with Tony W. Cartledge
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Who Needs God?
“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 there is no water.” — Psalm 63:1
Have you ever been so thirsty that you could think of nothing else than finding a drink of water? What led you to such a thirsty state? A long hike on a hot day, or a surgical procedure that required you to forego water from midnight until mid-afternoon?
I will never forget my first day of football practice as a high school freshman. Modern coaches are sensitive to concerns about heat stroke or dehydration, and water is often available whenever an athlete feels the need for it. In the old days, however, a three-hour practice might have only one water break, and one’s ability to overcome desperate thirst and keep running hard through summer two-a-day drills was considered a sign of toughness.
On that first day, I wasn’t so tough. I’d been forced to lay off running for six weeks due to a knee condition, and had joined practice nearly a week after the other players. I was out of shape, but determined to keep up. I couldn’t. I became so ravenously thirsty that I told the trainer my stomach was upset jut so he would give me a swallow of Pepto Bismol. Then I really was sick!
Serious thirst is no picnic.
Searching for God(vv. 1-4)
In today’s text, the parched thirst of a desert traveler serves as a metaphor for a worshiper’s longing for the presence of God. A scribal superscription to the psalm – not part of the original text – identifies it as a Davidic psalm, suggesting that the psalm was either written by David, or dedicated to him.
Unlike most such psalms, marked with the simple ledawid (to/for/by David), this one goes on to imagine how David might have uttered such a psalm “when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” Readers familiar with the David story recall how he served faithfully in the court of Saul until the paranoid king turned against him and tried to kill him. David was forced to flee into the wilderness areas of southern Judah (1 Samuel 23-24, 26), where a band of outcasts gathered to him and became the nucleus of a future army. David might have felt abandoned by God during such a time, knowing that he had done nothing to deserve Saul’s wrath.
We have no way of knowing if David actually had anything to do with this psalm, of course, but the later scribes did us a favor in ascribing it to him. An anonymous psalm may or may not speak to us, but the scribe’s association of the prayer with David makes the psalm more accessible to all believers. We can imagine ourselves in David’s sandals, for we all have known what it is like to experience wilderness days when God seems far away.
We have also known spiritual thirst, a longing for something bigger than ourselves, for a sense of meaning in life, for the fulfillment of an empty spot in our hearts that only God can fill.
The prayer begins with the psalmist’s acknowledgement of a relationship with God: “O God (’elohim), you are my God (’el).” It’s likely that the divine name ’elohim was originally Yahweh, but the psalm came to be located in the “Elohistic psalter,” a collection of psalms in which Elohim is favored as the divine name.
“My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,” the psalmist wrote, “as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (v. 1). We don’t know what led to the psalmist’s sense of distance from God, but he dealt with it by drawing strength from a past experience of spiritual closeness.
“I have looked upon you in the sanctuary” (v. 2) employs a verb for “seeing” that commonly refers to a theophany or vision in which God appears or speaks to an individual, usually a prophet. The psalmist, who speaks of witnessing God’s “power and glory,” calls to mind a similar experience in which the prophet Isaiah, while praying in the temple, saw an overwhelming vision of the Lord, “high and lofty,” enthroned in the temple (Isa. 6:1).
Can you imagine what it would be like to see God, even in a vision? Many people in our own day believe that God has spoken directly to them. Even if we cannot make that claim, those of us who persist in following Christ do so in part because we can remember times of worship or prayer when the presence of God seemed real enough to touch, and that memory of divine intimacy continues to resonate within. We hunger to experience it again.
“Because your steadfast love is better than life,” the psalmist sang, “my lips will praise you” (v. 3). “Steadfast love” carries the sense of a faithful love that will not quit, like the love of a mother who never abandons or gives up on her children, no matter how far they stray.
Echoing God’s persistent love, the poet pledges to bless God through a lifetime of faithful prayer with uplifted hands, a physical sign of spiritual supplication to God (v. 4, compare Ps. 28:2, Lam. 2:19). The poet’s unqualified dependence on God in this section calls to mind Ps. 73:25: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.” Could we recite those words in truth, or are we more likely to give up on God when things go sour?
Celebrating God(vv. 5-8)
Modern churchgoers often speak of choosing a church where they are “fed,” usually meaning that they find the sermons to be personally appealing and spiritually fulfilling. The psalmist also favored metaphors of eating, but in a different sense. His spiritual food was the presence of God: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast” translates a phrase that contemporary readers might find less appealing: “As with fat and fatness my soul is satiated” – rich food indeed!
The terms used in v. 5 are surprising, for Lev. 7:23 taught that humans were not to consume fat because “all fat is the LORD’s” (Lev. 3:16). Certain types of fat were burned on the altar, but that did not stop people from enjoying fatty portions of meat.
The richness of God’s presence inspired the psalmist to joyful praise, to the point that even his nighttime thoughts were preoccupied with prayerful meditations on the beneficent grace of God, in the shadow of whose “wings” the psalmist had found refuge.
Some scholars suppose this suggests that the psalmist had actually spent the night in the temple. The Hebrews, like other ancient Near Eastern counterparts, sometimes practiced “incubation,” sleeping in the temple in hopes of receiving a dream vision from God.
Whether he had slept in the temple or not, the psalmist understood that living in an intimate relationship with God is a two-way process: “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me” (v. 8). As Ruth clung to Naomi (including Naomi’s God, Ruth 1:14), so the psalmist clung to God. In Deuteronomy, the same word is used when the faithful are instructed to “hold fast” to God as they live obedient lives (4:4, 10:20, 11:22, 13:5, 30:20).
As the psalmist clung to God, so he could trust that God was also holding onto him. The Hebrews, like most people, were mostly right-handed. Thus, they considered the right hand to be stronger and better. The metaphor carries over: to be held by God’s right hand is a sign of special favor. God was said to have taken Cyrus by the right hand in leading him to victory over the Babylonians (Isa. 45:1), for example. More pertinently, Isa. 41:10 speaks for God in assuring Israel’s exiles that they need not fear, because “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
Are you prone to stick with God, holding fast to promises made on both sides, or do you find it easy to slide away from daily fellowship with the One who can give you strength for every day?
Trusting God(vv. 9-11)
The psalmist’s spiritual satisfaction contributes to the fortitude needed to face difficult days. In v. 9 he speaks of unnamed persons who seek to end his life, but expresses confidence that the tables will be turned: they will “go down into the depths of the earth,” that is, to sheol, the world of the dead. They will fall prey to the sword, he says, and their corpses will become food (literally, “a portion”) for the jackals (v. 10).
With the final verse, we find the first indication, other than the superscription, that the psalm purports to have a royal connection. That the poet speaks of the king in the third person suggests that the psalm may have been used in ritual ceremonies for the benefit of the king, perhaps at the time of his coronation.
“The king shall rejoice in God,” the psalmist insists, as do all who trust God enough to swear by him. Those who had opposed him, here described as “liars,” would be silenced, he said, using an emphatic word that can mean “stopped up.”
Some readers may find the psalm getting away from them here. We’re not kings. We don’t have enemies trying to kill us, but we’ve probably felt like victims of untruths, half-truths, or other attempts to damage our reputations. We’ve had good days and bad days. Whether our troubles are royal or pedestrian, we can recall with the psalmist how God has been present to us in the past, and trust that we do not face our trials alone. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for February 28, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Psalm 63
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Trust is given more freely by some people than by others. As our students are discovering who they are and looking to other people to help them do so, they are looking for people that they can trust. Listen for names and groups of people in your interactions with your students to realize in whom they are putting their trust. Also, the more you are present with your students, the more they will trust you. Trust is not easily gained, but once you have it, make sure you use it to continually point them toward God.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Wise Words of Han” from Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Psalm 63