John Bunyan, the Baptist preacher, wrote more than one book – several of which became immensely popular. His 1666 autobiography, “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners,” is well worth reading. He also wrote more than one extended allegory, including “The Holy War.” But without a doubt his most famous work is “Pilgrim’s Progress.” For a time it was the most well-read book in the English language behind only the King James Bible. I hope that you are familiar with it – not only familiar with the plot, but with the details as well. I hope that you remember that as “Pilgrim” becomes “Christian” he begins an arduous journey toward the “Celestial City.” Bunyan describes Christian passing through a number of difficult trials, and facing a number of deadly foes. But he has help as well, finally reaching his God-given destination. “Every one of them in Zion appeareth before God” without fail.
I don’t know where Bunyan first got the idea for his story. It certainly came from the Bible, but I can’t point to any specific scripture. It could have originated in the “Songs of Degrees,” which the Jewish travelers sang, or chanted, as they walked up to Jerusalem for their annual feasts. It might have come from something in the epistles. Or it might have been this Psalm. “How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts. My soul longeth, yea even fainteth for thy courts.” “Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, but I don’t have that privilege, living yet in exile. But I am on my way, Lord. I am coming home.” “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye to Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possessions lie. I am bound for the promised land, I am bound for the promised land; Oh, who will come and go with me? I am bound for the promised land.”
The penman of Psalm 84 continues his journey in verses 5-8, following the pause, or the “amen,” in verse 4. “Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them. Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah.”
Verse 5 – “Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them.”
As I said last week, “blessed” essentially means “happy,” but this happiness is rooted in God, not in the world. “Joyful is the man whose STRENGTH is in the Lord.” Why is that? Isn’t it because the psalmist is talking about the “Lord of hosts” – the Almighty. I won’t say the Christian carries with him a blank check, but he does have access to unlimited resources. You and I, potentially, have strength which the trainer at the gym doesn’t understand, nor does the doctor, or any worldly medical scientist. Especially “blessed” is the saint who has learned to draw his strength from God – not these other things.
And let’s not forget that the psalmist was not pointing toward God’s armies, but to the Lord Himself. “Blessed is the man whose strength is in THEE, Lord.” David, or whomever was the writer, was talking about the God of great grace, and the God of all comfort. This poet might have referred to any, or all, of the Lord’s superlative attributes. For example, “Blessed is the man whose strength is in the God of all knowledge.” Our God is not just “Jehovah,” but He is “Jehovah-Nissi,” “Jehovah-Shaloam,” “Jehovah-Shammah,” “Jehovah-Tisdkenu” and “Jehovah-Jireh” – “the Lord who will provide.” Never will the man whose strength is in this God be disappointed, because he is leaning on the everlasting, omnipotent arms.
But there is a caveat – “blessed is the man… in whose heart are the ways of them.” “Everyone of them in Zion appeareth before God,” but that doesn’t mean that everyone will be happy during his pilgrimage. The blessedness of the journey is dependent on the state and direction of the pilgrim’s heart during the trip. The word “ways” speaks of “pathways” and even more often “highways.” But to where are those highways going? To whom does “them” refer? Are they the sparrows and swallows? No. Is it to Elohim? Not exactly. Isn’t the psalmist talking about the pathways to God’s tabernacles? to His courts? to His house?” Too often we are so focused on safely making it to church, to work, to the store and home again that we forget to look up to see the celestial city, sitting on the mountain in the distance.
This blessedness – this joy and happiness – belong to the people whose strength is in the Lord – because of the direction of their hearts. “In whose heart are the ways of them.” For these people the eye of their hearts is fixed upon Jerusalem – we might say the New Jerusalem. They have set their affections on things above, not on the things of the earth. There is joy – and there is the strength of the Lord – for those whose hearts are STRONG.
What is the most important muscle in the body? Football commentators talk about kickers who have a huge leg, and they talk about the arm strength of the quarterback. Judging from its use some people seem to think strongest muscles in the body is the tongue. But in more than one way, the heart is the most critical muscle any person might have. Frequently a football player, a basketball player, or even a coach goes down, because his heart wasn’t as strong as his legs.
But more importantly than the physical pump which we call the heart – there is our spiritual heart. “Blessed is the man whose heart is strong in the Lord and the ways of the Lord.” Blessed is the man whose heart is filled with the will of the Lord and the service of God. Blessed is the man who seeks and prays for God’s glory, and who longs for the courts of the Lord. There will never be genuine joy in this life, until we are looking beyond this world and into Heaven. Because here there is so much to drain us of our earthly joy – as the next verse reminds us.
“Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools.”
The word “Baca” doesn’t enlighten us very much. This is the only place where we find the word. Some commentators talk about mulberry trees or bushes, which made the pathway to Jerusalem difficult. But those comments make no sense to me at all. I don’t know from where they come. To me it appears that “baca” is related to “bakah” which nearly a hundred times is translated “to weep.”
I think that poetically, the psalmist is saying that the pathway to the courts of God is often filled with difficulty. The trials and difficulties may be innumerable – overcoming – discouraging. The wives, or husbands, and the children of some pilgrims don’t want to join them in their journey. Some pilgrims are filled with physical pain and weakness; some face enemies and opposition. Many are so earnest and excited about the tabernacles of the Lord, their hearts yearn and bleed for them. Acts 14:22 tells us that as Paul and his assistants returned to some of their early churches, they “confirmed the souls of the disciples and exhorted them to continue in the faith, because they were going to go through much tribulation before they reached the celestial city.”
I can’t say for sure that this was in the psalmist’s heart as he wrote – But I picture the valley of Baca as a huge well – full of the tears of the saints… And yet at the same time the blessed showers of God fell on those people, diluting the tears in that well. Furthermore God said, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Verse 7 – “They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.”
In my study, I noticed that the psalmist used different words in verses 5 and 7, but they are both translated “strength.” “Blessed is the man whose STRENGTH is in the Lord of hosts” and “blessed are they who go from STRENGTH to STRENGTH.” I’m not sure that I have a linguistical right to do it, but I think I’m looking at the difference between the strength of God and the blessed help of fellow pilgrims. Last Wednesday, I said something about the importance of church membership and church fellowship. For some of us, who were saved in our youth, the pathway from that point into the celestial city is quite long. It has taken years, and we aren’t there yet. And there have been trials and temptations galore. But most of us can look back at other believers who have helped, encouraged, and cheered us forward through the valley of Baca. We can look back and see that we drew strength from one person. And then later we shared that blessing with another person. And then a third pilgrim threw his arm over our shoulder and strengthened us up another difficult hill. As Solomon said, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Oh, how I thank the Lord for each of you and the blessing you’ve been to me over the years.
I don’t know that I will ever study it out or preach it, but I jotted some notes into one of my sermon idea booklets. The psalmist speaks of “strength to strength.” The strength of the Lord, creates strength in the believer. And the strength found in one saint is shared with another and another. The single soldier is united with a hundred others into an impenetrable phalanx. And then II Corinthians 3:18 speaks of “glory to glory” in the same sort of shared and unified way. Romans 1:17 refers to going from “faith to faith.” From there that potential sermon could address “doctrine to doctrine,” concluding with “from house to house.” “strength to strength,” “glory to glory,” and “faith to faith.” There is my outline, so now I don’t have to preach it.
We will conclude tonight with “O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah.”
Another profitable Bible study would be an aspect of the word “prayer” which I don’t think I’ve ever considered. The psalmist asked God to hear his “prayer.” But thus far we haven’t heard any specific requests, unless he is thinking of the next verse: “Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.” There may not be a bunch of requests, but does prayer have to be about beseeching and pleading with God? Can’t prayer simply be conversation and fellowship with the Lord?
And what about the question of having to beseech the Lord to listen? Doesn’t the Lord always hear everything? Well, of course He does. If so, what is the psalmist doing begging, “O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear?” Again, I ask, is this about knocking on God’s door or stalking Him until He turns around and looks at us? As much as anything, isn’t this an acknowledgment that we don’t really deserve to be heard. “O Lord of hosts, I am not unworthy of your glance. I am unfit to approach, but I am coming anyway.”
How often do we read of prayerful requests like this one? I don’t know the answer, because I didn’t count them, but it is fairly frequently. Yet this one thing I know, Christ said, “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it” – John 14:14. And John said, “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” – I John 5:14. Just because we have been saved by God’s grace; we have been forgiven, and given new spiritual life… Just because we are children of God, that doesn’t mean we can barge into the presence of the Lord in our pride and on our merits.
This evening as we go in prayer, remember that it is under the mediatorial blessing of the Saviour we come. Yes, we undoubtedly have requests to share with the Lord, but don’t forget the blessings He has already provided, and be as thankful as you are requestful. And as often as possible we need to spend time in fellowship with the Lord, as Adam and Eve did in the garden before they sinned. That time of fellowship will help us to stay focused on the courts of the Lord and the Lord who resides there. And with that kind of focus we will find the blessedness of God’s strength in our lives.