By Wes Hill
“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”
Our psalmist this morning writes at a distance from the house of the Lord. We don’t hear exactly where he is, but we know he is somewhere away from the temple. He longs to be there, though. In fact, this is his only longing, he says. “One thing I seek.” He wishes he could be in the temple and never leave. He wishes he could stay there all his life, “to behold the fair beauty of the Lord.” The psalmist wants to see God. To gaze on God and be enraptured — to be enraptured in a way that never comes to an end.
In his commentary on this psalm, John Calvin imagines someone shaking their head at the psalmist’s words. Surely the poet knows that “he could have called on God beyond the precincts of the temple. Wherever he wandered as an exile, he carried with him the precious promise of God, so that he needed not to put so great a value upon the sight of the external edifice. He appears, by some gross imagination or other, to suppose that God could be enclosed by wood and stones.”
Certainly God is not confined to the temple. Calvin agrees with his hypothetical objector about that. But, Calvin says, the reason the psalmist longs to be in the temple is that the temple is the earthly, visible sign — it is, according to the Bible, a copy of its heavenly archetype (Heb. 8:5; 9:24) — of the presence of God itself. The psalmist longs to be where God has promised to dwell, not out of some misguided devotion to a religious site for its own sake but because that site is the place that symbolizes and makes tangible and seeable the promise of God to be available for his people. The psalmist longs for God. The poet longs to see God, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord.
The psalmist longs for what later Christians came to call the “beatific vision,” the blessed vision of God. St. Paul describes it this way: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” God has promised that one day, at the resurrection of the dead, we will see God face to face, the glory and fair beauty of God in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will know God then even as he knows us now.
Two of my favorite lines from all of Christian hymnody are those lines from the Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City”: “Then our eyes at last shall see Him / Through His own redeeming love.” That’s the beatific vision. At the last day, when the trumpet sounds and the dead are raised, our eyes at last shall see him. His redeeming love for us has that as its final aim: God will draw us to himself. God sent his Son, Jesus, to live a sinless life, to bear away our sin and shame through his death on a cross, and to rise triumphant from the grave, so that we might be ushered into God’s presence forever. God will ensure that we will behold the fair beauty of the Lord for all eternity. The biblical character Job says it this way: “I shall see [God] for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.”
In our secular age, I think we can hardly begin to fathom what this might mean. We live in a buffered, insular, inward-looking culture. We may be able to imagine finding ourselves and our ambitions and our loved ones and our obsessions fascinating for eternity, but we can hardly imagine beholding God for eternity.
The theologian Hans Boersma diagnoses our condition: “I think we’ve experienced a broad shift in [the modern era] from otherworldliness to this-worldliness. This modern focus on enjoying this-worldly things has also affected the church. For the earlier [Christian] tradition, when people thought of the hereafter, they thought of God himself: our heart is restless until it finds its rest in God, according to Augustine. Instead, contemporary theologians have so emphasized the goodness of the created order that they have turned it into our final end. You see this, for example, in a focus on creation rather than on God [at the last day]. Earlier theologians had a deeper awareness than we do today of the discontinuity between this world (and its created goods) and our heavenly future (where God himself is the one and only one in whom we find our rest).”
I wonder if you resonate with that? Do you feel described by those words?
We are not enthralled with God. We do not, like the psalmist, want to spend the rest of our lives in the house of the Lord, to seek him in his temple.
Not too long ago, Oprah Winfrey interviewed a famous Christian speaker, and she asked him what he thought heaven would be like. He replied: “I think there’s a ton of ‘ohhh!’ ’Cause there’s all these people that have gone before you. Some people say, ‘And then you meet God.’ I think, ‘Yeah, but I never met my grandpa on my dad’s side.’ So, actually, when I think of, like, dying, I think of, ‘I’ll get to meet Preston.’ That’s actually what I think of first. I don’t think of, sort of, gold and a throne and like a ‘Hello! Well done. You’re strange but I like you anyway.’ I don’t think of that. I think of, like, my grandpa that I never met. To be honest.”
Maybe that’s how you feel too. It’s how I feel much of the time. We’re absorbed in our stories, our agendas, our plans and ambitions. We can’t imagine praying like the psalmist.
Is there any hope for us?
If you read on a few more verses in the psalm, you’ll see the poet speaking directly to God. The psalmist says this to God: “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’” The psalmist knows — and you and I know today — that he should long to see the face of God. But the psalmist isn’t focusing on what he should be doing and is failing to do. He is directing our attention to what God is doing for us and in us. God, says the psalmist, is the one who comes to us in our little cocoons of self-absorption and speaks to our hearts. God enters into our interiority and beckons us, woos us, draws us to want to see God. God yearns for us to yearn for the beatific vision. And after God speaks to the psalmist’s heart — “Seek My face” — the psalmist says in response: “Your face, Lord, will I seek.”
And that’s our hope in a nutshell, isn’t it? If we ever hope to be able to say to the Lord, “Your face will I seek,” we have to have the Lord speak in and to our hearts and call out to us, “Seek My face.” Our longing for the beatific vision begins with God’s longing for us to long for it.
There’s a wonderful scene in one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories where two children, Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb, are trying to run away from schoolyard bullies. They end up near some shrubbery behind the gym, and Eustace says they should stretch out their arms and start calling out for the great lion Aslan to rescue them from the English schoolyard and let them into the magical realm of Narnia.
Then suddenly they clamber through a door in the wall behind the school gym and find themselves in Narnia, and Jill comes face to face with the powerful and frightening lion, and the lion tells her that he called her to Narnia to complete a task.
This confuses Jill. She says hesitantly: “I was wondering — I mean — could there be some mistake? Because nobody called me and Scrubb, you know. It was we who asked to come here. Scrubb said we were to call to — to Somebody — it was a name I wouldn’t know — and perhaps the Somebody would let us in. And we did, and then we found the door open.”
And then the lion, Aslan, the Christ-figure, says to Jill: “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.”
Jill could not have called for the great Lion of Narnia unless he had first been calling for her.
You and I this morning are in no position to long for the vision of God unless God puts that longing into our hearts. But that’s what God is doing now — what God has promised to do — as we gather here for worship. You are not here this morning by accident. We have heard God’s Word. We are about to taste God’s banquet. And God, through this Word, and through this sacrament we are about to receive, is calling us, wooing us, speaking to our hearts: “Seek My face.”
Maybe you can’t quite say with the psalmist, “Your face, Lord, will I seek.” But maybe you can pray this morning, “I want to seek Your face.” Or maybe you can pray, “I don’t exactly want to seek Your face, but I want to want to seek Your face.” Even now, God is calling you and me to long to see him, to yearn to behold his fair beauty, to lift up the eyes of our hearts and strain to catch a glimpse of the Lord in his temple.
He calls to you and to me this morning: “Seek My face.”
And then, one day, our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love.
“I shall see [God] for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.”
The Rev. Dr. Wes Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.