Psalm 84

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 84.  In this post, I’ll paste the Psalm in the King James Version (which is in the public domain) and comment on select verses.

1To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm for the sons of Korah. How amiable are thy tabernacles, O LORD of hosts!

The KJV translation says that this Psalm is “for” the sons of Korah, who were Levites, but many commentators assert that Psalm 84 is for pilgrims who are going to Zion or some other sanctuary.  Perhaps, in this scenario, the sons of Korah wrote the Psalm for those pilgrims.  Or maybe the Korahites were expressing their joy at being close to God in the sanctuary, even as they expanded their outlook and wanted for pilgrims to have some measure of that joy.

Others maintain that Psalm 84 is about Jews in exile yearning to return to Israel and worship God at Jerusalem.  Perhaps, in this scenario, the Korahites could have written Psalm 84 to express their own desire for their nation’s (and their own) restoration, as well as the desire of the Jews in exile.  Another view is that Psalm 84 is more about a spiritual journey than a physical pilgrimage.  Perhaps, in this scenario, the Korahites were seeking a deeper spiritual meaning to pilgrimage and worship in the Temple. 

2 My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.

I like what the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says about this verse: “True fulfillment for both body and soul can be found only in the presence of God, the constant source of life.”

3 Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.

This is a puzzling verse because it appears to suggest that birds make a home for themselves on God’s holy altars.  Many commentators do not think that’s what the verse is saying, though.  Some say that the verse is expressing admiration for the birds in the Temple courtyard, as the pilgrim himself desires to be close to God at the sanctuary.  Others maintain that the birds are symbolic for the Levites, who are close to God because they work in the sanctuary.  This is not a far-fetched proposition, for there are Psalms that liken human beings to birds (Psalm 11:1; 124:7).  The Targum actually tries to do something with the birds being on the altars.  Edward Cook’s translation of the Targum says: “Even the dove has found a house, and the turtledove a nest that is suitable for her hatchlings to be sacrificed on your altars, O LORD Sabaoth, my king and my God.”  The Targum relates the birds to the altars by bringing up the issue of sacrifice.

I am not convinced by many of the interpretations that I encountered for this verse, but I cannot at this time offer anything better.  Perhaps some words are missing from the text.  I did, however, like some points that Marvin Tate made.  First, Tate quotes H.J. Kraus, who affirmed that “The holy place is the epitome of the undisturbed, fulfilled life.”  Second, Tate (who believes that the birds symbolize the Levites) states: “The pilgrim who finds such joy in the temple courts at festival time thinks longingly of priests and ministers who live in the temple area all the time…The view is utopian of course; the priests and Levites who stayed at the temple and did all the work involved there (including, no doubt, caring for pilgrims at festival times!) may not have always considered it so ideal.”  Hopefully, people who serve God in the capacity of ministry can be refreshed by God’s love for them and the realization that their work is important because they are working for God and are helping people.  But I’m sure that there are times when that’s easier said than done!

4 Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee. Selah.

That seems to coincide with Tate’s view that the pilgrims, who are visiting the sanctuary, admire those (namely, the Levites) who dwell in God’s house and have continual opportunities to praise God.

5 Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them.

The second part of the verse can literally be translated as “highways in their heart”.  What does that mean?  An interpretation I found that makes sense to me is that this part of the verse is saying that the pilgrims’ hearts are set on the journey (the highways) to the sanctuary.  They are really looking forward to worshiping God!  This sort of interpretation can also work if we apply Psalm 84 to the desire of exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem: the journey back to Jerusalem is on their heart.  Perhaps this sort of interpretation can also work if we seek a deeper spiritual meaning in Psalm 84: our spiritual journey is on our heart, in the sense that it is important to us, and also because we’re looking forward to a greater intimacy with God.

6 Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools.

There are different views about what the valley of Baca is.  Josephus mentions a place called Baca, which is in Galilee (Wars 3:39), and so there is a view that Psalm 84 at one point concerned a sanctuary in the North, not in Jerusalem.  Others think that “Baca” means “weeping”, and they proceed to speak homiletically about God bringing happiness out of sadness.  This is a beautiful lesson, but, as Keil-Delitzsch point out, “Baca” is never used in the Hebrew Bible for “weeping”, for the Hebrew Bible often employs bechi or other words to convey that.  Still, the Jewish commentator Rashi managed to base some profound points on the “weeping” interpretation, as he painted a picture of transgressors (another way to understand the Hebrew word ovrei, which the KJV translates as “Who passing through”) weeping for their sins in Gehinnom, as they acknowledge God’s justice and regret that they disobeyed the teacher who blessed them and taught them the way that is good.  Personally, I’d hope that there would be a possibility of redemption even for them.  Could that be what the Targum is getting at when it says regarding this verse: “The wicked who cross over the valleys of Gehenna, weeping he will make their weeping like a fountain; also those who return to the teaching of his Torah he will cover with blessings” (again, Cook’s translation)?  Or is the Targum merely saying that the transgressors in Gehinnom are weeping, whereas the people who are still alive and return to the Torah will be blessed?

A third view is that the Baca was a balsam tree, which would indicate that the valley of Baca was dry.  The lesson, in this scenario, is that God enlivens arid regions by bringing forth rain.  This interpretation could apply to pilgrimage, or it could relate to return from exile, for Second Isaiah (which is about return from exile) presents God making barren lands fruitful.  Some believe that the “balsam tree” interpretation places the valley of Baca closer to Jerusalem, meaning that Psalm 84 is about a pilgrimage to Zion rather than to a northern sanctuary.  The reason is that II Samuel 5:23 mentions a place where there are bechaim, which many regard as balsam trees, and that story is set near Jerusalem.

On what basis is the Baca considered to be a balsam tree?  Keil-Delitzsch refer to the Arabic, baka’un, which they say concerns something like a balsam tree.  Tate says that Baka could be talking about a tree that weeps sap.  I could not, however, find strong evidence that Baca concerns a balsam tree.  When I looked at the Septuagint and Brenton’s translation, I saw that the LXX interpreted bechaim in II Samuel 5:23 in light of weeping, but it interpreted bechaim in I Chronicles 14:14 as pear trees (or so says Brenton, and so the lexicon on my BibleWorks understands the Greek word apios).  From an online search, I learned that there are pears that grow in arid regions, and so perhaps the view that God in Psalm 84:6 is enlivening a barren region stands.

The Septuagint understands the second part of the verse, which the KJV translates as “the rain also filleth the pools”, to be about the teacher (presumably God) giving blessings.  Its justification is probably that the word that the KJV translates as “rain”, moreh, can also mean “teacher” or pertain to teaching (i.e., Isaiah 9:14; II Chronicles 15:3).  It’s from the Hebrew root y-r-h, from which the word “Torah” comes.  And the word that the KJV translates as “pools”, berachot, often means “blessings” (Genesis 28:4; 33:11).  The Septuagint’s interpretation adds a personal dimension to the fruitfulness that God brings to the valley of Baca (which the LXX sees as the valley of weeping), for God is the one who brings it as a teacher.  That coincides with what Psalm 84:11 says: that God gives good things to those who walk uprightly.  In a sense, heeding and trying to walk according to God’s teachings can bring about healing and happiness (or so one would hope).

7 They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.
8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah.
9 Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.

The anointed one could be the king or the priest.  The pilgrim is not just rooting for God, but for God’s servants, for their decisions and work can bring peace and prosperity to the people.  From a Christian standpoint, v 9 could encourage me to root for God’s anointed, Jesus Christ, who currently rules his church and will one day bring benevolence, justice, and righteousness to the earth.

10 For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.

This verse is the inspiration for the Christian praise song, Better Is One Day.  The reason that the KJV has “doorkeeper” is probably that it relates the word histopheph to the Hebrew word saph, which means “treshhold”.  But, as Tate points out, “doorkeeper” is a problematic translation because the point of the verse is that the Psalmist would rather be in a lowly position than to be in tents of wickedness, and doorkeepers to the Temple held a high status (Tate cites I Samuel 1:9; II Kings 12:9; 22:4; 25:18; Jeremiah 35:4; 52:24; Esther 2:21; 6:2; I Chronicles 9:19, 22; II Chronicles 23:4).  For Tate, the verse could be saying that the Psalmist would rather be a beggar standing at the threshhold of the Temple than to be in tents of wickedness.  That would coincide with the Septuagint, which uses a word that can mean “rejected” for histopheph.

I’d like to note one more thing.  This is a Psalm by Korahites, and v 10 exalts humility.  But Korah in Numbers 16 was not humble but rather sought to exalt his own status.  Perhaps the Korahites learned their lesson, or Psalm 84 was seeking to refute the notion that the Korahites were proud people seeking to usurp authority.  In any case, it’s interesting to read Psalm 84:10 in juxtaposition with Numbers 16. 

11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.
12 O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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