"How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty. I long, yes, I faint with longing to enter the courts of the Lord. With my whole being, body and soul, I will shout joyfully to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home there, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young—at a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God! How happy are those who can live in your house, always singing your praises. Happy are those who are strong in the Lord, who set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs, where pools of blessing collect after the rains! They will continue to grow stronger, and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem."—Psalm 84:1-7
This is emphatically a Communicant's Psalm; and occurs appropriately today in our ordinary course of exposition.
Conjectures have been numerous and varied on its authorship and historical bearings. This would not be the time or place to enter at length on the vindication of any favorite theory. Enough to remark, that, while by very general consent it is regarded as a Psalm of the Jewish Pilgrims on their way to one of the annual Feasts, there is, to say the least—following not a few eminent authorities—a strong probability that it is not of David's but of Hezekiah's times; and refers to the gathering of festal worshipers during his occupancy of the throne. That pious monarch inaugurated his reign by a season of national humiliation, and by a subsequent purification of the Temple; ridding the latter of idolatrous objects which had clustered around it during the life of his apostate predecessor—cleansing its courts, regilding and restoring cedar-gates and porticoes—altar, and table, and candlestick—also reviving the ceremonial of music, in accordance with the Divine model appointed by David and Asaph.
Hezekiah, however, did not rest satisfied with this outer reformation and revival, noble as it was. On the completion of the task, he calls together all his subjects to make a consecration of a nobler temple still—that of their own souls. Moreover, the same deep-seated religious zeal prompts him to decree a great sacramental season. A Passover is to be celebrated; and not for Judah only—but, with his patriotic heart sighing over the disruption and alienation of the ten tribes, he would once more endeavor to re-unite the dual kingdom in sacred fellowship and service—that, too, even though the period of the year was unusual, and the dark cloud of the Assyrian invasion was gathering in the north-eastern sky. He would have them forget for a time their differences, and meet together under the old roof-tree of Jerusalem's Sanctuary—around her hallowed altars; and under her anointed Priest and King, be one again. It was a beautiful conception; and one, surely, in all respects worthy and desirable; for indeed the Passover had not been duly kept since the age of Joshua. Oh! would not this be the answered prayer of another magnificent Psalm, most probably also of his—the sigh of the true-hearted over the crumbling of church and state—"Return; we beseech You, O God Almighty; look down from Heaven, and behold, and visit this vine!"
He allows no time to elapse in carrying the project into effect. No sooner is the Temple purged and re-decorated, and the old ceremonial revived, than messengers are despatched through the land "from Dan to Beersheba," and especially to the Kingdom of Israel, to proclaim the approaching Paschal solemnity. They speed from town to town, from village to village; blowing up the trumpet in the new moon; announcing the time appointed—the solemn feast-day. As was quite to be expected (what alas! is found too often the accompaniment or result of ecclesiastical divisions)—the royal couriers in many instances met only with insult. The sacred enthusiasm of the king was traduced and misunderstood. Not a few forfeited the intended blessing—the dew that was to descend on the mountains of Zion; when "the good and pleasant thing" might have been revived, of "brethren" (brethren once, and who should have been brethren still) "dwelling together again in unity."
Nevertheless, rejected by some, a considerable number from the more northern tribes responded to the call. The blare of the silver trumpets awoke the dormant religious patriotism; and before many days had elapsed, the great pilgrim road—the Jewish "Via Sacra," untraversed with the same intent for ages—was again studded with travelers singing, though with what has been well called "pathetic joy," the Songs of Zion.
We know not what these other songs may have been—but we have at all events presumptive reason to surmise, that the present Psalm was written, or in the case of too strong assertion—may have been written by the Korhites, for this resuscitated Passover of the King of Judah, to give embodiment and expression to the inward aspirations of the worshiping throngs. As such, let us now ponder it—as such, let us keep before our mental eye these scattered travelers; as from the distant Naphtali—the border-land of Lebanon—they emerge on their pilgrimage, until they stand within the gates of the elect metropolis.
May the sentiments of the Psalm be echoed by many lowly festive worshipers here. May we, too, as children of Zion, be joyful in our King.
Let us confine ourselves at present, to this one aspect of the Psalm, as containing a description of the Pilgrim's (or in our case the Communicant's) journey to the Feast.
This is contained in the opening portion selected—what may be more correctly called the first and second strophes. As the wayfarer commences his journey, or starts in company with a few fellow-Israelites, his heart kindles into emotion at the thought of once more worshiping the God of his fathers in the oldest of their sacred rites, and that too within the ancestral Shrine—"How amiable (how lovable, how beautiful) are Your tabernacles, O Lord Almighty! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cries out for the living God!" In our authorised version, these worshipers are represented as envying the sparrow or swallow who have built their nests in the eaves of the Temple, or under its altars. The figure, however, is very simple and expressive in its application, without having recourse to a somewhat strange and unnatural rendering.
The writer would seem rather to take the image of these two birds sinking into their woodland nest for repose, merely as an emblem of the blessed rest and peaceful enjoyment anticipated in entering within the Gates of the Sanctuary. "Yes, as the sparrow finds out a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young; so," (with a significant ellipsis) "so—Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God." The traveler pursues his way until we may suppose him to have reached a resting-place. As he pauses, leaning on his staff under some shady oak or terebinth, still they are anticipations of the festal day—the hallowed courts—which occupy his mental vision; and he breaks forth into the soliloquy, "Blessed are those who dwell in Your house, they will be still praising You!"
But onwards he proceeds; or, it may be, we have already suggested, as one of a caravan. They have now come to a gloomier part of the road. The scenery around them wears a more desolate aspect, and tinges for the moment their own thoughts with sadness. They have reached "the Valley of Baca"—"the Valley of weeping" or "the Valley of the weeping trees"—a valley still pointed out on the way to Jerusalem—supposed by some to have been full of a peculiar moisture-distilling tree—"nature's tear-drops" falling from its pendent branches. At all events it was, to use a modern oriental word, a dry and somber desert—the sun above poured on their heads his burning arrows, and their lips were parched with thirst. But even here, their spirits rise and their songs ascend. The God of the pilgrims has made "the wilderness pools of water, and the dry land springs of water." He has changed that scorched "Valley of the weeping tree" into a Well. The clouds which had gathered gloomily on the hill-tops around—screening the sunshine—burst in blessing—and down the slopes the streams with their glad music descend. The welcome boon has already filled its waterless troughs and ridges. In the place they least expected, weeping has been changed into joy. Baca has become as Elim. God has sent a plentiful rain, whereby He has refreshed His heritage when they were weary. They can sing with joyful lips—"Happy are those who are strong in the Lord, who set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs, where pools of blessing collect after the rains!" Psalm 84:5-6
The Valley is at last traversed; and in due time there are indications that the journey is drawing to a close. The groups are increasing (v. 7). "They go from strength to strength," possibly, as that may be rendered, 'from company to company;' or 'from halting-place to halting-place.' Group is added to group; larger and yet larger grows the caravan; louder and yet louder swells the song. And now, Temple and tower and Holy Mount rise conspicuous to view. Their glowing anticipations are on the point of fulfillment. The City of Solemnities is reached—its Gates open to the weary travelers—"Every one of them in Zion appears before God" (v. 7.) And, beautiful for situation (then as now), on the sides of the north, is "the City of the Great King!"
My friends, is there here, in any feeble measure, a picture of ourselves this day? As the Israel of God, can we enter into the ecstatic language of these pilgrims of old as they came up to Hezekiah's restored courts? Specially observe the keynote of their song—what it was that formed the burden of their intensest aspirations. It was to meet Jehovah—to "see God in His Sanctuary." Many a heart among these thousands doubtless beat high at the prospect of gazing for the first time on the Holy City, so full of lofty and sacred associations. But while there was much in the external glory of its Temple-Courts to thrill and solemnize; while they might well gaze with profound and reverential devotion on "the altar of God," it was "God, their exceeding joy," who formed the burning center of their desires and yearnings. The recorded promise uppermost in their thoughts was this—"There I will meet with you, and will commune with you from off the mercy seat."
See, how in our Psalm, the same longing is expressed and repeated!—"How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty. I long, yes, I faint with longing to enter the courts of the Lord. With my whole being, body and soul, I will shout joyfully to the living God." "Blessed are those who dwell in Your house—they will be still praising You." "Their strength is in You." They appear in Zion, but it is "before God!" Is this the chief and most ardent aspiration in the heart of each worshiper and each communicant now before me? It is not attractive service, nor gorgeous ceremonial, nor external symbolism; no, nor formulated doctrine and dogma, the soul desires; but a living Being.
"I know," says Paul in words often misquoted, and in the misquotation their sense and beauty mutilated, "I know" (not in whom), but "I know Whom I have believed." It was not sects, nor creeds, nor churches, nor ecclesiastical organizations that this dying hero clung to in the hour of departure as he had done in life; but the glorious Person of the divine Emmanuel; the living Presence of the ever-living Savior—the Brother, the Friend on the Throne, whom he had learned to love more dearly than all the world beside. Is it so with us? Is our prayer and longing, today, that of him who first celebrated the Hebrew passover, "I beseech You, show me Your glory"? Do the glowing words of another Psalm form the exponent of our feelings and desires—"O God, You are my God, early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where no water is; to see Your power and Your glory, so as I have seen You in the Sanctuary"?
A second reflection occurs. Diverse and manifold, we may feel sure, were the feelings of individual worshipers among the Hebrew throngs of old, as they pursued their journey along the Palestine highways. These only too truly and faithfully reflect our own varied and chequered experiences. Some there are among us on the hill-tops of gladness, the "Delectable mountains," Nature's spring-time clothing every valley, and making its pastures sing for joy. The early or latter rain coming down on flower and tree and meadow, and causing them to sparkle like gems in the radiant sunlight. With others, it is some Valley of Baca. Clouds have gathered. The moral landscape is not spring blossoms, but autumn leaves; bared stems; branches scattered with hail and storm. Some have to tell of blighted affections, narrowed family circles, the pride and prop of the homestead fallen—fellow travelers of bygone Paschal seasons no longer at their side—voices missed in the caravan. They could almost sit down under the gloom of these weeping trees, and hang their harps on the cypress branches.
But whatever be your experience, even though the sad and weeping one may predominate, you will have rich consolation in this appointed means of grace. May you have "the early rain" in coming to the Table, and "the latter rain" in returning from it—communion with Christ, who is Himself, in the manifold phases and revelation of His grace and mercy, as "Rivers of water in a dry place." O Happy pilgrims and Christian communicants, spoken of in this Pilgrim-psalm—how all-sufficient is your "strength!" Every pilgrim needs a staff, yours is a Savior-God. Your strength is in Him. As the sparrow and the swallow here spoken of, flee from the windy storm and tempest, and sink in peace in their nests; so may you find increasing repose—it is ratified to you today, in the completed work of your glorious and glorified Redeemer—the true "Cleft" for God's hidden-ones. A communion-table is one of His own appointed resting places for His spiritual Israel, where He recruits their souls and opens to them wells of refreshment.
It was the custom of the Jewish paschal worshipers, in going to the City of Solemnities, to be arrayed in new attire—new garments adorned their bodies, new sandals bound their feet. Be it yours to have on, not for the transient sacramental season only, but as your habitual attire, the garment of holiness and love and new obedience—to have your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; having a more single undivided trust in Jesus; a greater willingness to bear His cross—greater joy at the prospect of sharing His crown.
"The swallow a nest." The swallow—Is not that a bird of passage—here today, away tomorrow to sunnier climates? Be this your constantly realized feeling, that you are swallow-like; migratory; the present a state of transition. Soon you will be away from earth's wintry skies to your Heavenly home, to build your nest in the golden eaves of the Eternal Sanctuary!
Brother Pilgrims and Fellow-Communicants, how happy your prospects, alike present and future—for time and for eternity! Present—You have here the assurance and guarantee, in every stage of your appointed journey, that the Lord God will prove "a sun and shield"—a sun to gladden, a shield to protect; withholding from you nothing that is truly "good" (verse 11). Thus with His own blessing resting upon you; and under the guidance of the double name, "God Almighty, and God of Jacob" (verse 8)—whether "Bacas" of sorrow or "Elims" of delight be yours; whether you have to pass through valleys of weeping trees, or ways clustering with amaranthine flowers; you will, you must be blessed.
The Future!—Oh, if a day—one day—thus spent in God's courts is better than a thousand, what will be the Eternal day? No Valley or Valleys of tears; no vacant seats, no absent guests; a long forever! To take up the sweet refrain of this psalm which has trembled on our lips during the services of an earthly Sabbath, and to sing it everlastingly—"O Lord Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in You!"