Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

The divine presence brings joy that no other experience can offer

Man on floor praying fervently
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 23, 2022

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Commentary on Psalm 84:1-7

The Songs of Zion celebrate God’s presence with the community in Zion, the Jerusalem temple, the central place of worship for the community. This divine presence in the sacred temple brings life to the community. These psalms are part of ancient Israel’s praise of the God who is present with them and enlivens them. Psalm 84 looks forward to arriving at the temple and to rejoicing in God’s presence in that sacred place. 

There are a number of musical settings of the psalm, and they focus often on the anticipation of worship reflected in the opening verses. Perhaps the psalm reflects the tradition of pilgrimages to the temple and to festivals there and arriving at the temple or the anticipation of beginning the pilgrimage to the temple. Readers and hearers of the psalm can imagine the joy of standing at the gates of Jerusalem having arrived at the holy city and seeing the temple and rejoicing in its beauty and importance.  

This psalm comes from the time of the Davidic kingdom and reflects the importance of Jerusalem as the community’s central city. The beginning of the psalm (verses 1-4) and the end of the psalm (verses 10-12) look forward to coming to the temple and the life-giving worship there. Verses 5-7 remember the pilgrimage to the sanctuary. Verses 8-9 pray for the anointed Davidic king. The lectionary psalm is listed as verses 1-7 and so that will be the focus of this commentary.  

Ancient Israel rejoiced in the divine presence with the community, and the focus of that tabernacling presence was in the temple. Psalm 84 opens with an exclamation of the beauty of that sacred place. The singer yearns to be in that beautiful and life-giving place and so sings for joy. It is a joyous moment; perhaps the pilgrims come into the first view of Jerusalem or the temple. The “soul” indicates the whole person who longs and even faints in anticipation of worship in the temple, “the courts of the Lord.” The “heart” and “flesh” again suggest the whole person. The heart in ancient Hebrew is the seat of the intellect and will. 

Verse 3 uses the image of the sparrow and swallow as small birds who find a “home” as a place to nest in the Lord’s altars. Even such small birds have a place in the care of the one named Lord of Hosts, King, God. YHWH provides safety and shelter in this sacred place. To be present in the sanctuary and sing praise there to the creator brings joy. Verse 4 articulates a beatitude for the pilgrims who live and sing in the sanctuary. They will find the blessing and joy of worship and safety in Zion. The singer of this psalm anticipates that hope with great yearning and faith.  

Verses 5-7 also take the form of a beatitude hoping for joy to come upon those who find strength in the divine presence on their pilgrimage to Zion. Beatitudes are part of wisdom in ancient Israel and observe life, life related to temple worship in Psalm 84. The pilgrimage to Zion and worship in the temple includes singing praises to YHWH in the context of fullness and completeness coming from the encounter with the divine. Verses 6-7 are about the pilgrimage to Zion. As the pilgrims move toward the sacred place of the divine presence, they see renewal from refreshing rains and move “from strength to strength.” The journey may be difficult and lengthy but the hope of encountering the presence of YHWH in the temple brings anticipation and expectation. Verse 10 reflects this hope with the affirmation that one day in the temple far exceeds the hope for a thousand days elsewhere. The briefest encounter with the divine presence proffers great hopes for the pilgrims. The divine presence brings joy that no other experience can offer.  

Two particular notes at the beginning of Psalm 84 are noteworthy. The first is the title used for YHWH in verse 1: “Lord of hosts.” The title is used four times in the psalm (verses 1, 3, 8, and 12). The literal translation would be “YHWH of armies” with the armies or hosts being the heavenly hosts of angels or heavenly hosts of sun, moon, and stars or the hosts of Israel’s armies. The title suggests that YHWH is the great and victorious God who is present in power in Zion.

It is also noteworthy that the superscription of Psalm 84 identifies the psalm as “of the Korahites.” The first collection of Korahite psalms comes in Book II of the Psalter (Psalms 42-49). A second grouping of psalms of the Korahites comes in Book III (Psalms 84-85 and 87-88). These psalms come after the conclusion of the Psalms of Asaph and the Elohistic Psalter in Psalm 83. Korah was the leader of a group of psalmists/collectors of psalms. Psalm 84 brings to mind the first psalm in the first Korahite collection, Psalms 42-43, originally one psalm. Images of looking forward to worship in the sanctuary and hoping to encounter the divine presence are central to both psalms that begin Korahite collections.  

The festival worship celebrated in Psalm 84 centers in the Jerusalem temple. YHWH is present with the community anchored in Zion, and pilgrims on the way to worship in Zion look forward to encountering the divine presence in the temple (Psalms 27:4; 42:2). Psalm 84 also anticipates such a worship event. It is that presence that makes the place and the event so significant and so hearers/readers of the text today can understand why the pilgrims yearn for this festive worship. Wholeness of life is found in encounter with YHWH, made real in the worship in the sanctuary. These events of pilgrimage and festival worship are community events rather than private events. The pilgrimages and festivals can give focus and hope to the community; in these events, the life God has created and blessed becomes a reality for the pilgrims. Psalm 84 expresses the yearning for these worship events. The singer of Psalm 84 has reflected on the preparation for this life-giving worship experience and the yearning for this festival worship.