When I was in school I worked on construction in the summer months. I remember well how much I looked forward to supper. After a hard day of work, I had worked up a pretty good appetite and my mother had good food ready and I was hungry for supper.
Early during the time when Carla and I were dating, she was in school and I was in university. We would see each other at choir practice at youth and at church and some other times during the week. There were never too many times for us to see each other. I remember how much I looked forward to the times when we would be together. I had a longing to see her and it was a joy to have that longing fulfilled.
We hunger for those things which bring blessing into our lives. God brings huge blessing into our life. Do we long for Him?
Which of the following statements are you comfortable with? I’m saved and my life is mine to do with as I please, OR I have to do everything right or I will be in trouble with God, OR God is pretty cool and I am trying to balance my life between God’s things and my things, OR I love Jesus and am trying to live my whole life with Him at the center.
Psalm 84 expresses longing for God and declares the blessing which comes when we are on a journey of living in Him. As we read and think about this text, I would invite you to think about what kind of longing you have for God and whether that is where you really want to be in your life.
Read Psalm 84.
The imagery in the text is that of pilgrimage to the temple. In the Old Testament times God’s people did not have the same privilege of access to God that we have since Jesus came. The work of Christ and the path He has opened into the presence of God is something very special and we need to understand that it was not always like that. At that time the place where the people were able to meet God was in the temple. God gave them a promise that they could always come and meet Him there. Several times a year they would go to Jerusalem in order to participate in festivals and to worship God. The Psalm is written from the perspective of a person traveling some distance in order to go to the temple in Jerusalem and worship God and likely participate in one of the festivals. Yet in spite of that specific context, the longing for God expressed here and the blessings described fit very well not only with pilgrimage towards God physically, but also spiritually.
As the pilgrims walked towards Jerusalem, they longed to be in the temple, but even these Jewish pilgrims were not so much interested in the physical temple, but above all rejoiced to be near God. Do we have such a longing?
Although in verse 1 the writer describes the loveliness of the dwelling place of God and that his yearning is for the courts of the Lord, we see very quickly that it is really God Himself he longs for. In verse 2 the writer says that his longing is “for the living God.” The powerful address he makes of God in verse 3 when he says, “O Lord Almighty, my King and my God” lets us know that he really wants to know God and be near to God. The subject of the longing appears at first to be the buildings, but the direction of the longing is very clearly God Himself.
It is good for us to enjoy church and all that we experience here, but the object of the Psalmists affection, being God, invites us to also examine our desires. Is it God whom we desire? Is He the object of our affection?
This question is reinforced when we notice the intensity of his longing.
In August, my son and his two sons and I went on a canoe trip. The two little guys were quite excited about this trip and several days before we left, they already had their bags packed. They could hardly wait for this great event and the intensity of their longing showed in the way they prepared.
The Psalmist expresses the intensity of his longing for God when he says, “My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” The longing he has for God is deep. It goes to the depth of his soul. His heart and in fact his whole physical body are impacted with this longing and desire. Excitement over something we are looking forward to has an impact on our soul, our heart and even our body. At times like that we can’t sleep, we have butterflies and our mind is thinking about what we are longing for. Are these feelings ever present in us because of our desire to meet with God?
Other expressions of the intensity of his longing are described in the envy he has regarding those who are always in the temple. He talks about the birds, specifically the sparrows and the swallows, which have made a home in the temple area. He envies them because they have found a place near to the presence of God and always are able to live in the presence of God. Then in verse 4 he expresses envy over those who are able to work in the temple all the time. He has such a longing for God’s presence that he wishes he did not just have the opportunity to go there once or twice a year, but be there all the time.
We all have places we like to be. Those of you who asked me what I did this summer probably heard me talk about the Lyric Theatre at Assiniboine Park and the joy I had at being able to spend several wonderful summer evenings there listening to music. Some of you have enjoyed being at CanadInns Stadium or the MTS center for football or hockey games respectively. Some of us have a favorite place for vacation and some people like nothing better than to be at home.
The Psalmist expresses that the place he likes to be more than anywhere else is near to God in His temple.
In verse 10 he states that even one day in the presence of God is better than a thousand days anywhere else. That is a powerful description of a favorite place to be. He also describes that he would rather take a lowly job in the temple serving God than living in the tents of people who are wicked. The place of righteousness, of the presence of God with its purity and goodness is something far better than any other place. That is his favorite place.
What powerful expressions of longing the Psalmist writes about - the longing for God, to be near God, to spend time in the presence of God and to be close to the righteousness and goodness of God’s presence. These expressions invite us to examine our desires as well.
Is this your heart? Perhaps your answer is “I wish” or perhaps, “yes, completely” or perhaps, “yes, partly” or perhaps “not really at all.” What is the state of your longing? Do you desire the presence of God more than anything else? Do you have a deep inner longing for God? Do you wish you did, but admit that you don’t completely?
If we do not have such a longing why not? In Matthew 13 Jesus tells the parable of the soils. In that parable he talks about the heart of people who respond to God. There are those, like the seed sown on the path, whose hearts are hard and unresponsive. Then there are those whose hearts have no depth to them. They are like the seeds planted on the shallow soil over rocks who manifest an early longing for God, but don’t follow through. Then there are those who, like the seeds planted among the weeds, are so distracted by the things of the world that they do not grow in their longing for God. Finally the parable describes the seeds planted in the good soil which produce a great harvest.
I wish I was the good soil, but I know that I am not always. I know that my longing for God is sometimes strong and sometimes not so strong, but I wish it was always strong. I have a growing longing to know God more and to live in a constant awareness of His presence with me.
“I wish” is a true perspective and I am sure that most of us have not arrived at completion in having an intense longing for God. Although the Psalm describes intense longing for God it is also a Psalm about pilgrimage. In verse 5 we read, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.”
The Psalm is about people on the way. Not only on the way to Jerusalem physically, but spiritually on their way to God.
The physical journey to the temple for the Jews who went there for the festivals or to worship may have been long. Some lived as close as Bethlehem which involved a walk that would only take a portion of the day, but others lived much further away. Some lived on the other side of the Jordan or in the northern part of the country around the Sea of Galilee. The journey may also have been difficult. Some of the places where they travelled would have been through dry rugged valleys. The elevation changes around that country are significant and would have added to the difficulty of the journey. Yet in spite of the difficulties of the journey, they were on their way to the temple to meet with God.
In a similar way, we are also on a journey to God. This Psalm is not about people who have arrived. We read about the intense longing for God and we have to admit that it does not always describe us. But we need to realize that we are also on a journey. Sometimes the journey goes through difficult places and sometimes through dry, wilderness places. Sometimes the journey seems to be uphill all the way and sometimes it is a pleasant journey. But the destination remains and the desire to move towards God remains. Having arrived is not assumed, but being on the journey is. We are on pilgrimage.
The text speaks about those who have “set their hearts on pilgrimage.” I think that is a critical concept. It describes a direction, a desire to make that pilgrimage. To set our hearts on something is to declare it as a goal and to begin to move towards that goal. Instead of chastising ourselves for not having the deep longing described here, the thing we can do is to set our hearts on pilgrimage. We can determine that we will go in that direction.
The hope and promise is described in verse 7 when it says, “They go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion.” If we set our hearts on pilgrimage, we will arrive at the place of longing for God and joy in His presence.
Are we on this journey? What will bring us from “no,” to “I wish,” to “yes?” May we set our hearts on pilgrimage towards longing for God.
Those who are on this pilgrimage, who have this longing for God and who are seeking Him and growing in their appetite for Him experience blessing in several different ways.
Verses 6, 7 give a wonderful promise of blessing to those who are on pilgrimage to God. What happens is that they actually become a blessing. Verse 6 says, “As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs.” The Valley of Baca has been variously interpreted. Some suggest that it refers to the valley of tears, others that Baca is a plant and others that it is a dry valley. VanGemeren says, “The Valley of Baca appears to be symbolic of affliction.” I take it to mean a place of need which makes it a beautiful spiritual picture. What it communicates is that people who are on a pilgrimage to God make places that are places of need into places of blessing.
The spiritual logic on this is clear. When we are moving towards God and when our longing is for God, we will be a blessing to others. We will bring the joy and peace of God into situations. We will make difficult situations those that have God in the midst of them. Whether we are in school, in our work place, in the church or in the home, when we are near to God we will have a positive influence on all around us. Tate says, “Blessings are transmitted wherever the pilgrims go, because they are looking to God whose presence is at home in Zion.”
Of course, if we are super spiritual or “holier than thou” that won’t happen. But when we are genuinely longing for God, the love of God will also pour out of us and influence all round us with the blessing of God.
Why are we a blessing to others if our longing is for God? Because then we are not self centered, but God centered, which means we are servants. Because then God is able to work in and through us to accomplish His will of blessing for those around us. Because then we do not need to defend ourselves, or justify ourselves, or seek for position. Because then we do not need to always consider whether what we do is good or not because we are not interested in evil.
Even though we have not arrived, when we are on pilgrimage to God, we will be a blessing to those around us.
Who do you know like that? Do they not make you want to be like that? The secret is longing for God.
Those who have a longing for God in this way not only are a blessing to others, but also receive blessing from God.
We have already looked at verse 10 where the Psalmist describes his longing for the presence of God and declares that he would rather be near God than any other place. Why does he have such a strong desire for God? The word “for” in verse 11 gives the reason. The longing for God is because of what God does. God blesses those who seek Him, who draw near to Him.
The Lord God is a sun. From an earthly perspective, the sun is the most important celestial body in the heavens. All of life is possible only because of the sun. The sun provides the warmth which makes it possible to live on earth. The sun is necessary in the process of photosynthesis which allows all plants to grow. The sun provides vitamin D for our health. Without the sun life on earth would not be possible. God has provided the sun for the benefit of life on earth, but God is even more important to life than the sun. Without God, the world would not exist. Without God the rotation of the earth would stop and all life would cease. Without God creating and sustaining the entire universe, we would not exist. The blessing of knowing God means that we will understand that He is the one who is absolutely essential for our life and we experience all the blessings of life only because of Him.
The Lord God is a shield. A shield is an instrument of defensive protection. Without a shield, a soldier would have felt naked. The shield was something to hide behind in an attack. It provided protection from anything an enemy could throw at a person. God is the one who protects us. Our enemy can throw many things against us – doubt, discouragement, fear and temptation. God is the one who protects us from them. He is the one who gives us security and peace.
The Lord gives favor. God not only gives us the blessing of life and protection, but also gives us many other blessings which make life a joy. Sometimes we try to grasp favor for ourselves, but if we are on pilgrimage to God, we will find that He gives us much more favor than we would even think of taking for ourselves. Rather than being people who grasp what we want, when we become people who seek after God, we will soon discover the blessing of God’s favor given to us when we need it. God provides good things in abundance.
The Lord gives honor. One of the needs of every human being is a need for significance. Often we look for significance because of our achievements. David Funk had a wonderful message at the ministerial day in Calgary last summer. That article has been published in the September issue of the Messenger. In it he describes the journey they have been on with their daughter who they knew would not live long when she was born. They wrestled with the meaning of a child who would need care all her short life and would never accomplish anything. He discovered once again that our meaning, our significance does not come from what we accomplish, how good we are or how hard we work. It comes from the fact that our Heavenly Father honors us by calling us His children. The Lord gives honor.
We also read that God does not withhold any good from those who walk in obedience to Him. God may lead us through trials, through abundance, through grief but never in the midst of all of those things does He withhold good from us. God’s desire for us is to experience that which is good.
These are the blessings which are ours when our pilgrimage is towards God and when we desire God more than anything else.
There are a lots of things in life which are fun and which I enjoy. They are good things to enjoy and I do enjoy them. But sometimes I wonder about the future of these things. I enjoy a game of golf with good friends on a beautiful day, but it is not my goal in life to retire some day so that I can go golfing 3 times a week. I enjoy jazz, kayaking, cross country skiing and traveling, but I can’t see the value of making these things my life. God has been drawing me to long for Him and to have a deeper relationship with Him. I am not there yet. Some days I just want to do what I want but I know that I am on a journey. Perhaps that is why this Psalm spoke to me. It expresses a longing that is arising in me and which is inviting me to a pilgrimage towards God.
When I think about what that means, I admit that I am not attracted to people who appear as if they are super spiritual. What I long for is a deep, growing intimate relationship with Jesus in which I love Him more and more and in which the love I have for him is evident in my life in such a way that I bless those I meet because Jesus is in me.
The Psalm encourages that direction in its concluding statement when it says, “Blessed is the man who trusts in you.” That is the blessing I want to experience. By the grace of God I know I am on a journey towards God in a greater longing for God. Will you join me on that journey?