Psalm 84, according to its heading, was connected to the sons of Korah. Korah belonged to the tribe of Levi, but he was punished by God for rebelling against the leadership of Moses. Although Korah was slain, his family was spared, and his descendants later served God: first at the tabernacle and then at the temple in Jerusalem.
The psalm has three divisions: in verses 1-4, the author, although he is away from it, is thinking of the public worship taking place in the Lord’s house; in verses 5-8, he thinks about those who are travelling to worship in the temple; and in verses 9-12 he focuses on the God who was worshipped there.
As he begins, the psalmist states that the temple is God’s dwelling place (v. 1). The psalmist has in mind that, in a symbolic way, the Lord dwelt on the mercy-seat within the Holy of Holies (the innermost section of the temple). It was this aspect of mercy that made the place attractive in the psalmist’s estimation. He knew that there were others there who shared his outlook and as he thought of the worship of God he could only describe it as lovely. As Spurgeon commented on verse 1: ‘Lovely to the memory, to the mind, to the heart, to the eye, to the whole soul, are the assemblies of the saints. Earth contains no sight so refreshing to us as the gathering of believers for worship. Those are sorry saints who see nothing amiable in the services of the Lord’s house.’
The psalmist realised that mercy from God led to fellowship with God (v. 2). This thought created two responses within him and at first they may seem unconnected. One effect was that he sensed his separation from God’s special presence in his house and the other was that he sang for joy because he knew the Lord’s general presence at that moment. We should have these two responses whenever we are away from public worship of God.
On a previous occasion, he must have observed birds making nests nearby the altars and realised that they were a picture of how God defends his people and looks after them as their King (v. 3). Public worship should give us a sense of divine security, expressed in suitable, ongoing praise (v. 4).
In the second section of the psalm, the author thinks about fellow-travellers to God’s public worship. Wherever they are on their journeys, they need divine strength (v.5) and it is always given (v. 7). What makes the journey pleasant is the destination, and even when they find the going tough (the valley of Baca), the One whom they are travelling to meet gives them spiritual refreshment (v. 6). The psalmist thinks of the other travellers because he is making the same journey himself, and what he prays for himself he also prays for them. As far as the psalmist and other travellers were concerned, they only went to the temple on special occasions to take part in public worship. We are travelling to public worship throughout each week and we reach our destination each Lord’s Day. Are we conscious of our fellow-travellers during the week and pray about the refreshment they may need in the daily situations that are influencing how they travel?
The third section (vv. 9-12) contains several reflections of the psalmist about what happens at the temple. There his people receive assurance of his protection as they pray for their king (the anointed) (v. 9). A day there is better than many days elsewhere because of what the Lord gives them (vv. 10-11): he provides life and spiritual warmth (sun) as well as defence (shield); he gives them access to his presence (favour and honour) and does not deny any spiritual blessing from those who serve him. It is not surprising that the psalmist was willing to be a doorkeeper there. As far as we are concerned, we should have the same high estimation of public worship because that is where the Lord is most likely to meet our spiritual needs and give us intimate fellowship with himself.
The psalmist concludes with the thought that the Lord who is surrounded by hosts as they worship will bless them individually as each one trusts in him.
For a long time, this psalm was a favourite in Scotland. One very touching connection that was recalled for decades, and it was a very powerful moment when it happened, was the knowledge that this psalm was sung to the tune Martyrs by Isabel Allison and Marion Harvie when they were on the scaffold in Edinburgh in 1661 – their crime was attending services of the Covenanters and refusing to acknowledge the monarch as the head of Christ’s church. Marion was only twenty and Isabel was twenty-seven. But they showed that they valued public worship.
On his deathbed, Thomas Halyburton asked his friends to read Psalm 84 and sing the closing verses. After joining in the singing, he said, ‘I had always a mistuned voice, a bad ear; but, which is worst of all, a mistuned heart; but shortly, when I join the temple-service above, there shall not be, world without end, one string of the affections out of tune.’