem harsh to some—called this the ‘appetite for God’ than ‘the love of God.’ The ‘love of God’ too easily suggests the world ‘spiritual’ in all those negative or restrictive senses which it has unhappily acquired . . . [the appetite for God] has all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a physical, desire. It is [happy] and jocund.”
The psalmist knows that his true happiness—blessedness—is found there, in the presence of the King. Scripture is incredibly clear on where true, profound, enduring happiness is found, and this is because the Bible addresses our deepest longings and desires.
Augustine said in his Confessions that “all men want to be happy” and do what they do in order to be happy. But not all are happy, because they do not seek happiness in the place where it can be found. The Bible tells us where it can be found. Psalm 84 tells us where it can be found. The source of happiness is in God’s presence and its receptor in man’s heart. The context of Psalm 84 is pilgrimage, something required of the faithful Israelite, yes, but also something greatly desired because of what it means for the lover of God—he is celebrating pilgrimage to worship God in His temple.
The Hope of the Psalmist
In the first four verses of Psalm 84, the immediate reference for the psalmist’s hope is the temple, seen in imagery: dwelling place, altars, courts, house. Why? Because God’s presence is concentrated there. He is homesick to return.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise!
The psalmist is comforted that he will find rest and shelter in the temple by the tender reality that even birds find a home there. He is most likely recalling the literal temple with its stone facades and eaves where birds find shelter in crevices, just as might be seen today in grand stone building facades in the great cities of the West.
If a bird can find rest and shelter there, certainly a humble follower of God made in His image can.
The Experience of the Psalmist
The experience of the psalmist confirms his hope for God’s presence. God’s presence is something he knows, allowing him to exclaim, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you” (Ps. 84:5). His experience is the flip side of the first beatitude—“Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Indeed, it goes from strength to strength (Ps. 84:7).
There is a dynamism, a growth, a freshness that comes from frequency in God’s presence. Anyone who exercises knows that a muscle grows from lifting weights, yes, but even more it is strengthened by reps. The pilgrim who frequently is seeing and knowing God is being strengthened by that frequency.
What needs exercise in the pilgrim is the heart, where there are to be “highways to Zion” (Ps. 84:5). These “highways” are like tracks or pathways in the heart that point only in one direction.
Bikers can gain traction from ruts made in the ground. Hikers recognize the benefit of a nascent path developing in the brush. Ruts and paths are made through frequency. The more frequent the use, the clearer the path. The happy man or woman has a heart not just with ruts but with highways—highways because there is a frequency to finding God’s presence.
Yet, just like any traveler who has traversed vast terrain, there are rough or dry spots. The “Valley of Baca” (Ps. 84:6) is a dry place. However, the one who knows God in his heart and knows his ultimate destination will experience refreshment in dry places. Dry places can even become places of springs providing refreshment. As any saint of the Lord with experience can tell, the direst of circumstances can transform into great blessing if God is known and experienced in those circumstances. When the great seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterian minister and theologian Samuel Rutherford was in prison in Aberdeen, he used to write at the top of his letters, “God’s palace, Aberdeen.” Prison had turned into a palace for Rutherford because he knew the presence of God there.
The Prayer of the Psalmist
Psalm 84 closes with a prayer, a prayer that, while containing a petition to look on the face of the king, is primarily recognition. The psalmist knows through experience, through a deep knowledge of his God, that to be in His presence is better than anything else. This involves a comparative. Scripture’s description of the happy way always involves a contrast:
For a day in your 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 (Ps. 84:10).
The psalmist goes on highlighting God’s benefits: He provides “sun and shield.” He bestows “favor and honor.” He withholds “no good thing” (Ps. 84:11).
No wonder the psalmist can finish by saying that the one who trusts in God is happy. This is what every believer must recognize with the psalmist—true happiness is found in God, in trusting in Him, in finding our strength in Him and His presence.
The secret of heart religion is that it is all about God, yes, but that in its being all about God we find the receptors in our heart enlivened so that we are all we ever could be—full, happy—as a result.
Several years ago Anthony Selvaggio claimed that there is often a deficiency of spiritual joy in the Reformed world. While largely satisfied with doctrine, worship, and the order of the church, the intangible of joy is too often missing. The reasons he gave for this deficiency were perceptive: (1) Many Reformed immigrants came into the camp as a result of being discontent with broader evangelicalism. Thus, they came in as fighters, not possessing the soil fertile for joy. (2) Reformed folk have a propensity to perpetually circle the theological wagons. And circling is tiring (and often leads to dizziness).
Selvaggio wrote: “The Reformed church seems continually occupied with the task of theological preservation, a struggle that resembles Tolkien’s battle at Helm’s Deep. We are simply forever consumed with survival and we don’t have time to focus on neglected, but seemingly less vital, topics like joy.” While the neglect may be understandable in light of these realities, it is not wise. It is to the detriment of our spiritual health and the diminishment of our blessed God’s glory in our lives.
So, how does one cultivate delight and stir up spiritual joy? We must first recognize it is not in us to do these things. These are not things we can manufacture out of our inherent spiritual resources. Psalm 84 reminds us of the source of blessedness, the source of joy: God’s presence. Joy and blessedness come through communing with Him regularly.
In his article, Selvaggio quotes the great Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel, who helpfully defined spiritual joy: “This spiritual joy consists in a delightful motion of the soul, generated by the Holy Spirit in the heart of believers, whereby He convinces them of the felicity of their state, causes them to enjoy the benefits of the covenant of grace, and assures them of their future felicity.” There is a happiness as we share in God’s triune happiness that we especially know as, united to Christ, the Spirit applies the joy of being in the blessed family of the Father.
God applies this joy today by mediating His presence through His Word, sacraments, prayer, and people. There are even seasons of heightened joy that God gives to believers. As pilgrims, these are foretastes of our ultimate blessed destination. The Christian life is lived with a destination in mind: God Himself. It is because of our destination that we can find delight and pleasure in the circumstances of life as the reality of that destination breaks in on the present—even when the present brings challenges to our joy. As we know that presence, we can say with the psalmist, “Better is one day in your . . .” All this provides wonderful motivation to endure, to persevere. A promise is held before us.
To get the pulse of Psalm 84, we’ve resorted to love poetry, to that which expresses appetite, desire. The psalmist can find rest from his aching desire only in the presence of God. His hope is to find blessedness there. His experience has confirmed his hope. He has known strength in the presence of God. And his prayer is that the Lord’s anointed, whom believers eternally know as Jesus Christ, will shield us in the blessedness of God—providing and protecting as sun and shield. Because it is better there, more blessed there than anywhere else.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 21, 2020.