Series Title: Going Up with the Psalms of Ascent (chapter 3)
These edited transcripts are taken from Dwight's most loved audio series, Highways in Their Hearts. Click here to see the downloadable audio version in our online store.
The Psalms of Ascent (120-134) are about an external journey in space and time. But they also mirror an internal journey in the Spirit. They provide valuable insights into the problems and principles of overcoming our resistance and coming more fully into the divine presence. I pray we will grow up in Christ as we go with the pilgrims of biblical days up to the dwelling place of the Lord Most High.
I hope that, in whatever way is appropriate, you and I will come out of our Babylons, out of our confusion brought about by getting caught up in the things of this world. I want to, together, seek the things of God and let his words of life change us. Will you set your heart on pilgrimage with me?
If yes, let us turn our attention to Psalm 84. I want to show you a text that can become a guiding image for us. It is an exquisite classic relating to a longing for the things of God and the presence of God. It sets the proper mental framework for leading a productive journey up to the house of God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise!
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion. (84:4-5)
Our study's theme and guiding image is having a highway in your heart.
The heart of the natural man has many diverse and destructive pathways, but the heart touched by grace has but a single one. True, it is a narrow road. Yet it is the King's highway, leading up into his presence. I am asking you to take on the challenge of pilgrimage, set your heart on Zion, and walk up to Jerusalem in the Spirit.
Turn with me to Psalm 84, a song that reflects the kind of heartfelt, deep emotions and expressions characteristic of the Psalms of Ascent. They reflect a love and longing for the things of God but more than for a place, for a person—the Holy One who inhabits the place. The psalmist begins where you and I must begin.
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. (Ps 84:1-2)
My friends, pilgrimage's prerequisite is a deep desire for God. If you don't have it, cry out for it.
The language of longing is used to describe hungry infants. Picture how, when hungry, they literally cry with their whole body. They need nourishment. We need to cry out—with our entire being—for the living God. We need to be disaffected with convenience and comfort and the things of this world. We need an intense yearning for the very presence of the holy God.
I don't know if you're like me, but I get so engaged with my occupation and preoccupations that the idea of pilgrimage slips into the background. We read books about those who had encounters with God and feel inspired, maybe even a bit envious. But we don't make the effort. Know this: the journey begins with a decision and with a step born out of desire.
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 (vs. 3). The psalm writer is jealous that even these small, insignificant birds find a home to nest in the Temple precincts. Why? He knows how Blessed are those who dwell in your house.
The Hebrew word blessed (ashrei) was precious to Jesus. He begins his memorable message in Matthew 5-7 with nine statements, each beginning with the word ashrei. From a translation standpoint, blessed is good but is overused in popular culture and doesn't quite capture the power of the biblical concept. It is more like, How very fortunate are those who are poor in spirit, How very fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc.
Jesus gets this blessing language from the Psalms!
The poet says, How very fortunate are those who dwell in your house, my King and my God. They are those who are forever singing your praises. And they continue, Blessed are those whose strength is in you (vs. 5).
One of the most powerful lessons you have to learn on pilgrimage is this: the strength for the journey is not your own; it is by the power of God's Spirit. Paul reflects on suffering in his life and observes, For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:9-10). How very fortunate, how blessed are the humble, for they know the strength of God is their salvation. It is humility alone that recognizes God as the deliverer who brings them into his presence.
Notice what happens next. Setting your heart on pilgrimage does not mean you will avoid going through difficult times. 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 (vv. 6-7).
The Valley of Bacha is an arid, dry, and desolate place. Some call this the valley of tears. One scholar believes it is a narrow, gloomy ravine on the approach to Jerusalem near the Jordan, in which there is a black stream of water that flows from rocks and in which graves are dug. Another psalm powerfully alludes to a valley of the shadow of death (23:4).
But please don't miss this: when your heart is set on pilgrimage, the black, brackish waters of this arid valley become springs of living water! When our faithful Father sees your faithfulness in seeking his face, in making your way up to him, he gives you the rains that come from his throne, which create pools of fresh, life-giving water. Behind the word translated pools is another Hebrew word for blessing (berakah), which means a gift, a bestowment from God.
God honors faithfulness.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion. (Ps 84:5)
In our quest, we are seeking the blessing of learning to follow the highway in our hearts into the very presence of God. I am not speaking here of that city beyond the veil, that holy Jerusalem in the by and by. My friends, the promised land in biblical type does not refer to heaven. When you cross over the Jordan, you are not simply on the "other side." There are enemies that you must battle with when you cross into the Promised Land. Are you going to be doing battle in heaven? No.
The Holy Land represents the place of the Holy One; it is where you are in God's kingdom—in this life. Oh yes, there are battles, there are narrow valleys that are dark and lifeless, but if you set your heart on pilgrimage, it is a place of springs that bubble up. God sees your faithful determination to make your way up to him. When you follow the highway in your heart, you will discern the rains he sends to give you strength.
God is the source of all blessing.
We can say it this way. In pilgrimage—with your heart set on knowing Him—the Valley of Bacha becomes the Valley of Berakah. The desolate places can become places of blessing.
O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob!
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 84:8-12
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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.
Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.