God's Dwelling Place
If you are a careful reader of these inspirational pieces, you might think that you just read one on God’s dwelling place. And indeed, you did read one with a very similar title. I did write one that basically said God’s dwelling place was not some building, like a church, but actually was the people themselves. The bottom line was God dwells in people’s hearts, not in buildings.
I had not planned to return to this theme so soon. But in my daily lectionary---the readings provided by the Benedictine monastery that I follow---I was pleased to see the reading from the Psalm for the Morning Prayer. The first Psalm reading came from Psalm 84. I don’t know the Psalms well enough to be able to say, “Oh, Psalm 84: I know exactly what that one says.” But when I read the initial line, I realized I had heard this line many times. And then I realized I want to pursue the theme of God’s dwelling a little further.
The initial verse of Psalm 84 says, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts.” I did not consult a commentary for this Psalm, but I would be confident the Psalm is a royal Psalm written at a time when the Jewish Temple was still standing in Jerusalem. The erection of this Temple was the achievement of King Solomon. Although most Jews would not have thought that God actually lived in the Temple, there would have been a sense that the Presence of God would be found therein. At the heart of the Temple would have been the Holy of Holies. There would be the Presence of God. To go into the Temple would be to go into God’s Presence. Apart from the Temple is the profane world.
At one point this Jewish Temple fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. We know that a Second Temple was built and that one existed during the time of Jesus. Soon after Jesus’ crucifixion, that Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Jews have lived without a Temple to this day. So this is the backdrop to Psalm 84. That is significant because we now read the Psalm at a time when the idea of a Temple in Jerusalem is no longer a factor in our experience.
This means to me that we automatically read this verse metaphorically. When we hear the Psalmist say that that God’s dwelling place is lovely, I suspect the Psalmist probably meant it literally, that is, the Temple really was a pretty place. But when the Temple---the actual building---is gone, God’s dwelling place has to be re-defined. It could be the place where the destroyed Temple once stood. That would mean the place---the ground---was holy and represented God’s dwelling place.
As I suggested in my earlier reflection, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the idea of God’s dwelling place moved from some building to the human heart. In the New Testament we are explicitly said to be the temple of God. In that sense our bodies have replaced the building. Our hearts are, as it were, the Holy of Holies. We potentially are the sacred Presence of God living amidst a profane world. That certainly is the direction my own theology goes.
When the Psalmist says that God’s dwelling place was lovely, that would have been true for the Psalmist simply because the building was standing there. But the meaning of the Psalm is now potentially different than it was when it was originally written. The huge difference is the fact that you and I have replaced the Second Temple. We have become the temples of God. But it is not so simple now as it was in the time before 586 BCE.
I put it this way. We are not automatically temples of God. We are potentially temples of God. But that depends upon whether we are living in a sacred manner of living profanely. To live in a sacred manner does not mean that we are perfect. It does mean that we are trying to know and to follow the will of God. To live profanely means we couldn’t care less about God’s will. It is our will---our own desires and wishes---that drives our lives and actions. Again, that does not make it bad; it just means it is not God’s will.
If we are followers of God’s desire, then we become temples of God. And we are, by the Psalmist’s definition, lovely! I doubt that means we are physically beautiful, although that may well be true. But the loveliness of the temple of God---you and me---is more like a spiritual loveliness. It means that we are attractive to people. Our way of life is lovely to behold.
This kind of spiritual loveliness cannot fathom too much anger, bitterness or fighting. There cannot be much selfishness. Rather, service has to be the dominant mode of operation. Most of life is driven by our sense of love and work for justice. I have known people like this. I aspire to be just such a person. I want to be God’s dwelling place.