"Righteousness...Shall Make His Footsteps Our Pathway" (Psalms 84-87) September 9-14
As in the superscriptions of Psalms 8 and 81, al gittith in the superscription of Psalm 84 denotes either a song of the winepress or, as in the NKJV, one played "on an instrument of Gath"—Gittite being the adjective form of this Philistine city.
Psalm 84, "the first of the six psalms that make up the final group of Book III...expresses yearning for fellowship with God, who dwells in his temple in Zion and from alone come security and blessing. References to God as ['Lord of hosts' or] 'Lord Almighty' [NIV] and a prayer for 'our shield,' the Lord's 'anointed,' form distinctive links with the final psalm of the group (for the former see 84:1, 3, 8, 12 and 89:8; for the latter see 84:9 and 89:18, 38, 51). The five psalms thus introduced [85-89] are four cries out of distress arranged around a central song (Ps 87) that celebrates God's special love of Zion and the care he has for all its citizens. Of these four, the first (Ps 85) and the last (Ps 89) are communal prayers, and the remaining two (Ps 89; 88) are prayers of individuals. They all make much of God's ['mercy and truth' (NKJV) or] 'love and faithfulness' [NIV] (see 85:7, 10-11; 86:5, 13, 15; 88:11; 89:1-2, 5, 8, 14, 24, 28, 33, 49) and his 'saving' help (see 85:4, 7, 9; 86:2, 16; 88:1; 89:26). And three of them share another key concept, 'righteousness' (see 85:10-11, 13; 88:12; 89:14)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalms 84-89).
Of this final cluster of six psalms, four are labeled in the superscriptions as coming from the sons of Korah. Psalm 84, one of these Korahite psalms, is "a prayer of longing for the house of the Lord. In tone and perspective it stands close to Ps 42 [another Korahite psalm] and may reflect similar circumstances. If so, the author (presumably a Levite who normally functioned in the temple service), now barred from access to God's house [perhaps during a time of national calamity]...gives voice to his longing for the sweet nearness to God in his temple that he had known in the past. References to God and his temple and to the 'blessedness' (see vv. 4-5, 12) of those having free access to both dominates the prayer and highlights its central themes" (note on Psalm 84).
In verses 1-2, the psalmist's unsatisfied longing leaves him faint, his whole being aching to be in God's presence. While this could be merely figurative, it could just as well be literal. Perhaps through long prayer, fasting and mourning, he really was weak to the point of fainting.
In verse 3, "the psalmist is jealous of the small birds that have such unhindered access to the temple and the altar. They are able even to build their nests there for their young—the place where Israel was to have communion with God" (note on verse 3). These birds have found a home with God, which the psalmist himself desires. What a great blessing it is to have God's house as your home (verse 4). We should recognize that the house of God in these verses is also representative today of God's Church and, in an ultimate sense, of God's Kingdom and family for all eternity.
In verse 5, the words translated "whose heart is set on pilgrimage" literally mean "'in whose hearts are (the) highways,' i.e. the highways the Israelites took to observe the religious festivals at Jerusalem (Zion, v. 7)" (note on verse 5). The pilgrimage here is also figurative—that of following the pathway of return to God and of pressing onward to His Kingdom. On this journey, as we see in verse 6, even difficult circumstances (represented by the Valley of Baca or Weeping) will be washed over with God's blessings (symbolized by springs, rain and pools). We should recall here Psalm 23, where God as our Shepherd leads us through the valley of death-darkness (verse 4) on the way to dwelling in His house forever (verse 6).
The journeying pilgrims "go from strength to strength" (84:7). The Nelson Study Bible comments: "As one nears the temple, the rigors of the journey become tolerable, for the joy of the approaching arrival strengthens the soul" (note on verses 5-7). Even so, as God's people today continue through life, they build character and rejoice more and more as the time draws ever closer when God's Kingdom will be established on the earth. "God's saints on their hopeful way to Zion experience anew the bountiful hand of God as their ancestors did on their way through the Desert of Sinai to the promised land (see 78:15-16; 105:41; 114:8)—and as their descendants would on their return to Zion from Babylonian exile (see Isa 41:17-20; 43:19-20; 49:10)" (Zondervan, note on Psalm 84:6)—the return from Babylonian exile in the end time being the primary focus in these passages. Spiritual Israel, the Church, follows the highway to God today. Physical Israel and the other nations on earth will follow at Christ's return.
In verses 8-9 the phrases "our shield" and "Your anointed" refer to the king of Israel (see 89:18, 20). Why would this prayer for the king be included here by the psalmist? "Only as God blesses the king in Jerusalem [perhaps in giving him victory against enemies preventing journey to the temple] will the psalmist once more realize his great desire to return to his accustomed service in the temple" (note on verses 8-11). Of course, in an ultimate sense, the figure of the anointed king looked forward to the future Messiah, whom God will send to establish His Kingdom.
The psalmist concludes that the privilege of spending a single day in God's house is better than a thousand days anywhere else (verse 10). He moreover says that just being a doorkeeper (often considered to be a menial servant) in God's house is worth more than living (presumably the life of luxury) among the wicked (same verse). As a point of consistency, helping to validate the psalm's superscription, we should note that it was the Korahites who served as doorkeepers or gatekeepers at the tabernacle and temple (1 Chronicles 9:17-27; 26:1-19). This was in fact a "trusted office" (9:22, 26).
Some reckon from Psalm 84:10 that the post of "doorkeeper" will be a position held by some of God's saints in His coming Kingdom—those on the bottom rung, it is derogatorily inferred. First of all, we should recognize that such a position of responsibility would not be a bad thing, as is commonly implied. Yet, secondly, we are told that angels rather than glorified human beings will serve as gatekeepers of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:12). And thirdly, the psalmist appears to have been referring to his own particular service or simply using metaphoric language to draw a contrast—or both. In no way is the passage meant to teach that "some will be only mere doorkeepers in God's Kingdom." Yet we are told something here about whatever positions God's people occupy in His Kingdom: "No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly" (Psalm 84:11).
Verse 12 assures us that happiness comes through trusting in God. Be assured that He will deliver on His promises. Whatever circumstances prompted the composition of Psalm 84, this song, given its current placement in the Psalter, "now voices the devotion to and reliance on God that motivate the remaining prayers of the group it introduces" (note on Psalm 84).
Psalm 85, another psalm of the sons of Korah, is a lamenting plea for national restoration. Its specific setting is unknown. God has here forgiven His people and returned them from captivity (verses 1-3) but the effects of His wrath—as the lingering consequences of their sins—are still being felt (verses 4-7). This could describe the end of some foreign oppression during the period of the judges. Or it could conceivably apply to the time of King Hezekiah's reforms following the captivity and return of 200,000 Jews at the hands of the northern kingdom of Israel in alliance with Syria during the reign of Hezekiah's father Ahaz (see 2 Chronicles 28). Yet it could also fit with the later return from Babylonian captivity. "Many believe that vv. 1-3 refer to the return from exile and that the troubles experienced are those alluded to by Nehemiah and Malachi. Verse 12 suggests that a drought has ravaged the land and may reflect the drought with which the Lord chastened his people in the time of Haggai (see Hag 1:5-11)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 85).
After pleading for revival, mercy and salvation (verses 6-7), the psalmist states that he will hear what God has to say, trusting that God will "speak peace" to His people—that is, with peaceful intent or directing them in the way to peace—as long as they don't ignore His words and turn back to the foolishness of their sins (verse 8). God's salvation, prayed for in verse 7, is available to those who fear Him (verse 9)—that is, who with the appropriate mind frame of awe and respect will heed and follow whatever God says.
In verse 10, "the union of God's mercy and truth and His righteousness and peace describes the way things ought to be, or the state of peace spoken of in v. 8. The blending of the ideals of truth and righteousness in v. 11 suggest a vision of the kingdom of God (see Is. 11)" (The Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 10-13). As noted above, verse 12 may indicate a period of drought and assurance, on one level, that the land will yield physical produce. Yet the picture here is primarily figurative, as verse 11 shows truth as the crop that is produced—thanks to the figurative sunlight and rain of God's righteousness from above.
Truth springing out of the earth may also be a messianic reference (compare Isaiah 53:2). Notice the final words of Psalm 85, wherein God's righteous footsteps become the path for us to follow (verse 13). Jesus the Messiah has set the example for us of how to live, that we "should follow His steps" (1 Peter 2:21). And this pathway, as the highway to Zion in the previous psalm (84:5-7), leads to the glorious Kingdom of God—so that all of us may be part of the harvest of truth.
Psalm 86 is a prayerful lament of David, wherein he cries out to God for mercy. This is the only psalm in Book III with David's name in the title. Certain key phrases are found in other psalms of David. "I am poor and needy" (verse 2), referring to his lowly, humbled state and need for God's saving help, is also found in Psalm 40:17 (repeated in 70:5). "To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul" (86:4) is also found in Psalm 25:1 (compare 143:8). And "Teach me Your way, O Lord" (86:11), showing his deep longing to know and follow God's laws, is also found in Psalm 27:11.
David doesn't give the specifics of his affliction but it is dire—as he perceived himself headed toward "the depths of Sheol" (verse 13), that is, the grave. And his predicament involved a proud mob of violent, godless men who sought his life (verse 14). David is troubled by his situation "all day long" (verse 3), and its remedy requires God's forgiveness (verse 5). A number of other psalms of David follow this familiar pattern.
In the NKJV translation of verse 2, David prays, "Preserve my life, for I am holy." The word translated "holy" here is not the typical Hebrew word meaning holy, qodesh or kadesh. Rather, the Hebrew word here is hasid, translated "godly" in Psalm 4:3: "But know that the Lord has set apart for Himself him who is godly." However, the word hasid is closely related to the word hesed, used in Psalm 86 for God's mercy, lovingkindness or covenant faithfulness. In context of the rest of verse 2, David seems to be stressing his relationship to God—that he is loyal and faithful to God. The NIV translates his words as, "...for I am devoted to you." Thus, David is not saying he is worthy of saving because of some self-inherent goodness. He is instead basing His plea on the relationship He has with God—one of mutual covenant faithfulness.
"Among the gods there is none like You, O Lord," David declares in verse 8, answering the rhetorical question posed in Exodus 15:11. None of the pagan gods of the surrounding nations are even real—though real demonic spirits may pose as them (compare 1 Corinthians 10:20). That David does not believe in pagan gods is clear, for he states, "You alone are God"—appropriately spelled in English with a capital G (verse 10). He foresees the time when the nations worshipping false gods will learn about their true Creator and glorify Him (verse 9)—which we see more about in the next psalm.
Besides expressing his desire to know and follow God's teachings (verse 11), David also asks for an "undivided" heart so that he can properly fear God and sincerely praise Him (verses 11-12). And note that he is confident that he will be able to do so forevermore (verse 12) because, as he is sure, God will have delivered him from his life-threatening situation (verse 13).
The description of God's compassion and mercy in verse 15 appears drawn from God's description of Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6.
David concludes Psalm 86 with a final plea for mercy, strengthening and deliverance (verse 16), asking for a positive sign on his behalf (verse 17)—not to help him believe, as he already does, but so that his enemies will be put to shame.
Psalm 87, another Korahite psalm in the final cluster of Book III, is a song of Zion—yet a remarkably unusual one in that other nations are included in the ranks of Zion's citizenry. The Expositor's Bible Commentary, in its introductory note on this psalm, says that it's "difficult to postulate an original life-situation for the psalm. It may well have been associated with any of the three pilgrimage festivals, when Israel together with proselytes [from other nations] joined together in the worship of God at the temple." While there may have been some application for that time, the psalm when composed was clearly forward-looking—prophesying of the future. Thematically, this psalm follows David's remark in the previous psalm about all nations eventually coming to worship the true God (86:9).
"The holy mountains" of 87:1, where sits the foundation of God's worship system and from where He will ultimately rule all nations, refers either to Israel and Judah or to the hills of Jerusalem. If the former, verse 2 narrows the focus to Zion. If the latter, verse 2 simply defines the mountains as those of Zion. "The Lord loves the gates of Zion" because they form the entrance to the temple through which His people have a relationship with Him. The Nelson Study Bible states that "the verb loves includes the idea of choice (see Deut. 6:5) as well as emotion. God chose Jerusalem, and He also has an enduring affection for the city" (note on verses 2-3).
In verse 4, the end of the phrase "I will make mention of Rahab [i.e., Egypt (see Isaiah 30:7)] and Babylon to those who know Me" could be translated as "....AS those who know Me" (note on Psalm 87:4)—or perhaps "...AS OF those who know Me." The NIV renders verse 4 this way: "I will record Rahab [Egypt] and Babylon among those who acknowledge me—Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush [i.e., Ethiopia or perhaps all of east and southern Africa]—and will say, 'This one was born in Zion.'" This is saying that people born in other nations, even nations that were troublesome to Israel, will be considered as "born in Zion" once they repent and worship the true God. Verse 6 affirms, "The Lord will record, when He registers the peoples: this one was born there."
This process begins with the Church of God today: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem...to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven" (Hebrews 12:22)—spiritual Zion according to the New Covenant, "the Jerusalem above...which is the mother of us all" (Galatians 4:26). The New Testament describes the gentile nations generally as "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers of the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). Yet those who come into God's Church have a drastically changed status—to that of being "no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (verse 19). Through Jesus Christ, they become "Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29).
Then, when Christ returns, these will all be spiritually born of Zion in the resurrection. As Isaiah 66:8 says: "Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion was in labor, she gave birth to her children."
Afterward, God's holy mountain, His Kingdom, will grow from Zion to fill the entire earth—so that all nations will become part of Israel in a spiritual sense. All will be born in Zion. How marvelous is God's plan for all people! It is a cause for singing and rejoicing (Psalm 87:7). The phrase "all my springs are in you" (same verse), or "all my fountains are in you" (NIV), calls to mind the "river whose streams shall make glad the city of God" (46:4), the life-giving river of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-5), the "fountain of life" (Jeremiah 2:13) and the "wells of salvation" (Isaiah 12:3), from which living water will be drawn with joy.
Occurring as it does near the end of Book III, which contains a number of psalms about Israel's devastation at the hands of enemy nations (previewing the time of the great tribulation ahead), perhaps this psalm was placed here to remind God's people to not focus on wishing ill on their enemies but to long for the day when all will be reconciled, dwelling happily together in the family of God.