The psalmist here, being by force restrained from waiting upon God in public ordinances, by the want of them is brought under a more sensible conviction than ever of the worth of them. Observe,
I. The wonderful beauty he saw in holy institutions (Ps. 84:1): How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! Some think that he here calls God the Lord of hosts (that is, in a special manner of the angels, the heavenly hosts) because of the presence of the angels in God’s sanctuary; they attended the Shechinah, and were (as some think) signified by the cherubim. God is the Lord of these hosts, and his the tabernacle is: it is spoken of as more than one (thy tabernacles) because there were several courts in which the people attended, and because the tabernacle itself consisted of a holy place and a most holy. How amiable are these! How lovely is the sanctuary in the eyes of all that are truly sanctified! Gracious souls see a wonderful, an inexpressible, beauty in holiness, and in holy work. A tabernacle was a mean habitation, but the disadvantage of external circumstances makes holy ordinances not at all the less amiable; for the beauty of holiness is spiritual, and their glory is within.
II. The longing desire he had to return to the enjoyment of public ordinances, or rather of God in them, Ps. 84:2. It was an entire desire; body, soul, and spirit concurred in it. He was not conscious to himself of any rising thought to the contrary. It was an intense desire; it was like the desire of the ambitious, or covetous, or voluptuous. He longed, he fainted, he cried out, importunate to be restored to his place in God’s courts, and almost impatient of delay. Yet it was not so much the courts of the Lord that he coveted, but he cried out, in prayer, for the living God himself. O that I might know him, and be again taken into communion with him! 1 John 1:3. Ordinances are empty things if we meet not with God in the ordinances.
III. His grudging the happiness of the little birds that made their nests in the buildings that were adjoining to God’s altars, Ps. 84:3. This is an elegant and surprising expression of his affection to God’s altars: The sparrow has found a house and the swallow a nest for herself. These little birds, by the instinct and direction of nature, provide habitations for themselves in houses, as other birds do in the woods, both for their own repose and in which to lay their young; some such David supposes there were in the buildings about the courts of God’s house, and wishes himself with them. He would rather live in a bird’s nest nigh God’s altars than in a palace at a distance from them. He sometimes wished for the wings of a dove, on which to fly into the wilderness (Ps. 55:6); here for the wings of a sparrow, that he might fly undiscovered into God’s courts; and, though to watch as a sparrow alone upon the house-top is the description of a very melancholy state and spirit (Ps. 102:7), yet David would be glad to take it for his lot, provided he might be near God’s altars. It is better to be serving God in solitude than serving sin with a multitude. The word for a sparrow signifies any little bird, and (if I may offer a conjecture) perhaps when, in David’s time, music was introduced so much into the sacred service, both vocal and instrumental, to complete the harmony they had singing-birds in cages hung about the courts of the tabernacle (for we find the singing of birds taken notice of to the glory of God, Ps. 104:12), and David envies the happiness of these, and would gladly change places with them. Observe, David envies the happiness not of those birds that flew over the altars, and had only a transient view of God’s courts, but of those that had nests for themselves there. David will not think it enough to sojourn in God’s house as a way-faring man that turns aside to tarry for a night; but let this be his rest, his home; here he will dwell. And he takes notice that these birds not only have nests for themselves there, but that there they lay their young; for those who have a place in God’s courts themselves cannot but desire that their children also may have in God’s house, and within his walls, a place and a name, that they may feed their kids beside the shepherds’ tents. Some give another sense of this verse: “Lord, by thy providence thou hast furnished the birds with nests and resting-places, agreeable to their nature, and to them they have free recourse; but thy altar, which is my nest, my resting-place, which I am as desirous of as ever the wandering bird was of her nest, I cannot have access to. Lord, wilt thou provide better for thy birds than for thy babes? As a bird that wanders from her nest so am I, now that I wander from the place of God’s altars, for that is my place (Prov. 27:8); I shall never be easy till I return to my place again.” Note, Those whose souls are at home, at rest, in God, cannot but desire a settlement near his ordinances. There were two altars, one for sacrifice, the other for incense, and David, in his desire of a place in God’s courts, has an eye to both, as we also must, in all our attendance on God, have an eye both to the satisfaction and to the intercession of Christ. And, lastly, Observe how he eyes God in this address: Thou art the Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Where should a poor distressed subject seek for protection but with his king? And should not a people seek unto their God? My King, my God, is Lord of hosts; by him and his altars let me live and die.
IV. His acknowledgment of the happiness both of the ministers and of the people that had liberty of attendance on God’s altars: “Blessed are they. O when shall I return to the enjoyment of that blessedness?” 1. Blessed are the ministers, the priests and Levites, who have their residence about the tabernacle and are in their courses employed in the service of it (Ps. 84:4): Blessed are those that dwell in thy house, that are at home there, and whose business lies there. He is so far from pitying them, as confined to a constant attendance and obliged to perpetual seriousness, that he would sooner envy them than the greatest princes in the world. There are those that bless the covetous, but he blesses the religious. Blessed are those that dwell in thy house (not because they have good wages, a part of every sacrifice for themselves, which would enable them to keep a good table, but because they have good work): They will be still praising thee; and, if there be a heaven upon earth, it is in praising God, in continually praising him. Apply this to his house above; blessed are those that dwell there, angels and glorified saints, for they rest not day nor night from praising God. Let us therefore spend as much of our time as may be in that blessed work in which we hope to spend a joyful eternity. 2. Blessed are the people, the inhabitants of the country, who, though they do not constantly dwell in God’s house as the priests do, yet have liberty of access to it at the times appointed for their solemn feasts, the three great feasts, at which all the males were obliged to give their attendance, Deut. 16:16. David was so far from reckoning this an imposition, and a hardship put upon them, that he envies the happiness of those who might thus attend, Ps. 84:5-7. Those whom he pronounces blessed are here described. (1.) They are such as act in religion from a rooted principle of dependence upon God and devotedness to him: Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee, who makes thee his strength and strongly stays himself upon thee, who makes thy name his strong tower into which he runs for safety, Prov. 18:10. Happy is the man whose hope is in the Lord his God, Ps. 40:4; 146:5. Those are truly happy who go forth, and go on, in the exercises of religion, not in their own strength (for then the work is sure to miscarry), but in the strength of the grace of Jesus Christ, from whom all our sufficiency is. David wished to return to God’s tabernacles again, that there he might strengthen himself in the Lord his God for service and suffering. (2.) They are such as have a love for holy ordinances: In whose heart are the ways of them, that is, who, having placed their happiness in God as their end, rejoice in all the ways that lead to him, all those means by which their graces are strengthened and their communion with him kept up. They not only walk in these ways, but they have them in their hearts, they lay them near their hearts; no care or concern, no pleasure or delight, lies nearer than this. Note, Those who have the new Jerusalem in their eye must have the ways that lead to it in their heart, must mind them, their eyes must look straight forward in them, must ponder the paths of them, must keep close to them, and be afraid of turning aside to the right hand or to the left. If we make God’s promise our strength, we must make God’s word our rule, and walk by it. (3.) They are such as will break through difficulties and discouragements in waiting upon God in holy ordinances, Ps. 84:6. When they come up out of the country to worship at the feasts their way lies through many a dry and sandy valley (so some), in which they are ready to perish for thirst; but, to guard against that inconvenience, they dig little pits to receive and keep the rain-water, which is ready to them and others for their refreshment. When they make the pools the ram of heaven fills them. If we be ready to receive the grace of God, that grace shall not be wanting to us, but shall be sufficient for us at all times. Their way lay through many a weeping valley, so Baca signifies, that is (as others understand it), many watery valleys, which in wet weather, when the rain filled the pools, either through the rising of the waters or through the dirtiness of the way were impassable; but, by draining and trenching them, they made a road through them for the benefit of those who went up to Jerusalem. Care should be taken to keep those roads in repair that lead to church, as well as those that lead to market. But all this is intended to show, [1.] That they had a good will to the journey. When they were to attend the solemn feasts at Jerusalem, they would not be kept back by bad weather, or bad ways, nor make those an excuse for staying at home. Difficulties in the way of duty are designed to try our resolution; and he that observes the wind shall not sow. [2.] That they made the best of the way to Zion, contrived and took pains to mend it where it was bad, and bore, as well as they could, the inconveniences that could not be removed. 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. (4.) They are such as are still pressing forward till they come to their journey’s end at length, and do not take up short of it (Ps. 84:7): They go from strength to strength; their company increases by the accession of more out of every town they pass through, till they become very numerous. Those that were near staid till those that were further off called on them, saying, Come, and let us go to the house of the Lord (Ps. 122:1, 2), that they might go together in a body, in token of their mutual love. Or the particular persons, instead of being fatigued with the tediousness of their journey and the difficulties they met with, the nearer they came to Jerusalem the more lively and cheerful they were, and so went on stronger and stronger, Job 17:9. Thus it is promised that those that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, Isa. 40:31. Even where they are weak, there they are strong. They go from virtue to virtue (so some); it is the same word that is used for the virtuous woman. Those that press forward in their Christian course shall find God adding grace to their graces, John 1:16. They shall be changed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18), from one degree of glorious grace to another, till, at length, every one of them appears before God in Zion, to give glory to him and receive blessings from him. Note, Those who grow in grace shall, at last, be perfect in glory. The Chaldee reads it, They go from the house of the sanctuary to the house of doctrine; and the pains which they have taken about the law shall appear before God, whose majesty dwells in Zion. We must go from one duty to another, from prayer to the word, from practising what we have learned to learn more; and, if we do this, the benefit of it will appear, to God’s glory and our own everlasting comfort.