This psalm would once have been sung by pilgrims going up to the temple in Jerusalem, but it speaks wonderfully into our Christian lives as we continue on our journey to heaven. We should all have pilgrim hearts, and this psalm brings wonderful encouragement to such. It is beautifully constructed with three clear stanzas (the new NIV has removed the “Selah” at the end of verses 4 and 8, a word whose meaning is uncertain but seems to indicate the structure). The verses either side of the Selahs are linked (there’s blessing and blessing, prayer and prayer) but the focus is subtly changed as the new stanza begins. It’s a lovely psalm to meditate on.
It wasn’t so much the beauty of the architecture that made the psalmist long to be in the temple courts, it was the fact that there he could meet God. With every fibre of his being he longed to be with God. He thinks enviously of the birds that nest there – or not just enviously but hopefully: if “even the sparrow has found a home there”, how much more will we (since we are worth more than many sparrows). The swallow’s nest for her young implies a place of perfect safety. The mention of the altar speaks of atonement, of sins dealt with and being able to draw near to God. Truly, “blessed are those who dwell in your house”, those who have arrived as it were, what a joy is theirs.
There’s blessing too, though, for those who have not yet arrived but who have set their heart on pilgrimage. The journey may well be difficult – the “Valley of Baca” seems to refer to a dry and arid place, a place of weeping it might mean – but we can find our strength in God. And those tough times can become times of blessing (verse 6 – which suggests an attitude on our part, a determination to find blessing in it, and God’s gracious provision). Again in verse 7, strength for the journey is promised, increasing strength where one might have supposed it would flag – God’s response to our crying out to Him in prayer for sustaining grace (v.8).
The prayer in verse 9, might be simply the continuation of the prayer in verse 8, but the Selah in between suggests a new focus, and perhaps the plural “our” suggests the psalmist has now arrived at the temple, surrounded with all the other worshippers. Their prayer is for the king, for the king was their covenant representative – if God looked favourably on the king, the nation would be blessed, and conversely if the king was wicked and provoked God’s wrath, the whole nation would suffer. Hence as they arrived at the temple, wanting God to look favourably on them, they pray that God would look favourably on the king. Of course our confidence is that we know God looks with perfect favour on our King, the Lord Jesus, which gives us confidence to draw near. The psalmist then speaks of how good it is to be in God’s house, because of what God is like: a sun, glorious in its splendour and giving life and light, and a shield, protecting from all harm. He’s not a God who is forever demanding tribute, but rather one who “bestows favour and honour”, and one who is consistently and unfailingly gracious.