The Blessing of God's Presence
Who’s your favourite person to be with? Have you ever known someone that you enjoyed being with so much you were thrilled simply to be in their presence? What about God? Is He on your list of 'people I love being with'?
What would be like to hang out with God for a day? A thousand days? Forever? This is the question the Psalmist explores in Psalm 84 where he reflects on the blessing of God’s presence.
Being with God – knowing God and enjoying his presence – this is at the very heart of God’s big-picture purposes for humanity. A central part of God’s original intention in creating Adam and Eve was so that they might know and experience and enjoy him. And this is why God the Father sent the Son to redeem us; it is only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we are restored to a relationship with God, enjoying God, knowing God.
A Theology of God’s Presence
The story of the Bible is the story of God’s presence: from Genesis 1, when the Spirit of the Lord hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2), to the city of God and the throne of God being in the midst of God’s people in a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21-22), God’s presence is a key theme in the Bible. Note three key moments when God’s presence is manifest in unique and astounding ways: he visited Sinai with displays of great power (Exodus 19:9, 19-20); he instructed the people to build a sanctuary in which he would dwell to be with his people (Exodus 25:8-9); when the permanent temple was built, God’s glory was so richly present the priests could not stand to minister (1 Kings 8:11-12). All of this pointed to the future: one day, God would be with his people – not only spiritually, but in person.
The incarnation of Jesus is the ultimate expression of God ‘pitching his tent’ with his people: the Eternal Son became a man and dwelt among us; the apostles saw his glory. ‘In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Colossians 1:9); when Jesus cleansed the temple, and then later told the religious leaders that if they destroyed it, he would raise it in three days, he was referencing his body (John 2:19-21). God was with us in a unique and personal way in Jesus. After the resurrection, as he was preparing to leave the earth, he promised that he would be with his disciples forever. How could he be present if he was leaving? By his Spirit! And on the day of Pentecost, the Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit to fill and be with God’s people – the Church.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit inaugurated a new means by which we experience God’s presence: rather than dwelling in buildings, God dwells with his people: "Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). The people of God, the Church, are now the dwelling place of God. The identification of Jesus with the Church is so strong that he calls it his body (1 Corinthians 12:27). Stephen makes clear in Acts 7:48 that God does not dwell in ‘houses made by hands’. God now dwells with his people by personally indwelling those he has brought into the fellowship of the Trinitarian life by the Spirit through the work of Christ. God is with us so much that we can be filled with God’s Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
There remain, however, moments when the presence of Jesus is with the church in unique and precious ways. Paul writes to the Ephesians that they – as a church, believers joined together as Christ’s body – are a special place for God’s presence: ‘And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:22). So, while God’s Spirit dwells within us personally, there is a special sense in which we as a church are a dwelling place for God. We could call this God’s personal/corporate presence with his people.
With these promises of God's presence in mind, let’s look at Psalm 84:
- How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! (v.1)
Every day (except for coronavirus lockdown season), thousands of people wait to get into the Disney World park in Orlando. Why? Because they believe that inside the park – on the other side of the gate, there is something special, that they will experience a good time no available anywhere else.
The dwelling place of God is beautiful, lovely, precious. There is nothing else like it, and if we think differently, the fault is with our perception, not the beauty of God’s presence.
- My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. (v.2)
If God’s dwelling place is beautiful in a unique way, it makes sense to prioritise it. The most rationale thing we can do is dream of, long for, and pursue God’s presence.
- Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! (v.4)
To dwell in God’s house is to join God’s people in corporate worship. There is a spiritual sense in which we dwell in God’s house by being adopted into his family, but here the Psalmist refers to the dynamic of corporate worship were God’s people gather to ever sing His praise.
- 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 indicates both the absolute and relative benefit of God’s presence. First, being with God is absolutely better than anything else. The Psalm says he would rather be in God’s presence – even for one day – than anywhere else for a thousand days. Being with God, being with God’s people in worship, is simply the best.
Second, being with God and God’s people in worship is relatively better than anything else. Specifically, the lowest position in God’s house (being a doorkeeper) I better than whatever wealth, status and benefit is available elsewhere (dwelling in the tents of wickedness).
- For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour.
No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
Set in the context of this Psalm, walking uprightly is equated with dwelling in God’s house. The point is that the pursuit of God and his presence is not without blessing; God bestows favour and honour on those who priorities him; he is a sun (illumination) and a shield (protection). He does not withhold good from those who pursue him.
- O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!
At the heart of this Psalm and the blessings it promises is the posture of trusting God. To trust God is to proactively rely upon him on the basis of his promises; to believe what He has said and to act as if it is true. For this person, the one who relies upon God, God brings blessings.
This Psalm is not theologically difficult to understand; framed by God’s goodness and beauty, we are invited to experience God’s blessing through prioritising his presence. We do this both personally and corporately – personally, ensuring our hearts are pursuing God, and that we prioritise corporate worship with God’s people.
This is not theologically complex, but this does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, our hearts are susceptible to distraction, to other priority agendas, to other pursuits. In Psalm 84 we are encouraged to join God’s people in affirming better is one day in your presence than a thousand elsewhere!
The goodness, beauty, and magnificence of God supersede all other versions of goodness, beauty, and magnificence, and they are only found in God. Remember, the main blessing Psalm 84 holds out for us, the main blessing of the gospel, is that we get God. If you pursue God like the Psalmist, you can experience the beautiful presence of the Lord every day.
 Etymology of the word church: The Greek word translated as 'church' in the New Testaement is ecclesia, which means 'called out ones'. However, the English word church derives from the German 'Kirche', which itself derives from the Greek 'kyriakon', meaning "of the Lord". That is, the church are those who belong to the Lord. Combining the meanings of ecclesia and kyriakon, the Church are those God has called out from the world to belong to himself.
Theologian Louis Berkhoff gives this background: 'We should bear in mind that the names ‘Church,’ ‘Kerk’ and ‘Kirche’ are not derived from the word ekklesia [called out ones] but from the word kuriake which means belonging to the Lord. By calling the ekklesia the kuriake, these names stress the fact that the Church is the property of God. The name to kuriakon was eventually used to designate the place where the believers met together: ‘The Lord’s House’ (literally, ‘the Lord’s thing’). It is interesting that when Luther translated the New Testament into vernacular German, he did not use the word “Kirche” to translate ekklesia but rather the German word “Gemeinde” which means something similar to the English word “community.” When Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in 1536, he also did not use the word ‘church’ to translate the Greek word ekklesia but rather the word ‘congregation.’ The French eglise and Spanish iglesia derive from the Greek ekklesia through the Latin ecclesia.” L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), p. 557.