I often read a translation/commentary on the Psalms when I am spending time with God in the morning: The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter. I like the de-Europeanized version he ends up with.This morning he got me thinking about a famous verse we sing in a song: Better is one day in your courts, better is one day in your house, better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.
I honestly don’t know what we are supposed to be thinking when we sing that song. I usually just wait until it is over, like I do with most songs the leaders present to me with no explanation. Is it about heaven? Is it about the perverse idea that the church building is “God’s house?” Is it just a metaphor for being with God?
In most versions Psalm 84:11 is translated something like: “One day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” The focus seems to be on duration: I’d rather spend one day with God than a thousand days somewhere else. That’s a good thought.
The actual context is about being a pilgrim to Jerusalem. It is all about feeling excitement over being at the end point of a spiritual journey — “I am actually going to spend the day in the Temple! This is the best!” Even more specific, it is being King David going to the Temple, and what he feels about that.
Robert Alter translates it more specifically and brings up a small nuance that translators argue about. His translation is,
“For better one day in your courts than a thousand I have chosen.”
This is probably the most literal translation. Other translators who try to translate strictly have gone with an emendation to some of the Hebrew texts that allows the English to read,
“Better one day in your courts than a thousand in my bedchamber.”
Both these more specific translations make more sense to me than a simple “elsewhere.” And I think they make sense for us, too, for two reasons:
For one thing, many of my friends prefer their bedchamber to God. Either their laziness or their sexual immorality is keeping them there. So they don’t get to the courts of God too often, privately or publicly. I think Alter’s preferred translation hits it on the head. Better is the one day I have turned my attention, mind, body and soul, to God than the thousand I have chosen to be free of Him.
That is the second reason I like the translation. Our problem is in the choosing. We think choosing is freedom. We think we can’t even help what we choose, that it is genetically determined. We want the right to choose above all things.
So I am thinking today about the wonder of being with God and the difficulties I face in being there. I am pondering the pleasant bondage, the frightening but comforting inevitability, the alarming but invigorating, overpowering draw that I can’t deny when it comes to knowing God. Jesus has come and found me and here I am longing for God’s “courts.” How amazing to have journeyed this far!
Knowing God is better than all the things I found for myself (and often continue to think I ought to find). I was telling my friend yesterday that being real is all I want. In the “one day” I know God, I know me. One moment of knowing God is better than the rest of what I could choose, and certainly beats the mess I have often chosen.