The psalm begins with an exclamation: “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” (verse 1). For the Jewish psalmist, the dwelling place of God would have been the Jerusalem Temple, where God's presence was specially available to Israel and where the Israelites gathered to pray and worship. To the psalmist, this dwelling place of God is “lovely,” the Hebrew yedı̂yd, which can also mean well-loved or beloved. The psalmist loves the Temple because God is there. Love for the Temple is another way to express love for God. Notice, too, that God is addressed by the title “Lord of hosts.” This title stresses God's power and transcendence. He is the God of armies of angels, a Heavenly ruler and warrior. Yet He chooses to dwell among us.
The psalmist continues with an expression of longing: “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (verse 2). The psalmist is caught up in desire for God. He longs to be where God is, worshiping Him, praising Him, singing to Him with all his has, heart and body. The Hebrew for “longs” is kâsaph, and in its Niphal verb-form, as it is in this verse, it expresses a deep longing. The Hebrew for “faints” is kâlâh, another intense verb that can point to wasting away, being spent, and being consumed. The psalmist is consumed with desire. He wants God more than anything, so much that he feels like he's wasting away with his longing. All he wants is to be with God, in God's courts, within the place where He dwells, safe within the enclosed walls of His temple. His whole being calls for this, breaking out in a ringing cry (Hebrew rânan) to the living God. God is not just some abstract, distant Being to the psalmist. He is not far away with no influence on the psalmist's life. He is living. His is real. He is close. He is life itself.
In verse 3, the psalmist observes a sparrow living in God's presence, making her nest near His altar and laying her young there in complete trust. The psalmist longs for this kind of trusting intimacy, being close to God every day, staying beside Him in His dwelling, placing all his treasures near His altar. “Happy are those who live in You house,” he exclaims, “ever singing Your praise!” (verse 4). There could be no better life than this. True happiness is found in God's presence and in worshiping Him. True happiness is remaining with God, sitting beside Him, praising Him with song. For the psalmist, there is nothing better.
Happy, too, “are those whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion,” the psalmist continues (verse 5). True happiness means allowing God to take control, relying on His strength rather than one's own weakness. People who are truly happy have well-paved paths in their hearts, roads that lead to God. In the worst of times as well as in the best of times they can travel these highways and find their way straight to God. These ways are so engraved in their hearts that they can find them and run down them whenever they wish, directly into God's arms.
For these people, even the driest, most desolate times and places are freshened by sweet rain. As the psalmist says, “As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools” (verse 6). The word “Baca” here refers to a lonely valley in Palestine, but it also means “weeping.” This dry valley of tears cannot sadden those who trust in God. Their very presence turns the valley of Baca into a fountain (Hebrew ma‛yân), something beautiful and a source of refreshment. The joy in these people's hearts overflows into the desolation and fills it with blessings (the Hebrew word for “pool” is berâkâh, literally blessing, benediction, prosperity). God has filled them with strength and love. It flows out from them wherever they are.
Verse 7 continues, “They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.” The Hebrew word for “strength” is chayil, and it can mean virtue, valor, power, and wealth as well as strength. People who are truly happy just keep growing. They keep getting happier, moving from virtue to virtue, progressing in strength and valor and true wealth. Why? They have hope. They will see God! He is their only goal, and they live for Him.
Here the psalmist breaks out into a prayer: “O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!” (verse 8). Listen to my prayer, all-powerful God of Heaven! Hear me, God, You Who have deigned to step into human history and take the people of Israel, the children of Jacob, to Yourself, carrying them through trial after trial and making a covenant with them.
What does the psalmist want God to do? “Behold our shield, O God, look on the face of Your anointed” (verse 9). The Hebrew word for “behold” is râ'âh. In this verse, it is used in its Niphal verb-form, which is typically passive and means “to appear” or “to present oneself” or “to be visible.” The psalmist, then, is asking God to present Himself to Israel as a shield (Hebrew mâgên, also protector or ruler). He further asks God to look on (Hebrew nâbaṭ - to regard, to consider, to pay attention to) the face of His anointed (Hebrew mâshı̂yach – king of Israel, high priest of Israel, Messiah). This verse can work on more than one level. The psalmist might be simply asking God to protect Israel and bless its king and leaders. He may also be praying for the long-expected Messiah to appear. Or perhaps these words contain a prophecy the psalmist may not have even fully understood. The Holy Spirit, after all, is the Author of Scripture. Could this prayer be a hint about the nature of the Anointed One, the Messiah, Who was to come? In Jesus Christ, the Messiah, God does indeed appear. He is visible, with a human face. He presents Himself to Israel as a ruler and protector but also has a shield to take the blows of sin and death upon Himself. The Spirit knew all of this, of course, even if the psalmist did not. Is it too much to suggest that He used the psalmist's prayer to declare a prophecy of what, or rather Who, was to come?
The psalmist, probably unaware of the deep meaning of his words, continues with a declaration: “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 live in the tents of wickedness” (verse 10). The psalmist's priorities are clear. He knows exactly where he wants to be, and he's willing to be the lowest of the low just to be there.
Why? “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; He bestows favor and honor” (verse 11). God is everything. He shines upon His people, illuminating them with life and love. He protects them and rules over them (the Hebrew word for “shield” is mâgên again – another hint at the Messiah's true identity perhaps?). He grants favor (Hebrew chên, also grace, kindness, and beauty) and honor (Hebrew kâbôd, also abundance, splendor, dignity, and riches). Everything a human being could possibly need or want comes from God, and the psalmist only wants Him. “No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly,” he assures (verse 11). Those who have God, who live in innocence and truth and integrity, have everything else besides.
The psalmist ends with a prayer: “O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in You” (verse 12). True happiness is having confidence in God, trusting in His care and His love and His mercy. True happiness is being in a relationship with Him, relying on Him to provide everything necessary for life and for salvation. True happiness is boldly loving God, answering His call to living faith. True happiness is security in the One Who loves us completely. True happiness is dwelling in the courts of the house of our God.