Season After Pentecost (Proper 16[21]) – The Psalm Passage: Praising what the Lord has “built”

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.” (Psalm 84:1 – 3)

This is sort of an unusual image, beloved reader, that birds would find a home at altars. Unusual because the altars of the Old Testament are normally places where an offering is burnt to sacrifice it. I cannot imagine birds building nests, and safe nests at that, near a burning altar. Some altars were for burning a sacrifice, and some altars were for burning incense on. Still, not a safe place to linger at. I also read that in the Old Testament altars are not to be near trees, a safety precaution I guess. But that also makes it unlikely that a bird would nest near an altar.

The altar of the Lord must be different than conventional altars. And so it is – the true altar of the Lord is in heaven. And there nothing is burnt or sacrificed. It is not a place of destruction but a place of restoration. Read on to see what else the psalmist has to say.

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.” (Verses 4 – 7)

Here we also see that the altar of the Lord must be in the House of the Lord – not a house built by human hands but a heavenly home where there is peace and tranquility. It is the home of the Divine – no human eye has seen it that can say what it is like. Many metaphors have been used to describe; but we can only understand it dimly and from a great distance.

“O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.” (Verses 8 – 9)

The question arises – who or what is this shield? Turns out it is not a shield of human device but a shield that the Divine has put in place to protect us. The request of the psalmist is for the Lord to look upon him and the people he represents with kindness and favor. And the best place to receive that blessing is within the house of the Lord God.

“For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.” (Verses 10 – 12)

It does sound like a most wonderful place, the house of the Lord. One can see and understand why it would be the preferred place to be. And all that we need will be available to us. Does the psalmist mean that outside of this place there will be struggle and hardship? The commentators I read write from a perspective that holds and uses the New Testament as a filter to understand the Old Testament. Therefore what struggle we might have in this world is a “good thing” and prepares us, or teaches us something. But I really believe that the psalmist meant that it is the heavenly house of the Lord that the light and protection of the Lord, and that favor and honor for a good life will bestowed in heaven.

The reason, though, that the New Testament as a filter and lens works is not because “suffering”and “struggle” is good for us, because when Jesus came to earth he brought the shalom of heaven to earth. And the Holy Spirit continues to be a conduit from heaven to earth.

Let us re-think then praising the Lord for what awaits us in heaven; and thank the Lord for what was brought from heaven to earth. The shalom that is felt on the earth is not from earth, generated by earth or humanity, nor is dependent on earth or humanity. The “heaven on earth” that we know is because of the Holy Spirit’s presence on earth and mediated through humanity. The altar of sacrifice has been satisfied once and for all. Now the altars on earth, as are the altars in heaven, are for worshiping the Lord and gathering around for worship. And, beloved reader, that is worthy of praise and thanksgiving!

Out of the love that is the Lord came heaven, and from heaven came Jesus. Jesus brought the peace that is heaven, and the Holy Spirit pins it to heart of humanity where and when humanity accepts it. That’s pretty praiseworthy too actually!

May you, beloved reader, find “heaven on earth” where it has been established. And may you allow the Spirit to establish “heaven on earth” in your heart and in your life! Selah!