Desiring God (Psalm 84:1–12)

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Jonathan Edwards is doubtless the greatest theologian, to date, that has arisen from the Americas. Some scholars, even some secular ones, have estimated that he is the greatest intellectual that North America has produced.

Edwards has written some of the deepest, most mind-challenging theological studies ever penned. He was profound in his exposition of Scripture, probing to depths that leave those of us who read him marvelling. For guys like me, he often leaves us scratching our heads!

When one thinks of the labels “theologian” or “intellectual,” usually “enthusiastic” or “emotional” are not the concepts that come to mind. Rather, the thought of “cerebral” is probably the dominant thought. But, as Edwards proved, and as I trust we will see as Psalm 84 indicates, these concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Jonathan Edwards kept a journal throughout his life. One day, he recorded the following:

Once in divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension…. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception … which continued as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity.

Edwards lived his life desiring God and, because of that, he experienced God; sometimes in more “usual” communion and at other times, like the above, “extraordinarily.” Oh, to experience the latter, for they encourage us in the normal!

Desiring God, pursuing the experiential knowledge of God, is why we have been saved (John 17:1–3). And doubtless Psalm 84 exemplifies what this looks like.

Psalm 84 is a delightful psalm both to read and to expound. Unlike recent psalms, whose theme has been surrounded by sorrows of this earth, this one is surrounded by sounds of heaven. We need both. Perhaps when the compiler of the psalms put together the collection, he purposefully placed this one here so that God’s people could breathe a sigh of relief. After all, when the enemies of God surround God’s people, there is no better time to desire God. This is what we find in Psalm 84.

Psalm 84 clearly expresses a passionate love for the sanctuary, the dwelling place of God. It would seem that the temple is in view, but the words of the psalm would also fit the tabernacle. The mention of what might be the king (v. 9) tells us that this was written during the monarchy. If it was written during the reign of David, then of course the temple had not yet been built. The mention of “Zion” (vv. 5 & 7) could refer to Jerusalem anytime from David’s reign forward. And the mention of “courts” (vv. 2, 10) could rightly apply to either the tabernacle or the temple. And even the birds building their nests near the altar could have taken place at either structure. Regardless of which is in view, the clear theme of this psalm is the writer’s love for the dwelling place of God. And he delights in God’s dwelling place because he delights in the God who dwells there. His desires drove his delights, and his delights drove his desires. Leupold is right when he observes, “Seldom has that love found such touching and eloquent expression.”1

Love for the Sovereign, not love for a mere structure, is in view. In a phrase, this man writes with such touching and eloquent expression because he passionately desires to experience the presence of God. And so should we.

In this psalm, we see a lover of God desiring God, desiring to be with God. This believer expresses the satisfaction that accompanies experiencing God and what this requires.

The psalm can be divided quite simply into three sections, each which helps us to see what desiring God looks like.

Appetite for God

“Longing is written all over this psalm.”2 The psalmist expresses his appetite for God in the opening four verses.

How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they will still be praising You. Selah.

(Psalm 84:1–4)

A Right Estimation

Verses 1–2 show that the author had a right estimation: “How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” This would seem to be the desire expressed in this opening stanza.

The writer is a son of Korah.3 These individuals were appointed as “caretakers,” “factotums” if you will, of the tabernacle. Later, they were appointed by David to serve in what would be the temple as “janitors.”4

We don’t know the circumstances or occasion of the psalm, but we do know the desire of the writer. He desired to be in God’s house.

Perhaps a son (or some sons) of Korah was (or were) away from the dwelling place of God, and was (or were) thinking about what they were missing. Or perhaps the writer was right there and was expressing his heart’s thrill at his privilege to be so near to God, his privilege to experience God.

The essence of this stanza is the desire to find rest in the only way that one can truly find it; that is, in the experience of knowing God. But it is quite clear that the author “feels” for God. It is an example of what C. S. Lewis described in his little book on the Psalms as having an appetite for God.

In our highly over-sexed age, this would be a good place to drive home the point that dwelling with the Lord, experiencing His presence, is the greatest thrill we could ever have.

Many people have been delivered from a debauched, licentious, depraved sexual appetite by the gospel. Once they tasted the beauties of Christ, their sexual appetites no longer dominated them. Augustine is a prime example (though his vow of celibacy and the subsequent mistreatment of the mother of his child were inexcusable). Jesus is better and more satisfying than anything, including God’s gift of sex.

This individual placed a high, right and righteous estimation on the “dwelling place of God.” The words “how lovely” literally mean “how desirable.” Again, the desire was not for the structure. The architecture, though not unimportant, nevertheless was not the most important thing about the dwelling place. The presence of the sovereign Lord and Saviour was the drawing point.

The writer speaks with great feeling. He says that his desire for God is actually so strong that it is physical. He speaks of his “soul” longing, even fainting, for the experience of the presence of the Lord. His flesh cries out for this. VanGemeren comments, “He physically longs for the experience of God’s presence, as he yearns/faints with his whole being.”5 Strong language indeed! But it is the language of a lover. It is the language of someone who has experienced this before and who will not be content until he experiences it again. Is this you?

Too often, we fill our lives with so much “junk food” that we don’t realise the hunger that remains. We need this kind of hunger for the living God. Too often, we settle for a theoretical knowledge of God. But this will never satisfy. We need to make ourselves vulnerable to know the living God. We need to think and then we will feel!

A Righteous Envy

Verses 3–4 reveal the psalmist’s righteous envy: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they will still be praising You. Selah” (vv. 3–4).

This idea of rest is illustrated by the poetic mention of the sparrow and swallow, which build their nests near the altar.

Some argue that this would have been an impossibility since the altar was a place of so much activity. But the idea, of course, is that these birds find a home near the altar; that is, somewhere in the tabernacle or temple. As the psalmist observes this, he makes some poetic connections.

He is jealous of their nearness to God. He is envious of their privileged safety. He longs for the place of rest in which they have built their nest.

The sparrow is among the smallest and most common of birds. Jesus said that, in His day, you could buy two for a penny. They were cheaper than goldfish; seemingly unimportant if not expendable. We know of campaigns to save the rhino; I know of none to save the sparrow. And yet this apparently insignificant bird has found an enviable place in which to nest and to rest at the dwelling place of God.

Jesus told His disciples that God cares for sparrows; in fact, He knows when one falls to the ground. And if God cares for sparrows, how much more will He care for you and me (Matthew 10:26–31)?

If we will desire God, and then if we will experience God, we need to identify with the sparrow. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once noted, we must see ourselves as small before God, needy and in danger in this world, and yet immensely loved by our God. As we have just seen, if God cares for sparrows, He will care for you.

One way that God cares for us is by His house. The local church is the dwelling place of God. If we want rest for our souls then we need to abide in the Father’s house; we need a healthy relationship with the church. We need to gather with the church, worship with the church, learn with, from and in the church, and serve in the church.

I might add that sparrows are industrious. If we will experience God, then we too must be committed to the hard work of seeking Him. Effort is required. We do not need to be innovative, but we do need initiative. So do what you must to draw near to God, assured of the promise that God will draw near to you.

The swallow is perhaps the busiest of birds. They are always darting about. And perhaps the psalmist is making a parallel that we too can often find ourselves flitting here and there and everywhere while we need rest. We need the house of God to give us perspective.

If we will truly find rest, then we need to know ourselves. And then we must know our God.

Assurance in God

In the second stanza, we find the psalmist’s assurance in God:

Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, whose heart is set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a spring; the rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion. O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah.

(Psalm 84:5–8)

This section of the psalm seems to view those who are on their way to Zion, to the dwelling place of God, where they will experience God’s presence. Whereas apparently the first stanza pictures the worshipper having arrived, this stanza views the worshipper on his pilgrimage to get there. Such an individual is quite literally living for God’s presence. Kidner notes, “But we may reflect that often it is the exile who appreciates home, while the stay-at-home find fault with it.”6

This may be the picture, though some translations use the word “highways” rather than pilgrimage (v. 5), but the implication seems to be the same: The worshipper is journeying to Jerusalem to worship at God’s house.

The Jews experienced annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for various feasts. This image of a journey is therefore apt.

Others suggest that the stanza rather pictures one’s journey through life. Nevertheless, the idea remains the same: As we go through this life desiring God, and seeking God, then will live devoted to Him at all times. That is, whether we are at the temple or away from it, our devotion will be to the Lord. Our appetite having been fulfilled in better times, our assurance will remain in more difficult times. “It is a blessed thing to lean on the Lord when making plans for life’s situations as they arise.”7 This seems to be the theme in this passage.

Appropriating God’s Strength

The reason that the individual is so focused is because he knows that ultimately he is dependent upon the Lord. Their strength is in the Lord, he notes (v. 5). He knows that he exists to experience the presence of God. This is the perspective that drives and guides the Christian. It is this desire that sustains the Christian as we go through difficult times. But there is more.

Having sought the presence of God, the believer has been strengthened in his spirit. His hunger pangs have been cured and now he is strengthened for the journey. And he is going to need this.

Applying God’s Strength

In vv. 6–7, the writer applies God’s strength. The writer speaks of “the Valley of Baca” or the valley of “tears.” The assurance is given that, as we focus on the promise of experiencing God’s presence, those times of drought will, in fact, become times of flowing springs of blessings. The rains of trial will result in reservoir of blessings, both for the Christian and for others. And in spite of the difficulties, trials that would otherwise sap our energies are actually turned to times of strengthening. We go from strength to strength. And the reason is because we know that we will experience God’s presence, and this empowers us to persevere.

When the presence of God is our deepest longing then we quite literally live for the presence of God. As we face each day with its various Bacas, we will do so knowing that they are opportunities to experience God. Though not enjoying the trial, we will know that, at the end of the journey, a deeper experience of God will make the long and sometimes arduous journey worth it all. But not only this, as we keep such a perspective, we will bless the lives of other pilgrims. Here’s how: As we keep the long view of experiencing God, such a hope-filled horizon will help others who are also facing difficulties. The overflow of such a God-centred perspective will create pools of blessing from which others can drink along the way. Leupold comments, “As the persons in question pass through it they bestow by the life they live and by the works they do, so much blessing upon others that they may be said to make the parched valley ‘a place of springs.’”7

In other words, our appetite can be used of the Lord to stir the appetites of others. And this can be a means of increasing the aptitude of others as well.

After serving God faithfully in one church for 23 years, Jonathan Edwards was ousted from the church over a theological dispute. He took the biblical stand that the Lord’s Table is for believers only. The church largely disagreed, and so he was unceremoniously removed from the pastorate. And what did he do? He went to minister to an uneducated tribe of Native Americans, giving them opportunity to come and love the Saviour whom he loved.

Asking for God’s Strength

In v. 8–9, the psalmist asks for God’s strength: “O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah. O God, behold our shield, and look upon the face of Your anointed.” “From the tone of godly reflection the psalm turns to prayer.”9

It would seem that, having contemplated this God-centred perspective, the psalmist’s prayer is a rather passionate one in which he perhaps longs for such a perspective and for such perseverance.

Perhaps he contemplates his own pilgrimage, and even at this time is also experiencing some “burden of Baca.” So he prays. He does not want his exaltation about the glorious and gladdening presence of God to be mere theory. No, though he does not always experience, this nevertheless he desires to set his sails so that, indeed, when the Holy Spirit blows, he will sail into the wonder of a deeper knowledge of God.

But I think there is more. The prayer is not only for his own situation but also for the king, the “anointed.” It is a prayer that the king will experience God’s presence. The appeal for the Lord to “look upon the face” of the king reminds us of the Aaronic blessing. This is interesting.

What would make for good governance but those who are in authority prioritising the experience of God? Rather than grandstanding at police stations, would it rather not be a marvellous encouragement to see government officials longing for and living for the presence of God? So, while we seek the Lord, we should be praying that our leaders will seek the Lord as well.

We should pause to consider our own perspective. What is our primary goal in life? Is it that of this psalmist, which is like that expressed in Psalm 27:4?

Allegiance to God

In the closing verses, the psalmist expresses his allegiance to God. We see here the blessing of reverent dependence.

For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord will give grace and glory; no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in You!

(Psalm 84:10–12)

This should be our pursuit.

Rather abruptly, it would seem, the author cries out that with the estimation that “one day of fellowship with God is a thousand times better than anything else.”10 Perhaps having prayed for the king to experience God’s presence, the author is once again caught up with the realisation of how great this experience is. He loves the presence of God. It is his chief delight—so much so, in fact, that he would much rather be a “doorkeeper” (a guard of the temple) than to experience any of the supposed luxuries that the surrounding pagans with their “tents of wickedness” can offer. Boice notes, “Because God dwelled in Zion, the most favoured of all human beings were those who lived there too, especially those who, like the priests, actually worked in the temple, whether making sacrifices, conducting the music or attending to the inevitable custodial work.”11

Verse 11 tells us some more reasons why he loves the experience of the presence of God: because “the LORD God is a sun and shield.” VanGemeren explains that “the sun is symbolic of the era of restoration (Is 60:19; Mal 4:2).”10 The psalmist therefore realises that to experience the presence of the Lord is to be restored to what he was created to be. Such an experience was like the healing rays of the sun. And such health would serve as a shield to protect him from the sins of a dark world.

Finally, the psalmist, motivated by the experience of God’s presence, is encouraged at its prospects. That is, he knows that his life will be enriched by such an experience. Those who experience God, who walk with God, will eventually experience God’s “grace and glory.” They will experience God’s favour and fullness. This is true for all Christians. “As God’s blessing was not limited to the temple courts, the blessing on those who dwell in the house of the Lord may well be extended to all who do the will of God. They dwell in his presence, wherever they may live.”13

The Christian is driven by such a desire (2 Corinthians 4:17–5:5; cf. Romans 8:28–30).

Before laying down his pen, the psalmist exults with a closing benediction. He cries out, “O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in You!” This may seem like a different vein of thought from longing for God’s presence, but it is actually the other side of the same coin, for to live for God’s presence is to confess that He is worthy of our trust. After all, why would we yearn for His presence if He was not trustworthy?

This verse is the key to the psalm. Spurgeon notes, “The worship is that of faith, and the blessedness is peculiar to believers. No formal worshipper can enter into this secret. A man must know the Lord by the life of real faith, or he can have no true rejoicing in the Lord’s worship, his house, his Son, or his ways. Dear reader, how fares it with your soul?”

If you are not willing to trust Him, then forget about seeking Him. God is not a cosmic bell hop. He will not be used. He is “LORD of hosts,” a title stressing His might in battle. He is not to be trifled with. So, if we want the blessings of His presence, we need to trust Him wholeheartedly. And that begins with trusting His Word about His Son.

The Lord of hosts tells us in no uncertain terms that His Son is God’s appointed Saviour—the only Saviour. If we want God’s presence, then we secure this through His Son. By His redemptive work on the cross, we can be forgiven of our sins—the very sins that keep us from experiencing God’s presence. But when we repent and believe the gospel then, like the sparrow and the swallow, we find that we are finally home—at home to experience the presence of our Father. Are you home yet? Will you come home now?

Show 13 footnotes

  1. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 603.
  2. Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 3:302.
  3. In fact, it is possible that the psalm was merely collected rather than written by the sons of Korah, but this is not the place to enter into that discussion.
  4. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:690.
  5. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:542.
  6. Kidner, Psalms, 2:304.
  7. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 606.
  8. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 606.
  9. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 607.
  10. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:545.
  11. Boice, Psalms, 2:692.
  12. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:545.
  13. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:543.