When you Long for the Lord
Longing for the Lord
For the director of music. According to gittith. Of the Sons of Korah. A psalm.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
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.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you. Selah.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
Hear my prayer, O Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, O God of Jacob. Selah
Look upon our shield, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.
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.
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.
O Lord Almighty,
blessed is the man who trusts in you.
One of the most popular modern pastimes is looking back. We live in a haze of nostalgia, longing for another time. As illogical as it may seem, many in their twenties and thirties feel a longing akin to homesickness for a time they never knew. Students of nostalgia tell us that people in the 1970s looked back with longing to the forties and fifties. In 1971 more than fifty thousand copies of Buck Rogers were reprinted and three hundred radio stations brought back the serials from the thirties and forties such as "The Shadow," and "The Green Hornet." The forties seemed faraway and romantic to people growing up in the seventies. Now there is a nostalgia for the fifties and sixties, shown in the current popularity of hair cuts, slang, and the music of that earlier time.
Similarly, in Psalm 84 the psalmist showed a longing for an earlier time. This was no shallow escape, however. With something akin to homesickness, he longed to return to the place where he used to meet with God. He wanted to get back to the time and place where he could know God again. He acknowledged that such a return is a pilgrimage, a journey that has obstacles and difficulties. Yet he longed to get back to the place where he could meet the living God.
When you desire to return to the place where you meet God, faith overcomes every obstacle until you arrive. Are you homesick for God? Here's a map to find the way back.
Longing for that Place
Once there was a place, a setting, a situation, a location where God was real to you. God was not real because of that place, but the place is significant because God was there. For Abraham it was Bethel. For Moses it was Mt. Sinai. For Jesus it was Gethsemane.
In this psalm the writer longs for the place where he used to meet with God. Now he is a prisoner, or in exile, or is ill, or for some other reason cannot get back to the place where he used to meet with God—the temple in Jerusalem. Can you identify with the man who is away from the place where he used to meet with God?
He expresses this in the language of a love poem: "How lovely is your dwelling place." The temple, the place where God was dwelling, was worthy to be loved. It is difficult to understand the impression that the temple of Solomon made on the Hebrew worshiper. David proposed the temple and amassed the materials. A hundred thousand talents of gold and a million talents of silver were collected from the people. When he had donated gold from his own fortune and that of the other princes, the building contained something like the equivalent of $4.9 billion in precious metals. It took seven years and six months to complete. Thirty thousand Israelites and 150,000 Canaanites were impressed as hewers of stone, carriers of water, and builders of the building. God's presence in the temple was overwhelming in the dimensions of the place. In the Old Testament world you met the living God in the massive, gold-covered cedar beams and the stonework of that building.
We no longer yearn for a physical temple, a building, an edifice in the same way as the Old Testament person did. Today, the gathering of believers individually and collectively is the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). In the Old Testament, God had a temple for His people. In the New Testament, He has a people for His temple. What is the equivalent longing today for what the psalmist felt for the temple in Jerusalem? It is the longing to be with the people of God in the place where they assemble to meet the living God. The modern equivalent of Psalm 84:1 is to long for an experience with the living God in the very midst of others who long for that same experience.
Longing for God creates an intensity of spirit. A modern-day example of intensity might be illustrated by the amateur athletes who compete every four years in the Olympic games. We wonder how people find the drive to achieve such records. One such athlete is Andy Sudduth, who competes in rowing— pulling the oars in a single scull, a slight crimson shell of a canoe. Even though he has injured his ribs, he rows on. Even though he has had to cut back his job as a computer analyst at Harvard University, he continues to press. He postponed working on a master's degree at Harvard in order to train. "You put your life on hold," he said. "It happens to everyone in rowing. . . ."
We often find such intensity in those who compete. But do we expect the same intensity in ourselves when we want to come back to God? Are we willing to "put everything on hold" until we find the place where we meet God again? The psalmist's words express this kind of passion. Listen to the language of a man who wants to get back to God. He "yearns, faints, cries out for the living God." The word "yearns" depicts someone who longs and pines to the extent of growing pale.
Would you characterize the intensity of your desire for God with those words? This man "faints" with longing for the exterior courts of the temple of God. The phrase suggests that his heart virtually fails, because he is so consumed just to stand in the outer court of the place where he meets with God.
Remember that this is a man who looked back to animal sacrifices and the smoke of the brazen altar. Yet this man yearns, faints, and cries out for the place where he meets God.
If he did so with such intensity, how much more intensity should we feel who look back to Calvary and to the opened, empty tomb—we who have found life and immortality through Jesus Christ? There is a totality within the intensity as the psalmist's soul, his heart, and his flesh all cry out for the living God. This is no partial devotion to God in which the emotions feel Him, but the mind does not think of Him, and the will does not bend to Him. This man is an electrified, animated, pulsating whole person, every part of whom intensely desires the encounter with God!
Longing for God also reflects an integrity of intention, as shown when the worshiper cries out for the living God. Psalm 84:2 is only one of two places in the Old Testament where God is called "the living God" (see also Psalm 42:1). That is, the psalmist desires to contact God Himself as He really is. He does not long for the house of God so much as for the God whose house it is. He wants to keep the primary thing the primary thing. When you go to a courthouse you do not seek the courtroom, but justice. At the hospital you are not going for the building itself, but because it is a place to get well. You do not attend a school because the school is an end in itself, but because that is the place you get an education.
Many secondary things can happen at the place where God's people meet. Someone may mumble in the pew before you, a fly may buzz past you, twinges of boredom may set in while the sermon drones on, pangs of regret may fill your mind about things you did not get done the past week. Or you may have better experiences and still not long for God. You may be overwhelmed by the architecture of the building, or be carried away by the beauty of the music. You may laugh at the pastor's joke, or be impressed by the size of the crowd. But none of that is an encounter with the living God. The difference between going to church and encountering the living God is the difference between reading a lecture on atomic energy and watching an atomic bomb explode.
The purpose of this entire institution ought to be to meet the living God. Why do churches buy property, pave parking lots, build buildings, employ large staffs, organize, administer programs, hold endless meetings, buy literature, train choirs, raise a budget, and a thousand other things? Never, never that these things would be an end in themselves. Churches become a travesty if all of these secondary things become primary. We must always weigh everything we do against the question, "How does this enable us to meet the living God?"
Longing for God reveals an intimacy of desire. Lovers envy anything that is near the loved one. The psalmist recalls that swallows and sparrows nest in the temple area close to the place where he once met God. Away, exiled, debarred from the presence of God, he envies anything that is closer to that place than he is.
In the ancient East, birds nesting in a temple were considered sacred. To this day, birds are allowed to nest in the Mosque of Omar near the Old Testament temple site. Temples have often been sanctuaries for birds. An hour's drive from Bangkok, Thailand is the Wat Phai Lom, an ancient Buddhist temple. In its enclosure is a riotous gathering of seventeen thousand openbill storks, the largest gathering of such birds in the world. It is a sanctuary for those birds.
The psalmist remembers a scene like that. He recalls that some of God's lower creations have constant access to His temple, finding safety and protection in the place where God's people meet. He knows that in the altar of God he, too, can find a place that is safe under the protection of God.
As you look at the word portrait of this person, do you see anything that reminds you of yourself? Are you away from the place where you once met God? Perhaps something or someone has intervened and you are exiled from that place. If so, you feel alienated, estranged, debarred, shut out from a real encounter with God. Do you long to come back? Is that longing the most intense thing in your life? It could be. It should be. And the good news is that you can have as much of
God as you intensely want to have. James 4:8 makes the categorical promise, "Come near to God and he will come near to you."
Discovering the Process
If you set your heart on longing for God, you must be ready for a long journey, a pilgrimage. As a friend said, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Psalm 84 contains three beatitudes, including this encouragement for the journey: "Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage." We often worry about a good beginning in the Christian life. But the gospel puts just as much emphasis on a good finish. If you long to know God, get ready for a long journey, not a quick fix.
In verses 6 and 7 of Psalm 84, the psalmist paints a picture of your inward, spiritual journey to know God as if it were a pilgrimage from a distant place to the temple in Jerusalem. Such a journey for an actual pilgrim to Jerusalem was a fatiguing, trying experience. Yet the closer the travelers came to the temple, the faster they went. The psalmist assures you that the journey to know God is like that.
Along this journey to Jerusalem the pilgrims pass through the Valley of Baca to make it to a place of springs. The word "Baca" refers to the balsam tree which likes to grow in arid, dry places. Thus the psalmist pictures a long trek through a waterless, barren valley, a terrible wilderness, an arid area. Likewise, not every moment on the way to know God is full of joy and light. All of us have to walk through the Valley of Baca. It can be any of many things. It may be an illness, a time of severe temptation, a period of reversal in our business, an emotional trauma. There is no route to God without crossing the Valley of Baca. And yet an amazing thing happens there. You can dig down through the arid valley floor and find springs. The impossible becomes possible. Affliction can be turned into joy, hardship can be turned into rejoicing, and weakness can be turned into strength.
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (James 1:2). That is the possibility for a Christian. He or she can drill right down through the dry place and find living water. I am reminded of this when I think of a dear friend who lost his wife after her five-year battle with cancer. Yet he said that those five years were the best they experienced together. This loving couple dug right down into hardships and found blessings.
During your journey back to God, you will find the sudden blessings that God alone can provide. The pilgrim makes his way across the wasteland of the Judean desert. He is tired, hot, fatigued, weary, about to quit. Suddenly a cloud appears, there is the smell of rain on the desert, and across his dust-caked face the refreshing streaks of rain fall. The psalmist wrote that "the autumn rains also cover it with pools."
Then, as he makes his way toward Jerusalem, a miracle takes place. The desert floor begins to bloom. Israel gets about ten inches of rain per year, and the desert floor reaches a temperature of 190 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day. Unless the rainfall is perfectly timed, the seeds of flowers can lay dormant for a century. But once every fifty years, the time and amount of rain is right, and the dormant seeds sprout.
In the winter of 1979-1980 this very thing happened. An estimated three thousand to four thousand seeds per square yard grew to maturity. The people who witnessed the miracle saw the floor of the desert literally spring to life with wild flowers. They saw the impossible become possible, the unreal become real. By the intervention of God, the dry place became a place suddenly bursting with beauty. This is always the possibility for God's people as they pass through the dry places.
This very moment, more people than you may think are walking through dry places on their journey back to God. Difficulties, depression, despair, losses, crosses, trials, and tests have dried out their lives. If you are one of these wandering pilgrims, hear the word of God. Then comes a moment when from wells beneath you and the sky above you God will again pour out His presence. Your life will be like an oasis, transformed by faith from the worst place in your life to the best place, from the worst moment to the best moment. It means to believe the words of Jesus Christ, "Whoever believes in me, . . . streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7:38).
Longing for God also generates renewed resources, as the psalmist writes: "They go from strength to strength." Here is the paradox of faith—different from any other human strength. On a physical journey, the further you go, the weaker you get. Vision dims, hearing weakens, the step falters. Faith demonstrates its might precisely at the point where human strength breaks down. With faith, the nearer the goal, the stronger the pull. It is the mighty truth of Isaiah 40:31: "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." And it is the splendid truth of 2 Corinthians 3:18, "We . . . are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord."
We all admire those physical athletes who have the ability to pace themselves so that the end of the race is even faster than the beginning. A prime example is Harry (Butch) Reynolds, Jr., who could become the fastest runner ever to run around the outdoor track. He had the natural ability to break the epic 400-meter record of 43.86 seconds set in 1968 by Lee Evans at the Mexico City Olympics. His six-foot-three-inch, 177-pound frame takes a monstrous eight-and-a-half-foot stride. His secret is that he runs at 80 percent most of the way, but 95 percent at the close of the race as he rounds the turn toward the tape. The closer to the goal he is, the faster he can run. Going back to God can be just that way. He sustains us with more and more resources the closer we come to the goal.
God makes this promise to you. Whatever else may fail you in your pilgrimage, the life of faith does not. It can indeed move from strength to strength. Dare to believe it and act on it. This is the glory of the Christian faith. When friends, family, companions, health, strength, and opportunity all appear to be gone, you can still move from strength to strength. Like Moses at 120, Abraham at 175, Paul imprisoned in Rome writing his letters, and John on Patmos at 90 writing the Revelation, you can experience the best after the longest time on the journey. The best can be the last!
Revival with God
Your longing for an encounter with God will not be disappointed. No basic hunger in human life is unmet by God. One who has the ambition to know God (vv. 1-4), and takes the journey to approach God (vv. 5-8), will experience arrival with God, as the psalmist describes in the final stanza of Psalm 84. He is at the place where finally he meets with God. This final arrival leads to a contrast and a confession. He confesses that time in God's presence is better than any other time: "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere." Can you confess that the time you experience with God is better than any other time?
The psalmist goes on to describe the place of God's presence: "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked." He would rather be a beggar at the gate of the temple in the burning sunshine than live in the sumptuous ease of the tents of the wicked. He prefers the lowest place with God to the highest place without God.
Henri J. Nouwen compared this attitude with that of many people today:
Those who think that they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it. Those who think they are saints, are demons. An important part of the spiritual life is to keep longing, waiting, hoping, expecting. In the long run, some voluntary penance becomes necessary to help us remember that we are not yet fulfilled. A good criticism, a frustrating day, an empty stomach, or tired eyes might help to reawaken our expectation and deepen our prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Henri J. Nouwen, The Genesee Diary
(New York: Doubleday and Company, 1981),
quoted in Bob Benson and Michael W. Benson,
Disciplines for the Inner Life
(Nashville: Generoux/Nelson, 1989), p. 54
On the journey back to God we are always leaving, always going, always arriving. But our arriving must be with the aching sense that there is still another arrival ahead. Come back—but spend a lifetime on the journey.
Homesick for God.