Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings.Psalm 61:1-4
As a kid, I loved to camp out in tents. I think it began when I was very young, building “tents” with sheets and blankets, draped from bedposts and dressers. “Camping out” like this was exciting, but at the same time offered a safe and peaceful space, hidden away from the world. I remember, too, “camping” in our backyard with my father and siblings. We’d set up a tent over a little hill where we couldn’t see our house (all of a couple hundred feet away!), and camp out. My dad, I found out years later, would sneak back into the house and get a good night’s sleep before returning in time to cook us breakfast. As a teenager, my friends and I loved to hike on the Appalachian Trail, camping out in our tents at night. And I have fond memories, too, of trips taken with my brother on our motorcycles, sleeping bags and tents strapped on back, traveling through Maine and Nova Scotia and camping each night in our tents. At the end of a day of hiking or motorcycle-riding, there is something incredibly peaceful and relaxing about sheltering in a tent. All that is to say that when I read Psalm 61 – “let me abide in your tent forever” – it brings back many fond memories.
In the case of this psalm, “tent” is most likely a poetic way of referring to the temple. But the temple is also a safe place, a holy place, because it is a place where God dwells. The psalmist is expressing a desire to be in that safe place with God, to live in that place forever. And don’t we all want that? To find a safe place, and to live there? Just like when we were kids, building those forts and sleeping in those tents, or wherever it was for you that made you feel safe. And that feeling, that desire, does not leave us when we become adults. I suspect that it has been with us ever since we had to leave the Garden of Eden. We have a built-in longing to return to that place where God dwells, to abide in God’s tent forever.
Of course, one of the primary benefits of a tent is that you can take it with you. Unlike a house or a church, you can bring a tent with you wherever you would like. And perhaps that is one of the reasons the psalmist is inspired to use the word tent rather than temple – it is a recognition that God doesn’t want us to abide in the temple forever. Instead, God wants us to abide with God forever, wherever we are. A tent reminds us that wherever life takes us, God’s tent – God’s presence – is always available to us and among us.
God’s tent among us brings to mind for me another passage in scripture: John 1:14 – “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The greek word that is used here for “lived” among us literally means to live in a tent among us, or to pitch a tent among us. That is what Jesus did when he became human – he pitched his tent among us. A camping trip from heaven, you might say, to become one of us and to pitch his tent right here with us. When Jesus did this, he became the temple, the place where God dwells, but in a portable form. And through the Holy Spirit, Jesus now goes where we go, fulfilling his promise to be with us always and every where (Matthew 28:20).
But I am also reminded of another passage that uses this same greek word. It is when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, with Peter, James and John with him on this holy camping trip. When Jesus is transfigured and is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, and Peter says to him: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17:4). Peter wanted to stay on the mountain. Who wouldn’t? So he offered to pitch a tent for Jesus (and for Moses and Elijah, too). But Jesus knew that he could not stay atop that mountain; he needed to come down the mountain, and go to Jerusalem, to die for the sins of the world. Tents can be comfortable places, protecting us from life’s unpredictable elements. But we can’t stay in our tents. We are called to go out into this world and do the work of Jesus. (Of course, that’s been pretty difficult to do lately, with all of us “tenting in place” to reduce the spread of this virus! There is a time, though, to be in the safety of our tent, and there is a time when we must leave it to do the work to which we are called.)
One final mention of tents in scripture comes to mind, and that is in 2 Corinthians:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling … He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight.
We live and dwell in earthly tents. Portable, yes, but not indestructible. Our tents, our houses, even our churches, are all temporary. There is no “forever home” this side of heaven. But Paul reminds us in this passage that we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. And that is where we are all headed. We are traveling through this life on our way to our heavenly dwelling. It is good to be here, but here is not where we are going. And so, we hike and camp our way through this life, with the prayer that God would lead us to the rock that is higher than we (Psalm 61:2), and that we would abide in God’s tent forever. Abide with God here, for now, in these earthly tents of ours; but one day, there, in the house not made with hands, God’s eternal tent in the heavens.