Boice

Monday: The Psalm of the Janitors

Written on 12/03/2018
James Boice

By James Boice

Theme: Longing for God’s House

In this week’s lessons we are reminded of the need to long after God, who delights in his people as they trust in him.

Scripture: Psalm 84:1-12

All of the Psalter’s psalms are beautiful, profound and poignant, but some stand out above the rest, and Psalm 84 is one of them. For its high and uplifting sentiment, the simplicity and exquisite beauty of its images and its moving aspirations, it may be unequaled anywhere. Charles Haddon Spurgeon called Psalm 84 “one of the choicest of the collection.” He wrote, “If the twenty-third be the most popular, the one-hundred-and-third the most joyful, the one-hundred-and-nineteenth the most deeply experimental, the fifty-first the most plaintive, this is one of the most sweet of the Psalms of Peace.1

Psalm 84 is a psalm of longing, longing for God's house, and it is by the “sons of Korah,” as the title indicates. This is very important, as we will see. Psalm 84 is one of four Korahite psalms found in Book 3 of the psalter (Psalms 84, 85, 87, 88). There are eight in Book 2 (Psalms 42-49).

Let me begin with a story. When Donald Grey Barnhouse, one of my predecessors as a pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, was in seminary, he knew a student who seemed unable to take anything spiritual seriously. I knew many like him in my day, but that was later. I attended seminary in the early 1960s, and this would have been much earlier in the century.

The student who was in seminary in Barnhouse's time was present with him at a prayer meeting at which the leader asked each person to give a Bible verse that had been a special blessing. When his turn came this student said quite solemnly, “First Chronicles 26:18.” There was a pause while the others looked it up. Then, just as they were finding it, the young man blurted it out so rapidly that the words almost ran together: “At Parbar, westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar” (KJV). Everyone was a bit puzzled. Then the seminarian quipped, “If you believe in the inspiration of the Bible, find some inspiration in that verse.” Fortunately, he later dropped out of seminary and took a secular position.

Years went by, and from time to time Barnhouse remembered that remark. Then one day, when he was studying the Bible and came across 1 Chronicles 26:18, Barnhouse decided to find out what the verse meant. He looked at the context, first of all, and found that it was a record of the assigning of the sons of Levi to various places of service in the Lord's house. Aaron was of this tribe, and his sons were divided into twenty-four groups to maintain the sacrifices at the altar (1 Chron. 24). The descendants of Aaron's cousins Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun were divided into similar groups to conduct the music that was to be sung at God's house, “accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals” (1 Chron. 25:1). The next chapter, from which the student’s strange verse had been lifted, was a record of the assignments given to a third branch of Levi's tribe, that of the sons of Kore (Korah, who were called Korahites.) These men were chosen to be “gatekeepers” or doorkeepers, janitors, if you like. It was humble work, but the Bible takes approving notice of it, saying, “They were very capable men...men with the strength to do the work” (1 Chron. 26:6, 8). The chapter then goes on to record where each should serve. Some were stationed to the north, others to the east, south and west. It is at this point that the verse concerning Parbar and the causeway occurs.

Parbar is merely the Hebrew word, of course. It is uncommon. So when the translators of the King James Bible came to render this into English, they had no way of determining what the word meant and so transliterated it, taking it as a place name. It turns out that Parbar was the name for the temple’s western colonnade, which is how the newer versions render it. For example, the New International Version says, “As for the court to the west, there were four at the road and two at the court itself.” What this chapter teaches is that God took pains to appoint specific men to be the gatekeepers or janitors of the temple and honored them for rendering that service.

Here is where Barnhouse's story has bearing on the psalm. Those who were appointed gatekeepers were the sons of Korah, among others, and in time they wrote our beautiful eighty-fourth psalm as an expression of their joy in their work. Read it now in this light:

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints

for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for her young— a place near your altar, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.... Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked (vv. 1-4, 10).

Years later Barnhouse wrote, "Many times I have thanked God for the cynical twist in the mind of that fellow who tossed a seemingly nonsensical verse into the midst of a prayer meeting. He meant it for confusion, but the Lord meant it to me for good. For I learned later, as I probed into the depths of the Word of God, that God is interested in the simplest tasks of the simplest men.”2

1Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vol. 2a, Psalms 58-87 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), p. 432.

2Donald Grey Barnhouse, “The Christian and the Old Testament,” booklet 86 in the series of Broadcast Notes issued to supporters of the Bible Study Hour (Philadelphia: Bible Study Hour, 1959), p. 25. The entire story is on pp. 23-25.

Study Questions:

  1. What is the theme of Psalm 84?
  2. For what does the psalmist long?
  3. What is the message that Dr. Barnhouse gleaned from 1 Chronicles 26:18?

Observation: A seemingly unimportant verse can help us understand other passages.

Reflection: Do you feel that your work for the Lord is worthless? Thank God that he is concerned with your most earnest and humble work.

Key Point: God is interested in the simplest tasks of the simplest men.

For Further Study: The book of Psalms helps to deepen our prayer life, and to encourage us toward greater praise and thanks for all the Lord’s goodness toward us. James Boice’s three-volume collection of sermons on all the psalms is available for 25% off the regular price. This would make a great gift for Christmas, as well as an edifying study for your own devotions for the new year.


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