The Journey of Desire | Psalm 84
Brian Hedges | April 29, 2020
Across the history of the church and in every tradition of the church, whether Eastern or Western, Protestant or Catholic, there have always been those souls, those people who are characterized by deep passion for God, by a deep desire for God. They are what A.W. Tozer called "the fellowship of the burning hearts."
One of the benefits of digging into the Psalms, as we have been doing in this series, is that the Psalms give us the language of the soul that desires God. Tonight I want to look at another one of those psalms, Psalm 84. I hope you’ll follow along in your Bibles as we read it together, Psalm 84. It’s a psalm that’s all about longing for God, and it’s really a psalm that’s characterized by a journey. We might actually call this psalm “The Journey of Desire.” Let’s read it together, Psalm 84:1.
“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!
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early 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!
Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed!
“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.
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.
O Lord of hosts,
blessed is the one who trusts in you!”
This is God’s word.
We see in this psalm a threefold structure. There are three stanzas in this psalm, of four verses each, and each one of those stanzas gives us a window into this psalmist’s relationship with God. You have:
I. Desire for God
II. The Journey to God
III. Communion with God
This was probably written by someone who was on a pilgrimage, or perhaps was writing a psalm for the pilgrims, who each year would make their way to Jerusalem for one of the three annual feasts.
As we look at the psalm together and we trace this pattern of desire, journey, and communion, it has much to teach us about our own journey of desire, our journey in relationship with God. Let’s look at each part of the psalm.
I. Desire for God
Derek Kidner in his commentary says, “Longing is written all over this psalm,” and you see it especially in those first two verses, “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,” or it could be “cry for joy,” not necessarily a note of singing here; it’s more the idea of an earnest cry. “My heart and my flesh cry for joy to the living God.” Again, Kidner calls this “the language of love poetry.”
We all know something of the experience of desire in our lives. Think of a time where there was some experience or some event, perhaps even a person, that you deeply longed to see, or an event you deeply desired to come. You might think of children who are earnestly looking forward to Christmas morning or to the trip to Disney World. You might think of the young engaged couple who just can’t wait for their wedding day. Or perhaps the expectant parents who eagerly await the arrival of their newborn baby. All of these are common desires that all human beings experience, but in this psalm you have a desire specifically for God.
This psalm reminds us that there are certain desires in our lives which only God himself can fulfill. Sometimes we try to fulfill those desires in other ways, but it’s always doomed to fail. C.S. Lewis called this “the inconsolable longing.” In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis said that “most people when they look into their hearts want and want acutely something that cannot be had in this world.”
The problem is that sometimes we look to those other experiences, we look to falling in love or we look to travel or we look to our ambitions and careers, other kinds of things, but no experience in this world actually satisfies those deepest desires.
Well, that’s the kind of desire that the psalmist has in this psalm. He’s expressing a desire for God, a desire to be in the house of God. Notice that there are seven references in this psalm to some aspects of God’s house. He talks about God’s dwelling place, the courts of the Lord; he talks about the altars of the Lord, the house of the Lord, the court, the house of the Lord. Those words pop up again and again and again.
Now, I think it’s wrong for us to think that the right translation or the right application of that to our own day is a longing to go to church, that is, to go to a church building. What the psalmist was longing for was what took place in the temple. He was longing for the experience of the presence of God. The temple was the place where God revealed his glory, it was the place where the presence of God dwelt, the Shekinah glory of God.
Don’t you remember in Exodus 40, after Moses had constructed that first tabernacle, the glory of the Lord came and filled the place? You have the same thing in 1 Kings 8, when Solomon had built the temple, and the glory of the Lord came. The temple was the place where God’s glory, where God’s presence dwelt.
It was also the place of sacrifice. It was the place where sacrifices were made. Every day sacrifices were made, and there were certain sacrifices that were only made once in a year, but it was the place of atonement, it was the place of grace, it was the place where people could be assured that their sins were forgiven.
It was also the place of celebration. It was the very center point of the worshipping community’s celebration of God, especially as they would journey for those annual feasts and gather together in Jerusalem.
It’s that whole experience that the psalmist is thinking of when he says he longs for the house of the Lord.
For us today, the place of fellowship with God, the place of atonement and sacrifice, our greatest experience of the presence of God is not found in a building, it’s found in relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the new temple. Jesus Christ replaced the old temple. In fact, as we are united to Jesus Christ through faith, we ourselves become a temple of the Lord, the habitation of God’s Spirit. So this isn’t so much about wanting to get back to church, as much as we long for that; this is a desire for God himself.
Again, as C.S. Lewis has taught us, as well as St. Augustine and many others, our greatest problem with desire is that we mistake the object of our longing. We want and we want acutely something that this world cannot satisfy, this inconsolable longing. Lewis says that there are two ways that this goes wrong.
There’s the fool’s way. This is the person who is constantly moving from relationship to relationship, the man is moving from woman to woman, the person who’s moving from career to career, the couple that’s moving from house to house, the person who’s always looking for the next and the better and the best in their lives, and they’re never satisfied. Lewis says this is foolish.
Then he says that there are other people that take the way of the disillusioned sensible man, and what he means by that is cynicism. This is the person who’s basically decided that fulfillment of these deepest desires is really just wishful thinking.
In contrast to that, Lewis describes the Christian way. Listen to what he says. He says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Well, the psalmist recognized that. He had a desire for God, and you also have deep soul desires, deep desires of your heart, that can be satisfied in no other way than in God himself. Do you long for him? Do you desire him? Do you have a passion for God as you see described here in this psalm?
II. The Journey to God
If so, it should set you on a journey, a journey to God. That’s really the second part of the psalm, in verses 5-8. As I mentioned before, this is a psalm that was probably written either by a pilgrim, someone who was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or perhaps it was written for pilgrims.
You see this especially in verse 5. Listen to it in the NIV. “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” The ESV says, “...in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” In other words, they have the ways to God, the way to Jerusalem, where God’s presence dwelt, they have that way in their hearts. Their hearts are set on the journey to God. They are intent and devout in seeking after God.
There’s something for us to learn about our own journey of seeking after God from this psalm. Let me just point out two things quickly.
(1) The first thing is this, that this journey is marked by perseverance through difficulty and struggle. The journey to God is not always an easy journey; in fact, it’s usually marked by hardship. We desire him, but we then begin to seek for him, and often in our lives it’s only as we press through difficulties and problems and trials that we really come to know him.
You see this in verse 6. Notice that it says, “As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs. The early rain also covers it with pools.”
What was the valley of Baca? Well, it was probably a valley east of Jerusalem that pilgrims would pass through in order to get to the city. It was an arid, dry valley, like a desert, and they needed sustenance on the journey. So what they would often do is dig a cistern, and then wait for the rain to come and fill the cistern so that there would be a place of water, there would be a source of water.
The word “Baca” is related to a word that sounds very similar to the verb for weeping, so sometimes this is translated “the valley of weeping,” the valley of tears. This word in the singular form is translated as balsam trees in 2 Samuel 5:23. It was a tree or shrub which grows in arid places, Kidner tells us, and balsam trees would drip sap when they were cut, and therefore give the appearance of weeping.
So the psalmist, describing this valley, I think gives it almost a metaphorical meaning, the valley of tears. It’s a valley of difficulty. Notice what he says: as they go through this valley of weeping, they make it a place of springs. I love the way the old King James put it, “They dig a well.”
It teaches us something about our own journey towards God, that often we go through difficulties, we go through valleys of tears, we go through valleys of weeping, we go through trials, we go through hardship, we go through suffering. When we’re going through those valleys, the only thing that we can really do is dig a well and ask for God to fill the well, to fill the cistern, so that the valley of tears becomes a place of nourishment and sustenance in our lives.
In other words, you don’t just stop, you don’t just sit there to die in the desert; instead, you use the means of grace, you pursue the Lord through the word and through prayer and through earnestly seeking after fellowship with God. You dig a well, and you ask the Lord to meet you in that difficulty.
Well, that’s part of what the journey involves. It’s marked by perseverance through difficulty and struggle.
(2) Here’s the second thing: this journey involves growth and progress. Look at verse 7. “They go from strength to strength,” or it could read “from company to company”; “each one appears before God.” Whatever the meaning of the language there, it carries the idea of advancement, of moving from one place to another, from one step to another, from strength to strength.
You have this kind of language over and over again in Scripture. In Job 17:9 we read that “the righteous holds to his way, and he who has clean hands grows stronger and stronger.” There’s advancement.
Or Proverbs 4:18, “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.”
In all of these cases, what you have is the idea of growing, of making progress, of advancement. That is part of the Christian life.
What are we advancing towards? What are we growing towards? We’re growing towards a deeper dependence on God, a deeper fellowship with God. For the psalmist, it was a literal progress in his journey towards Jerusalem. They go “from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.” Zion is another name for the city of Jerusalem.
But for us, it’s not a pilgrimage to a sacred city, it is a pilgrimage in our own lives towards a deeper, more intimate relationship with God. It is growth in our spiritual lives towards deeper communion with God.
III. Communion with God
That leads us to the third stanza of this psalm. We’ve seen desire for God, we’ve seen the journey to God, and finally, in verses 9-12, we see communion with God. Just notice what this communion with God involves.
(1) First of all, it involves prayer. Prayer as a way of life, we might say. Verse 9, “Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed!” He’s praying to the Lord. “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.” Virtually the entire psalm is a prayer, but you see the intensity of the prayers. He keeps addressing himself to the Lord.
Do you remember the little book written by Brother Lawrence—perhaps you’ve never read it, but you know the title—The Practice of the Presence of God? Here was a man who was a cook, right? He was in a monastery, or something like that, and he was learning how to live in ongoing, daily fellowship with God, so that even as he went about his tasks, as he was cooking, as he was cleaning, as he was doing these various things, he was just constantly practicing the presence of God. Prayerfulness as a way of life. That’s part of communion with God.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we never set aside specific times of focused prayer; we should all do that as well. But part of growing in our Christian lives is learning to just live in daily, ongoing fellowship with God. I recall reading somewhere that Spurgeon said that he never went a quarter of an hour without shooting up a prayer to the Lord. Even as he was crossing the street or going about his business, going about his day, he would often just shoot up prayers to the Lord. That’s the idea; prayerfulness as a way of life.
(2) Here’s another aspect of communion with God: it is a preference for the things of God over everything else. It is a deep satisfaction in God himself. You see that in the verses I’ve already read, verse 10, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
You see the contrast there. He doesn’t say, “A year in your courts is better than a year elsewhere,” he takes a small measurement— “A day in your courts is better than a thousand days anywhere else! I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God—” that would be the position of the humble servant, the person who’s just opening the door for others to come in “—I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” He’s showing a preference for humble service and for the experience of worshipping God over sin, of course, but really over anything else.
The Puritan Thomas Brooks said, “The least good look that a man has from God and the least good word that a man hears from God and the least love letter and love token that a man receives from God is exceedingly precious to that man that has God as his portion.”
I wonder if that describes you. Do you have God for your portion? Can you say, “I would rather dwell in the house of the Lord—even just one day in the house of the Lord would be better to me than thousands elsewhere. I’d rather be a doorkeeper in God’s house, to take the most humble, lowly position of servanthood in order to be close to the Lord”?
Again, the idea here is not so much your service at church, it’s rather your lowly and humble pursuit of God himself and fellowship with God. These are characteristic of communion with God.
(3) We value communion with God because of who he is. Look at verse 11. “For the Lord God is a sun and a shield.” Two wonderful metaphors for God.
He is a sun. What is that? He is the source of light, he is the source of glory, he is the source of life. Just think about the sun for our planet is so essential to life for everything else.
One of my children, recently in school, has been studying sunflowers and how sunflowers, every day, will turn towards the sun. I think it’s a beautiful picture of what the Christian should be like, who is constantly turning himself, his face towards God, who is our sun, the source of light and life and of everything that we need.
But he’s also our shield! What’s a shield for? A shield is for protection, for security, our help, our defender in times of trouble. God is both of those things to us, and therefore there’s great value to communion with God, because of who he is; and also because of what he gives.
At the end of verse 11, “The Lord bestows favor and honor,” or again, to quote the King James, “The Lord will give grace and glory.” Favor; that is, the grace of God; and then honor and glory; that is, recognition from God. Of course, that comes to us only by grace.
You might actually say that the entire Christian life could be between these two bookends of grace and glory. It begins with grace, carried by the grace of God all the way through, and then ends with glory. God’s grace that brings us into relationship with himself, and then being crowned with glory and honor as we are glorified, made like the Lord Jesus Christ, in that final day. The Lord gives both of those things.
In fact, at the end of verse 11, the text says, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” What an amazing promise that God will give us everything good! Everything that we could ever need or desire ultimately will be found in communion with him and relationship with him.
(4) Now, there’s one more thing I want you to see, and that’s the secret of communion with God. How is it that we experience this? How do we experience communion with God? I owe this insight to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who in a wonderful series of sermons on Psalm 84 pointed this out. He points out verse 3 in the psalm, which might strike us as somewhat odd. “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.”
What is the psalmist saying here? Well, on one level, he’s just expressing his holy envy. He wants to be in the house of God, in the presence of God, and he envies the birds who make their nests round about the temple.
But Lloyd-Jones points out the significance of the altars and that In the Hebrew here, as well as in the English, it doesn’t say “at your altar,” singular, but “at your altars,” plural, “O Lord of hosts.” Lloyd-Jones points out that there were two altars. We know this if we’ve ever studied the furniture of the tabernacle or the temple, but there were two altars.
There was, first of all, the brazen altar, or the altar of brass, that was called the altar of sacrifice. This was the altar on which the burnt offerings were made. This was the place where sacrifices were offered up to the Lord. This was the place of atonement.
But there was a second altar, and it was the altar of incense. This was an altar that was made of acacia wood, it was overlaid with gold, and it was in the holy place. It was the altar in which the incense was perpetually burned. Day and night, there was always incense being burned up to the Lord.
There’s incredible significance to these altars, when we think about the typology, we think about the symbolism and what it means. They both point us to Christ. They point us to both Christ’s work as our priest, who sacrificed himself for us—he himself is the sacrifice—and it’s through his sacrifice, through his shed blood, it’s through his atoning work that we are able to experience communion with God. But he’s also our intercessor. He’s also the one who prays for us, and it’s through the fragrance, the incense of his ongoing intercession—he ever lives to intercede for us—it’s through that that we are able to experience communion with God.
You see, the greatest obstacle in our lives to seeing the satisfaction of our deepest desire, our desire for God; the greatest obstacle in our journey towards God; and the greatest obstacle in our personal communion with God is the obstacle of sin. It’s a guilty conscience. It’s knowing that we have broken fellowship with God through our sins and through our transgressions. It’s knowing that we are not fit for God’s presence.
What do we do with those kinds of thoughts? There’s only one thing you can do. Listen to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He says, “Have you found it difficult to pray? Have you felt when you’ve gone on your knees that you’re talking to yourself and you don’t know God? My dear friend, this is why: you haven’t been by the altars. The altars are essential! There is no knowledge of God except in Jesus Christ and him crucified. There is no other way into his presence.”
The way to communion with God is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It’s through the altars, it’s through his sacrificial work and his work in our behalf as our high priest. It’s when we remind ourselves of what Christ has done, it’s when we preach the gospel to ourselves, when we say in the words of Romans 8:34, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died; more than that, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us”; it’s when we remind ourselves of that that we are able to break into communion with God. The way is opened, the veil to the temple has been torn, and Jesus has made a way into the presence of God.
As I close, let me read these words from Hebrews 10:19-22. Hear the call to draw near to God. “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
You and I can draw near to God. We can have communion with God. We can find God as the deep satisfaction of our souls as we journey towards him, and I hope that will be your experience as you look to him today. Let’s pray.
Our gracious and merciful God, we thank you that you have not left us alone to the idolatry of our desires, where we try to meet our deepest needs, are pursuing other things and neglecting you, but that for all who are in Christ you have awakened us to the depth of our need, you have convicted us of sin, you have shown us our need for Christ, and you have shown us that you are the fountain of living waters, and that we’ve been trying to satisfy our thirst at broken cisterns that can hold no water. Thank you for that grace, thank you for that gift of opening our eyes to see that.
Thank you for bringing us into the journey—the journey of desire, the journey towards fellowship with you. Thank you that through Christ, through his cross and resurrection, through his work as our high priest, both his sacrifice and his ongoing intercession for us, that we can actually live in communion with you.
Father, my prayer is that we would learn to live in the practice of the presence of God, that we would learn to live in fellowship with God, that we would be those kinds of souls who make up the fellowship of the burning heart, those people who love you, who worship you, and who deeply desire you and find our deepest longings fulfilled in you. May that be true in our hearts and in our lives today and in the days and weeks to come. I pray it in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.