Psalm 84 – Roadways in Their Heart
TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)
1. For the leader; on the gittith.1 Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
2. How lovely Your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
3. My soul longs, even wastes away, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing with joy to the living Deity.
4. Even the bird has found a house, and the swallow a nest for itself in which to set its young—near Your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
5. Happy are those who abide in Your house; forever they praise You. Selah.
6. Happy is the man whose refuge2 is in You. Roadways in their heart,
7. 1-those who pass through the
, covered by the early rain, regard it as a spring, even as pools.-1 Valley of Baca
8. They go from 3-rampart to rampart-3, each appearing4 before God in
9. LORD, God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah.
10. Behold our shield, O God; look upon the face of Your anointed.
11. Truly, better one day in Your courts than any thousand [elsewhere]; I choose to be at the threshold of God’s house over residing in the tents of wickedness.
12. Truly, sun and shield is the LORD God; the LORD bestows favor and glory; He does not withhold His bounty from those who go with integrity.
13. O LORD of hosts, happy is the man who trusts in You.
1. Meaning uncertain. In verse 7, order of terms re-arranged for purposes of clear translation.
2. Also means “strength.”
3. Also, “strength to strength,” but not the same root as “strength” cited in note 2.
4. Literally, “is beheld,” the same verb as behold, v. 10.
Psalm 84 is written in counterpoint, one melody line of deep longing set against another of great happiness of a vision. The psalm focuses on the
, as declared at the beginning, and yet, verse by verse one encounters new levels of complexity. I first interpret consecutively, as any reader would first encounter the psalm. Based on guiding words, structures, and uncovered themes, I then describe the tone of the psalm through six focal points, and finally recall a few outstanding literary uses. Temple
The Psalm as Read Verse by Verse
Verse 2 announces the subject of the psalm. The
’s description as “lovely” is taken from a root meaning “love” and bears a tone of intimacy. Temple
In verse 3, the two verbs in the first half (“long,” “languish,”) and the two nouns in the second (“heart,” “flesh”), suggest intensity, as does the additional inclusion of “soul” (meaning “life force”). “Soul, heart, and flesh” are also set against the “living” Deity. “Singing with joy” continues the happy tone of verse 2, but praise now develops into yearning from a distance.
The metaphor of verse 4 is enticing. Species’ names change over centuries and all creatures evolve. In
today, the swallow is not a migratory bird; it builds its nest in inhabited areas. It is a songbird (note the joyous song of v. 3), the male building the nest and then singing, hoping to attract a female to join him. It is the most common bird in modern Israel . (The other term, “bird,” sometimes means sparrow, but more often is a general avian term.) However, in Proverbs 26:2, “bird” and “swallow” are used as symbols of birds that do not alight, possibly indicating that they were popularly then understood to fly long distances. (Other types of swallows in the world are indeed migratory birds today, so there could be a factual basis in antiquity for the reputation.) The bird here symbolizes, evidently, travel over long distance. Settling near the Israel evidently refers to the person, not the bird, as the idea scarcely fits the avian image, in that birds were sacrificed at the Temple . Temple
Verse 5 seems to round out the opening, a second outburst of enthusiasm for presence in the
Verse 7 is very difficult, but the sense of verses 6–8 seems to imply that the dream of
presence and flight thereto has segued into a vision of pilgrimage. “Roadways,” “pass through,” “go,” and “appearing before God in Temple ” all testify to that, and they pick up on the themes of distance and travel in the first verses. (Note the command to “appear before the Lord” on pilgrimage festivals, Exod. .) Zion
The prayer for the king (vv. 9–10), a sharp change in concentration, is quite possibly a continuation of the speaker's dream of pilgrimage, which naturally brings national concerns and royal emphasis to the fore. (Note Psalm 61:7 for a somewhat similar integration of personal sacrifice and royal concern.) The use of “shield” for the king (implied by the parallel use of “anointed” in the second half of the verse) is unusual, since the term usually refers to God, although there may be a similar use in Psalm 89:19. (Below I note originality of this poet, and this may be one reflection.)
In verse 11, which continues to emphasize the joy of presence in the
, the final phrase, “the tents of wickedness,” is fascinating, partially for its lack of clarity. The use of “tents” as opposed to the more solid references to the Temple (including house) may be purposeful. The attribution of “sun” to God is unique in the Bible, perhaps reflecting the originality of speaker. Indeed, the combined metaphor “sun and shield” leaves much room for thought, as does the somewhat unusual combination “favor and glory.” Temple
The Last Sentence
The final verse, ostensibly an innocent and appropriate summary of what came before, is much more than that. First, with the third use of “happy” the speaker reemphasizes the deep satisfaction reflected in the vision of presence in the
throughout the psalm. In the reuse of “LORD of hosts” the speaker not only provides a fourth repetition of that guiding phrase (in v. 9, expanded to “LORD, God of hosts”), but also makes it the inclusio of the poem. That and the term “trusts” suggest a possible military implication (see below). Moreover, the last phrase possibly hints at departure from the Temple (as part of the vision of visiting there), granting “go with integrity” a secondary level of meaning as a farewell wish. Temple
In the Beginning and End, the
– Psalm 84 announces itself as a song of longing. The emphasis on the Temple is obvious, only enhanced by the plethora of concrete terms: dwelling place, courts, altars, house, courts, threshold, house. All of the psalm’s elements focus on, return to, face toward, and are drawn toward the Temple . Psalm 84 is a reflection on the deep connection to a place, one that is not conceived of as a permanent residence, but rather as a holy site, granting strength and inspiration to individuals who are by definition usually not there. Interestingly enough, this description of the role played by a central place in the life of the individual, while focused here in the specific framework of the people Temple and Israel (and using the specific Israelite term “LORD”), nevertheless hints at what might be a general, human phenomenon. Twice the happiness is attributed to “the man” (vv. 6 and 13), and even the bird image might hint at the same. Jerusalem
Pilgrimage – The idea of pilgrimage comes from verses 6–8, but echoes as well in the longing of verse 3, the celebration of verse 11, and the final departure. The implication of verse 7 is difficult to determine, but there is clearly travel and reference to wells and springs, on which a pilgrim would depend. (Some translations imagine dry desert roadways that are “miraculously” provided with water. However, the pilgrimage roadways to
are not through the desert, and with rare exceptions they are dotted with known water sources.) “Roadways in their heart” (v. 6) is another enticing metaphor, implying first the overwhelming desire to travel there, but also an effort to remember the way. The “going” to the Jerusalem of verse 8 is evidently echoed by a “going” in departure in verse 12. Temple
Movement – This pilgrimage is expanded into a grander metaphor of movement in consideration of the flight of the bird and the implied distance of the opening verses. Psalm 84, in fact, is marked by an inherent tension of this movement with the implied sad distance at present, on one hand, and with a very solid presence in the
on the other hand. Temple
Happiness – The three uses of “happy” summarize the tone of the envisioned presence in
. From the opening “how lovely,” to the longing of verse 3, to the joyous song (same verse), to the ecstatic comparisons of verse 11 (1 to 1000), there is delight throughout. Jerusalem
His Presence – It is God’s presence that grants the
its centrality. Four times it is said to be “Yours” (vv. 2, 4, 5, and 11) and twice it is attributed to God in the third person (vv. 3 and 11). The possessives “my King and my God” are evidently prompted by the mention of the Temple . Both the terms “God” and “LORD” are repeated seven times (a full biblical number), thus focusing on Him. Temple
The Military – Dov Rappel (Hebrew, Beit Hamikra, Teveth-Adar, 1974) has noted a particular military emphasis of Psalm 84: The term “Lord of hosts,” which appears fifteen times in Psalms, appears here four times. Of the other eleven appearances, ten are cited in the context of dealing with an external enemy, an indication of its military implication. In Psalm 84, each of the four references coincides with a return of direct address to God, emphasizing the centrality of the term. There are other hints of a military tone, including the term for “strength” in verse 6 (see note 2) as well as the multivalent “rampart to rampart” in verse 8. A rampart is a city’s defensive wall, but the term can also mean “strength to strength” or alternatively (or additionally) “troop to troop,” as if pilgrims going up to
pass military garrisons or patrols. This perspective makes much more sense of verse 10, the prayer for the king, particularly in his role as a “shield.” So, too, one again notes that God is referred to as “shield” in verse 12. The military emphasis may also explain the phrase “tents of wickedness” in verse 11, a possible reference to enemy camps. Rappel suggests that Psalm 84 is the work of a soldier stationed far from the Zion , a striking idea. In any event, it seems hard to deny some military emphasis. Temple
Recalling the Poetry of Psalm 84
I recall some of the striking phrases already noted: “how lovely,” the use of “soul... heart... flesh,” the metaphor of the swallow, the “roadways in their heart,” and the multi-valance of “rampart to rampart.” The combinations of terms are particularly challenging: long and languish, heart and flesh, sun and shield, favor and glory, some of which include unique applications (“shield” for king, “sun” for God). One should also note that the movement in verse 8 from “strength to strength” (note 4) responds to the languishing in verse 3. Similarly, God is asked to “behold” the king, just as the pilgrim came to be beheld (note 5). All of these testify to a creative poet, willing to break new ground.
* * * * * *
The Vulgate (Latin) translates
(v. 7) as “ Baca Valley ,” based on a similar Hebrew root. Although the translation is probably incorrect (Baca means balsam tree, which was probably the source of the name), the phrase achieved a literary life of its own and has been applied to many circumstances across history. Valley of Tears
The author of these essays is Rabbi
Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love ( Jerusalem : Jerusalem Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל הַגִּתִּית לִבְנֵי קֹרַח מִזְמוֹר:
(ב) מַה יְּדִידוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת:
(ג) נִכְסְפָה וְגַם כָּלְתָה נַפְשִׁי לְחַצְרוֹת יְהֹוָה לִבִּי וּבְשָׂרִי יְרַנְּנוּ אֶל אֵל חָי:
(ד) גַּם צִפּוֹר מָצְאָה בַיִת וּדְרוֹר קֵן לָהּ אֲשֶׁר שָׁתָה אֶפְרֹחֶיהָ אֶת מִזְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת מַלְכִּי וֵאלֹהָי:
(ה) אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶךָ עוֹד יְהַלְלוּךָ סֶּלָה:
(ו) אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם עוֹז לוֹ בָךְ מְסִלּוֹת בִּלְבָבָם:
(ז) עֹבְרֵי בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא מַעְיָן יְשִׁיתוּהוּ גַּם בְּרָכוֹת יַעְטֶה מוֹרֶה:
(ח) יֵלְכוּ מֵחַיִל אֶל חָיִל יֵרָאֶה אֶל אֱלֹהִים בְּצִיּוֹן:
(ט) יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים צְבָאוֹת שִׁמְעָה תְפִלָּתִי הַאֲזִינָה אֱלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה:
(י) מָגִנֵּנוּ רְאֵה אֱלֹהִים וְהַבֵּט פְּנֵי מְשִׁיחֶךָ:
(יא) כִּי טוֹב יוֹם בַּחֲצֵרֶיךָ מֵאָלֶף בָּחַרְתִּי הִסְתּוֹפֵף בְּבֵית אֱלֹהַי מִדּוּר בְּאָהֳלֵי רֶשַׁע:
(יב) כִּי שֶׁמֶשׁ וּמָגֵן יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים חֵן וְכָבוֹד יִתֵּן יְהֹוָה לֹא יִמְנַע טוֹב לַהֹלְכִים בְּתָמִים:
(יג) יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת אַשְׁרֵי אָדָם בֹּטֵחַ בָּךְ: