Psalm 63:1-8 is not for the nonchalant.
It vibrates with emotional intensity and assumed intimacy. Body and soul, the whole person is defined at least for this moment, by longing for the felt nearness and accompanying assurance of God.
Thirst for God and prolonged longing for God is experienced as the persisting presence of an absence. As parched land languishes for want of water, so body and soul suffer the want of the presence of God.
There are parched episodes in every life, miles of the journey when we thirst for rain, times of emotional exhaustion and bone weariness that make prayer seem a waste of time.
These verses, and the images of this psalm inspired a hymn that anticipates how to survive the desert and emerge from the wilderness.
Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand;
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land.
A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way
From the burning of the noontide heat and the burdens of the day.
That beautiful fable, The Little Prince, is a story of a pilot whose plane crashed in the desert. One of the many wise sentences in this slim masterpiece has found its way into many an anthology: “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”
The psalmist knows this. Actually, so did the apostle Paul, making one of his boldest rhetorical moves.
This from another of our lectionary passages about God’s provision for the children of Israel in the wilderness: “They drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor.10:3-4).
Whether a subterranean well, or a mobile rock doubling as a fountain, the promise of refreshment and recovery are woven throughout these eight verses. The spiritual psychology is sound.
First, remember, think back and recall God’s goodness and mercy that has followed you all the days of your life (verse 2).
Second, take hold of that covenant word love, and speak that steadfast, faithful love that can be trusted whatever. That love of God is better than life because it makes life possible and alone guarantees life’s meaning, purpose and fulfillment (verse 3).
Third, praise God every day into the future, because that future is safe and enfolded in purposive love and sustaining mercy. Praise is an act of faith, anticipating blessing going forward because it is born of past blessing (verse 4).
The result of remembering God, speaking God’s faithful love and praising God for the future is summarized in verse 5. Lips that were parched will sing God’s praise, and a soul hungry for God will be “satisfied with the richest of foods.”
Faith is much more than a grim hanging on when life seems barren and God far away. This psalm is defiant of despair. It resonates with the trustful optimism of one who knows, just knows, that somewhere, beneath the desert, is a well.
And if that sounds like a miracle, you’re on the right track. Because wherever we are in the wilderness, and however weary, a spiritual rock accompanies us, and that rock is Christ.
Then the psalm moves from the desert to the safety and comfort of bed! This time the psalmist isn’t tossing and turning, anxious and restless. When I’m awake “I remember you, I think of you through the watches of the night.”
We’re back to the importance of memory, the recalling of our story, the restorative power of trustful optimism; trustful because God has proved faithful in keeping promises.
For years, that remarkable Christian and United Nations diplomat Dag Hammarskjold kept a notebook by his bed, in which he noted thoughts of deep spiritual honesty and wise counsel.
My guess is he knew the wisdom of Psalm 63 when he wrote this brief prayer: “For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to be, Yes!”
Such words presuppose levels of confidence that must find their energy somewhere. “You are My help. I sing in the shadow of your wings.”
Is that mothering image of the eagle’s wings, or the gathering close of a mother hen, or perhaps the wings of the cherubim on the altar in the sanctuary? No need to choose. It is an image of protective care and dependable safety.
The psalmist settles down, and as we read and pray his words, so do we. Our soul clings to God, we are held in the strong right hand of God.
There are desert journeys, wilderness wanderings, times of weariness and thirst, experiences that bring us to our wits end. But note where this psalm starts – verse 1 naturally enough! “O God, you are my God.”
This psalm can be distilled to the lines of another hymn: “O Love, that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee.” That’s for the desert, and those times of thirst and seeking that have to be lived through.
“I give Thee back the life I owe, that in Thine ocean depths its flow, may richer, fuller be.” That’s for the bed, the place of rest and peace, when the soul is satisfied with good things, and we intentionally remember the goodness and mercy that has followed us all the days of our life, think of God who is our help, and sing praise in the shadow of God’s wings.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a lectionary-based series for the season of Lent. One article will be published each week, offering reflection on one or more of the lectionary texts for the upcoming Sunday. The previous articles in the series are:
Lenten Lectionary | Returning to God, Returning to Self | Molly T. Marshall
Lenten Lectionary | Wilderness Living | Merianna Harrelson
Lenten Lectionary | It’s Not Easy Being Human | Rod Benson
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.