The human being can do nothing more noble and more useful than to seek to know God, the living God, the Creator, Redeemer and Judge of the universe. Yet this is so often the last rather than the first choice of many of us.
For Episcopalians and Anglicans, who follow the religious news, there is much excitement at the present time, because of the varied events which may eventually lead to the possible break-up of the Anglican Communion of Churches and the formation of possible two Anglican Families, a traditional one and a progressively liberal one. In fact, there is so much going on in the USA and Canada, at Lambeth Palace and in meetings in Africa and elsewhere, that keeping up with all the news is a full time job!
One possible sad, even tragic, consequence of all this is that some of us – perhaps too many of us – are seeking after ecclesiastical news and insights as a form of religious quest, and are thereby leaving very little space and time in our lives for seeking after the Lord our God; who is the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
One way that both the devil and our own fallen natures (‘the flesh”) lead us astray is to tell us that we are serving God by being involved in religious pursuits, even such as do not have the character of genuine good works, inspired by faith working through love for people. So one real temptation to which possibly too many of us have fallen is to think that time spent on following religious controversy can count as the equivalent of time spent seeking the presence of Father through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit.
If this temptation has come our way only once, it is worth facing it and the possibility of more like it, by definite, spiritual discipline – meditating and praying with the Psalmist as he sought to be in the Presence of God in the Temple.
There are several Psalms which capture for us the profound desire of members of God’s covenant people to be with him and to feel and know his Presence. Of these we may mention Psalms 42, 43, 46, 48 and 84. As Christians we may pray these in, with and through Jesus Christ, who radiated in his manhood the Presence of God; and when we pray them, as within the Body of Christ, we ask that to us the glory of the Father shall be made known in the face of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Let us look at 42 with 43 and then 84.
Psalms 42 & 43
It is generally recognized that these two Psalms are in fact one lyric in which are three stanzas and a refrain (42:5, 11 & 43:5). The writer, a singer in the Temple, has been removed from Jerusalem and the Temple and is being detained many miles away from that holy place. It is probable that he is in the far north of the land near Mount Hermon, where the sources of the river Jordan are found (42:6-7). The separation from God and from the stirring liturgical ritual, which he intensely felt, is much more than geographical. He also suspects that God has left him alone and this feeling of isolation was aggravated by the taunts and jibes of some people around him (42:3 & 10). He was gripped by an overwhelming desire to return to the Temple where so often in the past he had known the Presence of the God (Elohim) of Israel.
This deeply moving lament of a pious Israelite, expressed before Elohim, becomes for the baptized Christian believer a means of profound prayerful meditation and self examination, with urgent petition to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – see below in “Application.”
Let us notice in particular in this lyric, the refrain (which is a soliloquy), and then the profound longing for the courts of the Lord and his Presence therein.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise him
My help and my God.
Talking to oneself as a means of meditation and encouragement is found in other Psalms as well (see 62:2; 103:1; 116:7; 142:4; 143:4). A dialogue with one’s own soul has also been a method of godly meditation recommended by the saints in Christian history. It is most valuable today when used with care. There is the further point that this dialogue may have been in the mind of the Lord Jesus as he agonized in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:38; but see also John 12:27f.).
In this case the poet has good reason to talk to himself for he is very conscious of how he feels due to his separation from the Temple and the divine Presence; and, at the same time, he is sufficiently knowledgeable in the revelation from the God of Israel that he knows what he must do in this period of personal desolation (cf., “the dark night of the soul” in R.C. spirituality). As a man of deep convictions and also as a creature of change, he must actively hope in God, for certainly, sooner or later, he will join in the praise of Elohim of Israel, who is his Savior and his God. And he has to repeat this message to himself no less than three times (43:8, 11; 44:5). However, its third occurrence at the very end of the whole lyric (44:5), following the positive expressions of 44:4 (“I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy”), suggests that it has become now no longer merely a lament with hope, but rather a statement in humility of confident patience that he will certainly enter the courts of the Lord.
Now we turn to the poet’s deep desire to know and to be in the Presence of Elohim in the Temple.
As a hart longs for flowing streams,
So longs my soul for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
The picture is of a very thirsty deer (doe) in a period of drought desperately searching for streams of water (now dried up). So this poet is in heart and mind profoundly thirsty for God and longing to be in his Presence and know him as the living God. So, he asks, “When shall I begin to drink in deeply the Presence of God?” Later he exclaims unto heaven:
Oh send out thy light and thy truth;
Let them lead me,
Let them bring me to thy holy hill
And to thy dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
To God my exceeding joy;
And I will praise thee with the lyre,
O God, my God.
So as to be absolutely sure that he really gets to the Temple and, getting there, enters its courts in the right frame of heart and mind, he prays for two guides – God’s light (the Light of his Presence) and God’s truth (as revealed in the Law [Torah]). He knows that by taking this holy route to Jerusalem, he will be able in the right spirit to participate in the services of the Temple, and, doing so, know exceeding joy in the divine Presence, as he joins in the singing of the praise of God, accompanied by the stringed instruments.
However, having come to this position of faith and hope, he is able, as he waits to get to Jerusalem, to know aspects of the Presence and blessings of God where he is before actually being in Jerusalem.
If a person living under the old covenant desired so deeply to be in the Presence of the God of Israel and to be engaged in spiritual worship of him, then, surely, a person living in the new covenant, with God as his Father and Christ as his Savior and Lord, ought to have at least the same intensity of desire to live continually in the Presence of God. and to engage in worship that is “in spirit and in truth” and which magnifies and praises the Holy Trinity.
If our desire does not match his, then let us enter into what he wrote initially for himself but also (in divine providence) for us; and let us ask the Lord our God in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to make it the means of the sure increasing of our desiring and longing to be in the Presence of God and to glorify him continually.
If our desire does not exceed his, then let us with him engage in self-examination, soliloquy and meditation before the Lord, so that our souls, becoming the more thirsty for God, will desire knowledge of and communion with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the more.
Once again we have a poem from a singer in the Temple as he expresses longing for the Temple and even more for the Presence of God. The home-sick man deeply desires to return to his beloved work as a singer of the praises of God in the liturgy of the house of the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem. (The expression “LORD of hosts” is used about 300 times in the RSV of the O.T. and points to God, the Creator, as Head and Lord over the angels and archangels, and thus as God Almighty.)
How lovely is thy dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints
For the courts of the LORD;
My heart and flesh sing for joy
To the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a house,
And the swallow a nest for herself,
Where she may lay her young,
At thy altars, O LORD of hosts,
My king and my God.
The Temple was a magnificent complex with many parts. For the Psalmist it is lovely – full of divine love – because it is the place where the LORD dwells and where his Presence may be felt and known. He can hardly contain himself for his joy overflows and his soul and body join in the praise of his God. And if there is room for the sparrow and the swallow to dwell in the house of the LORD in safety, then how much more is there space for the devout Israelite.
Blessed are those who dwell in thy house,
ever singing thy praise!
Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
Both God and wise human beings reckon to be highly privileged those whose vocation it is to be the Temple singers, who praise the LORD in song by day and night. Also, and importantly, God and wise human beings reckon to be highly privileged those exiles from “home,” who trust in the Lord and who know where to go for they have imprinted in their hearts the route to the Temple and to God’s Presence there. Verses 6 -7 portray pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem gaining confidence as they get nearer to their goal, going, as it were, from strength to strength as they journey.
In verse 8 the Psalmist returns to speak in the first person singular as he addresses the LORD God of hosts who is the God of Jacob (Israel), his people. And, as was probably the custom of all pilgrims, he first specifically prays for the Davidic king, who is the people’s protection (cf. Psalm 72) and the adopted son of God (cf. Psalm 2:7), as well as being the effective head of the Temple. This duty accomplished, he returns again to the theme of joy in God.
For a day in thy courts is better
Than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For 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.
O LORD of hosts,
Blessed is the man who trusts in thee!
One day in the Lord’s Temple, where his Presence is, cannot be compared with a thousands days anywhere else in the world for that one day is much superior to the many days! In fact, to be a menial servant in the House of the LORD is superior to dwelling as a rich man in the houses of the ungodly.
For the trusting, faithful believer the LORD God is both sun (for light and warmth, energy and joy) and shield (for protection from danger and fear). Further, this God gives grace and glory to obedient covenant people, his adopted children. In fact, this God of grace and glory withholds nothing at all, that is for the true good of his people, from them when they walk in his ways.
The Psalm ends with a third Beatitude, following those in verses 4-5. It is presented as part of his prayer as the Psalmist offers to the LORD what he has learned from his revelation to Israel – that in the sight of God and of the wise on earth the person who trusts in God as his covenant Lord is truly blessed, reckoned as genuinely happy.
In the New Testament, the new covenant people of God are individually and corporately “the temple of God” ( 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). Therefore, the faithful Christian finds joy on earth in the fellowship and corporate worship of the Body of Christ. Though he may be attached to a building as a holy place, the Temple is for him the people of God, the members of the new covenant, whose true home and center is in heaven, where they shall behold the glory of the Father in the face of Jesus Christ. This is captured in the hymn of H.F. Lyte, based on this Psalm, which begins, “Pleasant are thy courts above in the land of light and love;” and contains the words, “O, my spirit longs and faints, for the converse of thy Saints.”
The Psalm surely calls believers to take more seriously Christian fellowship and Christian corporate worship so that they are spheres where the Presence of God is sought and known, longed for and experienced. Worship is not to be dumbing-down to make it easy and acceptable to man, but a lifting up with the Holy Spirit in the Name of Christ into the Presence of the Father. And at the same time, those who walk with Christ individually and together and trust in the Father (John 20:29), will know grace and glory (Romans 8:32; Philippians 4: 6-19) in their pilgrimage as aliens and strangers on earth, as they journey to the heavenly Jerusalem.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)