Song for A Pilgrim People-Psalm 84
Rev. Doug Floyd
Psalm 84 is a beloved song of devotion. Many people have lifted up these words in prayer to the Lord,
1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2 My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God. (Psalm 84:1–2)
This gives voice to a deep longing in the soul to be near the Lord. We join our voice and heart to the cry of this Psalm as we seek after the Lord.
As I was meditating upon this Psalm last week, I noticed an interesting tension within the Psalm, the Psalmist repeatedly speaks of the dwelling place of the Lord while also talking about pilgrimage.
To dwell in a place carries the idea of being stationary, of living in a place. At the same time, the Psalmist speaks of moving, of pilgrimage.
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools. (Psalm 84:5–6)
The Psalm appears to be a pilgrimage song that would be sung on the way to Jerusalem. Possibly to a festival such as the fall festival of Sukkot, also known as “the feast of Tabernacles.” Little tabernacles or dwelling places are built in Jerusalem and families camp out in the city. Those on pilgrimage build dwelling places for the week to remember how the Lord led His people through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
Psalm 84 seems to fit that festival with its emphasis upon the dwelling place of the Lord and its emphasis on pilgrimage. Imagine the excitement of a family coming to the city for the week. The whole family participates in the building of the tabernacle. They eat special foods throughout the week. They spend time visiting with family and friends. They sing together, eat together and remember God’s faithfulness. But then the festival ends and they must pack up and travel home.
As the pilgrims travel home, they reflect back on their time together and rehearse the joy of dwelling together in the Presence of the Lord.
We don’t have a central Temple where the Lord’s Presence is supposed to dwell. When Christ Jesus came, He made a way for us to dwell near the Lord in and through Him. So the dwelling place is not longer a Temple but the people of God. One way we might understand dwelling places is by thinking of our homes.
For most of us, the home is a sweet refuge. Kelly and I love to travel but we have often found that after so many days on the road, we long for home, for our special dwelling place. Coming into the home after a time away, we delight in the smells of our home, the furniture of our home, and especially our bedroom.
After a long day at work, Kelly has always loved to come home to her place of refuge. The bedroom was a special place of refuge where Kelly could relax, read, nap, and talk with me. All these are but images of how the home is a dwelling place for our relationship.
Since of our fire in August, we have both felt the deep loss of dwelling place that is also a place of refuge. We are beginning to rent a house and hope this will be a temporary dwelling that provides that place of rest together.
Our Psalm points to the Temple as a longed for dwelling place. The people could come to certain parts of the Temple, but they didn’t actually live there. The priests and the Levites serve in the Temple and dwell there to some extent. Also, the people who live in Jerusalem live near the Temple. The Psalmist rejoices over those who enjoy this close access to the Temple,
Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise! (Vs 4)
This makes me thinks of the times we have gone to Christian conferences. Some people were so deeply touched by the gatherings, they choose to live near the ministry that hosted the conference.
As we continue to read the Psalm, we discover the Psalmist does not live near the Temple but is a pilgrim who must travel home.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion. (Vs 5)
While some people physically dwell in Zion, this person’s heart is full of highways to Zion. Even as he travels home, he remember the joy of dwelling in Zion.
This makes me think a pilgrimage as a child. We lived in New Jersey, but our relatives lived in Tennessee. On some years, we would travel back to Tennessee, literally singing to “Grandma’s house we go.” Interstate 40 was not complete yet, so we would come via 11W. I loved seeing all the gourds hanging in people’s yard as birdhouses. This is when I started loving gnomes because we would see a variety of gnomes and other yard art as we travelled home. This is not exactly like the Psalmist journeying to Zion, but it helps me see how he faced various landmarks as while traveling home.
As he journeys, he sometimes faces difficult challenges. He passes through the Valley of Baca. This could be a literal reference to the drought or a metaphorical reference to the bitter challenges in the journey home or at the end of the journey home.
The Psalmist expresses trust that even these dry and bitter places will be transformed by God’s grace.
6 As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength;
each one appears before God in Zion. (Vs 6-7)
The Psalmist offers a prayer for God’s faithful protection while also considering the challenge of returning home:
8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
9 Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed!
10 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. (Vs 8-10)
John Goldingay suggests that the pilgrims may be returning to cities far from Jerusalem and may be close to mixed populations. They long to dwell in Jerusalem even as they live among the tents of wickedness or the dwelling place of mixed populations. This kind of tension would be especially true for the Israelites who lived in exile. They could long for Jerusalem and the highways to Zion burned in there hearts but they were forced to lived among the ungodly.
Like Daniel who prayed facing the Temple, they prayed and worshiped with a longing for the dwelling place near the Temple. At the same time, they are assured that the Lord has not forsaken them. Even as they are far from the Temple, the Lord can still draw near to them,
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly. (Vs 11)
At the end of the day, this is a psalm about trusting the faithfulness of God as the pilgrim looks toward Jerusalem. Even those who live far away, can still draw near to the Lord through the highways in their heart.
12 O Lord of hosts,
blessed is the one who trusts in you! (Vs 12)
The Psalm ends reiterating the fundamental importance of trusting the Lord. In many ways, the tension between longing for the dwelling place of the Lord and living as a pilgrim far from the holy city is resolved in Christ Jesus.
He makes the gathered people of God, a Temple of the Lord. We no longer travel to Jerusalem, we gather together in worship, knowing He is present among us. While many of us have been to retreats or conferences or events that were so deeply moving, we felt sad going home. And yet we return to our home, our sanctuaries, our refuges. From these places we step out into a world of human brokenness and darkness. We carry the hope of Christ, the dwelling of God with humans into our workplaces, our culture, our families. We trust that in and through Christ these places of bitter tears will become places of springs of joy.