This Psalm uses the language of love poetry; it has an “erotic intensity” (Robert Atler, The Book of Psalms, 297). “How lovely are your dwelling places,” the Psalmist exclaims.
The term “lovely” is related to the Hebrew terms for “lover” and “lovemaking.” It describes the “love song” between the King and his wife in Psalm 45. Yahweh sings to “beloved” Israel is Isaiah 5. It is the language of the Song of Solomon as the wife seeks the “love” of her “beloved” (1:2, 4, 13-14, 16). The Psalm expresses the erotic relationship between God and Israel that “happens” in the courts of praise. It is a moment when we love on God and God loves on us.
This is the voice of a people who love–intensely enjoy–to assemble and sing in Yahweh’s tempple courts. The superscription locates the Psalm among the temple musicians and singers. Associated with the “sons of Korah” who are best known as temple singers, the choirmaster (or chief musician) is directed to perform the music with the lyre. This seems particularly appropriate for a love song.
As a love song, it expresses the intense desire to be present with the beloved. Indeed, the Psalmist is jealous of the sparrow whose nest is near the altar of God (probably nesting in the crevices of the temple stones). They make their home at the center of God’s presence where they find rest and peace. They are close, and the Psalmist is envious. Worshippers want to live near the beloved and find their home in the divine presence.
The intensity is also expressed in somatic language. The singers so long for the courts of God that their energy is totally spent (they faint). This is no silent anguish but rather their hearts and “flesh” cry out. The Hebrew verb indicates a loud and ringing cry. The desire is so intense that the heart and body moan in anticipation and yearning.
The Psalm, then, opens with a lover’s yearning for her beloved. This is what Assembly means for worshippers. It is an experience of love; it is a relational encounter.
Psalm 84, as love poetry, is also a pilgrimage piece. The singers begin their journey to the temple where the covenant people of God assemble to worship through the sacrifice of praise. Their journey is energized by their love and by the anticipation of “seeing” their beloved. In this way, as Mays writes (Psalms, Interpretation, 275), “every visit to the temple or church [assembly, JMH] or meeting of believers is in a profound sense a pilgrimage.” It is a journey into the love and life of God.
This is the context for the three beatitudes that punctuate the Psalm. Three times the Psalm pronounces the pilgrim singers as “happy” or “blessed” (84:4, 5, 12).
The first beatitutde summarizes the opening of the Psalm and provides a context for the second beatitude. The third beatitude rounds out, like a bookend, the point of the second beatitude. The point of “happy” or “blessed,” of course, is not some kind of self-security but rather a movement of God toward the person. These are people upon God acts so that they experience joy and peace.
“Blessed are those who dwell in your house.” Like the sparrow, those who make their home in the temple as participants in the Great Assembly are blessed. They are “blessed” as they continually praise God. Living in the presence of God at the temple, they never cease to experience the loving relationship with Yahweh.
The next two beatitutdes (84:5, 12) complement each other. They are contextualized by the first one. In other words, the beatitutdes and the extended comment that separates them (84:6-11) are true in the context of the Assembly. They are a function of the worshipping assembly itself.
Worshippers find their strength or power in God as their hearts are determined to make the journey into the assembly of God. They have pilgrim hearts that are set on entering the gates of the temple to praise God. They have decided to worship God. And this worship, as the third beatitude notes, arises out of their trust in the covenant God of Israel.
So, what characterizes this pilgrimage, the journey from outside assemby into the assembly? At least three perspectives are present which may shape how we approach assembly ourselves.
First, the pilgrimage is sometimes a movement from sorrow to joy (84:6-7). Pilgrims often move through the “Valley of Becca” or the valley of sorrows or weeping. The desolate valley becomes a refreshing pool of water. This happens by the strength of the Lord. God empowers worshippers to move through lament into the praise of God’s renewing life. Worship transforms mourning into dancing. Strengthened by God, worshippers learn to move through the tears into the bright sunshine of God’s presence.
Second, pilgrims petition God to protect them and lead them into the joy of assembling in the temple courts (84:8-10). The petition expresses the desire to assemble and is grounded in the preference that pilgrims have for assembly over everything else. This functions at two levels–there is no better place than praising God in the assembly of the saints and being with the assembled saints expresses their fundamental commitment to follow the covenant. They choose assembly over any other place and they choose the tent of Yahweh over tents of the wicked.
Third, pilgrims trust God’s faithful goodness. Pilgrims’ lives are characterized by “blamelessness” or better rendered something like “wholeness” or “integrity.” Pilgrims approach God faithfully; they approach Yahweh with covenantal integrity. This approach is rooted in God’s own faithfulness and the divine predisposition to bless the covenant people. Worshippers enter the divine presence with confidence in the goodness and faithfulness of their covenant God.
Believers love to assemble because they not only love each other but they love the God who draws near in those moments of assembly. The passion expressed here models the intensity that worshippers might share as they approach God with integrity. They know that God is faithful and as they approach God will show up to love on them.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–
for your love is more delightful than wine.”
Song of Songs 1:2