On my first visit to Israel, I couldn’t get the wilderness of Judah out of my mind. It’s a high mountain desert, bleak and dry, rocky and full of crags, not a bush or a green leaf in sight. The mountain shown here is at the edge of it. The feeling I got there was one of overwhelming need and dependence upon God. There is nothing there, nothing at all to quench thirst of any kind. And my instant, gut response was to lift my eyes to God and seek His face.
That’s what we see in Psalm 63, which opens with a title: A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.
We don’t know the exact situation the title refers to, but we do know of times David spent in the Judean wilderness and we know why he was there (looking at the place, I can’t imagine anyone going there without a very good reason!) He was fleeing for his life from men who wanted to kill him and prevent him from either taking (in the case of Saul) or keeping (in the case of his son Absolom) the throne that God had given him. David was in desperate need of not just water but of help and shelter and protection.
That is the setting the psalmist asks us to have in mind as we read. [Take a few minutes to read Psalm 63 in your Bible, or read it here.]
I love this Psalm, and often turn here when I am in need and full of longing. Here’s what I notice about the example he sets for us:
1. David turns to God (vs. 1)
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.
Even in this dry, weary land, David longs for GOD. Not for water, not for shelter, not for vengeance. He’s not like the children of Israel. When they wander in the desert, hungry and thirsty, in danger of enemies, they cry out and complain. “Where’s our water? Why haven’t you taken care of us? We want to go back to Egypt!” Their desire is fixed on the things they think will satisfy – while David’s desire is fixed on God. He feels that need with all his body, soul, and mind. “I want you, I need you, I can’t make it without you!”
“Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you,” Jesus said in Matthew 6:33. David’s example tells us the same thing: to fix our desire on God.
2. David remembers being in God’s presence (vs. 2)
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
To get to the God who he longs for, David remembers how being with God in the Temple has satisfied him in the past. God’s love is better than life itself, he says.
3. Reflecting on the past leads David to praise (vs. 4)
Because your merciful love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
David’s reflections on God’s love move him to respond. He uses his lips to praise; he lifts his hands and calls on God’s name. God inhabits the praises of his people, and calling on His name makes him present. David can’t get to the temple, but he can do the next best thing and invoke God’s presence within his current situation.
4. David is satisfied (vss. 5-7)
My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips, When I think of you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for you.
The more David focuses on God, even at night when he can’t sleep, the deeper his satisfaction and joy. He sings “in the shadow of God’s wings” – a metaphor for God’s protective presence.
5. David clings to God and is upheld (vss. 8-9)
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth….
David clings to God and is upheld, knowing that those who seek to destroy his life are doomed to fall.
1. David turns to God and seeks His presence.
2. He recalls how being in God’s presence in the past, at the Temple, has satisfied him before.
3. He orients his desire toward God, choosing to take his delight in Him – and starts to praise God and call upon him – invoking God’s presence in his situation.
4. He places himself in God’s care, under the shadow of His wings;
5. He clings to God and is upheld even in the dead of night when doubts start to rise.
These five steps are steps any of us can take when we find ourselves in need and longing for God. They are practical steps for those times in the “desert,” that will turn our desire to delight: Turn and seek; remember God’s loving presence; choose to praise; place yourself in God’s care; cling to God.
I’m not surprised that Psalm 63 was recited daily in the early Church as part of its public prayer. The first Christians were persecuted, and their enemies tried to separate them from God and His presence. In the midst of that desert of affliction, they clung to God by praying this every day until it must have become a part of them.
©2015 Sarah Christmyer. All rights reserved.
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This is part of a series of posts on Thirsting for God and how the Psalms teach us to reach out in thirst to the One who can satisfy.
For the first post: Thirsting for God
For the next post: PSALMS 42-43: When God Isn’t Near