Longing for Heaven, Longing for God

Jonathan Gibson

New Horizons: January 2019

Homesick and Holy

Also in this issue

Homesick and Holy

A Christian Response to Disaster

C. S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Augustine wrote, “O God, you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

These two quotations capture the affectional pulsebeat of the Christian life: a longing for another world, a longing for God.

The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob exemplified this affectional pulsebeat as they lived in tents in the Promised Land:

By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb. 11:9–10, emphasis added)

Israel’s annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem also exemplified this desire for another world. The temple in Jerusalem was a physical symbol of heaven, God’s abode, on earth. The pilgrimages were a regular reminder to the people of God that Canaan was not their true home—there was something beyond Canaan, something better than Canaan.

Psalm 84 is set in the context of these pilgrimages, and it goes to the very heart of what the journey to God’s temple was all about: longing for heaven and longing for God. If Psalm 84 teaches us anything, it’s that this world is not our home; we’re “just a-passing through.”

Now, by “this world,” I don’t mean that the earth below is not our home and heaven above is. That would be Platonism, a dividing of the “physical down here” from the “spiritual up there.” Rather, I mean the age of this earth and this heaven is not our home; our home is the new age of the new heavens and new earth. So, with that qualification in mind, let me show you three ways in which this psalm pulses for heaven and for God.

A Longing for Heaven, a Longing for God (vv. 1–4)

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah

The psalm opens, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” The word “lovely” does not mean that God’s temple dwelling was “lovely looking,” although I’m sure it was. Rather, the word “lovely” here means something like “lovable.” How lovable is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!

Two opposite descriptions in verse 2 then describe the psalmist’s longing for this place. The psalmist faints for it, as if the blood rushes from his body. His heart and his flesh also sing for joy for it—the blood now rushes back, if you like, because you can’t sing if you’re feeling faint. These opposite experiences, fainting and singing, together capture an intense longing for God’s dwelling place.

God’s temple is this psalmist’s one consuming passion, so much so that he expresses envy in verse 3 at those who live there permanently. He’s envious of the sparrow who finds a home in the arches of the roof. He’s envious of the swallow who makes her nest in the eaves of the temple—she gets to have her young near his altars. The birds have free and easy access to God’s house; they come and go as they please. But this psalmist can’t. He has to make a pilgrimage to God’s temple, and then he has to leave again for months at a time.

The psalmist is also envious of those who live in the temple courts: the priests, the Levites, and the gatekeepers. He’s envious of them because they get to live in God’s house and sing his praise continually.

I’ve been reflecting on this since the death of our daughter, Leila. One Sabbath evening while we slept, at nine months old in her mother’s womb, Leila quietly slipped away to her eternal rest. Jesus called her name and she went to him. I remember so well the longing for her to come back, longing to feel her kick again in her mother’s womb. Four days later she was stillborn. The next day, we handed her over to hospital personnel and walked out of the hospital without her. I can still remember the sharp, searing pain of leaving her. As my wife, Jackie, held her, I kissed her on the forehead and said, “My sweet, sweet Leila, we’ll see you on the other side.” Oh, how we have longed for her to return, to come back to us—even just for a day! But think about what we’d be asking of her: we’d be asking her to leave the courts of the Lord of hosts, to leave her home in heaven where she gets to praise God continually. Why would we want her to do that?

Samuel Rutherford once wrote to a mother who lost her child: “Today the Lord has cut off one of your branches so that you might grow higher and closer towards heaven.” Life is not about those who have gone before us coming back to us; it’s about us going to them.

This psalmist doesn’t want the sparrows or swallows confiscated from God’s house. He doesn’t want them to come and live with him in his house in the countryside. He wants to go and live where they live. This psalmist doesn’t want the priests and Levites and gatekeepers to leave the temple. He wants to go and live where they live, because blessed are those who dwell in God’s house, ever singing his praises.

Notice how the stanza ends with a focus on God more than the temple: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise.” Heaven is a praiseworthy place, but only because it is inhabited by a praiseworthy person—God. That’s why this psalmist finds God’s dwelling place so lovable, because the Lord of hosts, the living God, lives there. Heaven is only heaven because of who’s there.

A Journeying to Heaven, a Journeying to God (vv. 5–7)

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.

The last stanza ended with a blessing on those who live in God’s temple (vv. 3–4). This stanza begins with a blessing on those who journey to God’s temple: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” In other words, blessed are those who are already in heaven, and blessed are those who already have the journey to heaven fixed in their hearts. Such people, says the psalmist, are a source of refreshing comfort as the pilgrims travel through the Valley of Baca.

We’re not sure exactly where the Valley of Baca was, but “Baca” likely refers to balsam trees, which grew in the Valley of Rephaim, southwest of Jerusalem. The pilgrim route to Jerusalem through this valley would have been very dry during the autumn season of the Feast of Tabernacles and also dangerously close to Philistine territory. Perhaps most significantly, “Baca” sounds exactly like the Hebrew word for “weeping.” This is the valley of weeping (perhaps the balsam trees “wept” their “gum”).

Yet the psalmist says that those who go into this “vale of tears” with their strength firmly rooted in God, and with pilgrimage in their hearts, can turn a dry place into a place of springs. That is, their lives become a blessing to those who journey with them.

Have you ever heard it said of some Christians, “They are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good”? Well, I think that that comment couldn’t be more wrong. Those who are heavenly minded are of great earthly good, because they are like a refreshing spring in the valley of sorrow. Such people remind us that this world is not our home, that we’re just a-passing through because we are on the highway to Zion, to God himself. This stanza ends, just like the previous one, with God. The destiny of our earthly pilgrimage, just like the Israelites’ of old, is not to a place so much as to a person—to God.

A Prayer to Reach Heaven, a Prayer to Reach God (vv. 8–12)

O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah. Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!

At first sight, verse 9 feels out of place: “Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed!” If verse 9 is removed, verse 8 runs quite naturally into verse 10. What is verse 9 doing here? Well, in the Old Testament, a shield was a metaphor for Israel’s king, and “anointed one” was a title for the king. It’s a prayer for God’s king.

But that then raises another question: what has God’s king got to do with this psalmist’s pilgrimage to God’s dwelling place? Quite a lot, actually. The prosperity of God’s people and the protection of God’s temple in Zion were dependent on the prosperity of God’s king. If Israel’s king was disobedient, then God’s curse fell on king and people. Just think of the exile: when Israel and Judah went into exile, it was because their kings fell into sin. The curse on Judah, the southern nation, resulted in the Babylonians coming into the land and destroying the temple. Access to God’s house was ended because the king no longer found favor in God’s eyes.

That’s why this psalmist prays that God might behold the king and look with favor on him. If the king doesn’t prosper, access to the place the psalmist loves will be shut, and access to the God he loves will be ended.

The psalmist wants God to look with favor on the king because God’s dwelling place is incomparable: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (v. 10).

This verse contains two comparisons. The first is a temporal comparison: a day in God’s courts is better than a thousand days elsewhere. The second is a qualitative comparison: being a doorkeeper in God’s house—that is, serving at the periphery of God’s temple sanctuary in a menial position—is better than living in the tents of wickedness, with all its fleeting pleasures.

The psalmist then explains why God’s courts are incomparable: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor” (v. 11). The sun is a picture of life and light; the shield, a picture of protection. God is life and light and protection, and he gives favor (grace) and honor (glory) to his people. In other words, a day in heaven is better than a thousand elsewhere because God is there—the God of grace and glory and good things.

What are these good things (v. 11) that God does not withhold from those who walk uprightly? A spouse, children, a job promotion, good health? All these are good things, but I don’t think they are what is promised here. We can, like Job, suffer the loss of such things while seeking to walk uprightly. So, what exactly is meant by “no good thing”? The answer is found in verses 10 and 11. The good thing that God does not withhold from us is being with him in his courts. God does not withhold heaven from us; he does not withhold himself from us. But, of course, this is only true if he has looked with favor on his anointed king (v. 9). For us, this means God must look with favor on Jesus Christ, our King.

Christ, the Pioneer Pilgrim

One of the ways in which the Psalms connect to Jesus Christ is in the sphere of typological experience. The psalmist or the person described in the psalm (like the blessed man in Psalm 1, God’s anointed king in Psalm 2, or the righteous sufferer in Psalm 3) is a type of Christ in their experience. That is, the fullest and most perfect expression of their desires, disappointments, and sufferings is found in the life experience of Jesus Christ. In this regard, the psalms are not just about Jesus; they were also experienced by Jesus.

As the true, faithful Israelite, Jesus perfectly experienced the desires expressed in this psalm, especially the vivid, intense pulsebeat for heaven and for God. Jesus was the Son of Man, born of Mary, but throughout his life he never forgot that he was a son of heaven. During his earthly ministry, he wandered from place to place like his patriarch fathers before him. In fact, he didn’t even have a tent to dwell in. “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). Why? Because for the joy set before him, he endured the cross and then sat down at his Father’s right hand in his presence (Heb. 12:2). This world was not his home, he was just a-passing through.

The life of our Lord is one of those parts of the Bible—like those of the patriarchs in Canaan and those of the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem—where the affectional pulsebeat for heaven, for God, is pumping strong. Jesus was the pioneer pilgrim, the one who in his earthly life embodied the perfect longing for heaven, the perfect longing for God. And because he perfectly lived out this longing, God looked with favor on him as our Anointed King. When Christ died, the temple curtain was torn in two: God removed the angelic barrier that had stood between him and humanity since the day Adam was expelled from the garden-temple of Eden.

Jesus loves me! He who died
Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let his little child come in.

And when God does let us “come in” to his heaven after our earthly pilgrimage, we will find that C. S. Lewis and Augustine were right: we were made for another world, we were made for God. The deep longings we experience now will be met then, fully and finally, not simply in heaven itself, but in God himself.

The author is a teaching elder in the International Presbyterian Church (UK) and assistant professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. New Horizons, January, 2019.

New Horizons: January 2019

Homesick and Holy

Also in this issue

Homesick and Holy

A Christian Response to Disaster

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