For the Chief Musician. On an instrument of Gath. A Psalm by the sons of Korah.
Korah was a Levite who led a minor rebellion against Moses over a theological dispute (Numbers 16:3). Moses told Korah and his followers to allow God to settle the dispute, so they assembled before the Tent of Meeting for that purpose. God decided the issue by having the ground open up and swallow Korah and his followers. Fire consumed another 250 men (Numbers 16:31-35). That makes Korah the unlikely father of descendants who would lead music in temple worship––but that’s what happened.
“The sons of Korah didn’t die” (Numbers 26:11). Some became warriors (1 Chronicles 12:6). Others became gatekeepers (1 Chronicles 26:1, 19). Some contributed to victory in battle by standing and praising the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:19).
But the Korahites are best known for the frequent appearance of their name in the superscriptions to two groups of Psalms (Psalms 42-43, 44-49 and 84-85, 87-88).
This is a song of loving and longing, not for a sexual lover, but for the presence of Yahweh. The psalmist expresses this longing both “for the courts of Yahweh” (meaning the temple) and “the living God” (Yahweh) (v. 2). He showcases the temple in this psalm, because the temple was God’s dwelling place––the place where people could make their closest approach to God’s presence.
PSALM 84:1-4. MY SOUL LONGS FOR YAHWEH
1 How lovely are your dwellings,
Yahweh of Armies!
2 My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of Yahweh.
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
3 Yes, the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young,
near your altars, Yahweh of Armies, my King, and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house.
They are always praising you.
“How lovely are your dwellings” (Heb. miskan). The psalmist states that Yahweh’s dwellings (miskan) are lovely and beloved.
The noun miskan (plural in this verse) means a dwelling place or sanctuary. The Hebrew scriptures use this word 108 times to mean the tabernacle, the tent where God dwelled on the wilderness journey following the Exodus.
The tabernacle served as a precursor of the temple, built by Solomon––and Jesus Christ, who replaced the temple as the dwelling place of God (Mark 12:6; John 2:19-21; Revelation 21:22).
In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul said of Jesus’ followers, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God.”
“Yahweh (Heb: yhwh) of Armies!” (Hebrew: Yahweh saba) (v. 1b). The word saba means servants or service. It can mean an army in service to God or the king. It can mean angels in service to God. The phrases, “Lord of hosts” (Yahweh saba) and “Lord God of hosts” (Yahweh elohim saba) appears frequently in the Old Testament.
“My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of Yahweh.
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (v. 2). “Soul” and “longs” and “faints” are the passionate words of a lover for his beloved. In this case, the beloved is the courts of Yahweh––the temple––the place where the psalmist can be in the presence of God.
Has the psalmist begun his pilgrimage? Does a pilgrimage seem somehow unattainable? Does his longing and crying out suggest an obstacle preventing him from attaining his goal? Or is he well along in his pilgrimage, and can taste the glory that is near, but still seems far?
A principle of human behavior could apply here: The nearer the goal, the greater than anticipation of arriving at it, and the greater the frustration at not having yet arrived.
Whatever the psalmist’s situation, his object is clear: He yearns to stand in the presence of “The living God.”
“Yes, the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young,
near your altars, Yahweh of Armies, my King, and my God” (v. 3). The temple had several courtyards (the number differing for Solomon’s Temple, the temple built after the exile, and Herod’s Temple). Some of the courtyards would have no roofs, making them accessible to birds to build their nests.
The psalmist considers––even envies––those birds and their ongoing access to the temple and the presence of God.
“Blessed (Heb. ‘eser) are those who dwell in your house.
They are always praising you” (v. 4a). The noun ‘eser means one who is blessed––or blissful––or joyful.
Is the psalmist interpreting the singing of the birds as praise of Yahweh? Very possibly. But the sparrows and swallows building nests in the temple courtyards constitute a metaphor for the people privileged to dwell in Yahweh’s house. While some pilgrims would make one pilgrimage in a lifetime––and others periodically or annually––priests and Levites often served for extended periods in the temple. Again, the psalmist envies those who have regular access to the temple––and God’s presence.
I can appreciate the psalmist’s sensitivity. I have often been alone in a church sanctuary, enjoying the quiet and beauty––feeling a sense of God’s presence. I have sometimes paused or knelt to extend the moment before returning to my day to day world, which was usually less inspiring––even more turbulent.
“Selah” (v. 4b). Selah seems to be a musical notation. The psalmist uses it in this psalm to denote the breaks between the three stanzas (vv. 1-4, 5-8, 9-12).
PSALM 84:5-8. THOSE WHOSE STRENGTH IS IN YAHWEH
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you;
who have set their hearts on a pilgrimage.
6 Passing through the valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs.
Yes, the autumn rain covers it with blessings.
7 They go from strength to strength.
Every one of them appears before God in Zion.
8 Yahweh, God of Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, God of Jacob.
“Blessed (Heb. ‘eser) are those whose strength is in you;
who have set their hearts on a pilgrimage” (Heb. mesilla) (v. 5). The psalmist continues with the theme of blessedness, but approaches it from a different direction.
- In verse 3, he pronounced blessings on the person who lives in Yahweh’s house.
- In this verse, he pronounces blessing on those who: (1) find their strength in Yahweh and (2) “have set their hearts on a pilgrimage.”
People find their strength in various things: Family, work, money, and prestige, among others. Sometimes the blessings they seek in those things prove ephemeral––fleeting.
But those who find their strength in the Lord can find strength and comfort in any setting. That doesn’t mean that they will be comfortable or able to control the outcome of the circumstances––but it does mean that they will find life more bearable than those without faith.
- POWs in Vietnam were an example. They suffered terribly, faith or not, but those with faith found an extra dose of strength therein.
- Also, studies have shown that families active in churches enjoy a number of advantages over their non-churched neighbors. They tend to be stronger psychologically, spiritually, economically––and with regard to family cohesiveness.
The word mesilla (pilgrimage) means highway or road. In this pilgrimage psalm, some translators extend that to mean pilgrimage. Others, such as the NRSV, say “the highways to Zion” for the same reason (Zion is another name for Jerusalem). In any event, it seems likely that the psalmist has a pilgrimage to the temple in mind here (see v. 7).
“Passing through the valley of Weeping” (Heb. ’emeq baka’) (v. 6a). The word ’emeq means valley or lowland. The word baka’ is far less certain, in part because there are three Hebrew words that are similar: baka’ (Baca or balsam tree), bakah (weep, wail), bekeh (weeping).
- Baka’ might mean a place named Baca through which pilgrims would pass, although we know of no such place. If that is the psalmist’s intent, it must have been a difficult place to transit, because the psalmist sets it up as a contrast to the second part of this verse, which mentions blessings.
- It might mean weeping, because that is the way the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) translates this word in 2 Samuel 5:24––but the NRSV translates that word balsam trees in that verse.
However we decide to translate baka’, the idea behind this part of verse 6 appears to be to develop a contrast with the second part of the verse. That would suggest either (1) an arid valley named Baca or (2) weeping.
“they make it a place of springs”
Yes, the autumn rain covers it with blessings” (v. 6b). This part of the verse states the contrast with the first part. The first part was unpleasant, but this part is pleasant––”a place of springs” and “autumn rain”––both a blessing in arid country.
In that area, most rain falls during the winter. In a good year, it will start as early as October, which would promise an excellent harvest in the spring. People would feel especially blessed when they received autumn rains.
“They go from strength to strength” (v. 7a). Picture the pilgrim taking one step after another after another. With each step, he/she comes closer to Jerusalem––closer to Yahweh’s presence. With each step, he/she gains a bit more strength as the goal grows nearer.
“Every one of them appears before God in Zion” (v. 7b). This expresses the psalmist’s confidence that every pilgrim will appear before God in the Jerusalem temple.
“Yahweh, God of Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, God of Jacob” (v. 8a). The psalmist pleas for Yahweh to hear his prayers. While we are not told the content of those prayers, the context strongly suggests that he is praying for the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Selah” (v. 8b). This marks the end of the second of three stanzas.
PSALM 84:9-12. A DAY IN YOUR COURTS
9 Behold, God our shield,
look at the face of your anointed.
10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God,
than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.
11 For Yahweh God is a sun and a shield.
Yahweh will give grace and glory.
He withholds no good thing from those who walk blamelessly.
12 Yahweh of Armies,
blessed is the man who trusts in you.
“Behold (Heb. ra’ah), God our shield,
look (Heb. nabat) at the face of your anointed” (Heb. masiah––singular) (v. 9). Let’s start with the word masiah (line 2), which means anointed one. In Israel, they anointed prophets, priests, and kings. In this verse, the psalmist uses “your anointed,” which would mean a prophet, priest, or king. Masiah is singular, so choose one––prophet, priest, or king.
Now let us go back to “Behold, God our shield” (line 1). Keep in mind that the Hebrew lacked punctuation––there was no comma in “Behold God our shield.” We could understand that phrase in two different ways:
- We could understand “God our shield” to mean that God is our shield. I am confident that the psalmist believed that God was his shield, but doubt that he intended that understanding in this verse.
- Parallelism in psalms expressed the same thought in two ways in two lines of a verse, so it seems likely that the psalmist intended “our shield” and “your anointed” to refer to the same person. If that is the case, that person is almost certainly the king, the anointed one charged with Israel’s physical security.
Now let’s look at “Behold” (Heb. ra’ah) (line 1) and “look” (Heb. nabat) (line 2). Look is the stronger of these words, and suggests an intensive look––a discerning look.
When the psalmist says, “look at the face of your anointed” he is most likely asking God to do something to help the king. That would benefit not only the king, but Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple.
“For a day in your courts is better than a thousand” (v. 10a). The courts would be the temple courts. In this line, the psalmist is saying that one day in Yahweh’s courts would be better than a thousand anywhere else.
“I would rather be a doorkeeper (Heb. sapap) in the house of my God,
than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (v. 10b). A more literal translation would be “I would choose to be a doorkeeper in the house of my God rather than dwelling in the tents of wickedness.”
We should be aware that doorkeeper (Heb. so’er) is a title of some importance elsewhere (1 Chronicles 9:17; Nehemiah 11:19)––but that is different from the word, sapap, used in this verse. The sapap doorkeeper was a modest position.
The psalmist’s point is that he would choose a minor job inside Yahweh’s temple over a more substantial place inside a wicked place.
Today we might say that we would rather be a poorly paid janitor in a church than a highly paid marijuana dealer.
“For Yahweh God is a sun and a shield.
Yahweh will give grace (Heb. hen) and glory (Heb. kabod) (v. 11a). The sun shines and gives life. The shield protects from danger. Yahweh does both.
In like manner, Yahweh gives both grace (hen) and glory (kabod). Grace is forgiveness––unearned favor. Glory (kabod) is usually mentioned as an attribute of God––in other words, God is glorious––majestic.
When God gives us grace (unearned favor), he sweeps away our guilt so that we no longer carry that burden. That forgiveness, freeing us from our sins, also enables us to become graceful in our relationships with other people. In other words, when God gives us grace, we both receive grace and are enabled to transmit it to others.
Something of the same thing happens when God gives us glory. Receiving something of God’s glory initiates a positive change in our character. Before we received that glory, people might have experienced us as coarse or unpleasant. After we receive a bit of God’s glory, people are likely to perceive us as more refined and pleasant.
(Yahweh) withholds no good thing from those who walk blamelessly” (Heb. tamim) (v. 11). The word tamim was often used in connection with a lamb offered for sacrifice. Such animals were required to be “without blemish” (tamim) (Exodus 12:5; 29:1). Yahweh required Israelites to offer high quality animals for sacrifice. People were not allowed to sluff off an inferior animal as a holy sacrifice.
When we apply the word tamim to people, it takes on a moral quality. Blameless is a good translation. In this verse, the psalmist states that Yahweh “withholds no good thing from those who walk (or live) tamim (blamelessly). The emphasis is not blemishes on one’s skin, but is instead one’s character and whether we are virtuous and righteous in our relationships with God and other people.
“Yahweh of Armies,
blessed is the man who trusts (Heb. batah) in you” (v. 12). The Hebrew word batah (trusts) means “to feel secure” or “to have confidence in.” When we trust God for our security––when we place our confidence in God––the promise is that God will vindicate our faith. God will withhold nothing good from us.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated. We are using the WEB because we believe it to be the best public domain version of the Bible available.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
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Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
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DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
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Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
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Copyright 2019 Richard Niell Donovan