Theme: The Soul’s Desire
In this week’s lessons we are reminded of the need to confidently wait upon the Lord to answer our prayers.
Scripture: Psalm 27:1-14
The second stanza of the psalm (vv. 4-6) expresses David’s one great desire, which is to “dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of his life” (v. 4). This sounds a great deal like Psalm 23, which ends with David dwelling “in the house of the LORD forever.” But there it has to do with heaven, while here, in Psalm 27, the reference is to the earthly tabernacle. Indeed, David seems to be ransacking the Hebrew language for nouns to describe it: “the house of the LORD” (v.4), “his temple” (v. 4), “his dwelling” (v. 5), “his tabernacle” (vv. 5, 6).
Why, we might ask, does David have this single and obsessive longing for God’s house, particularly when we remember that the glorious temple of Solomon was yet many years in the future? At this point God’s house was still a tent, the tent David erected for the Ark when he brought it from Kiriath Jearim to Mount Zion (cf. 2 Sam. 6:17).
The answer, of course, is that it was not the earthly temple itself that charmed David but rather the beauty of the Lord that was to be found at the temple in a special way. When we were studying Psalm 26 and found a similar desire (in v. 8) I suggested that David’s longing for the house of God had something to do with his being with God’s people, who would be found there. But that is not the case here. Here the reason is solely that the psalmist might “gaze upon the beauty of the LORD.” It was the Lord himself that he was seeking.
And yet, he seeks it in the temple. Quite a few commentators seem to fall all over themselves trying to prove that this was not a literal desire for God’s house but rather a matter of spiritual fellowship.4 I would argue on the contrary that, although there is some truth in this, basically it is an anachronistic and misleading distinction.
1. C.S. Lewis has unusual sensitivity for what is going on in statements like this (David’s desire to “gaze upon the beauty of the LORD… in his temple”) born of his own long and perceptive study of literature, and I appeal to him here. He begins by acknowledging the way we naturally distinguish between the forms of religion and the spiritual reality behind it. We think of an awareness of God or of God’s qualities entirely apart from the tangible elements of worship. But, says Lewis, for the ancients, including the ancient Jews, religion was not like that. The two were not separated for them but rather were joined. They actually seemed to experience God in the temple. Thus their appetite for God was something to be satisfied almost physically:
Their longing to go up to Jerusalem and “appear before the presence of God” is like a physical thirst (Ps. 42). From Jerusalem his presence flashes out “in perfect beauty” (Ps. 50:2). Lacking that encounter with him, their souls are parched like a waterless countryside (Ps. 63:2). They crave to be “satisfied with the pleasures” of his house (Ps. 65:4). Only there can they be at ease, like a bird in the nest (Ps. 84:3). One day of those “pleasures” is better than a lifetime spent elsewhere (Ps. 10).5
I am aware, as was Lewis, that we live in a different time and are ourselves very different. We remember how Jesus said, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). But still, I believe Lewis is also right when he reminds us that we have probably swung too far to the other extreme and would do well to recover something of this robust Old Testament worship.
Or let me put it like this. There is something to be experienced of God in church that is not quite so easy to experience elsewhere. Otherwise, why have churches? If it is only instruction we need, we can get that as well by an audio tape or a book. If it is only fellowship, we can find that equally well, perhaps better, in a small home gathering. There is something to be said for the sheer physical singing of the hymns, the sitting in the pews, the actual looking to the pulpit and gazing on the pulpit Bible as it is expounded, the tasting of the sacrament and the very atmosphere of the place set apart for the worship of God that is spiritually beneficial. Isn’t that true? Haven’t you found a sense of God’s presence simply by being in God’s house? I do not mean to deny that God can (and should) be worshiped elsewhere. But I am suggesting that the actual physical worship of God in the company of other believers can be almost sacramental.
For what it is worth, let me state that the Puritans were not as hesitant as we are on this point, since they easily linked the Old Testament temple to specific churches. Richard Sibbes said boldly, “Particular visible churches under visible pastors… now are God’s tabernacle.”6
What does David mean when he writes of his longing to “dwell in the house of the LORD”?
From the study, what point is being made about the relationship between our awareness of God’s nature and presence and the elements of formal worship?
Application: How does this psalm challenge some prevailing notions about the importance of the church and what takes place there?
4For example, see Alexander Maclaren: “This aspiration of the psalmist…depends not on where we are, but on what we think and feel; for every place is God’s house” (The Psalms, vol. 1, Psalms 1-37 [New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893], p. 141).5C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), pp. 50, 51.6C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 1b, Psalms 1-26 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 10.