Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

The psalms chosen for lectionary use are often abridged for a variety of reasons — sometimes valid, sometimes not so much, many of us would say.

The Pharisee and the Publican
JESUS MAFA. The Pharisee and the Publican, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

October 27, 2013

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Commentary on Psalm 84:1-7

The psalms chosen for lectionary use are often abridged for a variety of reasons — sometimes valid, sometimes not so much, many of us would say.

Today’s abridgment of Psalm 84 seems to be simply a matter of length, since there are no particularly “embarrassing” or “offending” elements in the part omitted. Still, however the psalm is used today liturgically, the preacher might want to hold onto the latter part, if only because it provides the rationale for the positive elements in the earlier portion: My soul longs for the courts of the Lord (verse 2).

But why? “For [because, ki] a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness” (verse 10). What a claim! Partying with God is more fun than partying with the wicked! Can the preacher make that case? Can your congregation make such a claim? It would be something to explore in the sermon.

Or further: Happy are those who find a home in God’s house; happy are those whose strength is in God (verses 4-5). But why? “For [because, ki] the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly” (verse 11). That’s the big rationale, of course. Life is better with God, because God is the source of warmth and protection, life and all good things. More, God withholds nothing — well, not to those who walk uprightly. That little hedge will make us take stock of what it means to walk uprightly.

The psalm itself will help, certainly. To walk uprightly is to make our home with God, with God’s people, with God’s church. That is where we will be shaped and transformed into the kind of people that matter in the world — people who might even turn a dry valley “into a place of springs” (verse 6). According to the Hebrew grammar of the psalm, God’s people are active makers of “springs,” of a new world — parallel subjects to “the early rain” in the second part of the verse. God’s people as rain? Not raining on other’s parades (as some might fear of the pious) but the rain that provides life and joy to other people and the creation itself. Can people do that? This is metaphor, of course, but also a clear beckoning call to action.

Like other psalms (especially, for example, Psalm 122), this one too sings of the pilgrimage of God’s people to the temple, to Israel’s festival worship. Such songs sing of the joys and blessings of the temple, but Psalm 84 provides us also this glimpse of what happens along the way. God’s pilgrims apparently are not those whose eyes are so fixed on heaven (or the temple) that they have no time for or interest in this life, as though they (we) are merely passing through.

The pilgrims in Psalm 84 — precisely because they know the wonders and pleasures of life with God — make a profound difference as their journey to “the courts of the Lord.” The metaphor of verse 6 might inform us more or less literally, inviting us to tend and care for the creation itself — leaving it better than we found it, rather than contributing to its barrenness — but it might function for us spiritually and poetically, inviting us to “rain” wherever there is need and drought. How nice it would be if this were the image of God’s people held by the world.

When I served in Zimbabwe, people were always glad to hear I was Lutheran because it brought to their minds the logo of Lutheran World Relief on the trucks that brought food and water, dams and boreholes, clothing and care to their needy villages. It felt good to be put in such company, and the psalm invites all God’s people to find similar vocations.

The psalm’s claim that God withholds nothing from “those who walk uprightly” gets a bit more troublesome in NIV’s translation: “from those whose walk is blameless [Hebrew tamim = whole, entire, complete].” Can we pull that off? We should not run from the definition too quickly, as though we are just poor miserable sinners who can never do anything good or right. The singers of the psalm, too, knew themselves to be sinners.

Indeed, in a similar song of pilgrimage, those who have “clean hands and pure hearts” (one might say, those who are “righteous”) come to the temple precisely in order to receive “righteousness” (Psalm 24:4-5) (Hebrew: tsedaqah; NRSV: vindication). “Righteousness” is a relational term in the Old Testament, not something that I earn, control, or boast of. I am righteous or blameless or have clean hands because I receive it from God, but then I renew it in worship and community, and use it in the service of God and others.

True, we will not make ourselves sinless or eternally righteous, but as God cleanses us and makes us righteous, we ought not back away from acting the part that God assigns to us. People should be glad to see us coming — like my African friends with the LWR trucks.

The psalmist longs for “the courts of the Lord,” envying even the birds that are able to nest perpetually in the open areas of the temple. Ah, to be a bat in God’s belfry! Does “temple” translate as “church” for us — that is, as church building? It might. Many of us have wonderfully nostalgic memories of events associated with church buildings: great music, inspiring worship, uplifting sermons, family weddings and baptisms, perhaps even moving funerals. Those are good things, and we give thanks for them.

But “temple” probably translates better for us as the community of God’s people in and with whom God is present. We might know them best in the church building, but we will recognize them wherever people and the creation are being nourished, wherever they are providing “rain” for the earth. What a happy place to be, says the psalm. Yes, indeed, better than partying with the wicked.