God is no mere abstract idea or absentee deity whose worship is of human origin. Rather, the eternal living Lord has made his presence known in many ways and on many occasions.
The Scriptures repeatedly remind us of that presence, for they begin with God’s presence in creation and culminate in his consummation of earth’s history: Isaiah 41:4 (NIV) Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the LORD–with the first of them and with the last–I am he.”
Sandwiched in between are many records of God’s intervention into earth’s history, particularly in behalf of his own:
Psalm 136:1-26 (NIV)
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever.
4 to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.
5 who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever.
6 who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever.
7 who made the great lights– His love endures forever.
8 the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever.
9 the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever.
10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever.
11 and brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever.
12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; His love endures forever.
13 to him who divided the Red Sea asunder His love endures forever.
14 and brought Israel through the midst of it, His love endures forever.
15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea; His love endures forever.
16 to him who led his people through the desert, His love endures forever.
17 who struck down great kings, His love endures forever.
18 and killed mighty kings– His love endures forever.
19 Sihon king of the Amorites His love endures forever.
20 and Og king of Bashan– His love endures forever.
21 and gave their land as an inheritance, His love endures forever.
22 an inheritance to his servant Israel; His love endures forever.
23 to the One who remembered us in our low estate His love endures forever.
24 and freed us from our enemies, His love endures forever.
25 and who gives food to every creature. His love endures forever.
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.
Isaiah 46:9-13 (NIV)
9 Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.
10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.
11 From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.
12 Listen to me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness.
13 I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel.
It is small wonder, then, that the Psalter, the great hymnbook of the Old Testament, so often sings of the wonders and blessedness of God’s presence. As such the Psalms were suitable for corporate as well as private worship:
Psalm 42:8 (NIV)
8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me– a prayer to the God of my life.
Psalm 65:1-4 (NIV) Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled. 2 O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come. 3 When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. 4 Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple.
Psalm 91:1-2 (NIV) He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Psalm 21:6 (NIV) Surely you have granted him eternal blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
Psalm 16:11 (NIV) You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
The presence of the Lord brings to him such extreme pleasure (ESV, “fullness of joy”) that it is a joy that is almost impossible to describe adequately in words. For the dedicated believer, then, there is not only the present joy of being able to realize God’s presence here and now, but this is but a foretaste of the eternal pleasures that the believer will experience everlastingly.
As Van Gemeren points out, “The psalmist conceives of life in fellowship with God in this world and beyond. Beyond the present experiences and joy in God’s ‘presence’ lies the hope of lasting joy in fellowship with God.”4
Thus the pleasures associated with God’s presence are reserved for believers, “the godly,” and “upright” (Ps. 140:13). For such people there is security and active fellowship with God. As the psalmist declares, “You uphold me because of my integrity; you allow me permanent access to your presence” (Ps. 41:12).
Further, trusting believers who live in fellowship with God will find help and guidance through the changing scenes of life, for their strength is God-given and comes because of the good favor of the Lord’s presence (Ps. 44:3).5 Whether in times of pleasure, deep trial or suffering, the trusting believer may sense the presence of the Lord (Ps. 22:24). Thus Longman remarks, “We sense God’s intimate presence in the shouts of rejoicing and the cries of lament in the Psalter. The psalmist knows that God hears him.”6
Even the sinful but truly repentant David could pray, Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me (Ps. 51:10-11, NIV)
Thus the believer’s confidence lies in the fact of God’s nearness and availability to him (Ps. 73:28).7 Therefore, believers may encourage one another to praise the Lord with thankful hearts:
Psalm 95:1-2 (NIV) Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
One of the most memorable times when the psalmist experienced God’s special presence was being in the house of the Lord where God’s earthly dwelling and presence were felt keenly.
Psalm 26:8 (NIV) I love the house where you live, O LORD, the place where your glory dwells.
Elsewhere the psalmist expresses his deep longing to be continually in the courts of the Lord so that he may experience the great pleasure of God’s presence: Psalm 84:2 (NIV) My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
This overwhelming desire to be in the Lord’s house became intensified when the psalmist was for one reason or another far from that place. Several of the psalms express the yearning to be in God’s house as the psalmist’s prayer. The following study will examine four of these in order to find principles for experiencing God’s special presence with believers.
Psalms Concerning The Presence Of God
One of the loveliest prayer psalms, which extol the value of being in the Lord’s house is Psalm 63. So impressive is it that it became the morning hymn of the Sunday service in the fourth century church. Thus the Apostolic Constitutions reads “Assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house: in the morning saying the sixty-second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day.”8
The title to Psalm 63 indicates that it was written by David while he was in the Judean wilderness. Whether this refers to the time when he was absent from Jerusalem during the rebellion of his son Absalom (cf. 2 Sam. 15:23; 17:15-22) or in some earlier period in the wilderness (cf. e.g., 1 Sam. 23:14-24:2) is uncertain. Although the psalm’s emphasis on David’s past experience in the sanctuary (v. 2) and his reference to himself as king (v. 11) tends to favor the former alternative, it must not be missed that the main thrust of the psalm is David’s strong desire once again to be in the place of God’s earthly residence (i.e., the place where the Ark of God rested).
Psalm 63:1-11 (NIV) O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
The wilderness surroundings in which David found himself and the physical thirst that attends such places only accentuated for him the deep longing, his thirst, to be where Yahweh was particularly identified. There David had witnessed God’s “power and splendor” (v. 2). Yet, “The implication is that the longing which this desolate spot arouses is only the surface of a much deeper desire.”9 “The experience transcends the physical and symbolizes a spiritual experience. Eyes look toward the sanctuary but contemplate the ‘power and . . . glory’ of the incorporeal God.”10
2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.
The psalm continues with a devotional note expressing David’s commitment to the Lord (vv. 3-8). This portion begins with David’s declaration that his experiencing of God’s loyal love (or “lovingkindness,” KJV) is “better than life itself” (v. 3). Indeed, without such love there would be no life. With it David can experience what true living really is—a life lived out in the Lord’s presence as the recipient of the goodness of his gracious God. He cannot and will not restrain himself from praising God with great joy. Surely his whole life will be a testimony of praise to the Lord (vv. 3-5). Even in the nighttime hours he will recall with gratefulness God’s delivering power toward him (vv. 6-8). As in verse two, so this portion ends on the high note of the fact of David’s longing for the presence of God.
3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
6 On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.
7 Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
The psalm ends on an expression of David’s confidence in God. Although his enemies seek to kill him, he is confident of God’s further deliverance. Rather than destroying the king, his enemies will be destroyed. Scavengers will consume their dead bodies and their souls will reside in hell. David will again rejoice in God, as can all who put their trust in the name of the Lord. That is, those who possess a full confidence in God, which engenders an oath of allegiance to God in all that his name embodies, will realize the joy of God’s abiding presence in their lives.
9 They who seek my life will be destroyed; they will go down to the depths of the earth.
10 They will be given over to the sword and become food for jackals.
11 But the king will rejoice in God; all who swear by God’s name will praise him, while the mouths of liars will be silenced.
Psalm 63 is a precious psalm. It is permeated by the psalmist’s love of God and strong longing to be in or live in the conscious presence of the Lord. Accordingly, Psalm 63 is dominated by the use of first and second person personal pronouns. This is especially emphasized in the Hebrew text by the juxtaposition of these two pronouns; for example: “My God—You” (v. 1); “I have seen you” (v. 2); “your name—I” (v. 4); “my soul pursues you—me your right hand upholds” (v. 8).
Psalm 63, then, is “a song of the most delicate form and deepest spiritual contents; but in part very difficult of exposition. . . . But how much more difficult is it to adopt this choice spiritual love-song as one’s own prayer.”11
Certainly Christians, as did David, often wander in a world of spiritual drought. Under such conditions it is all too easy to become weary and discouraged. When such occurs, like David, they need to exercise a heart that longs so deeply for God that it finds refreshment and joy in the realization of God’s presence. Whatever the situation, the trusting believer will find that time spent in fellowship with God and feasting on his Word will yield a life of both spiritual growth, and full confidence and satisfaction in the Lord.
Psalm 27:1-14 (NIV) The LORD is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.
4 One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD.
7 Hear my voice when I call, O LORD; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, O LORD; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence.
13 I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.
The psalmist’s opening words contain a declaration of confidence in the Lord during the most challenging of times: “The Lord delivers and vindicates me! I fear no one! The Lord protects my life! I am afraid of no one!” (v. 1). The NET interprets the opening Hebrew phrase “light and salvation” as the psalmist’s assurance that God is the source of his deliverance and vindication. This understanding anticipates well David’s further expression of confidence in the Lord in verses two and three. Alternatively, the words have been taken by some as hendiadys, the two nouns entailing a glorious salvation/deliverance or victory over the psalmist’s enemies. As the NET note suggests, light can also be understood as guidance. David may be saying that in times in which he finds himself surrounded by his enemies and/or overwhelming odds, God guides him and delivers him in the face of all odds (vv. 2-3). In his life’s darkest hours God is his light and the one who brings deliverance. Further, it is he who is the psalmist’s protector.
Verses two and three go on to describe the kinds of attack that David experiences. The Hebrew phrase “devour my flesh” is a standard image for slanderous accusations or character assassination (cf. RSV, v. 12)12 or ill treatment of others (e.g., Mic. 3:2-3). It can also signify actual physical assault in which an attacker resembles a wild and ravenous beast. Such is the case when the psalmist describes his enemies as being like a lion, which will “rip me to shreds” and “tear me to bits” (Ps. 7:2; cf. Ps. 17:12). Perhaps David experienced some or all of the above circumstances.
Nevertheless, the Hebrew phrase is best understood contextually as referring to false accusations that the psalmist was once again enduring (cf. v. 12).13 Thus the position taken here is reflected in Leupold’s observation that the psalmist “again and again found it to be true that, when ‘evildoers approached to slander’ him, they were the ones that fell, not he. . . . The ‘adversaries and foes’ could well be the opposition party at the time of Absalom’s revolt.”14
A parallel idiom occurs in the Aramaic accounts of Daniel (Dan 3:8; 6:24), which are customarily translated “eat the pieces of” (i.e., to make false accusations against, i.e., to slander). The Aramaic idiom, which occurs here, may well derive from Akkadian,15 where from a cognate verb meaning “pinch/break off “ is derived a noun meaning “accusation,’ which when used with the verb “to eat” became a set idiom for denouncing someone.16 It is of interest as well that in the later development of Aramaic the Syriac cognate noun meaning “gnawed/broken morsel,” when used with the verb “to eat” also forms an idiom with the meaning “to slander” (or ”backbite”).17 Of further interest is the fact that the Aramaic/Syriac idiom passed on down into Modern Hebrew also with the meaning “to slander,” “make false accusations.”18
Accordingly, Montgomery is correct in noting that this idiom meaning slander is known not only in Ancient Akkadian but was “wide-spread through the Sem. languages.”19 Collins also notes that the idiom meaning “to slander,” “appears already in Amarna Canaanite.”20
If the reference to devouring the flesh is understood to relate more to slanderous false accusations (vv. 2, 12), then David’s mentioning of an “army” and “war” (v. 3) is to be understood in a twofold way. (1) The nouns army and war are to be taken as metaphoric language descriptive of both the number of those who are making lying accusations against him and the intensity of the struggle he is facing. The psalmist’s overbearing slanderous situation is like that of a soldier cut off from his regiment in wartime and facing seemingly insurmountable odds.
(2) The thought in verses two to three may also be viewed as an argumentum ad fortiori (argument to the stronger) expressing hyperbolically either that even if his enemies were a whole army, he would still not lose confidence in the Lord or that even in times of military combat, rather than fearing, he will place his full confidence in Yahweh. Understood in this multiple fashion, the psalmist is expressing his full reliance upon the Lord’s presence for his deliverance not only in this situation, but under any and all conditions including the field of battle. Whatever the circumstance, then, as another psalmist expressed it, one can be certain that because of his heart relation to God (see NET text note), “But as for me, God’s presence is my good” (Ps. 73:28, HCSB).21 Thus because of God’s presence and goodness toward him, the psalmist will have no fear. As Leupold remarks, “It is a statement made in the exuberance of faith.”22
The psalmist’s conviction is borne of a vibrant heart relation to the Lord (see NET text note and compare v. 8). That heart relation pours out next in a series of three prayers, each ending on a note of confidence (vv. 4-6, 7-10, 11-14). His first prayer is for the continued intimacy that only the presence of God can bring—a presence, which was especially experienced at the house of the Lord (vv. 4-5). Yet his desire was not just for those times, precious though they were, but he had an overwhelming longing to enjoy that same intimacy wherever his duties and travels might take him, and under whatever conditions he found himself.
The psalmist’s grand desire envisioned life in God’s house. Just as he had gazed at the splendor of the house of the Lord, (i.e., the Tabernacle if as generally held, this psalm is Davidic), which housed the Ark of the Lord, he would surely love to live out his life amid the splendor of God’s house. Such would doubtless prove to be but a foretaste of his future earnest gazing upon God’s essential glory. The psalmist’s words, however, may well reflect a deep sense of his present longing for the consistent, conscious, intimate presence of the Lord. Under such circumstances he would find the protection and refuge that he would expect to enjoy if he were in God’s earthly tent. Granted this, he would be certain of victory over his enemies. Indeed, he is confident of deliverance and that one day he will again offer sacrifices and praises “in his dwelling place” (v. 6).
The psalmist’s second section of prayer focuses on his request for continued intimacy with the Lord (vv. 7-10). Like the first prayer section, it begins with the expression of the psalmist’s desire for God and ends on a note of confidence that his petition has been heard (v. 10). David’s opening request here reflects the well-known call-answer motif, which indicates the possibility of a personal relation and communion with the Lord, often in times of danger, testing, or trouble.23 This sense of a close personal relationship with God is expressed further in the psalmist’s statement that in praying to the Lord he is following the dictates of his own heart (cf. v. 3). In so doing, he expresses once again his need for God’s deliverance for his present situation. Having done so, he once again finds a steadfast confidence in the Lord: “Even if my father and mother abandoned me, the Lord will take me in.” Such confidence was not based upon personal arrogance or unfounded conjecture, but in the strong sense of a realized presence of the Lord with whom he was in close personal fellowship.
The psalmist’s third prayer section (vv. 11-14) begins with his humble desire that the Lord give him further instruction and guidance in his personal life (v. 11). David apparently was undergoing strong personal attacks against his character and reputation. His attackers seemed to him to be like those who lie in ambush to destroy another. In such circumstances the psalmist feels almost helpless. Were it not for the realization of the Lord’s presence with him, he would be without hope. Therefore, he again confidently expresses his hope of deliverance and a life in God’s favor (v. 11-13), and urges all who will listen, “Rely on the LORD! Be strong and confident! Rely on the LORD!” (v. 14).
From Psalm 27 we learn that rather than self-reliance in the experiences of life, one must rely on the Lord. Only by living in communion with God and living out his standards can one be confident of a satisfying and rewarding life. Just as in Psalm 63, so also Psalm 27 contains the scriptural solution for life lived on the highest plane—a consistent daily fellowship in the constant presence of the Lord. It is only this kind of dedication and trust that can carry one through all the experiences of life, including times of intense trial or testing, or physical danger. As Travers wisely points out, however,
“ More often than military or terrorist activity, our enemies are likely to be the false witnesses David mentions in Psalm 27. . . . We should remember that an unfounded slur against a believer is a slander against the testimony of God in that believer’s life; God has a stake in suppressing the false witness, and we should let him resolve the matter in his way.”24
Psalm 42:1-11 (NIV)
1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
5 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and
6 my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon–from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me– a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Expositors have long considered Psalms 42 and 43 as originally comprising one psalm. Such may also be seen in that some Hebrew manuscripts combined them into one psalm.25 Moreover, the combined psalm displays remarkable unity of structure and themes. (1) The psalm belongs to the genre of lament psalms, but it is a psalm which also contains vivid prayer requests (Pss. 42:6, 9; 43:1-3) and notes of hope. Interspersed with notices of the psalmist’s prayers the themes of lament and hope are carried out through the double psalm: lament (42:1-4, 6-7, 9-10; 43:1-4) followed by a hope (42:5, 8, 11; 43:5) that culminates in thanksgiving. (2) The phrase “why are you depressed” marks major structural divisions in the combined psalm (42:5, 11; 43:5). (3) There are rich vocabulary and literary associations between Psalms 42 and 43; Thus the question “why” occurs some ten times and the word “soul” is found seven times, while the enemies taunts against him and his God appear in all three sections (42:3, 9-10; 43:2). Yet in all three sections the psalmist speaks of the need for the presence of God: present longing and past reminiscences (42:1-2, 4), present experience in the midst of difficulties (42:8-9), and present to future prayer and confidence in the Lord (43:3-4).
The unified psalm, then, takes its place along side of Psalms 63 and 27 as expressions of the need and reality of God’s presence. Likewise, it displays many of the same themes as in our previous two psalms. Thus there is an intense yearning for the presence of God (cf. 42:1-2 with Pss. 27:4, 9; 63:1-3, 8) and the house of the Lord (cf. 42:4; 43:3-4 with Pss. 27:4-6; 63:2) as well as the experience of being tested by adversaries (cf. Pss. 42:3, 9-10; 43:1 with Pss. 27:2-3, 5-6, 12; 63:9-10). So it is that the psalmist prays to the Lord for his help (cf. 42:6, 9; 43:1-3 with Pss. 27:7-12; 63:5-7) with the result that through it all he remains confident of the Lord’s deliverance and that God will give him victory over his enemies (cf. 42:5, 8, 11; 43:3-5 with Pss. 27:1-3, 5-6, 10; 63:3-5, 9-11).26 Through it all the psalmist remains confident that he will offer praise and thanksgiving once again to the Lord (cf. 42:5, 11; 43:5 with Pss. 27:6-7; 63:4, 11).
As with Psalm 63, the combined psalm 42-43 begins with an opening statement of an earnest longing and desire for God’s presence:
As a deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God!
I thirst for God, for the living God.
I say, “When will I be able to go
and appear in God’s presence?” (42:1-2)27
Much as the thirsting deer longs for fresh, pure water, so the psalmist longs for him who is the fountain of living waters. His cry grows in intensity, being expressed first as a desire for God, then for the living God, and still further for the very presence of God. The psalmist’s yearning for the Lord is felt even more strongly in that his enemies constantly taunt him with jeers that imply that the psalmist’s God, if he exists at all, has deserted him. This causes the psalmist to recall all the more vividly the times when he would accompany the throngs to the great festivals at the house of God (vv. 3-4). Despite his despair, however, he reminds himself that he must remain patient, waiting confidently for the Lord’s personal deliverance of him (v. 5).
Then once again despair concerning his present condition overtakes him. Consigned to a mountainous region, the nearby waterfalls rather than reminding him of the fact that the living God to whom he cries out (v. 2) is also the “living water” for whom will come his deliverance, instead serve to make him so overwhelmed with his situation that he feels like a drowning man (vv. 6-7). And yet, like Jonah (Jonah 2) he reminds himself that the Lord is his only sustenance. Indeed, Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, is a God of love and faithfulness. Therefore, even in the night hours the psalmist can sing of the Lord’s presence and pray to him. He prays for the reality of God’s presence, for the Lord’s deliverance, and for relief from the taunts of his enemies (vv. 9-11). Having done so, he again reminds himself of the need to remain patient and confident in God’s “saving intervention” (v. 11).
As Psalm 43 begins, the psalmist renews his plea for God’s deliverance (v. 1). His earlier sense of being ignored by God (42:9) is now felt even more keenly, for he mournfully cries out, “Why do you reject me?” (43:2). More than being forgotten or ignored, the psalmist now wonders whether God indeed has rejected and abandoned him. Rather than the darkness of despair, which he feels, the psalmist longs for the light of God’s delivering presence in accordance with the truths of God’s known covenant faithfulness. Indeed, as God’s covenant people were led to the land of promise by the guiding light of God’s presence (cf. Exod. 40:38), so the psalmist desires to be led once again to the house of the Lord.
Now rising in renewed confidence, he expresses an assurance that the Lord of love and faithfulness will deliver him from his current difficulties. Restored to God’s house, he will once again rejoice in the Lord and express his thanksgiving in word and music. Perhaps the closing refrain (v. 5), which now appears for the third time in the double psalm, may reflect the psalmist’s sense of victory over personal doubt and despair. God will indeed intervene on his behalf, and bring him deliverance and victory over his foes. For his part the psalmist must wait patiently, confident that the God of love and faithfulness will do his. In any case, this psalm, like the previous two, points to the true source of personal success and satisfaction. In the midst of life’s changing scenes it is only the Lord himself who is sufficient to meet man’s needs. When the believer’s confidence rests in God alone, he may be assured of the Lord’s guidance and provision. So it is that he may bask in the joy, security, and pleasure of the Lord’s presence.
Psalm 84:1-12 (NIV)
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
3 Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young– a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Selah
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
8 Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty; listen to me, O God of Jacob. Selah
9 Look upon our shield, O God; look with favor on your anointed one.
10 Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.
12 O LORD Almighty, blessed is the man who trusts in you.
The eighty-fourth psalm is a fourth psalm that both contains the psalmist’s fervent prayers to the Lord and expresses a deep longing for the presence of God. This psalm particularly associates that sense of God’s presence with the Temple, the earthly house of the Lord. The psalm is commonly considered to reflect a festive procession, which is on its way to one of Jerusalem’s festivals.28 The psalm is also liturgical in that as a Korahite psalm it is addressed to the music director in accordance with a tune (or musical style or instrument) named gittith (cf. Ps. 8).29
The structure of the psalm is easily discernable. It is bookended by the phrase “O LORD who rules over all” (vv. 1, 12) forming an inclusio. The three sections of the psalm are marked with the Hebrew term selah.30 As well, clear stitching elements serve to mark the linking of sections together. Stanza one is stitched to stanza two by the phrase “how blessed” (vv. 4, 5), while the second stanza is linked to the third by the plea to God to “hear my prayer” (v. 8) and the following petition to “ take notice of our shield” (v. 9; i.e., the Davidic king, God’s designated human protector of the people of the kingdom; see NET text note). Moreover, the first stanza emphasizes the psalmist’s longing to be in the courts of the Lord’s house, for life there is filled with surpassing joy (vv. 1-4).
The second stanza stresses the superior strength of a life lived with God as one’s guide and protector, especially as one purposefully follows his heart’s desire to be in God’s Temple (vv. 5-8), while the third stanza (vv. 9-12) features a return to the theme of the desirability of the Temple courts where the presence of God with its resultant blessing of trusting in him is strongly felt.
Unity in the psalm is achieved via its vocabulary, the words “LORD” and “God” each occurring seven times, the word “blessed” (vv. 4, 5, 12), and references to the Temple as God’s dwelling place (vv. 1-4, 10).31 The longing for the Temple as the locale of God’s particular presence forms the central theme of the psalm. In the first stanza the psalmist expresses forcefully a strong longing to be in the Temple, the place of special blessing (vv. 1-4). The second stanza features the psalmist’s putting “feet to his desire” as he prays for God’s strength along his journey to the Temple (vv. 5-8). In the closing stanza (vv. 9-12) the psalmist’s prayer looks for the Lord’s favor upon his human protector (i.e., the king, God’s earthly administrative representative). The prayer is made in confidence before him who inhabits the Holy of Holies in the Temple—the One who is Israel’s ultimate, divine protector. Just as the first stanza spoke of the longing for the blessings of life lived in the Temple, so the third stanza reiterates that desire and speaks of the blessed experience of those who live in full trust of the Lord.
The blessing associated with the Temple thus forms a corollary theme. This is particularly the case for those who make the Lord the center of their lives. The first stanza contains a blessing for those who actually live in the Temple. The second stanza features the blessings of those who travel to the Temple. The third stanza speaks of the blessings for all who trust in the Lord and desire to be in his presence in the Temple.
If as frequently believed the eighty-fourth psalm is a pilgrimage type psalm, one can sense progressive movement in the flow of the psalm. Longing desire for the Temple (vv. 1-4) is gives way to travel toward the Temple (vv. 5-8), and leads to the joy of spending even “just one day” in the Temple courts. Through it all is the underlying sense of the need to long for the surpassing blessings of the presence of God, which is so necessary for all who trust in the Lord.
Turning to the first stanza of the psalm, one is immediately struck by the fervency of the psalmist’s love and longing for the house of God. With his whole being the psalmist longs for—even pines for—the Temple. It is nothing less than the earthly abode of the One “who rules over all” (v. 1). If the Temple is the residence of the sovereign Lord of the universe, what could be more desirable than to be in his house?32 If even the birds choose to nest there in God’s presence, how much more should the psalmist! Accordingly, how blessed are those who have the privilege of ministering in the Temple precincts. In the very presence of God they can rejoice and praise him continually.
As the second stanza opens, the psalmist exclaims that those who so entrust themselves to the Lord’s strength as they travel to the house are extremely blessed.33 If their heart is set upon the Lord and are looking expectantly to their arrival at the Temple, whatever hardships they may experience along the way just become occasions for the Lord to sustain and provide for them. Therefore, the psalmist prays for God to hear his implied petition for strength for the journey.
As the psalm moves to its climax the psalmist looks to Israel’s divine sustainer and protector to make provision for Israel’s king. Indeed, Israel’s covenant relation to the Lord finds its external center in God’s anointed leader who cares for and protects his people (see NET text note). The psalmist’s prayer next sounds a note of praise in exclaiming, “Certainly spending just one day in your temple courts is better than spending a thousand elsewhere” (v. 10). That one day is far superior to any seemingly prosperous and long life in association with the unrighteous, because Israel’s God, the Lord of hosts (v. 12; see NET text note), whose presence is associated with the Temple, is present as the protector and provider of who are truly righteous (v. 11). As the NET text note indicates, the MT reads literally: “The LORD God is a sun and shield.” As “sun” God brings the light of salvation to men together with illumination for life’s problems. He also provides the warmth of his presence for the journey of life. As a “shield” he give protection. Together they signify that the Lord alone provides strength, wisdom, and direction for the journey of life. Truly, then, the believer’s life is a blessed one, because he puts his trust in the Lord (v. 12).
Psalm 84 thus has much to say concerning the high value of the presence of the Lord. As in the previous three psalms, there is an emphasis on the psalmist’s deep longing for God’s presence. That presence is especially associated in this psalm, as with the others, with the house of the Lord (cf. Pss. 27:4-6; 42:2, 4, 5, 11; 43:3-5; 63:2). Likewise, each of the psalms also gives assurance that God’s presence is available elsewhere for the trusting believer (Pss. 27:1-3, 11-14; 42:8; 43:3; 63:5-8; 84:5-8). Hence, all four psalms contain an emphasis on prayer and the need for trust in the Lord’s daily provision (Pss. 27:4, 7-9, 11-14; 42:5, 6, 9, 11-14; 43:1-5; 63:1, 5-6, 10-11; 84:5, 12).
If you had to pick a single word to describe our society, perhaps the most accurate word would be pressure. We live in a day marked by pressure in almost every area of life. At five years old we are thrust into school where there is pressure to perform and to compete for grades. We join athletic teams where there is more pressure to excel. We face the pressure of getting into college and once we’re there, of making it through. Then there is the pressure of getting a good job and, once we get it, of doing well enough to keep it and be promoted.
There are family pressures: finding the right mate and building a solid marriage in a culture where divorce is easy and accepted. There are the pressures of raising godly children in our pagan society. World problems, economic problems, personal problems, and the problems of friends and loved ones all press upon us.
In the midst of such pressures, there is one thing that will determine the course of your life: your priorities. Everyone has a set of priorities. If your priorities are not clearly defined, you will be swept downstream in life by various pressures, the seeming victim of your circumstances. But if your priorities are clear, then you can respond to your pressures by making choices in line with your priorities, and thereby give direction to your life.
Thus it is crucial that you have the right priorities. Your priorities determine how you spend your time, with whom you spend your time, and how you make decisions. Your priorities keep you from being battered around by the waves of pressure and help you to steer a clear course toward the proper destination. Priorities—godly priorities—are crucial!
King David was a man who knew what it meant to live under pressure. As the king of Israel, he knew the pressures of leadership. The higher and more responsible the leadership position, the greater are the pressures. And David knew the pressure of problems. During his reign, his son, Absalom, led a rebellion against him. David and his loyal followers had to flee for their lives. During that time David spent a short while in the northeastern portion of the wilderness of Judah before he crossed over the Jordan River. In that barren land, fleeing for his life from his own son, feeling disgraced and rejected, with an uncertain future, David penned Psalm 63.
It is one of the most well-loved psalms. John Chrysostom (347-407) wrote “that it was decreed and ordained by the primitive [church] fathers, that no day should pass without the public singing of this Psalm.” He also observed that “the spirit and soul of the whole Book of Psalms is contracted into this Psalm” (cited by J. J. Stewart Perowne, The Book of Psalms, [Zondervan], p. 486). In fact, the ancient church had the practice of beginning the singing of the Psalms at each Sunday service with Psalm 63, called “the morning hymn” (Commentary on the Old Testament, C. F. Keil & Franz Delitzsch, [Eerdmans], p. 212).
Psalm 63 shows us the priority of this man of God under pressure. If you or I were under the kinds of pressure David faced at this point in his life, I doubt if we would be writing songs. If we did, the song would probably contain a lot of urgent requests: “Help, God! Get me out of here!” David did write a song like that (Psalm 3). But it is interesting that Psalm 63 contains no petition (Perowne, p. 487). David expresses longing for God’s presence, praise, joy, fellowship with God, confidence in God’s salvation. But there is not one word of asking for temporal or even spiritual blessings. Derek Kidner (Psalms 1-72 [IVP], pp. 224-226) nicely outlines it as “God my desire” (1-4); “God my delight” (5-8); and, “God my defense” (9-11). The psalm shows us that David’s priority was to seek the Lord.
Seeking after God should be our most important priority.
No matter what pressures come into your life, you will be able to handle them properly if you maintain this one priority above all else: Earnestly seek after God! I want to answer from Psalm 63 three questions about seeking after God:
- What does it mean to seek after God?
- What does the person look like who seeks after God?
- How does a person seek after God?
1. What does it mean to seek after God?
Psalm 63 allows us to peer into the heart of this man after God’s own heart. It’s an emotional psalm, coming out of the depths of David’s life, and it would be an injustice to pick the psalm apart while missing the feeling that it conveys. But while keeping the depth of feeling in mind, it is helpful to separate out three strands of what it means to seek after God:
A. To seek after God means to have an intimate personal relationship with God (63:1).
“O God, You are my God.” David knew God in an intimate, personal way. There is a vast difference between knowing about a person and actually knowing that person. You can learn a lot about President Obama. You can read news articles and books on his life. You can learn all about his personality, his personal habits, and his family life. But it is still not the same as knowing him personally.
To know the President personally would require an introduction or occasion to meet, and then spending hours with him over a long period of time in many situations. As the relationship developed you would begin to discover more and more about the man, not from an academic standpoint, but as a close friend.
That’s how it must be with God, if you want to seek Him. There must have been a time when you met Him personally through Jesus Christ. Jesus said (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” Your introduction to God comes when you turn from your sin to God and trust in Jesus Christ and His death on your behalf. He gives you eternal life as His free gift.
And then you must develop your relationship by spending time with your new Friend through the weeks and months and years in a variety of situations. “Seeking after God” means that you are seeking to develop an intimate relationship with the God whom you have met personally through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
B. To seek after God means always to desire more of Him (63:1).
David said, “I shall seek you earnestly; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh yearns for You….” Didn’t David have the Lord? Yes, because he calls Him “my God.” But he wanted more. He wanted to go deeper. He was satisfied (63:5), but he wasn’t satisfied. He knew that there was more and his whole being craved it as a thirsty man in the desert craves for water.
The word translated “seek earnestly” is related etymologically to the word for “dawn,” and thus some translations have “seek early.” But most commentators agree that the word means earnestly, ardently, or diligently. It was used of wild donkeys looking eagerly for food. The point is, to seek after God means to go after God with an intense desire.
A young man ran after Socrates, calling, “Socrates, Socrates, can I be your disciple?” Socrates ignored him and walked out into the water. The man followed him and repeated the question. Socrates turned and without a word grabbed the young man and dunked him under the water and held him down until he knew that he couldn’t take it any longer. The man came up gasping for air. Socrates replied, “When you desire the truth as much as you seek air, you can be my disciple.”
How much do you desire to know God? A. W. Tozer, in his devotional classic, The Pursuit of God ([Christian Publications], pp. 15, 17), wrote,
Come near to the holy men and women of the past and you will soon feel the heat of their desire after God. They mourned for Him, they prayed and wrestled and sought for Him day and night, in season and out, and when they had found Him, the finding was all the sweeter for the long seeking…. Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth.
To seek after God means that there is always more, because God is an infinite person. If you figure that you’ve reached a level of maturity in your Christian life where you can put it in neutral and coast, you’re in trouble! David had walked with God for years, but he thirsted for more.
C. To seek after God means to pursue God alone to fill the vacuum in your life.
Many of us remember the day President Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal. One day he was the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. The next day, he flew off into oblivion and disgrace. Even if we thought he deserved what happened to him, we could still identify with the emptiness, the shame, the wave of depression which must have enveloped Mr. Nixon.
David was there. He has fled from the throne. He left his possessions and his wives behind him. His own son whom he loved was attempting to kill him. And yet in all of this, David wasn’t seeking for any of those things to fill the vacuum in his life. He wasn’t praying, “O God, give me my wives back. Give me my palace back. Give me my kingdom back.” But rather, he prayed, “I shall seek You”; “my soul thirsts for You”; “my flesh yearns for You”; “Your love is better than life.” What amazing statements!
The fact is, it’s easy to fill your life with things other than God. They may be good things, but they are not God, and God alone can satisfy your soul. For example, many people fill their lives with family and friends. On Sunday, they usually give God an hour, but He isn’t the center of their lives; people are. People are good, and human relationships are a blessing from God. But we should not try to fill the vacuum in our lives with people, but with God.
Others try to fill their lives with possessions or with a successful and satisfying career. Again, those things have their place, but they are not meant to satisfy your soul. God alone can do that. To seek Him means to pursue Him alone to fill that God-shaped vacuum in your life.
Thus seeking after God means to have an intimate personal relationship with Him; always to desire more of Him; and, to pursue God alone to fill the vacuum in your life.
2. What does the person look like who seeks after God?
I only want to touch lightly on this question so that I can concentrate on the third question. But I want you to see that a person who seeks after God is not a religious mystic who is out of touch with reality. Putting God in the center of your life gives you balance and perspective in the crises of life. Notice, briefly four things which characterize the person who seeks the Lord:
A. The person who seeks after God has inner satisfaction (63:5).
“My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness….” He is never complacent, but satisfied. David’s soul was at rest. Even in the middle of a calamity such as this rebellion, which would push many to fall apart emotionally, David had inner peace and calm. Just as you feel physically after eating a delicious prime rib dinner, so David felt spiritually after feasting on the Lord. He was satisfied in God.
B. The person who seeks after God has inner joy (63:5, 7, 11).
“My mouth offers praises with joyful lips” (63:5b). “In the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy” (63:7b). “But the king will rejoice in God… (63:11). David had a joy not based on circumstances. His whole world was falling apart, but he had the Lord and His loyal love, and so he could sing and rejoice in God. You can’t explain that apart from God!
C. The person who seeks after God has inner stability and strength in crisis (63:7-8).
“For You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me.” God was David’s help. David hid under God’s wing as a baby chick hides for protection under the mother hen’s wing. God’s powerful hand upheld and sustained David. He stayed steady in the storm because he had the inner resource of God’s strength.
D. The person who seeks after God has inner perspective and balance (63:9-11).
“But those who seek my life to destroy it, will go into the depths of the earth. They will be delivered over to the power of the sword; they will be a prey for jackals [lit.]. But the king will rejoice in God; everyone who swears by Him will glory, for the mouths of those who speak lies will be stopped.”
David wasn’t consumed with thoughts of getting even. As he considered his circumstances, he realized that God is just; God would judge fairly. The wicked would not prevail in the long run. Thus David could commit the situation to the Lord and act with the right perspective and balance: He would make it his business to rejoice in God, and let God deal with his enemies and vindicate him. He knew his calling (“king,” 63:11) and that God would not fail to accomplish all that concerned him (Ps. 57:2).
The point is, the person who seeks after God will be a person of strength and stability, a person with inner resources to meet every crisis in life. Now for the crucial question:
3. How does a person seek after God?
I’m assuming that you already know God personally through Christ. As I already mentioned, you begin a relationship with God when you realize that you have sinned against the holy God and when you flee for refuge to the provision God has made for your sin, the cross of Christ. No one seeks for God unless God first seeks after them (John 6:44; Rom. 3:11). Thus no one can boast; we have only received God’s undeserved gift. But once you’ve received it, how do you go on seeking after God? Three things:
A. You seek God by putting love for God at the center of your relationship with Him.
God’s lovingkindness (63:3) was better to David than life itself. Therefore, David says, “My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me” (63:8). What a beautiful balance! David clings to God, but underneath it all, God’s powerful hand is under David.
The Hebrew word translated “clings” points to loyalty related to affection. It’s the same word used in Genesis 2:24, where it says that a man will “cleave” to his wife. It is used to describe Ruth clinging to her mother-in-law (Ruth 1:14). She didn’t want to part from her (see also, 1 Kings 11:2; Gen. 34:3; 2 Sam. 20:2). The idea is loyalty related to strong feelings of affection.
Your relationship with the Lord is comparable to a marriage relationship. Marriage is a relationship where intense feelings of passion and a lifelong commitment are intertwined. When a couple falls in love, there are strong feelings, and there is nothing wrong with that. But a marriage cannot be built on feelings alone, but on commitment. The commitment carries you through the hard times when the feelings may fade. Sometimes you have to work at the romance (which sounds contradictory, but it’s not). But if there are never any feelings of love, your marriage is in trouble.
Seeking after God means keeping your passion for God alive. Christianity is not just a matter of the head, but of the heart. As you think on what God has done for you in Christ, it ought to move you emotionally. As you reflect on His great love and faithfulness toward you over the years, in spite of your failures, you ought to feel love for Him.
In your marriage, keeping your passion alive means saying no to some things in order to say yes to your wife. Your job, outside interests, time with other friends, and even your church involvement—these are all good things in their place. But they shouldn’t come before your marriage. In the same way, nothing, not even your marriage and family life, should come before your love relationship with God. That leads to the second thing:
B. You seek God by spending consistent time alone with Him.
David was under intense pressure as he fled from Absalom. He had to think about how all of his loyal followers who fled with him were going to get food and water in this barren wilderness. He had to be thinking constantly about their safety. And yet he did not neglect earnestly seeking God in this trying situation. There is a determination here: “I shall seek you earnestly” (63:1b). “My lips will praise You” (63:3b). “So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name” (63:4). “My soul clings to You” (63:8a). David made it a priority to spend time alone with God.
We all make time to do what we really want to do. Exhibit A: A young man in college who is working and carrying a full load of classes. His schedule seems packed. Then he meets the woman of his dreams. Suddenly he finds time to spend with her! It’s not a duty; it’s a delight! He will cut corners elsewhere if he has to, but he will not miss his time with this beautiful creature.
If you love God, you’ll make time to spend with Him because you delight to do so. This includes time in His Word, renewing your mind so that you can please Him. It includes time in prayer, bringing your needs and others’ needs before Him. It includes time in praise and worship, expressing your love for Him.
C. You seek God by integrating Him into every area of your life.
God isn’t just a spoke in the wheel; He’s the hub. God isn’t just a slice of life, who rounds out your other pursuits. Rather, God permeates every area of your life. He’s at the center of every decision you make. He’s the Lord of every relationship you have. You manage your money by considering what His Word says about it. There is no area of your life, be it your business, your family, your education, or whatever, where God is not an integral part. There is no division between sacred and secular; all of life is related to God.
Here is David, his kingdom in disarray, running for his life, seeking to protect his men. It would be understandable if God were temporarily squeezed out of the picture. But David is “following hard after God,” as the old King James Version puts verse 8. God was at the center of David’s present and his future. No area was off limits to God.
How is it with you and God? Perhaps you say, “I’m actively involved in serving Him!” That’s fine, but that’s not what I’m asking. You can be in full time ministry and lose sight of seeking God Himself. I once heard the late godly pastor and author, Alan Redpath, speak. He told how he faced a time in his life when the opportunities for ministry were the greatest he had ever seen. God seemed to be blessing his preaching. It was the kind of thing every pastor prays and longs for.
And then, right in the middle of it, Redpath was laid up with a stroke. As he lay in his hospital bed, he asked, “Lord, why? Why now, when the opportunities to serve You are so great?” I’ll never forget what he said next. He said that the Lord quietly impressed upon him, “Alan, you’ve gotten your work ahead of your worship.” Ouch!
Review your past week or month and ask yourself, “Did my schedule reflect that seeking God was my number one priority?” You say, “Well, that’s my priority, but I’ve been under a lot of pressure!” Pressure is what reveals your true priorities. When the pressure is on, everything but the essential gets set aside. The Holy Spirit is telling us through David, “Seeking God is essential!” If it’s not essential for you, then you’ve got to join David, the man after God’s heart, in making it so.