Then someone starts asserting that a single concern or virtue is of the most value or importance, we usually brace ourselves for someone who is narrow and shallow at the same time. But when the God’s faithful servant King David speaks of limiting himself to “one thing” he desires from the Lord, it’s worth listening to:
“One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27: 4, ESV).
There are three experiences referred to here: (1) an intense desire to be in God’s Presence, (2) the reward of seeing the Lord’s Beauty, and (3) the reward of learning His Truth. The intense desire conditions the writer to receive and be blessed by the emanations of Beauty and Truth from God’s Presence (“the house of the Lord”). For David, of course, the “temple” would have been the Tabernacle, and by extension the Temple that his son Solomon built as the divinely designated fulfillment of the design of the Tabernacle. By even further extension, the house of the Lord is the Church and the heart of the individual believer, inhabited by the Holy Spirit; and ultimately, it is the New Jerusalem, the final home created by God so that His people of all generations and all Covenants could be eternally in His Presence.
In a couple of other places in the Psalms, David expresses even more poignantly his intense desire to dwell in God’s Presence :
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. (Ps 84:1-2 NIV)
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Ps 42:1-2 ESV)
Here is more than mere curiosity or formal piety. Here is the cry of one who has felt the Presence of God palpably, and from David’s history we know that he experienced it in times of great need. But his desire is that of a lover for the deep embrace of One who has already shown that He wants to envelop His beloved in the arms of transcendent Love. So when David states that he has settled on that “one thing” that outweighs all other imaginable benefits, he conceives it as the unlimited perpetuation of what he has already experienced in limited measure. He didn’t have a clear idea of an afterlife of being with God, but he knew that there was nothing sweeter than dwelling in the Presence of a God who has no limits on His radiation of Beauty and Truth.
Certainly we under the New Covenant have a much clearer picture of the eternal potential of our earthly experience of God’s Presence, but we have in common with David the opportunity of emotional and intellectual intimacy with God. We are told that the pure in heart (those who long single-mindedly for God) will see Him, and that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (knowing and doing the will of God) will be filled.
David more than once associated being in the Presence of God with seeing His beauty. In addition to the loveliness of the Lord’s dwelling place referred to in Ps. 42:1, the hymn of praise in Ps. 96 urges the singers to acknowledge that “Honor and majesty are before Him; Strength and Beauty are in His sanctuary . . . . Oh worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! Tremble before Him, all the earth” (Ps. 96:6,9 NKJV). The somewhat paradoxical juxtaposition of beauty and holiness indicates that David realized his “gazing on the beauty of the Lord” was not merely earthly aesthetic appreciation, but a direct experience of holy Beauty that reached back into earthly experience to sanctify all physical beauty as generated by God.
The pairing of gazing on God’s Beauty with inquiring into His Truth may seem a strange match at first, since the first is an emotional experience and the second is a rational exercise. However, I believe that these two are actually complementary to each other and feed one another, reflecting the fact that being in God’s Presence brings together the unified satisfaction of all of humankind’s deepest longings. The war within us between reason and emotion leads people to emphasize one at the expense of the other. We tend either to distrust emotion as being unstable, or to view reason as cold, calculating, and calloused. Yet God gave us the ability and the inclination to look at things and identify them as good, even as God did concerning His creation. We are blessed by the ability to look beyond the flaws in a fallen world and to see (irrationally, some might say) God’s beauty. We are also blessed by the ability to use our minds to seek out Truth, thereby finding a way to perceive and describe the moral and physical order that God has put in place.
My perception is that we in the evangelical community are often more comfortable with “inquiring in the temple” than with “gazing on the Lord’s beauty.” But we need to let them both work on us, and we do so by intensely desiring to come into the Presence of God, where we will experience both the intimacy of His Beauty and the thrill of understanding His Truth.
Image: By http://www.rjews.net/gazeta/Photo/hram.php3?id=3, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2353637