Longing for Heaven, Longing for God

January 01, 2019

by Jonathan Gibson

C. S. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Augustine wrote, “O God, you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

These two quotations capture the affectional pulse-beat of the Christian life: a longing for another world, a longing for God.

The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob exemplified this affectional pulse-beat as they lived in tents in the Promised Land:

By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb. 11:9–10, emphasis added)

Israel’s annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem also exemplified this desire for another world. The temple in Jerusalem was a physical symbol of heaven, God’s abode, on earth. The pilgrimages were a regular reminder to the people of God that Canaan was not their true home—there was something beyond Canaan, something better than Canaan.

The pilgrimages were a regular reminder to the people of God that Canaan was not their true home.

Psalm 84 is set in the context of these pilgrimages, and it goes to the very heart of what the journey to God’s temple was all about: longing for heaven and longing for God. If Psalm 84 teaches us anything, it’s that this world is not our home; we’re “just a-passing through.”

Now, by “this world,” I don’t mean that the earth below is not our home and heaven above is. That would be Platonism, a dividing of the “physical down here” from the “spiritual up there.” Rather, I mean the age of this earth and this heaven is not our home; our home is the new age of the new heavens and new earth. So, with that qualification in mind, let me show you three ways in which this psalm pulses for heaven and for God.

Longing for Heaven, a Longing for God (vv.1–4)

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. 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. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah

The psalm opens, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” The word “lovely” does not mean that God’s temple dwelling was “lovely looking,” although I’m sure it was. Rather, the word “lovely” here means something like “lovable.” How lovable is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!

Two opposite descriptions in verse 2 then describe the psalmist’s longing for this place. The psalmist faints for it, as if the blood rushes from his body. His heart and his flesh also sing for joy for it—the blood now rushes back, if you like, because you can’t sing if you’re feeling faint. These opposite experiences, fainting and singing, together capture an intense longing for God’s dwelling place.

God’s temple is this psalmist’s one consuming passion, so much so that he expresses envy in verse 3 at those who live there permanently. He’s envious of the sparrow who finds a home in the arches of the roof. He’s envious of the swallow who makes her nest in the eaves of the temple—she gets to have her young near his altars. The birds have free and easy access to God’s house; they come and go as they please. But this psalmist can’t. He has to make a pilgrimage to God’s temple, and then he has to leave again for months at a time.

The psalmist is also envious of those who live in the temple courts: the priests, the Levites, and the gatekeepers. He’s envious of them because they get to live in God’s house and sing his praise continually.

I’ve been reflecting on this since the death of our daughter, Leila. One Sabbath evening while we slept, at nine months old in her mother’s womb, Leila quietly slipped away to her eternal rest. Jesus called her name and she went to him. I remember so well the longing for her to come back, longing to feel her kick again in her mother’s womb. Four days later she was stillborn. The next day, we handed her over to hospital personnel and walked out of the hospital without her. I can still remember the sharp, searing pain of leaving her. As my wife, Jackie, held her, I kissed her on the forehead and said, “My sweet, sweet Leila, we’ll see you on the other side.” Oh, how we have longed for her to return, to come back to us—even just for a day! But think about what we’d be asking of her: we’d be asking her to leave the courts of the Lord of hosts, to leave her home in heaven where she gets to praise God continually. Why would we want her to do that?

Samuel Rutherford once wrote to a mother who lost her child: “Today the Lord has cut off one of your branches so that you might grow higher and closer towards heaven.” Life is not about those who have gone before us coming back to us; it’s about us going to them.

Heaven is a praiseworthy place, but only because it is inhabited by a praiseworthy person.

This psalmist doesn’t want the sparrows or swallows confiscated from God’s house. He doesn’t want them to come and live with him in his house in the countryside. He wants to go and live where they live. This psalmist doesn’t want the priests and Levites and gatekeepers to leave the temple. He wants to go and live where they live, because blessed are those who dwell in God’s house, ever singing his praises.

Notice how the stanza ends with a focus on God more than the temple: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise.” Heaven is a praiseworthy place, but only because it is inhabited by a praiseworthy person—God. That’s why this psalmist finds God’s dwelling place so lovable, because the Lord of hosts, the living God, lives there. Heaven is only heaven because of who’s there.

A Journeying to Heaven, a Journeying to God (vv. 5–7)

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 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.

The last stanza ended with a blessing on those who live in God’s temple (vv. 3–4). This stanza begins with a blessing on those who journey to God’s temple: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” In other words, blessed are those who are already in heaven, and blessed are those who already have the journey to heaven fixed in their hearts. Such people, says the psalmist, are a source of refreshing comfort as the pilgrims travel through the Valley of Baca.

. . . . continue reading at New Horizons.

Jonathan Gibson

Dr. Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

Next Post...

The Human Side of John Calvin

December 31, 2018

by Chad Van Dixhoorn