Studying Psalm 84

How would we express our desire to be in the presence of God? We can meditate on the psalmist’s articulation of that desire this week, as we are studying Psalm 84 for Sunday, October 24. The psalm gives voice to an intense longing to be in the presence of the HOLY ONE. Here are a few notes on this psalm:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the fourth in our recent series of five psalm texts. Once again, we are dealing with a text known for its musical and liturgical and poetic qualities.

Many of the psalms have superscripts – notations that indicate something, not always well understood, about the psalm. The superscript for Psalm 84 tells us it is “according to” or “upon the Gittith.” “The Gittith” seems to have been a musical instrument, possibly associated with the Philistine city of Gath, possibly having something to do with a “winepress” (the literal meaning of gittith), but about which nothing definite is known.

Also, that it is one of the psalms designated “of the Korahites.” The full collection of these psalms comprises Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88. [Psalm 43 may be a continuation of Psalm 42; Psalm 86 is identified as a “prayer of David.”] Something definite IS known about the Korahites. The Korahites were the descendants of Korah, who fomented the “Korah rebellion” described in Numbers 16. The narrative there might imply that all of Korah’s family are swallowed alive by the earth. Numbers 26:11, however, assures us that “the sons of Korah did not die.” Their descendants are specifically mentioned in 1 Chronicles (6:7-13 and 18-22; 25:4-5) as numbering among the Levites who served in the Temple as musicians. Traditionally, the prophet Samuel is identified as a member of this clan.

Also, finally, that it is “a psalm” – that is, literally, a melody.

The superscript does NOT say that it is “a song of ascents.” The songs of ascents, as designated by the text, are Psalms 120-134. Nevertheless, the references in Psalm 84 to the “courts” of God and to travelling to Zion (verses 5-7) may put some readers in mind of the songs of ascent. One theory about the songs of ascent is that they were associated with the Biblical pilgrimage festivals, and played some role in pilgrims’ approach to Jerusalem.

The “valley of Baca” mentioned in verse 6 has been translated “valley of tears” or “valley of weeping” at least since the days of the Septuagint. Contemporary translations treat it as a proper name for a place, but no one is sure which specific place, although several candidates have been suggested. This is the only mention of the “valley of Baca” in the Bible, so there isn’t a lot to go on. But the evocative association of this valley with weeping and difficulty, made not just bearable but blessed in anticipation of arrival in Jerusalem / Zion / the presence of God, has given rise to a LOT of inspirational interpretation.

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CLOSER READING: The word translated lovely in v1 is a word that means beloved or delightful, and is closely related to words like “lover” and “to love.” The root shows up in the song for welcoming the Sabbath bride that opens Shabbat, Lecha Dodi. [Here is a little more on Lecha Dodi, with a nice setting of the tune, and an informative video.] This is no ordinary loveliness, but the kind of loveliness associated with an object of intense, almost erotic longing.

Also in v1, the psalmist addresses God as “the LORD of Hosts,” Adonai Sabaoth. This form of address is emphasized. It repeats in a formal way, opening the psalm, closing the psalm, and appearing in the second and next to last stanzas. Normally, this way of naming God has military connotations – the “hosts” are the [grammatically feminine] angelic armies of heaven.

Why does the psalmist make such a point of addressing God in this way in this psalm? I think this is an important question, even though I don’t have an answer. The psalm doesn’t emphasize strength or victory otherwise, unless we count the references to a “shield” in verses 9 and 11. The psalmist addresses God in other ways, too – “living God,” “King,” “God,” “God of gods,” “God of Jacob,”  “HOLY ONE God.” And metaphorically as “a sun and shield” (v11). But the image of the LORD of hosts still dominates this psalm.

The struggle in the psalm seems to be hinted at in verses 5-7, as those whose strength is in God go through the valley of Baca (or, weeping). Whatever it means to have these highways in their hearts, which is something to think about, it makes the valley, which we think might be hard to travel through, a well-watered, joyous or blessed place, thanks to the anticipation of the ultimate destination. The struggle comes to voice explicitly in v8, perhaps – “hear my prayer.” It is hinted at again in the choice mentioned in v10, the choice between being “a doorkeeper” and living in the tents of wickedness. It is not entirely obvious whether the choice is between having a humble role in the house of God, compared to a lucrative one in the presence of the wicked, or whether the choice is between having a busy routine in the house of God, compared to idle luxury in the presence of the wicked. Either way, the psalmist’s emphatic affirmation of the one and rejection of the other hints at the need to make the choice. Whether it’s the psalmist making the choice, or the psalmist embracing and commending the choice to others, again, is not clear. It might be both.

Verse 3’s beautiful image of the tiny bird that nests in the crevice of the Temple, close to God, resonates with the [Korahite] psalmist’s ritual task. The tiny birds take on the status of liturgists, living in God’s house, “ever singing” God’s praise.

We probably must read the references to God’s dwelling place, its courts, and so on as literally referring to the Temple in Jerusalem; but that literal reference also seems to act as a metaphor for wherever God dwells, wherever the psalmist – or someone who identifies with the psalmist – recognizes as the dwelling place of God. …

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Image: Illuminated Psalter, Lionel Allorge, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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