‘Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for herself , where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God’ (Psalm 84:3).
Like Psalm 42, this song is entitled: ‘Of [or ‘For’] the sons of Korah’, a family of Levites with occasional duties to support the priests in the temple. In both psalms the singer is longing to be serving in God’s house, but is hindered from getting there.
Psalm 84:3 opens with a sigh: ‘Even the sparrow … and the swallow’ have ‘found a home … at your altars.’ In David’s day ‘the sons of Korah’ became song-leaders of processions of worshippers at the temple festivals (1 Chronicles 6:31-47). And this song-writer had noticed both birds nesting near God’s altar.
The cross was the fulfilment of the outdoor ‘bronze altar’ where sin offerings were roasted after their blood was shed in the outer court of God’s house. But the psalmist uses a plural noun in the English Standard Version: ‘at your altars’, as in the Hebrew text. The other temple altar was indoors – ‘the golden altar’ on which incense was offered, its fragrance released by glowing coals brought to it from the outside altar on censers. And John on Patmos saw the ascended Jesus in glory as our Great High Priest offering ‘the prayers of the saints’ to God ‘with … much incense’ (Revelation 8:3-5).
On one very scary occasion during Israel’s years in the wilderness, as recorded in Numbers chapter 16, Korah and some of the tribe of Reuben in the neighbouring campsite made a huge protest that they – all 250 of them – should also be priests like the sons of Aaron, the High Priest. So Moses gave them each a censer with burning coals and incense, then asked God to deal with this issue in some new and decisive manner. Suddenly the desert sand gave way beneath their feet and buried them alive. Yet on recalling the event for the young generation about to enter the Promised Land, he commented: ‘And they became a warning. But the sons of Korah did not die’ (Numbers 26:10-11). These psalms appropriately express their descendants’ relief.
And, incidentally, both sparrows and swallows are instinctively congregational.
On an autumn holiday in South Portugal we observed ‘The Dusk Chorus’ of hundreds of sparrows in trees on the plaza, surrounded by shoppers and diners at outdoor café tables. For one hour before sunset the enclosed area throbbed with their chit-chatter.
The corporate communion meal relates to the bronze altar: ‘the bread that we break’ and ‘the cup of blessing that we bless’ – a ‘participation in the body … and blood of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:14). The cross, not the communion table being the high altar! And when church meets to pray together it is a fulfilment of the ongoing value of the heavenly golden alter.
Swallows congregate in the autumn – nowadays on telegraph wires – in readiness for the mass migration to warmer vacations in Africa. And we ‘eat this bread and drink the cup’ to ‘proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’, when all his living people shall, with generations of departed saints, congregate to him ‘in the air’ and migrate into ‘new heavens and a new earth.’