For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock. (Ps 27:4-5)
This is a psalm written by someone who is facing struggles. The Psalm begins with an assertion that God is the one to be trusted despite ‘the wicked advancing’ and ‘an army besieging’. (v2-3)
What comes next is interesting. The Psalmist expresses a desire to ‘dwell in the house of the LORD’ and to ‘’gaze on the beauty of the LORD’. What doe sit mean to gaze on his beauty?
One commentator interprets this as ‘looking upon his holiness’. God’s holiness is his character, justice, mercy, purity, light. But even this is ambiguous. How is one to ‘gaze upon his beauty’?
An important detail is the location in which the psalmist is intending to do this. He wants to ‘dwell in the house of the LORD’ and to ‘gaze upon his beauty and to seek him in his temple’. Here the beauty comes together with the temple in Jerusalem.
We must remember here that the temple wasn’t just a big synagogue to the Jews, it was the House of the LORD, the most holy place where he was, where his presence was said to be most there as it was the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. All Jews were expected at the temple, not every week (as weekly worship took place in families and local synagogues, where the scrolls of scripture were kept and read), but at least a major festivals. This would be when their knowledge of God came together with the rituals of cleansing and sacrifice performed in the presence of God. In short, the temple was their location of worship.
How does the temple relate to our places of worship today? We no longer confine God’s presence to a specific location, however, our churches echo the combined roles that the synagogue and temple served in Old Testament days. They are places where the reading of scripture occurs. But we also perform the remembrance rituals of the eucharist, which draw on and bring to completion the sacrificial rituals of the OT temple.
To clarify, in order to ‘dwell in the house of the LORD’ and ‘gaze upon his beauty’, I do not mean we have to sit in church buildings all day. But the act of dwelling and gazing is where the head and the heart, the remembrance and ritual, the word and the Spirit come together.
CS Lewis called this ‘the appetite for God’, and perhaps this links to the beauty and curiosity connection I was thinking about last week. To gaze upon his beauty is to continue to seek him in his word, in the sacraments, in whatever style of worship suits you. But this is done for the artistic beauty of the ritual, words or music, but to get beyond to the character of God himself. In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes:
I have rather – thought the expression may seem harsh to some – call this the ‘appetite for God’ than the ‘love of God’. The ‘love of God’ too easily suggests the works ‘spiritual’ in all those negative or restrictive senses which it has unhappily acquired… [The appetite for God] has all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a spherical desire. It is gay and jocund. They are glad and rejoice (Ps 9:2). Their fingers itch for the harp (43:4), for the lute and the harp – wake up, lute and harp! (57:9); lets and a song, bring the tambourine, bring the “merry harp with the lute” we’re going to sing merrily and make a cheerful noise (81:1-2). Noise, you may well say. Mere noise is not enough. Let everyone, even the benighted gentiles clap their hands (47:1)
Gazing on the beauty of God leads to worship. And the beauty is that we can be ourselves in this, not constrained by the expectations of the day (I’m thinking particularly of British decorum). Even King David was criticised by his wife for dancing in worship, and he is considered one of the closest to God who ever lived.