Psalm 84 is a relatively well-known psalm among the body of work of the Sons of Korah, and their authorship of the psalm adds layers of meaning to the psalm that might not otherwise be evident to a casual reader (or singer). In fact, given the context of the responsibilities of the Sons of Korah as a whole, their authorship of this psalm makes it a very touching and very personal ode of devotion to God, an extraordinary and heartfelt psalm of praise despite the sorrows of life.
Psalm 84 consists of two halves, and we will examine each in turn. The first half focuses on the aspect of pilgrimage to the House of God. The second half focuses on how much better it is to dwell with God than dwell apart from Him. These lessons are as applicable to Christians today as they were to Old Testament believers traveling to the tabernacle or temple of God in Shiloh or Jerusalem. Indeed, the main theme of this psalm as a whole may as well be finding our home with God.
How Lovely Is Your Tabernacle
Psalm 84:1-7 begins this psalm of praise about God’s tabernacle: “How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a next for herself, where she may lay her young–even your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they will still be praising You. [Selah.] Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, whose heart is set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baca, they make it a spring; The rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.”
Let us examine what this passage means, as its language is powerful, although some of it is obscure. Let us note that like the anonymous exile of Psalm 120 , the psalmist of this song deeply longs to belong in God’s house, recognizing that those who have a home there (unlike himself) can praise God continually. This psalm offers an intriguing counterpoint to the refusal of many Levites to return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity . While many Levites considered the temple labor they were called to do as drudgery, in reality it gave them the opportunity, if they chose to take it, to praise God and be close to Him always, rather than having to come from afar and only occasionally to be in His presence and share in His glory. Many of the priests and Levites seem to have taken their closeness to God for granted, and did not realize how much of a treasure it was to be near God day in and day out.
Additionally, let us note that this psalm compares the believer whose normal life is in exile from the house of God physically (even though he longs to belong to God’s house and be a full and accepted member of God’s household and family, which ought to be the mindset of every believer) to a sparrow or a swallow building a little nest within God’s house to raise her own family of little chicks. Here the physical family of the believer are compared to little birds who have found a home as a small part of the much larger house of God, protected and safe there from predators or want. The fact that Jesus Christ used the same metaphor of sparrows not falling without the knowledge of God Himself in speaking with His disciples (see Matthew 10:29-31) means that the relationship between believers and little sparrows ought to be clear to any Christian. Indeed, the fact that Jesus also considers himself to be a hen wishing to gather his young under his wings (see Matthew 23:37-39) shows his deep concern for a people who was rebellious against His legitimate rule and hostile to His ways. Let us not be that way, for we are God’s little chicks, building our own nests in His house, just like the Sons of Korah so long ago.
Let us also note that the Sons of Korah recognized they were on a pilgrimage to God. Mankind starts out far from God as a result of the sin and corruption and misery that have filled the earth from the sins of our fathers going back all the way to Adam. (Surely the Sons of Korah were well aware of the sins of their father, as is made very plain later on in this psalm). We must therefore make a pilgrimage to God’s house from the distant lands we physically (and mentally and emotionally and spiritually) inhabit so that we may may not only dwell close to God in location, but have the same mind, heart, and spirit within us that God and Jesus Christ have. This requires long travels of many kind for the believer.
These extensive travels are not only physical, as the Valley of Baca refers to the Valley of Weeping, expressing a similar concept to the Valley of the Shadow of Death (see Psalm 23), and the sufferings of life that threaten to overwhelm us (see Psalm 88 ). Nonetheless, the psalmist here promises to those who trust in God’s strength and not their own that God will deliver them from the valley of weeping and turn the bitter salty tears into fresh springs of water, into pools to refresh the weary traveler and bring him from strength to strength. God promises to bring into his family those who believe in Him. Not one who truly believes in Him will be lost or condemned.
A Day In Your Courts Is Better Than A Thousand
Psalm 84:8-12 completes this beautiful song of praise for God’s house: “O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! [Selah.] O God, behold our shield, and look upon the face of Your anointed. For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand. 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 will give grace and glory; no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in You!”
Let us note a few aspects of this second half of the psalm, as it relates to much deeper material than is often immediately evident. For one, the author of this psalm considers all believers to be His anointed, anointed as his holy nation and royal priesthood, as part of the priesthood of all believers, just as Aaron and his sons were anointed as priests in Israel, according to Psalm 133 . The gift of the Holy Spirit, the oil in our lamps (see Matthew 25:1-13), is what unites us all together with God as his sons, and as his kings and priests and ambassadors to the unbelieving world around us. The Sons of Korah longed to receive this gift of the Holy Spirit, to be His priests, according to His will.
This is especially important because of their family history, as the psalmist immediately points out. Within the tabernacle and temple establishment, the Sons of Korah did have an honored place, but were not given the priesthood (which went to Aaron and his descendents). Indeed, their ancestor Korah’s tent had between swallowed up by God in the wilderness for his rebellion, a rebellion the Sons of Korah refused to join in on . When the Sons of Korah stated that they would rather be doorkeepers in the house of God (one of their responsibilities ) rather than dwell in the tents of the wicked (like their father Korah), they knew exactly what they were talking about, and their own ancestors had made that exact decision to serve God rather than seek to take a position that was not legitimately theirs, despite their longing to be anointed priests of God who dwell in his courts. This tension of infinite longing and contented obedience is one that every believer has to face, and the Sons of Korah had to deal with it more strongly than most.
However, rather than dwelling on the wicked example of Korah, the psalm, after touching upon the precise choice made by the Sons of Korah to serve as musicians and gate keepers in God’s house rather than dwell in the tents of wicked rebels, the psalm ends on a note of praise again, praising God as the son and shield of the righteousness, the light and defense of those who believe in Him. Then the psalm closes that no good thing–including the Kingdom of God, will be held from those who believe in him, and showing that those who put their trust in God are blessed–blessed in this life, and certainly even more in the eternal life to come.
The Purpose of Psalm 84
The purpose of Psalm 84 appears to serve partly to examine history and prophecy, but especially as a psalm of praise for God’s house. It is, like Psalm 87  a psalm of Zion that shows that those who worship God and believe in him will belong to his house forever. The psalm, full of references to other parts of scripture (particularly Matthew, but also John 14, which comments on the fact that there are many offices and mansions in God’s kingdom for believers, an expression of the same hope for a home and an honored place that the Sons of Korah, and believers everywhere, have).
The psalm appears to balance prophecies of eternal life and believers being kings and priests with a historical lesson about what is commonly referred to as the “dominion trap.” Instead of seeking to ambitiously increase their own power and position, as Korah did, contrary to the timing and will of God, the Sons of Korah are content to serve as gatekeepers even though they know that they too have been anointed by God with an eventual place in His house. They did not grasp and strive before their proper time, and for that they are blessed by God and promised future glory and honor. And so are we.
The Relative Popularity of Psalm 84
The relative popularity of Psalm 84 springs from its two dominant motifs, both of which have been commonly and popularly applied in translation to songs that Christians are familiar with. The Church of God has “How Lovely Are Thy Dwellings,” as do many of the other metrical psalm-filled churches of the English speaking world in a similar form, for Psalm 84. Its longing for God’s house carries through strongly in translation. Similarly, Passion’s “Better Is One Day” album (and its title track) springs from the second dominant motif of this psalm, the preference of one day in God’s house to a thousand elsewhere. In both of these references, the blessing that it is to be close to God, to be in his house and in his family is clear, as more important than the beautiful buildings of Solomon’s temple (though they were indeed glorious) is the intimacy of relationship that we build with God and will enjoy for all time in His Kingdom. That this thought should be a popular one for both Jews and Christians throughout time is not surprising in the least, as we are created with a longing for eternity and intimacy within us that cannot be filled except in loving relationships. This psalm speaks passionately and eloquently about that longing. We continue to sing this psalm ourselves because we share that longing in our own hearts to be close to God.
In conclusion, let us note that Psalm 84 is intricately related to the history of the Sons of Korah as a whole. The psalm points to their longing to be with God (see Psalm 42 and 43), praises God for giving believers an honorable place and a home within His house (see Psalm 87), comments on the sorrows and suffering that believers have to go through in their lives (see Psalm 88). Additionally, the psalm deliberately contrasts the faithful service in what could be seen as menial roles as gatekeeper (see 1 Chronicles 9:17-34) with the ungodly and ambitious striving of Korah in the tents of the wicked. The Psalm points towards the unity and intimacy of believers through the blessing of the Holy Spirit yet to come, in the royal priesthood of all believers, a longing which the psalmist shared with many believers throughout history to the present day. The hymn survives and remains relevant and popular as an expression of the longing of all believers to be at one with God for all time. So long as that longing remains, this psalm will remain an eloquent and heartfelt and divinely inspired expression of that longing.