George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 3

Psalm 84

1. Title

For the sons of Korah. This psalm is one of four Korah psalms (84, 85, 87, and 88) which supplement the eight found in Book Two (42-49) — for a total of twelve.

For the sons of Korah is an unexpected label which calls for some sort of link with Numbers 16. Evidently when Korah died because of his rebellion, his family did not perish (in contrast with the family of Achan: Josh. 7:15,24). Instead, they departed from his tent at the last moment (Num. 16:26; 26:11). This suggests a deliberate and public disowning of their father’s sin.

In later times Korah’s descendants became famous in Israel: Samuel was a Korahite (1 Chron. 6:22-28,33-38: “Shemuel” = Samuel); his grandson was Heman the singer (vv. 31-48). The Korahites were keepers of the temple gates (1 Chron. 9:19; cp. Psa. 84:10) and singers (2 Chron. 20:19). The psalms for the sons of Korah invariably reflect a serious interest in the affairs of God’s temple and formal worship.

All the Korah psalms seem to belong to the time of Hezekiah, when estranged brethren of the northern kingdom were encouraged to renew loyalty to the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.

One of the leading Levites in Hezekiah’s reformation was another Korah (or Kore) (2 Chron. 31:14) — and it is just possible that it is his name, and that of his sons, that is preserved in the psalms titles.

Among the Korah psalms, Psalm 84 is outstanding in its title allusions (a) to the Korah rebellion (Num. 16:19,21,26), and (b) to the appointment of the sons of Korah as sanctuary keepers (v. 10 here; 1 Chron. 9:19).

2. Structure

Blessing on those who dwell in the House of the Lord
Blessing on those who go up to the House of the Lord
Personal longing: ‘I can neither dwell nor go up’
God’s response: His blessing is given notwithstanding

“In Psalm 84 we find ourselves with the psalmist in the peace of the temple precincts after the clash of battle [in Psalm 83] has passed. How lovely the calm after the storm. How lovely the dwelling places of God after the deadly places of men” (J. Mitchell).

3. A psalm of David

If this is read as pertaining to the flight of David “the Lord’s anointed” (v. 9) at the time of Absalom’s rebellion, the details really come to life.

How amiable. This Hebrew word is a play on the name David.

Are thy tabernacles. Not an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles (the wrong word!), but to the Great Tent of the Congregation which David had established on mount Zion (v. 7).
My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord (cp. 42:1,2; 63:1). Several other psalms (3, 4, 55) stress David’s eager longing to join in worship on the Day of Atonement (see Par. 5). His flight seems to have taken place at that time of the year (2 Sam. 16:1; 17:28,29).

Fainteth. At the time of his flight David was a sick man (see notes, Psa. 38).

My heart (mind) and my flesh (his stricken body) — i.e., David’s whole being — crieth out for the living God.
Blessed are they that dwell in thine house. David sent the high priests and the ark of the covenant back into Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15:24-29), and rightly so. It was a fine act of faith — to wit: “If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me again, and shew me both it, and his habitation.”

They will be still praising thee. That is, they will be “ever singing thy praise” (RSV).
Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee. An expression of the (almost justified?) envy which David felt for those able to make a Day of Atonement / Feast of Tabernacles pilgrimage to Zion.

In whose heart are the ways of them. That is, who is always thinking of a pilgrimage to Zion. “In whose heart are the highways to Zion” (RSV).
Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. The Jordan valley was now for David a vale of tears, yet in due time it would become the scene of great blessing. Baca (tears) would become Berachah (blessing)!
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. In this allusion David compares his own flight with that of Jacob (Gen. 28). He knew that after that flight Jacob returned, blessed and prosperous; so David hoped likewise for himself.
For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand (i.e., as RSV, elsewhere). I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. Here “the tents of wickedness” signifies the rebel army of Absalom, encamped in the field in pursuit of David and his band.
No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. David is withheld from the worship he yearns to express; nevertheless God’s blessing and forgiveness are not withheld from him even in exile.

4. A psalm of Hezekiah

All the Korah psalms have special reference to the times of Hezekiah. Like other psalms of David, this also was selected because of its splendid appropriateness to the trials of Hezekiah. There is persuasive evidence (Psalm 132, for example) that a number of David’s psalms were adopted into the psalter, sometimes with suitable editing, by “the men of Hezekiah” (Prov. 25:1; see Psalms Studies, Vol. 1, p. 16); and always the dominating factor has been their fit with events in Hezekiah’s life and times.

My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. These words of deep yearning, for personal access to the sanctuary of the Lord, describe perfectly the king’s frustrated desire for communion with God at the time of his leprosy:

“I said, I shall not see the Lord, even the Lord, in the land of the living: I shall behold man no more with the inhabitants of the world... The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the children shall make known thy truth... What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?” (Isa. 38:11,19,22; cp. Psa. 42:1-4; 102:1-7,11).

The living God is ‘the God of the living creatures’, i.e., the God that inhabits the cherubim (Isa. 37:4,16; see references, Psa. 42:2).
Even thine altars. The first portion of v. 3 is parenthetical: this phrase runs on directly from v. 2.

Lord of hosts is also one of Hezekiah’s (and Isaiah’s) favorite Names of God (Isa. 37:16 again).
The valley of Baca suggests the Beqah valley in Lebanon, the route by which Sennacherib’s 200,000 Jewish prisoners would be marched away from their homeland. So it was for them a valley of tears. But in their unexpected return along the “highways of Zion” (cp. v. 5 here; contrast Isa. 33:7,8), after the destruction of the Assyrian army, they would find it a valley of rain and pools because, in this special Year of Jubilee, God “opened the windows of heaven” and gave lavish blessing on the Land (cp. Isa. 35:8,9; 40:3; 2 Chron. 32:27-29).
Hezekiah’s personal prayer.
Behold, O God our shield. It is not the beauty of the place that attracts the psalmist to Zion, but the beauty of the Person of the God who dwells there. As God was a shield to Abraham when he made an enemy of the king of Sodom (Gen. 15:1), so now Hezekiah, in dire straits from the Assyrian siege, needed God as his shield.

“Shield” here is magen (translated “defence” in Psa. 89:18), where it is parallel with “king” (cp. NIV mg. rendering of “sovereign”).

And look upon the face of thine anointed may be read now with reference to Hezekiah.
The tents of wickedness are now the Assyrian encampments round the city of Jerusalem.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield. In Exod. 14:20 the angel of the Lord was brightness and light and protection to Israel; but he was cloud and darkness and destruction to the Egyptians. And now, in a scene reminiscent of the first Passover, the same angel gives both overshadowing care to Jerusalem and judgment upon the camp of the enemy (Isa. 37:36).
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee. Hezekiah had insisted that his people emulate him in this (2 Chron. 32:7,8; 2 Kings 18:5,19,21-24; 19:10).

5. The Day of Atonement

There was an outstanding Day of Atonement in Hezekiah’s reign — the details of which appear in Isaiah 58:1-6,8,10; 59:2,9,10,12. So also other details are found in this psalm and in Psalm 85.

Thine altars (plural) is most appropriate to the Day of Atonement, when (1) the altar of burnt offering, (2) the altar of incense, and (3) the mercy-seat were all involved in the great annual atonement.
Selah, as always, is appropriate to altars and sacrifice (Psalms Studies, Book #1, Introduction).
Blessed are they that dwell in thine house (cp. Psa. 65:4, another Day of Atonement psalm). There would be priests living in the temple when on duty.
Baca. “Tears” of repentance on the Day of Atonement are followed by exultant joy (cp. vv. 2,4) when forgiveness is assured.
They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. On the Day of Atonement, the temple courts would be packed with devout worshipers.
For a day in thy courts, especially when it is the Day of Atonement, is better than a thousand spent elsewhere.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield. This is an allusion to the manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, and also to the cloud of incense shrouding the high priest, “that he die not” (Lev. 16:13).

The Lord will give grace and glory. “Grace” is one of the outstanding Bible words for the forgiveness of sins. It was signified to the people on the Day of Atonement by the high-priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26), and by the shining forth of the “Glory” of the Lord (Psa. 80:1).
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee. This emphasizes justification by faith, or trust, and not by works — a situation especially true and relevant on the Day of Atonement.

6. Messianic reference

A psalm which applies so vividly to David and Hezekiah surely applies at least as well to the One whom they so wonderfully foreshadowed.

How amiable are thy tabernacles. John 7 presents an interesting picture of the tension in the mind of Jesus, between eagerness to be present at a Feast of the Lord and distaste for a sustained encounter there with his adversaries.
Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young. A poignant parallel occurs in Luke 9:58:

“Birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”
Baca (sig. weeping). Gethsemane was a place of tears for Jesus: “strong crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7). Yet that same experience became a well, with rain and pools — that is, a source of indomitable strength (v. 5; Luke 22:43; cp. Psa. 42:5,11; Isa. 35:10; Jer. 31:9).
Look upon the face of thine anointed (i.e., Messiah or Christ). This implies a face uplifted in prayer, which is the repeated picture in the gospels of a Christ in crisis.
A day in thy courts. The LXX has Day One, as in John 20:1; consider also v. 17 there: The day of Christ’s resurrection was undoubtedly the day on which, as the true High Priest on the true “Day of Atonement”, he ascended to heaven to present the tokens of his perfect sacrifice in the presence of his Father, from thence to return to his waiting brethren with the great blessing of the High Priest: “Peace be unto you” (John 20:26).

Is it significant also that Christ’s total public ministry would have been just over a thousand days?

A doorkeeper in the house of my God may be seen, now, to be — not an office of humility and servitude, as some suppose — but an office of high authority and control: It is the doorkeeper, at the last, who will decide who shall enter the Temple of the Lord and who shall be turned aside (Mark 11:16; Matt. 25:10-12; Luke 13:25; John 10:7,9).
For the Lord God is a sun. (1) The transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36)? (2) The crucifixion? While darkness enshrouded Golgotha, God’s Glory shown upon and encouraged Christ (see notes, Psa. 22:22-31).

And a shield — i.e., always protecting the Lord Jesus from his enemies and those who would kill him — until the time when he was ready to be offered; the gospels contain numerous examples of this.

7. Other details

Amiable. LXX “beloved”, NEB “dear” — the best New Testament word of all to describe those in Christ.

Thy (i.e., the Lord’s) tabernacles are so much better than my (i.e., man’s) tabernacle. While in the one, man longs to be clothed upon with the other, which is coming from heaven with Christ (2 Pet. 1:13,14; 2 Cor. 5:2). “Longeth” in Psa. 84:2 is s.w. “groan” in 2 Cor. 5:2!
My heart and my flesh crieth out. The word means: “exult” or “sing for joy” (RSV); but this verse is not usually read that way. And the Hebrew preposition means, not for, but unto the Living God.
Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young. The sentimental pictures of sparrow or swallow nesting upon the altar of God is obviously wide of the mark; this could only be so if the altar were abandoned — and that is plainly not the case here (v. 4). (Of course, nothing would hinder the small birds from nesting in the confines and precincts of the temple — in its many nooks and crannies.) But if this phrase is put in parenthesis, all is quite clear: The psalmist (David in exile? Hezekiah in illness? cp. Isa. 38:14!) yearns for a settled home close to the living God, in the same way as the mother bird longs for a safe nest for her young (cp. Matt. 10:29).

Nevertheless, in a figurative sense, this reminds us of the mother Hannah bringing her young child Samuel (a son of Korah!) (the one whom she asked of the Lord) to leave him in the Lord’s house:

“For this child I prayed: and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him: Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:27,28).

And in like manner also, we see another “sparrow” (Luke 12:6), the young mother Mary, bringing her young Jesus to lay him in the arms of the priest in the Lord’s house (Luke 2:21,22).
Blessed (happy). Three times the psalmist uses this word: once (here) wistfully, once (v. 5) resolutely, and once (v. 12) in deep contentment.
Blessed is the man in whose hearts are the ways of them. This is very poor; note the italics. It should read (a) the ways of Zion (Jer. 31:21; Isa. 35:8,9), or (b) the ways of God. “The natural heart is a pathless wilderness, full of cliffs and precipices. When the heart is renewed by grace, a road is made, a highway is prepared for our God (Isa. 40:3,4)” (F. Fysh).
The valley of Baca. The baca was a balsam tree; its name (“the weeping one”) was probably derived from the “tears” of gum or resin which it exuded. The valley of Rephaim, where David defeated the Philistines with the help of God’s “army” (2 Sam. 5:22-25), was filled with mulberry, or balsam, trees (s.w. baca), in which David heard a “marching” as a signal to go forth himself. It was in this same place that the thirsty and dispirited David was refreshed by the devotion and love of his friends, who broke through the line of the enemy to secure him water from the well of Bethlehem (2 Sam. 23:13-17)!
They go from strength to strength. They renew their own strength (Isa. 40:31), because they are transformed from depending on their own strength to depending on God’s. This was the lesson learned by Paul:

“And he [i.e., the Lord] said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9,10; cp. Isa. 40:29).

In similar fashion, “The path of the righteous is likened to the light of dawn, which goes on increasing in brightness and intensity as the day advances, until at length it reaches its full splendour” (Prov. 4:18; cp. 2 Sam. 23:4) (A. Crawford, Proverbs, p. 101).

And again, Paul uses similar expressions when he speaks of believers receiving the righteousness of God “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17; cp. v. 12 here), and being “changed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18; cp. v. 11 here).

Every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. Notice the italics again. This might read: (1) he (the high priest?) hath looked upon God — Day of Atonement language; or (2) he (the Christ) hath looked unto God.

In Zion. The ultimate experience:

“And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne... and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth... These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb” (Rev. 14:1-4).
The God of Jacob, as in Psa. 46:7,11. It was Jacob who wept (v. 6 here; Hos. 12:3,4) and in his weakness prevailed, because he forsook his own “strength” for the strength of God (Gen. 32:24-32).
Thine anointed, as in Psa. 132:10, a psalm of both David and Hezekiah.
I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. When Korah died because of his rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron, his sons did not — but rather departed from his “tents of wickedness” (Num. 16:26; 26:11) — deliberately disavowing their father’s apostasy in the establishment of a rival tabernacle.

A doorkeeper in the house of my God. What an honor this would be!:

“Lift up your heads, O ye gates [i.e., doorkeepers], and the King of glory shall come in” (Psa. 24:7,9).
No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly (cp. Lev. 26:13). In this psalm, one detail after another (vv. 2-7,10-12) is eloquent about the life of a true child of God. Even those experiences which do not seem to be good, but rather grievous, nevertheless work together for ultimate good to those who truly love God (Rom. 8:28-32).

“What if the things promised transcend my brightest dreams? Is that a reason for doubting them? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Have I not received from Him even the little of good I now possess? Shall I say that He can do no better? Shall I set myself up against His own declaration?” (R. Roberts).

8. Postscript

O Lord of hosts, how lovely in mine eyes
        The tents where thou dost dwell!
For thine abode my spirit faints and sighs;
        The courts I love so well.
                My longing soul is weary
                        Within thy house to be;
                This world is waste and dreary,
                        A desert land to me.

The sparrow, Lord, hath found a shelter’d home,
        The swallow hath her nest;
She layeth there her young, and though she roam,
        Returneth there to rest.
                I, to thine altar flying,
                        Would there for ever be:
                My heart and flesh are crying,
                        O living God, for thee!

How blest are they who in thy house abide!
        Thee evermore they praise.
How strong the man whom thou alone dost guide,
        Whose heart doth keep thy ways.
                A pilgrim and a stranger,
                        He leaneth on thine arm;
                And thou, in time of danger,
                        Dost shield him from alarm.

From strength to strength through Baca’s vale of woe,
        They pass along in prayer,
And gushing streams of living water flow,
        Dug by their faithful care;
                Thy rain is sent from heaven
                        To fertilize the land,
                And wayside grace is given
                        Till they in Zion stand.

Lord God of hosts, attend unto my prayer!
        O Jacob’s God, give ear!
Behold, O God, our Shield, we through thy care
        Within thy courts appear!
                Look thou upon the glory
                        Of thine Anointed’s face;
                In him we stand before thee,
                        To witness of thy grace!

One day with thee excelleth o’er and o’er
        A thousand days apart;
In thine abode, within thy temple-door,
        Would stand my watchful heart.
                Men tell me of the treasure
                        Hid in their tents of sin;
                I look not there for pleasure,
                        Nor choose to enter in.

Own thou the Lord to be thy Sun, thy Shield —
        No good will he withhold;
He giveth grace, and soon shall be reveal’d
        His glory, yet untold.
                His mighty name confessing,
                        Walk thou at peace and free;
                O Lord, how rich the blessing
                        Of him who trusts in thee!
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