Sunday, 22 May 2016

Travelling to Zion (Psalm 84:5-7)

This is the second section of the psalm. In it, the psalmist is describing the journey of those travelling to Zion, and the mention of the early rains in verse 6 points to the time of year when the Feast of Tabernacles was observed, so it could have been composed for the use of those making that journey. While the section describes a literal journey to Jerusalem, it also depicts the spiritual journey to the heavenly Zion. We are all familiar with how John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress used the idea of a journey to describe the Christian life.
The energy of the travellers
The energy is described in verse 5: ‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.’ Translators have supplied ‘to Zion’, so it is possible yo translate as ‘in whose heart are ways’. I suppose they could be regarded as the ways of God or the ways to God. But the reference of a destination in verse 7 probably indicates that Zion is in mind in verse 5. There are two questions that arise from this description of the travellers. First, how do they obtain divine strength and, second, what are the highways to Zion?
With regard to the first question, we can make several observations. One is that their sense of the need of divine strength indicates that they stopped depending on other sources of strength. Those other sources could be classified as inner and outer, or what they imagined they possessed individually and what they imagined others possessed that could help them. This then leads to another aspect, which is why did they decide that they needed divine strength, and what were the tasks that they needed special divine strength for?
It is possible to avoid the implications of this experience by saying that everyone requires divine strength for doing anything. So if we believe that, what do we say about the occasion when David met Goliath? Which of them had divine strength? After all, Goliath, although he did not realise it, was dependent on God for his breath, was dependent on God for energy to shout at the Israelites, and was dependent on God for being able to move his limbs and wave his weapons. Is that the kind of divine strength that the psalmist is describing? No, it is not. Granted, there is a natural gift of strength that God gives to all people whether or not they serve him; but here the strength is that which he gives to those who are aware of their spiritual weakness on the journey to Zion.
When does that understanding begin? It commences at conversion. Conversion, we might say, is the human side of regeneration or the evidence we can see that a sinner has been reborn. Although regeneration is the act of a moment, conversion may take a while to reveal itself. It shows itself in repentance and faith, and when they are present the individual has obvious new interests. As we apply the psalm to ourselves, we have to ask if we have repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ. If we have, we can expect to know divine strength on the journey.
This leads us to consider what are the highways to Zion. In a literal sense, the highways would be the roads that a traveller would take as he made his journey to Jerusalem. These roads are a picture of the various means that God has provided for his people to travel into his presence. We know what those means are. There is prayer, there is Bible reading, there is meditation on the Bible, there is attending worship services, there is fellowship, there is the Lord’s Supper.
One intriguing aspect if those means is that they provide strength. In Psalm 1, the man who meditates on God’s word becomes like a strong tree. Daniel reminds us that those who know the Lord become strong and do exploits. John said that those he describes as young men are strong because the word of God abided in them and they were able to overcome the wicked one. Paul wrote that he was able to do all things through Christ who gave him strength.
The psalmist says that those highways are in the heart of the traveller. Sometimes we make a journey and our heart is not in it and we may find it quite boring, maybe threatening if it was a stormy day. Our travellers don’t think in that way about the highways to Zion. They love to travel along them in their hearts, and often they can go along several at the same time. If people don’t have such a love for the highways, they are not travelling to Zion.
According to the psalmist, the travellers are blessed. I suppose we could say that they are blessed in what they have and in what they will get and in what they will bring about. And in order to illustrate what the blessing involves, the psalmist refers to a valley through which they must travel on the way to Zion. He calls it the Valley of Baca.
Their effect on the valley
The meaning of ‘Baca’ is weeping, so here we have a valley that is marked by weeping and sadness. As far as I know, he is not referring to a literal valley that was called by this name. So a question arises here. Does the Psalmist mean by the valley of Baca the entire journey of the travellers or does he mean a section of their journey? I suspect that he is describing the entire journey.
How can this be the case? One reason is that he is describing something that is common to all the travellers simultaneously. Wherever they happen to be from other viewpoints, they are travelling through the Valley of Baca. A second reason for suspecting that the entire journey is being described is that the Bible often describes the world from a spiritual point of view as a place of tears, of disappointments, of frustrations, of fears, of sadnesses. A person with real spiritual insight will recognise that world does not and cannot meet the needs of his soul.
Inevitably, we would think that the effect of being in such a valley would be calamitous. So what does the psalmist say happens in this valley? He says that the travellers transform it into a place of springs. What does he mean? He is using an illustration of them digging for water. In the valley of tears, they find springs of living water. God is often likened to a fountain of living water and in a barren valley they find the presence of God. They do this because the highways of Zion, or the means of grace, are in their hearts.
This is a reminder that the means of grace are not automatic. Here, digging is an illustration of faith in action. We know that is the case. If I don’t study the Bible, I will not find its jewels. If I don’t participate in fellowship, the shared blessings will pass me by. If I decide to do something else instead of attending the public meetings of God’s people, I will miss out on the blessings connected to them. In order to have wells we have to dig, and to dig often along the journey. I liked how Matthew Henry put it: ‘Our way to heaven lies through a valley of Baca, but even that may be made a well if we make a due improvement of the comforts God has provided for the pilgrims to the heavenly city.’
Their experience in the valley
The psalmist does not stop there in describing what happens in the valley. In addition to what is dug from below, we might say, something is provided from above because the psalmist tells us that it is a wet day as they walk through the valley. The psalmist depicts the travellers journeying through the time of the early rain, which came down copiously in the autumn, which is why some commentators believe that the psalmist is referring to the Feast of Tabernacles in this psalm. Whatever else this ongoing rainfall may depict, it does point to refreshment coming from above.
It is possible that what the psalmist is referring to is the practice of people digging courses for those autumn rains to fall into and then flow along those channels. Or the illustration may indicate a combination of dug wells and heavenly showers. Either one stresses that in the valley of weeping God supplies his travelling people with heavenly refreshment.
What kinds of refreshment would spiritual travellers need? After all, they have sin within them that contributes to the weeping. Moreover, they see the sin around them and that saddens them. Often they have to endure temptations. Their heart mourns over those those who pay no attention to God’s law, both for the dishonour made on God’s name and the futility of engaging in such behaviour. They see the gospel despised and the name of Jesus abused. Even within the church they see a great deal that makes them sad.
They need strength and the psalmist indicates that they receive it continually. Indeed, their journey is depicted as going from one experience of strength to another. They experience in a spiritual way what was promised to Asher by Moses when he stated, ‘And as your days, so shall your strength be’ (Deut. 33:24). They are strong because underneath are the everlasting arms. As Isaiah promised, ‘they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint’ (Isa. 40:31).
The fact that they receive the refreshment for strength continually not only shows that they need it continually but also reveals that the Lord desires to supply it continually. And we see the determination of God in this regard when we focus on his covenant commitments. After all, he has promised that he will never leave them nor forsake them.
I would say that the receiving of strength is the same as receiving out of the fullness that there is in Jesus for us. Jesus is the well who never decreases in the amount of living water, is the bread who never ceases to nourish, is the light who never ceases to warm cold hearts, is the shepherd who never ceases to guide and protect, is the vine who never ceases to give life and fruit for his people. And he does this simultaneously for millions of his followers. They have many differences between them, but they all share the fact that they go from strength to strength. This is the life of grace, and it is a wonderful life.
The end of the valley
Eventually the journey is over for every traveller and ‘each one appears before God in Zion’. We can see that there is a sense of achievement in this statement in that the traveller has received what he wanted, which was to be the presence of God. At the same time, there is a sense of gratitude in that all of them have reached the destination.
No doubt, it was a time of great rejoicing for those who had travelled a long way to be there in the presence of God.
When we turn to think about our journey, surely the prayer of Jesus in John 17:24 comes to mind: ‘Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.’ In a very real way, this is what the fulfilment of appearing before God will include.
The words of the psalmist invite us to consider what that appearance before him will be like. What will we see? What will we say? What will we do? What will we experience? How long will it last? Where will it be? How many will be there?

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Longing for Public Worship (Psalm 84:1-4)

This psalm was written for the sons of Korah. They were one of the temple divisions and had special responsibility for participating in the praise of God. Korah was one of the descendants of Levi who led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses recorded in Numbers 16. The Lord severely judged those rebels when the ground opened and swallowed them. Yet all his family were not destroyed on that occasion and here are their descendants, many centuries later, participating in the worship of God at the temple. So in their participation we see evidence of the grace of God. It is also a reminder that the best singers are those who have a real personal grasp of the grace and mercy of God. The question that comes to us here is, ‘Are we spiritually identified with the sons of Korah?’
A particular role that the sons of Korah engaged in, as well as singing, was that of doorkeepers (1 Chron. 26:1), and the author of the psalm mentions this activity in verse 10. The author of the psalm was recalling how he had seen the sons of Korah engage in this activity when he had attended the worship services at the temple on previous occasions. Many people may not have noticed what they did, but this psalmist did and his assessment was that he would have loved to serve the Lord with them. Do we notice the little roles that people play in the church?
Moreover, we can see that the sons of Korah were prepared to fulfil major roles and minor roles in the worship of God. Their big role was to lead the praise when necessary and it would always be a public occasion whereas whenever they opened the doors in the temple courts they may not have been noticed. In the church, some people only want big roles and other people only want minor roles, but the sons of Korah would say to us, ‘Why don’t you do both?’
It is not clear where the author was, although it is evident that he was unable to get to the temple to worship God. Obviously, he is worshipping God at that moment in isolation, yet we can see from what he says that he was not content with such an experience. He does not ask God to make his solitary experience as good as what he could have if he was at the temple. This is a reminder that a true worshipper prefers corporate worship to individual worship. When we say this, we are not demeaning individual worship, but we have to watch that we don’t demean public worship.
What was his individual worship like at that moment? He tells us in verse 2 that he was full of great joy in the living God. So when he makes this assessment of corporate worship he does not make it out of a negative individual experience in which he senses the absence of God. Instead God is very real to him. He knows that in contrast to the idols of other peoples, his God is the living God.
As we look at this section of the psalm, we should observe two details from it to help with our own participation in public worship. The two details are feelings about public worship and faith concerning public worship. We can see his feelings in his descriptions of his reactions concerning public worship and we can see his faith in the different ways he speaks about God.

His feelings
I would suggest that the psalmist reveals his feelings in four ways. The first is in verse 1 when he says that God’s dwelling place is lovely. This description might surprise us initially because we know that the temple was a place of continual sacrifice. So why should the psalmist think that a place of sacrifice was lovely? The answer to that question is that he realised the effectiveness of the sacrifices, that they provided a way for him to be forgiven for his sins. As he looked at the sacrificial substitutes for his sins, he could say to himself, ‘Because of them I am forgiven!’
Second, the psalmist expressed his feelings when he said that he was longing intensely for the courts of the Lord. It is important to note that the strength of his longing was caused by anticipation and not by deprivation.  He was full of longing because he expected to receive benefits when he reached there, and his longing for such was so strong that he almost fainted with excitement. What could he experience there that would cause such anticipation? I would suggest that he was looking forward to enjoying fellowship with all the others who would be in the courts of the Lord. Thousands of people would be present in those courts (think of the numbers on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2). It would be great to speak to them all about their own accounts of mercy and grace. And something else that he would be looking forward to enjoying would be the priestly blessing as recorded in Numbers 6:24-26: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’
Third, the psalmist describes his feelings when he refers to sparrows and swallows living near the altars of the temple. Maybe he had seen them there. In describing those birds, the psalmist is referring to the amazing sense of security he and the other worshippers would enjoy in the presence of God. Although his God was holy, and although he has sworn to punish sinners, the amazing fact is that the psalmist realised that joining in the public worship was a very safe place for him. The sacrifices offered for his sins made him secure in the presence of God. A dog or a cat would not have been able to get to the birds near the altars, and the enemies of his soul would not get near him either, although the world and the flesh and the devil could make lots of noise.
Fourth, the psalmist also stated his intense desire to hear the praises of God (v. 4). This is a basic feature of a genuine religious life. If this is absent, it means that we are wanting something else instead? If the Lord is not being praised, then something inferior will. But those who have discovered the God of mercy want everyone to praise him meaningfully. The more worshippers the better. Of course, in those days of the temple, it was the priestly choirs who sand, and he is looking forward to hearing the songs of the sons of Korah and the other choirs.
What about our feelings in public worship? We don’t go to a magnificent building, and why would we want to since all magnificent buildings will one day disappear. But we do go where we see a sacrifice that is effective, the sacrifice of Jesus; we do go to have fellowship with those whom Jesus has blest and we do go to receive the priestly blessing of Jesus; we gather in a very secure place if we are in Christ; and we gather to hear by the ears of faith the innumerable number who praise God for sending Jesus. What are our feelings like?

His faith
We mentioned earlier that the psalmist’s faith is revealed in his descriptions of God and there are several of them. The first name that he uses is ‘Lord of hosts’. By this name, he means that the Lord is surrounded by large numbers of worshippers. The worshippers may be the angelic hosts or he may be referring to the hosts of Israel. When we turn to the description of Mount Zion given in Hebrews 12, we see that both sets of hosts are there. Of course, the point he is making is not so much that they love to be with the Lord, but that the Lord loves to be with them. Is that not incredible, and it is true? We are in the presence of the Lord of hosts.
Second, he refers to God as the Lord, that is Yahweh or the covenant God of Israel. When we speak of the covenant, we should have in mind the love and the faithfulness of God. It was because he loved us that he arranged for us to be converted and it is because he is faithful that we can be confident that he will always be for us. Think of many gathered in the courts of the Lord would be able to speak of his faithfulness!
Then, thirdly, he speaks of the Lord as the living God. What comes into our minds when we think of the living God? An obvious detail is that he exists, that he is very different from the dead idols that the pagan nations worshipped. God is the source of life, the Creator of all things. Since he is the source of all life, it must mean that he is willing to share life with others. That is what God did at the beginning when he brought creatures into existence. And he also gives spiritual life as well when we are born again.
Fourthly, he speaks of the Lord as his King, which is a reminder that the psalmist saw himself as a subject of a sovereign. Yet he also recognised that because he had such a sovereign he was secure because he knew that his King would look after him. And it is important to observe the psalmist’s use of personal pronouns in this regard. The God in whom he had faith was one with whom he had a very strong personal relationship.
Of course, when we sing the psalm we do so through the consequences of the coming of Jesus. We know from Isaiah 6 that Jesus is the Lord of hosts, we know from his name Jesus that he is Yahweh the Saviour, we know from what he says about himself in John 10:10 that he is the source of abundant life, and we know from his own words given shortly before he ascended to heaven that all power is given unto him in heaven and on earth. He, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the God described in Psalm 24.
So how is our worship as we gather together in public? Two important questions arise: what do we feel about being here and what do we believe about the God that we are focussing on?