Moving house is a pain….
We are currently moving house, possibly only for a short while, but we aren’t sure, so we have had to pack everything. That is extremely tedious, but even worse is unpacking. At least when you pack everything, it goes tidily into boxes, but when you unpack, you have to find a right place for all sorts of stuff that you rather wish you had never acquired.
….partly because of what our houses mean to us
At least doing boring mechanical labour (shelving books, hanging clothes) leaves your mind free to wander (especially when you’ve found the CDs but can’t find anything to play them on yet – or, even worse, have the machine but not the flex….), so I was thinking about how important our living place is to us, and how much is wrapped up in the little word ‘house’. I’m using it as a generic term. There was a book in the Dr Seuss series that we had at home when my younger sisters and brother were small, called ‘Come over to my house‘, and I remember it went through all sorts of different sorts of dwellings in all different parts of the world, but the key point was : ‘Wherever you go, you will hear someone say,’Come over to my house! Come over and play!’ ‘, and I’m using it precisely like that, whether it’s a flat, a hut, a castle or anything else. There are lots of occasions in the Bible where ‘house’ is taken to mean ‘family’, ‘clan’, ‘dependants’ or something along those lines, but I’m just discussing fixed physical dwelling places here.
‘Let us go to God’s house’
In dire need of distraction (and to prove to myself that I wasn’t just a beast of burden), I started wondering whether there was any relevant stuff in the psalms. I couldn’t think of many examples off the top of my head. What struck me was that nearly the only person who actually has a house, is God. There’s all the polite arguing in the Bible between David and the Lord, and later Solomon, about whether God needs a house; but God spends a lot of time pointing out that he made everything, so he could make a house if he wanted one. ‘The earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 23/24), so it’s all his dwelling place. Once David and Solomon have palaces, they can’t bear that the Lord shouldn’t have something at least equally impressive, and the Temple gets built, to very careful and elaborate specifications. This is all in other books of the Bible, though, rather than in the psalms. They range from referring to God’s dwelling on the holy mountain, or in the clouds, to everyone calling out ‘Glory!’ to the Lord in his temple, but the actual dwelling usually remains nebulous (very appropriate).
A place for the Lord
There is one psalm (131/132) which recaps the conversation between David and the Lord : David goes on sleep strike until he can find a suitable place for God; he has a house, so he feels that God should have a house. He locates the ark of the covenant, and then offers the Lord somewhere where David feels he will be comfortable and looked after properly. The psalm endearingly makes God sound like someone finding his ideal home in a newspaper supplement or on line: ‘For the Lord has chosen Zion;/he has desired it for his dwelling: ‘This is my resting-place for ever,/here have I chosen to live.’ The rest of it consists of God’s reciprocal promises to David, as though in gratitude for the lovely house he has been provided with. We sing this psalm once a year, on the feast of the Assumption.
Nomads don’t have ‘houses’
The early psalms are written by nomad people, so there are no references to any settled dwelling for humans. The psalmist’s aspiration is limited to lying in safety on a bed (Pss 3 and 4 ). Later there are a couple of references to houses for people, as the authors reflect their own experience, but they are rare, less than half a dozen. The princess travelling to marry the King is adjured to forget her father’s house (Ps 44/45), presumably because she is going to a better one. The only other houses are in Ps 100/101, where the psalmist celebrates having his own place where he can arrange things the way he chooses: ‘ I will walk with blameless heart within my house…no man who practises deceit shall live within my house’; the psalm about David deciding to build a house for God; and the two psalms starting at 126/127, which emphasizes how central God is to any enterprise : ‘Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labour.’. The second of the pair is a celebration of the just man’s homelife (this is the psalm so often sung at weddings), with his wife in the heart of his house and his children surrounding the table (127/128). There is a clear subconscious mental link between women and houses : you need a house to keep your wife in (‘at home the women’ Ps 67/68). And if it’s your house, you say who can come in.
So one of the crucial differences between people and God is that God definitely has a house to which a person may be allowed access. From the very beginning, there is an idea that God has a settled place, even if man may not approach it (Moses goes up the mountain to find God, while everyone else won’t set foot there). This is long before the building of the Temple. The usual expression for God’s dwelling is God’s ‘holy place’ or ‘holy mountain’ (from Ps 3 on), specifically Mount Zion (from Ps 2 on), and some time later, Jerusalem (Ps 75/76).
Did Adam and Eve have a house?
God puts Adam and Eve in a garden, but there’s no mention of them needing any shelter, because they are safe from all danger and sufficiently warm even out in the open (until the serpent walks in, on his legs which he is soon to lose). The garden has walls and gates, though, which is why they can be excluded from it, so it fulfils some of the requirements of a house.
We know the garden is very beautiful and well-watered, but there’s no indication of even a little shed, which is interesting, because they might have liked somewhere to keep the tools they had to help them cultivate the garden (as I was trying to find somewhere for secateurs and screwdrivers).
Just how lovely is your dwelling place, Lord?
We have no specifications for God’s own holy dwelling. We know nothing about it, except that it is a wonderful place to be, and if you are there, there is nothing else which you want or need. ‘I love the house where you dwell ‘ (Ps 25/26). ‘To be near God is my happiness’ (Ps 72/73). ‘How lovely is your dwelling place’ (Ps 83/84). It’s big, because it has courts in the plural, and there are trees growing in the courtyards (Pss 83/84, 91/92,, 95/96 and 133/134) . It is peaceful and beautiful, and the food is good (Pss 22/23, 35/36, 67/68, 111/112). It is full of singing and music (hurrah!) , and everyone is happy there (Pss 83/84, 86/87, 91/92, 117/118, 121/122 – there are lots of examples). One day in God’s house is worth a thousand anywhere else (Ps 83/84), and even being at the gate or by the threshold is enough (Pss 83/84, 86/87). So we have no details, but it is all infinitely desirable.
The psalmist emphasizes different aspects of the Lord’s own dwelling depending on the circumstances he finds himself in. Thus God’s house is described as a refuge or a fortress, a citadel, mountain fastness, tower, a stronghold, a sanctuary, a temple (I’m not giving references for these because they are so common) whenever the psalmist is singing in a dangerous situation or feeling under threat. When you are in danger, being in God’s house is above all to be safe. God himself is a fortress personified more than once (e.g. Ps 27/28).
Let me dwell in your tent (Ps 60/61)
I started by ascribing the lack of house-references to the psalmists being nomads. Nomads live in tents (or even caves, Ps 73/74). Just as our ideas about Christmas are affected by our own context, as I discussed in the bleak midwinter blog, so are our ideas about God, and indeed there is lots of evidence in the psalms for God living in a tent just like the psalmists do. ‘Lord, who shall be admitted to your tent?’ (Ps 14/15) is a recurring question, meaning exactly the same thing as ‘Who shall climb the hill of the Lord?’ (Ps 23/24), because you can’t go where you aren’t welcome.
God’s tent is naturally impressive. It is made of darkness and clouds (Ps 17/18); he has stretched out the heavens as a tent-cloth (Ps 103/104) – and you imagine a tent made of that beautiful dark blue with little gold stars embroidered on it. Unlike the beloved painted ceilings or laboriously-placed glowstars we might have to leave behind in a house-move (one day we’re going to have to abandon the under-the-sea mural in my youngest daughter’s bedroom, and it will be hard), if it’s a tent, you can take it with you. The whole world is God’s tent, under his canopy of stars and clouds.
All are welcome
Wherever God is based, tent, fortress, palace or mountain, there is always enough room for those he loves. Psalm 67/68 lists all those who are welcome : the just, orphans, widows, prisoners. The wicked will perish, but God makes a special home for the lonely and the poor. The women are settled comfortably and given jewels and finery (well, it’s a start). Interestingly, as the psalm goes on, the doors get wider and wider. In v3, the wicked perish at God’s presence, by v7, rebels can live even though they are confined to a parched land, but by v19 God has taken captives, receiving men in tribute and ‘even those who rebel, into your dwelling, O Lord’. God is still smiting his foes, but everyone else is welcome as soon as they choose to come, and this is what is striking about the portrayal of Zion : ‘In you all find their home’ (Ps 86/87), and everyone is happy to go there : ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say :’Let us go to God’s house.’ And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem’ (Ps 121/122).
Once people move to settled homes (NT)
We can see how time has moved on and how lived experience is different in the New Testament, written so much later. Jesus talks with seeming regret about having no house even though the animals do (Mtt 8 20, ‘Foxes have holes’ ), but Paul seems to have gone through dwelling in a house and now wants to return at least mentally to a more unsettled lifestyle, using the idea of not being settled here on earth to emphasize the need to place your eyes on eternity (Heb 13 14, ‘no abiding city’). Paradoxically, this still shows how much our homes mean to us, because otherwise we wouldn’t need to be encouraged not to dwell on them even while dwelling in them.
There’s nothing like moving for making you feel detached from your possessions. You wave them off in their boxes, and especially if there is a long period before you get them back, you manage fine. When they do reappear and you have to find places to unpack them into, then you wonder why you ever needed more than one white shirt etc. That is your chance to give things away, if you are in a place with good charity shops or recycling facilities.
Unfortunately for us, books are the big exception. It takes years to build up your collection, and once you have, you want to keep them. All. I am having to manage temporarily with only a small number of my books, and it’s all right at the moment (I chose very carefully which ones I did bring, plus I have my Kindle), but I packed all the books I use for work becaue I really do need them every day. They may be old and battered, but they are precious to me, and looking things up on the Net is no substitute (though it sometimes works). So I hope, in the many mansions Jesus talks about in heaven, there will be plenty of bookshelves.