Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God. (Psalm 84: 3)
You will notice the heading to this Psalm, the words “To the chief Musician. A Psalm for the sons of Korah.” There is a critical question as to where these headings properly belong in the original Hebrew, at the beginning of the Psalm that follows them or whether they should follow the previous Psalm. There is nothing to indicate either way; in the Hebrew, the one Psalm is so closely linked with the other. The late Dr. Thirtle has suggested that there seems to be good reason to believe these titles really belong to the preceding Psalm. If that is the case, it does not interfere with something I want to point out here. The heading of the next Psalm is practically the same, so we can transfer it to this Psalm if we give that of Psalm 84 to Psalm 83.
“To the chief Musician,” the One who said as He came forth from resurrection, “In the midst of the church will I sing praise unto Thee” (Hebrews 2:12; also Psalm 22:22). He is the chief Musician, the One who leads the praises of His people. Therefore, these are very definitely dedicated to our blessed Lord Jesus Himself, the great Leader of the choir of the redeemed.
Then you have the words, “A Psalm for the sons of Korah.” That to my mind is very interesting. Who were the sons of Korah? Well, they constituted part of the sanctuary choir at Jerusalem after David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Mount Zion and pitched a tent for it, and later on, when King Solomon built that glorious Temple every whit of which uttered the glory of our Blessed Savior. These sons of Korah led the people in their worship.
But who were they actually? Well, if you turn to those early chapters of the First Book of Chronicles that some of you never read, you will find by careful investigation that these sons of Korah were the lineal descendants of that Korah who, with Dathan and Abiram, led in the apostasy in the wilderness—that very Korah who, with his ungodly associates, withstood Moses the mediator and Aaron the High Priest, and said, “You take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi; all the Lord’s people are holy.” It is as though they said, “We do not need a mediator, we do not need a High Priest, we do not need anybody to represent us before God. Neither do we need an atoning sacrifice. We are good enough for God as we are.” That is the same as the apostasy today. We read of those who, having gone in the way of Cain, following the error of Balaam, shall perish in the gainsaying of Korah. You remember how the judgment fell upon Korah, how Moses said, “If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the Lord hath not sent me. But if the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up . . . then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord” (Numbers 16:29-30). Earlier, Moses gave the cry, “Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men” (v. 16), and those who feared God left the companionship of Korah, Datlan, and Abiram and went over toward the sanctuary Moses had pitched. But those who did not fear Him remained with the apostates, and the judgment took place exactly as Moses had intimated, and Korah and all his company, we are told, went down alive into the pit.
Here is a singular thing; here are the sons of Korah, centuries afterwards, leading the praise of the people of God. If Korah and all his company went down alive into the pit, how is it there were any sons of Korah to bear testimony to the grace of God in later days?
Well, we get the fullest account of this event in the 16th chapter of Numbers, but we have a supplementary account in the 26th chapter where we have these added words, “Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not” (Numbers 26:11). I take it to imply this, that when the sons of Korah were put to the test, when they had to choose between loyalty to God or fealty to their own father, they said, “God must be first; we dare not put father’s will first if it is in opposition to the will of God.”
It is a solemn thing when children are put in a position like that. I don’t suppose many of you were ever in a place like that. I hope all reading this have made the great decision. I hope we have all come to the place where we can say:
My heart is fixed, Eternal God,
Fixed on Thee;
And my unchanging choice is made,
Christ for me.
He is my Prophet, Priest and King,
Who did for me salvation bring;
And while I’ve breath I still will sing,
Christ for me.
(Richard Jukes, 1804-1867)
But if you made that decision, some of you in your childhood, some in young manhood or young womanhood, in most cases, I am sure it brought real joy to father and mother, for many of us have had the great privilege of a Christian training.
But it is very different for some people. I remember one night walking the streets of San Francisco from 9:30 till 2am with a young Jewish man who was greatly agitated and much concerned. It was my custom to preach once a month on a Thursday night in a Mission to Israel established in that city. This particular night, after the meeting, I can remember the text, “Wake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man that is my fellow. Smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad”—this young man came to me and said, “I was greatly stirred tonight; your sermon started so many questions in my mind. I wish you had time to let me talk with you a bit.”
I answered him, “I have plenty of time.” It happened that my family was away in the country, so it did not make any particular difference what time I got home; it was a lovely summer night, and I said, “We will go for a walk.” Up and down the streets we trod for all those hours. He brought up question after question, and I tried to answer everything right from the Book itself.
Finally, at two in the morning, we stood at a corner, and he looked at me and said, “Well, sir, you have answered all my questions satisfactorily and frankly. I am absolutely convinced now that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of Israel, and our people made a terrible mistake when they crucified Him so long ago.”
I said, “I am glad to hear that. Now I trust you will come right out for Him, and by baptism confess His name.”
He said, “Oh, I couldn’t do that. If I were to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Messiah, I would break my dear old Jewish mother’s heart; my stern Jewish father would disown me. He would call in an orthodox Rabbi and have a funeral service for me, and I would never again be recognized as in the land of the living. My business associates would disown me, and all my business prospects would fall away. Intellectually, I am convinced, but give Him my heart I cannot.” I pleaded with him, but he turned away. I never saw him again. Before the next occasion when I would have visited San Francisco, the disastrous earthquake of 1906 had taken place, and our Mission had been swept out of existence. It was many years before we had a testimony again in that city.
But think of his position; he had to choose between God and his parents. Jesus demands just such a choice, and if our parents stand in the way, He says, “Whosoever loveth father and mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.”
Do you want a proof of the Deity of Christ? You have it right here. Imagine any man, no matter how good, standing up before a congregation and saying, “Look here, if you love your father and mother more than me, you are not worthy of me.” If it were only a man who said something like that, you would say, “Who does he think he is? He imagines he has more right to my love and allegiance than my own parents; the man is insane.” But Christ has more right, for He is God over all, blessed for evermore (Romans 9:5).
I have tried to picture this. I have thought at times I could see those sons of Korah go up to their father, put their arms on his shoulders and say, “Father, don’t set yourself against God. Whoever hardened himself against Him and prospered? Listen to the voice of His servant and yield, surrender to Him while there is time.”
I think I see that stern old man say, “No, I will never own that I need a mediator or a savior. I am good enough for God as I am, and I shall not listen to Moses and Aaron.”
Then came the call, “Come away from the tents of this wicked man.” I think I see those sons of Korah say, “Father, if you won’t change, we shall have to leave you. We cannot go on with you. We must be true to God at all costs.” I think I see them wending their way across the plain to yonder sanctuary, perhaps even then singing as they go, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).
Well, the years went by, and the descendants of the sons of Korah were the Temple choir. Isn’t that wonderfully in keeping? When I read some of these songs dedicated to the sons of Korah, I say: This is of special interest to me, because, you know, I am one of the sons of Korah. The sons of Korah were saved from going down to the pit, and I have been saved from going down to the pit. So, I read them with special interest because I am a debtor to mercy, mercy that saved me, that turned my wayward feet from the path that leads to the pit.
Now God puts a song into the mouths of His redeemed. All whom He saves from going down to the pit belong to His heavenly choir. Some of us are not very good singers down here. They have to be pretty familiar hymns for me to be able to join in at all. My wife sometimes nudges me when I do get going and says, “Do keep on the key.” But one of these days, if you want to hear singing, you slip around to my mansion in the glory. Every one of the sons of Korah will belong to the choir eventually. “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth Me” (Psalm 50:23). We shall all do that by and by.
As these sons of Korah were linked up with the worship of the Temple and looked about them, they saw something the bulk of the people could not see. It was customary in those oriental sanctuaries never to drive the birds out. They were permitted to flit about at will. I saw the same thing in Jerusalem when I was there several years ago. We went out to that abomination of desolation, the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock that covers the site of the Temple. There were birds inside that great Mosque, singing beautifully. That is the kind of thing the sons of Korah noticed, of which they sang in this Psalm: “The sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God” (Psalm 84:3).
The Jews never drove the birds out of the Temple. They allowed them to make their nests there. On some occasions, even when the priest was offering sacrifice at the altar, you could see, underneath, the swallow’s nest and the mother bird sitting upon it or the nest of the sparrow with the mother sparrow resting there in perfect quiet. They were not afraid because no hand was ever raised against them. The priests said, “They have put their trust in Jehovah by entering into His house: we must not make them afraid.” They had a beautiful name for them; they called them “God’s pensioners.” They had shown their confidence in Him, and they fed upon scraps of the shewbread and one thing and another and were at home in the house of God. The sons of Korah realized that would be a lovely theme for a hymn, and we have been singing about the sparrows ever since. “The sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of Hosts, my King, and my God.”
The sparrow and the swallow. I suppose we are right in saying that the sparrow is the most worthless of birds. Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” And that farthing was a coin of much less value than a British farthing. I have been carrying a British farthing around for six weeks, and I cannot get anyone to give me anything for it. But Jesus said, referring to the infinitesimal farthing of His day, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? You could go into the market and see two sparrows, cleaned, with a skewer through them, lying offered for sale, and the poorest people bought them to make a sort of sparrow pie. Then, the Lord elsewhere says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings?” Dr. James H. Brookes, one of our great American preachers, used to say, “I think that is how I got in. The Lord was saving four others, and I was thrown in for good measure.”
What does the Book say about us in our sinful state? It says we are altogether “unprofitable.” “I know that in my flesh dwelleth no good thing”—no goodness or worth, yet God in His grace looked upon me and loved me. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s knowledge. As someone once said, “The One who created the heavens and the earth attends every sparrow’s funeral.” If He cares for the little birds, Jesus says, remember “ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Utterly worthless in ourselves, but of such value to Christ that He came from off the Throne Eternal down to Calvary’s depth of woe to redeem us to Himself; of such value to God the Father, He sent His only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him; of such value to God the Holy Spirit, He has come to convince of sin, in order to draw our wayward hearts to Christ. Poor, worthless sparrows—yet the object of wondrous grace.
There is not only the sparrow but the swallow. If we say the sparrow is the most worthless of birds, what shall we say of the swallow? Surely it is the most restless. Did you ever see a swallow be still?—Always on the wing, going all the time. Isn’t that like us?—Trying this thing and that thing, going into this, that, and the other, always restless, always discontented, always unhappy as long as we are away from God. Some of us have tried hard to find rest, we have tested so many things, tried one thing after another, and still our hearts are just as restless as ever because we have not come to Christ Himself, who says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
I heard the Voice of Jesus say,
Come unto Me and rest
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast.
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.
(Horatius Bonar, 1846)
So we read, “The sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of Hosts, my King, and my God.”
Notice the plural, not “Thine altar” but “Thine altars.” There were two of them. Those two altars give us the two aspects of the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, the work He did on Earth and the work He is doing in Heaven. We need both to get perfect rest. The brazen altar, the altar out in the courtyard, the birds are nesting there; that altar speaks of the Cross work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Upon that altar on which the fire was ever burning, they placed the parts of the victim which went up in flame to God. All those sacrifices speak to us of the one Supreme Offering, the Perfect Offering, the Complete Offering of our Lord Jesus Christ. Have you found rest in the brazen altar?
Can you look back to an experience in your life in accord with the words of the hymn:
Near the Cross, a trembling soul,
Love and Mercy found me
There the bright and morning star
Shed its beams around me.
In the Cross, in the Cross
Be my glory ever,
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.
(Fanny Crosby, 1869)
That brazen altar says, “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). It tells of satisfaction made for sin, of an acceptable propitiation on the basis of which every poor sinner may come to God through Christ and may find rest of conscience. “Christ for my sins” is the message of the brazen altar.
In the House itself, in the inner sanctuary, representing Heaven itself, where Christ is now ministering, stood the golden altar. No sacrificial victim was ever offered on that altar, but instead there was the constantly ascending sweet smoke of the incense before God. “Let my prayer come before Thee as incense,” said David, and that sweet fragrant incense rising before God speaks of the constant intercession of the risen Christ in glory.
Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for [us]. (Hebrews 7:25)
O Christians, there is a living Christ in Heaven deeply concerned about everything that exercises you, constantly bearing you up before God. He has abundant stores of grace to minister to you and to help you in every time of need. That golden altar says, “Christ for my cares.” It tells me that the same Blessed One who died for me now lives for me, lives to sustain and keep me, and to make me victorious as I go through this scene of trial and testing.
In the Epistle to the Philippians, we read:
Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6-7)
Some of us came as troubled, guilty sinners to the brazen altar and found rest for our consciences, but have we turned to the golden altar and found rest for our souls. Do we know what it is to walk in holy, happy fellowship with a risen Christ, committing our way to Him in accordance with the Word, “casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you?”
There are Christians who find it easier to trust the Lord for the salvation of their immortal souls than for the rent money next month or for food or raiment day by day. Yet the Lord Jesus Christ says, “[S]eek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). Who said that? I like Livingstone’s remark in another connection, “It is the word,” he said, “of a gentleman, who will never go back on His word, and there’s an end of it. He will see you through.”
Millions of Christians could testify to the fact that He has never failed one who commits all things into His hands. If we have never done it before, if we have never yielded ourselves and all our affairs, oh, that we might do it today. He is waiting to have us do that very thing. He longs to undertake for us; and then, indeed, we shall know the meaning of these words, “The sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God.” Then, too, we shall enter into and understand the next verse, “Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house: they will be still praising Thee.”
Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin; The blood of Jesus whispers peace within. (Edward Henry Bickersteth, Jr., 1875)
(The article above is an excerpt of Harry Ironside’s book, Changed by Beholding. | Painting by Lighthouse Trails reader Jeannette Dube of Canada; used with permission.)
Other articles by Harry Ironside: