His eye is on the sparrow

Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows. — Matthew 10:29-31, CEB

Jesus often told his disciples not to be afraid. He gave them the encouragement above as he sent them out to both announce the coming of God’s kingdom and to carry forth his ministry of healing, knowing that he was sending them as “sheep among wolves” (Matt 10:16). The message here (and in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 6:26) is that the sovereign and loving God cares for even the tiniest of creatures; how much more must he care for his own children?

Such are the passages that come to mind when I read the following words from Psalm 84, in which the psalmist remembers the joy of serving and worshiping in the temple:

Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;
    the swallow has found herself a nest
    where she can lay her young beside your altars,
    LORD of heavenly forces, my king, my God!
Those who live in your house are truly happy;
    they praise you constantly.
(vss. 3-4, CEB)

Birds? The psalmist is writing about birds? Swallows make their nests with feathers, hair, and grass, cemented together with mud and stuck to the side of a building, often under a dark ledge for protection. In modern day America, they are protected by state and federal law, even if the nests are a nuisance (let’s just say you don’t want to stand directly beneath them). But I imagine, of course, that many a nest has been destroyed by someone with a pressure washer when no one was looking.

Maybe even at local churches.

Not so, apparently, on Zion, though I doubt that swallows would literally build their nests alongside the large altar where burnt sacrifices were offered. Here, the word “altars” may be a stand-in (technically, a synecdoche) for the temple as a whole. Certainly there would have been many places around the temple proper for swallows to build their nests, and no one was of the mind to knock them down, even if they could.

Indeed, the descendants of Korah, to whom the psalm is attributed, seemed to take delight in their presence. The reference above to “those who live in [God’s] house,” who joyfully “praise [God] constantly” is a little ambiguous. Are we talking about the swallows singing all day from their nests? Or the Korahites whose Levitical responsibility was to sing praises all day to God?

Why choose?

The imagery is tender, inviting. God’s holy temple — the house of the one who commands the very armies of heaven! — is also home to the vulnerable sparrow and swallow, a place where they can raise their young. To the psalmist, the birdsong that blanketed the temple courts may have sounded like the highest of praise. It reminded him of the sovereign care of God and echoed his own joy.

And we, Jesus said, are worth many, many sparrows.

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