Blessed to Worship

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 12, 2023.

            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

            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.

            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! (Psalm 84)[1]

The eighty-fourth psalm is similar to the Songs of Ascents as its focus is worship, directs us toward Zion, and emphasizes the temple. Within the psalm we find characteristics of a hymn, a prayer, and a lament. It is also a psalm of longing, and yet the most oft-repeated word in the psalm is “blessed”: “Blessed are those who dwell in [the LORD’s] house.”  “Blessed are those whose strength is in [the LORD].” And, “blessed is the one who trusts in [the LORD]!” And blessed are we, as we read, sing, and meditate upon this psalm.

The psalm is identified as a “A Psalm of the Sons of Korah,” who were in summary the liturgical singers of temple worship, but the individual psalmist is unidentified (Perhaps he too was a Korahite.). Also a mystery is the note to the choirmaster: “according to The Gittith,” a term derived from the Hebrew word for winepress. (Perhaps it was a tune sung during the Feast of Tabernacles, a festival that included imbibing.) What is not a mystery is the setting of the psalm: the temple, or house, of the Lord.

In the Old Testament, the temple is the specific place of the manifest presence of the Lord.

            How lovely is your dwelling place,

                        O LORD of hosts!

Of course, to say that God dwells is not to say God is confined. As Solomon confessed at the dedication of the temple, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Ki. 8:27). The temple did not, could not, hold He Who Is, but he chose to manifest his presence there, to dwell in his temple for the good of his people and for his glory. The psalmist conveys this through his varied references to God: “The LORD,” “the living God,” “my King and my God,” “The LORD of hosts,” “LORD God of Hosts,” “God of Jacob.” Each use of God’s name emphasizes a characteristic of who God is in relation to his people. Understanding this, it is no wonder the psalmist is ecstatic that God has chosen to manifest his presence in the temple, that he may be worshiped on earth as he is in heaven.

The temple was indeed a place of beauty, a masterpiece of design and décor, worthy of aesthetic regard. But that is not what made it lovely.[2] It was indeed a place of national recognition, a monument set upon Mount Zion, testifying to all who look up to it, of one nation, a covenanted kingdom, under God. But that is not what made it lovely. The temple was lovely because it was the dwelling place of the Lord among his people. And all who come to worship the Lord in his temple are blessed to worship.

Blessed to Worship

How the psalmist views worshiping the Lord is anything but flippant:

            My soul longs, yes, faints

                        For the courts of the LORD.

The courts are the place of assembly, the place of gathered worship of “the living God.” To be at the point of fainting is to understand the reverence and awe required to worship rightly. To long for the place of God’s presence is a pure desire, or what C.S. Lewis calls an “appetite for God.”[3] If our chief end is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,”[4] surely this is a glimpse of what it means to “enjoy him.” And the expression of this desire is not bottled up but comes forth in joyful song. From the center of his being to the entirety of his body, the psalmist sings “for joy.”

While we do not gather in the courts of ancient Israel’s temple, we do gather every Lord’s day to worship “in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:24), not in a temporal temple on Mount Zion but a temple of the Lord’s creation and presence. By the indwelling of his Spirit and promised presence in our assembly (Mt. 18:20), we worship the true and living God. And part of this worship is singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Col. 3:16); it’s what we do! Historians tell us that in the late first century, the Roman philosopher Pliny reported to the Emperor that people known as Christians were assembling on Sundays and singing in worship to the Lord. In the second century, early church father Tertullian described Christians gathering as a church and singing.[5] We’ve been assembling on Sundays and singing for quite a while, folks. And so it will continue, throughout eternity, as we sing for joy to the living God forever and ever.

And it’s not just singing but all of assembled worship that is truly a blessing. So captivating is true worship that the psalmist never wants to leave. He looks with envy to the simple sparrow and nesting swallow. If they can reside in the temple’s crevices and eaves, ever close to the altar, why can’t he? And what about those who serve and sing in the temple, are they not blessed to be continually in the presence of the Lord God Almighty? Whether swallow or servant, the psalmist longs to remain in the assembled presence of the Lord.

In the Anglican tradition, this was part of the rationale behind Morning Prayer and Evensong, gathering and worshiping the Lord morning and evening. In our age, many are doing their best to just make it Sunday morning, if that. Oh, that the Lord would give us a renewed zeal, an appetite, to worship him, regularly, faithfully! For, when we assemble in worship as the church militant, we join the church triumphant in heavenly praise of the Lord our God. Remember that we are already seated “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6), so when we gather to worship, we join in heavenly chorus, so to speak, and in that moment receive but a taste of heaven. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8a), for all who do are blessed.

Faithful to Worship

But the reality is, this side of heaven, we depart from assembled worship, into the week, into the world. From a taste of heaven on Sunday, it can smell like hell on Monday. But absence from assembled worship does not mean absence from the Lord. Monday (or any other day that ends in y) is never void of God for the one whose “strength,” or refuge, is in the Lord. Nor does the path of your life or the circumstances of each day dictate the source of your strength, “blessed are those whose strength is in [the LORD].”                         

This means that when we encounter trials and tribulations, or simply the ordinary struggles in a day, we are not alone. We did not leave God at the temple. The psalmist says that we may go through the “Valley of Baca,” or the “Valley of weeping,”[6] but in that valley we are not left on our own; the Lord strengthens us and provides just what we need. When the Lord is our strength, even in trials, he gives us joy.

So it is for the child of God, “in whose heart are the highways to Zion” (84:5). Though we are not promised a pilgrimage of ease, with the Lord there is always a path of joyful praise. We may, in fact, even praise him in what feels like the wilderness. But he is there, leading us from springs of life to pools of refreshment, always providing for our good.

And this is one of the beautiful things about assembling again and again, every Lord’s Day, because we come out of a week filled with the Lord’s praiseworthy provision, and now it’s time (again) to praise him, together. From weekday provision to Sunday praise, we go “from strength to strength,” each of us worshiping before God in Zion. We lift our prayers to the Lord, who always gives “ear,” for the sake of his anointed, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood is our shield from judgment and our seal of fellowship. In Christ alone, we are faithful to worship the Lord in spirit and truth. For in his perfect righteousness, atoning death, and victorious resurrection, he secured our place in worship and his eternal presence with us forever.

Grateful to Worship

And when we consider the magnitude of the Lord’s provision for us in Christ, it yields a gratitude of trust and obedience leading to worship. Worship is the logical outflow of the redeemed heart, a heart whose God is not an idol of the flesh but the Lord God of heaven. And in this we find that our desires, our appetites, change. No longer are we satisfied with the provisions of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but we find, as St. Augustine prayed, “our hearts are restless until they rest in [the Lord].”

Those who rest in the Lord enjoy a taste of his Sabbath rest each Lord’s Day, where we assemble as his beloved. It is where we want to be:

            For a day in [his] courts is better

                        than a thousand elsewhere.

Worshiping in the presence of the Lord is better than … What could be better? For the child of God, the only answer is heaven. The one whose “soul longs, yes, faints / for the courts of the LORD” desires to be nowhere else but here, and there is nothing else in this world, or that the world can offer, that satisfies the longing of the converted heart.

By way of comparison, the psalmist says,

            I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God

                        than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

Even the most humble of vocations in the temple is better than the way of the world. The lowliest of temple servants, the doorkeeper, merely guarded the door for entry. How undistinguished, how mundane, how boring, when compared to worldly vocations. The psalmist says, “I’ll take it!” He’d “rather be” a nobody with the Lord and his people than a somebody with the wicked. For the Lord builds his house stone by living stone, a people of his eternal possession and perpetual presence, but the temporal tents of the wicked will be destroyed forever.

And for his temple, “the LORD God is a sun and shield.” He guides us by the illumination of his Word and protects by the abiding presence of his Spirit. He bestows his saving favor upon us in Christ and honors us by calling us his own. Indeed, “the LORD bestows favor and honor,” and so he has in Christ.

Think about this: Have you ever considered the privilege of being called a Christian? Consider the magnitude of what this means: “he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him”; “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace”; for his glory, “he has blessed us in the Beloved,” his church; “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us”; “in all wisdom and insight [he is] making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:4-10). If you are in Christ, you were saved by grace through faith, a gift from God, and therefore “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). Such is the depth and richness of the gospel through which we were saved and in which we are named. How can we be anything but grateful to worship the Lord?

Based on this short description of how God has blessed us, each one of us can confess with the psalmist,

            No good thing does [the LORD] withhold

                        From those who walk uprightly.

For, in Christ the Lord has “lavished upon us” the “riches of his grace.” Undoubtedly, blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.

            Here we come thy name to praise

            let us feel thy presence near;

            may thy glory meet our eyes

            while we in thy house appear;

            here afford us, Lord, a taste

            of our everlasting feast.

            May thy gospel’s joyful sound

            conquer sinners, comfort saints;

            may the fruits of grace abound,

            bring relief for all complaints;

            thus may all our Sabbaths prove,

            ’til we join the church above.[7]

Beloved in Christ, truly we are blessed to worship.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 334.

[3] Quoted in Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 634.

[4] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 1, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 355.

[5] Derek W.H. Thomas, Let Us Worship God (Sanford: Ligonier Ministries, 2021), 95.

[6] John Calvin, Heart Aflame (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1999), 201.

[7] “Safely through Another Week,” Trinity Psalter Hymnal (Willow Grove: Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture, 2018), 152.

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