Take a look at the following verse. Anyone recognize it?
If you're regularly active in a traditional Jewish community, you might have already shouted out "Yeah, sure, it's at the beginning of the Ashrei!"
In truth, however, this is a single line quoted from a very different prayer-poem, and is the climax to one of the most emotionally-stirring passages in all of ancient Judean and Israelite literature. (I know that's quite a bold claim!)
Let's look at it in context:
Wow... you may as well be able to reach out and touch this poet's yearning with your hand; such is the intensity that emerges from these words.
Here's a question I'd like to think about together:
What, exactly, is it that our psalmist is yearning for?
Try to answer this question without using the words in the prayer-poem above. Perhaps framing it this way will help; What could have been so special about YHWH's courtyards that inspired such emotion?
The sentiments in this prayer-poem are expressed in many places throughout Israelite prayer-poetry. As is often the case with the studying of our Judean and Israelite literature, it is in the juxtaposition of related texts that important insights begin to emerge.
So with that, let's turn over to a "sister-poem," in some ways - Psalm 27, and do our best to approach it with eyes afresh as if we are encountering it for the very first time.
Of course this is never an easy task for someone familiar with a text; And so to help us along, I'd like to invite you to read with the following question in mind:
What one word best captures the emotional state of our poet?
(If you would answer this question differently based on different passages or sections, try to keep note of where that/those moments would be.)
So now let's revisit our question above. If you had to boil it down to one word (or phrase) - how would you describe our poet emotionally?
While there is a lot going on in this prayer-poem, what emerges to the fore, above and beyond anything here for me is longing; the most intense longing one person could ever have for another - just look at how many times the poet repeats YHWH's name, as if he cannot even hold himself back from singing aloud YHWH's name with every breath!
Early on, in verse 4, we see the poet expressing his heart's desire:
The only thing I ever really want, dearest YHWH, is to live in your home; to live in the closest and most intimate proximity with you, to be with you and to look upon you.
So now we have two prayer-poems before us, both seeming to give expression to very similar desires. You might agree that the very same questions we asked above on Psalm 84 are just as appropriate for Psalm 27:
What is it about YHWH's courtyards that once upon a time, over a half of a millennium before the common era, there were such individuals whose desire to dwell in YHWH's home so compelled them to utter such words?
Let's take a look at these two prayer-poems juxtaposed side-by-side, to see if looking at them in light of each other can help to further our understanding in any way:
Here are links to the translations of both prayer-poems; you can leave this page where it is, open them up and place them side-to-side. Note that Psalm 84 above is not quoted in full.
So what do you think? What do the dwelling-places of YHWH offer that inspires such yearning?
I'll leave you with one thought on this;
One thing that catches my eye here is the repeated "parent" imagery, with the clearest expressions of this being the image of the sparrow with her fledglings in their nest, and the comparison of the dependability of YHWH with the dependability of one's mother and father.
This calls to mind for me another TaNaKhic-parallel. Check out this passage from the proverbs-collection:
Notice anything interesting?
For me, there are a few things.
Firstly, there are the recurring motifs of light and life.
But there's something more. Note that the term for parents in modern-Hebrew is הורים, logically a derivative of the root to teach. The same root shows up in Psalms 27, just after the poet expresses his confidence that his being embraced by YHWH is even more reliable than with his parents, when he asks YHWH to instruct him and set him on the path; I.e., our poet asks YHWH to fulfill roles that are ascribed to the mother and father in our proverbs.
I think with this we can understand the unparalleled centrality of the Jerusalem Palace... it is home!
Specifically it is YHWH's home, but being that YHWH is father to all of Israel (Exodus 22:4), his home is just as much our home. And just as we turn to our homes to fulfill certain human-needs; security, sanctuary, comfort, and complete acceptance and belonging - so too would Israelite and Judean alike experience all of this and more upon entering the courtyard of the House of the Holy in the heart of Jerusalem.
While it is true that we, as a people, have yet to rebuild the Palace, it is important to remember that it was not because of the mere structure - the stones, the walls, and the roofs - that enabled our ancestors to experience this sense of homeness. Rather it was because of he whom it housed.
The composer of yet another one of our prayer-poems left us with the following:
So while we do not currently have a "house" which we can visit, or to which we can point and state with conviction that our Father-Almighty is inhabiting that physical space, we can certainly experience communion if we but call upon his name and express our desire for closeness while inviting him into our lives.
Remember, the poet of Psalm 27 opens up by stating that YHWH-himself - and not the building - is the stronghold!
May our desire for intimacy with YHWH be kindled, may we call upon him in sincerity and with a full heart, and may we take comfort in his presence, feeling completely seen and held and accepted and loved.
Here is a beautiful musical interpretation of our prayer-poem by Christene Jackman, which I think so appropriately captures the right tone: