How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, 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 have her young — a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Psalm 84.1-4.
These verses express the profound longing of a pilgrim, on his way to the temple in Jerusalem, to be there, in the very presence of God. Yes, God is everywhere (Psalm 139.8) but, in a special, particular, focused way, God is in his holy temple, present to his people as their God. And this pilgrim’s body and soul cries out with yearning to be in that presence. He yearns for the privilege enjoyed by the sparrows and the swallows of not only being in the temple courts but of actually living there!
Some years ago, I visited a monastery in Cyprus where the inner courtyard, open to the sky, was full of swallows swooping to their young in nests under the balcony that ran around the courtyard; and so it must have been in the courtyards of the first temple. There were also olive trees growing in the courtyards of the first temple (Psalm 52.10) and there the sparrows may have nested. How wonderful, the pilgrim is saying, to have your home right next to the altar where God meets man in mercy and grace. And how wonderful too to join in their praise. I remember the sound of the swallows’ cries in the Cypriot monastery, echoing around the courtyard and mingling with the plainsong of the monks; and here the psalmist has the same thing in mind — the hallels of the temple singers blending with the songs and cries of the birds. Oh, he so wants to be part of it!
There is no question here that, though the psalm begins with appreciation for the temple buildings, it is not the temple as such that the pilgrim longs for. He longs to meet with, and pour his own personal praises out to, the God who dwells there — a God who is the “LORD Almighty, my King and my God”. In both places where the NIV has “Lord Almighty”, the Hebrew is actually Yahweh Sabaoth — an expression that the King James Version always translates as “Lord of Hosts” and that The Message translates it “God of the Angel Armies”. But for all his might, God is “my king and my God” to the pilgrim. This God is a “living God” and the relationship is personal.
I am ashamed this morning, reading these words, at my own lack of passion for being in the presence of God. This pilgrim, who had never heard the gospel, never seen Jesus go to the cross for him, never seen him rise victorious over death, never been filled with the Holy Spirit, could be … was … consumed with a love and longing and desire for his God in a way that leaves my devotion way behind. How do I remedy that?
Perhaps the answer is in the last of this morning’s verses, the beatitude with which it ends. I need (like the birds) to dwell in God’s house — to learn to abide in his presence. That is what gives rise to constant praise.
O for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free,
a heart that always feels Thy blood so freely shed for me.
A heart resigned, submissive, meek, my great Redeemer’ s throne;
where only Christ is heard to speak, where Jesus reigns alone:
A humble, lowly, contrite heart, believing, true, and clean;
which neither life nor death can part from Him that dwells within:
A heart in every thought renewed, and full of love divine;
perfect, and right, and pure, and good, a copy, Lord, of Thine.
Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart; come quickly from above,
write Thy new name upon my heart, Thy new, best name of love.