Commentary on Psalm 84:1-7
Considered as a whole, Psalm 84 fits into the category of the songs of Zion (Psalms 46, 48, 76, 87, 122).
In this psalm, the psalmist, enraptured by the promise of the Lord of hosts’ particular presence in the Jerusalem Temple, longs to enter the courts and there to join in song with those who live in God’s house.
While ancient Israel grew to understand that the LORD was present everywhere, Jerusalem and, especially, the Temple represented a unique intersection between the God’s abode in heaven and this world (see, for example, Psalm 132:13-16). Indeed, Jerusalem and the Zion continue to draw pious Jews as a particular locus for God’s presence. Jews utter prayers daily at the Western Wall, the retaining wall of Herod’s Second Temple expansion. Certainly, Muslims and Christians also regard the city and Zion as sacred, albeit for different reasons.
In verse 3, the psalmist rejoices that humble sparrows and swallows find sanctuary in the Temple precincts where their protected nests surround the altars of the divine King. It is likely that the poet has in mind real birds that populated the niches around the Temple. On the other hand, Israel’s neighbors long considered birds fleeing the sanctuary area as a symbol of both divine abandonment and disaster for their temple and city.1 Here the psalmist reverses that trope: the image of birds nesting securely connotes the utter security provided by the divine presence. Similarly, in Isaiah’s song about the glories of Zion’s restoration, doves join the throng returning to the restored and glorious Jerusalem and Zion (Isaiah 60:8).
As the birds find safe sanctuary, so also do the blessed/happy people (’asrey) who dwell in that sacred space (verse 4). There, forever, they sing the LORD’s praises. The verb for sing in this verse is hll (the root of hallelujah) and it signals worshipful shouts and singing. Although it is ridiculously anachronistic, the association with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus is inevitable.
Verses 5, 6, and 7 each present vexing translation problems. In verse 5, the NRSV supplies “to Zion,” while the JPS translation inserts “pilgrim highways.” Given the context, perhaps something like one or the other suggestion appeared in the original text. Isaiah 60:10 refers to the preparation of a highway in association with Jerusalem. On the other hand, Kraus assumes a copyist’s error and emends the text to read, “trust in their heart.” As he notes, the correction does have the advantage of making the second half of the verse cohere with the first: those who seek refuge also trust.2
Likewise, the “Valley of Baca” (‘meq habbaka’) in verse 6 remains enigmatic. No such place has been identified, albeit some scholars link it with the valley of Rephaim, mentioned in 2 Samuel 5:18-22 and with balsam trees (beka’im) associated with that site. The NJB therefore translates “the Valley of the Balsam.” The Septuagint, however, reads te koiladi tou klauthonos, the Valley of Weeping. Perhaps those translators had an original form of bkh (to weep) rather than the homophonic bk’. Whatever the term’s precise referent, the expression intends to convey that pilgrims pass through a place of weeping or sorrow into the realm of blessing and abundant water. In an arid land, the association of water with blessing is a natural one. The scriptures frequently anticipate divinely provided water as pilgrims approach Jerusalem (Isaiah 35:6-7; 41:18-20; 43:19; 48:21; Psalm 107:35). The abundance of water, moreover, is part of the Royal Zion tradition: where God is, there the waters of paradise flow (e.g. Psalms 46:4; 65:9; Ezekiel 47; Revelation 21:1-2).
Verse 7 also presents difficulties. What might it mean to walk from “strength to strength?” The JPS solves the problem by revocalizing ?ayil (strength) to ?eyl (rampart): “They go from rampart to rampart.” The emendation is consistent with Psalm 48:12-14. There the psalmist urges worshippers to walk around Zion, to count its towers (48:12) and to consider its ramparts, so they might say to succeeding generations “this is our God, our God forever and ever” (verse 14). So too here, the psalmist anticipates that the God of gods will appear in Zion.
So, what shall we preach? Those of us whose profession it is to occupy the sanctuaries of holy places are often guilty of forgetting that our places of worship—whatever style, age, or condition they may be—are spaces set aside by believers in the hope that there they might encounter the God of gods. This text, however, is not an invitation artificially to excite sentiments about the worship space. Exhausted, hungry pilgrims—even the most pious among them—have no need to have their emotions manipulated.
Instead, the preacher might consider how it is that all who find a place in the pew have doubtless just come from his or her own Valley of Baca. Indeed, and as it is for the preacher herself, that shadowy valley is ever as close as tears and endlessly stimulated by a thousand little experiences of death we encounter at work, school, and even in our homes. We all approach our holy places hoping (even daring to anticipate!) that we too might join the celebration of God’s presence, removed from the Valley of Baca.
And we will, of course. God in Christ will be there for God has promised to be present in the proclaimed gospel, present in the loaf and the cup, present in the company of other pilgrims. God in Christ is present, reminding us that even dying sparrows fall no further than into his nail marked hands. Then—this more good news!—we will be among those who forever dwell in God’s house, ever singing Christ’s praises.
- Walter C. Bouzard, “Doves in the Window: Isaiah 60:8 in Light of Ancient Mesopotamian Lament Traditions,” in David and Zion. Biblical Studies in Honor of J.J.M. Roberts, ed. Bernard F. Batto and Kathryn L. Roberts (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 311-13.
- Hans Joakim Kraus, Psalms 60 – 150, trans. by Hilton C. Oswald (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1989), 165-66.
October 27, 2019