Aug19WedPart 13 August 19, 2020
“And I Will Dwell In The House Of The Lord Forever”
The beauty and simplicity of the twenty-third psalm has helped it achieve its enduring status. I mentioned in week one of this series of blogs, it may be the occasions this psalm is recited that help contribute to its eminence:
Psalm 23 is shared at births, baptisms, weddings, and at hospital bedsides and gravesides. It is the familiarity and the beauty of this timeless poem that draws us back to it again and again, and it is during both the precious and precarious times of our lives where it beckons us to return to its, “green pastures, still waters,” and even back to the “dark valley” with our Shepherd. (https://www.trentsidechurch.ca/about-us/blog/the-lord-is-my-shepherd-part-one/)
Probably the most telling occasion this passage is chosen to be shared would be the graveside. it is probably because of the psalm’s final line that makes it so hopeful during the difficult period, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Unfortunately, as meaningful as this final line may sound, there is a problem. Many scholars tell us this line may not mean what we often think it means?
When most people hear this line, especially during a funeral service, they believe it implies their loved one now dwells forever in heaven with God. Scholars tell us there are three problems with this notion: First, the phrase, “house of the Lord” in the Old Testament does not generally refer to heaven, but to the actual temple of God found in Jerusalem (*or more specifically for David, the tabernacle, which would have been located in either Nob or Gibeon). Secondly, the word, “forever” is not used in the original Hebrew, and in truth, ancient Hebrew did not have a word that fits well with our concept of eternity. A very literal translation of the Hebrew would read, “days of length,” or better phrased, “length of days.” Finally, many scholars, suggest the idea of eternity, of living in heaven with God, is primarily a New Testament concept and had not a belief fully developed in the days of David. Does all this mean we have it wrong? Is this psalm promoting the idea, the best we can look forward to is being part of a church service that lasts until we die? How dreadful!
Fortunately, I do not think this interpretation works either. Here is another possible way at looking at these three problems that still fits well within the ancient Hebrew context:
First, yes, the “house of the Lord”generally referred to the literal temple of God. However, in the ancient world, temples were not just to be seen as a places of worship. They were also understood to be earthly representation of the heavenly throne room of the god. Consider the words of Isaiah: (Isaiah 66:1) - “Thus says the Lord, ‘Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?’” In a previous devotional I expressed how the shepherd motif was used as a positive descriptor and metaphor kingship (https://www.trentsidechurch.ca/about-us/blog/the-lord-is-my-shepherd-part-one-1/). There is one final issue, to simply interpret “house” as the temple creates a problem as it relates to David. David was no priest, nor was he a Levite; even as king, he would not have access to live his days in the temple complex. No, the “house of God” David longed for, was the true house of his shepherd, which the earthly version was just a small taste of the true heavenly home he longed for.
Secondly, the phrase, “length of days” was an idiomatic phrase and was not meant to be taken literally. “Forever,” may not be a perfect interpretation, as the idol was used to suggest an indeterminate length of time. A more realistic, but not necessarily literal translation would be, “days beyond length,” or possibly, “days beyond number.” Regardless how one interprets the phrase, based on the context, David most assuredly implied these days extended well beyond the days of his earthly life.
Finally, yes it is true, many have suggested the Old Testament does not hold a comprehensive theology of eternal life beyond death. However the O.T. is not short on passages that either explicitly or implicitly strongly hint in a belief in a heavenly, eternal hope (Genesis 5:24; 2 Samuel 12:23; 2 Kings 2:11; Job 19:25-27; Psalm 73:23-25; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:1-3). And quite likely, psalm 23:6 is one one of the passages that reveals this blessed hope. Finally, even if we cannot conclude with certainty from the context itself, we have the benefit of reaching this conclusion from Jesus’ own words. In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd,” and then in John chapter 14, he also describes himself as the one who is preparing a place for us:
“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”