Thirsting for God

The first eight verses of Psalm 63 shake me every time I read them. The heading from the Hebrew text says, “A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.” At this time in his life, David had defeated the giant. He had been anointed the future king of Israel by Samuel. He had been King Saul’s harp player and become the crown prince’s closest companion. But now he was fleeing for his life. The king himself, whom David had served so loyally, had nothing but murder on his mind for David.

What sorts of thoughts occupy the mind of a young Hebrew warrior displaced, persecuted and hunted like an animal through the desert? If you’re David, the answer is a visceral hunger for a tangible taste of God’s presence. He prays, O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you…as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

He is not crying out for answers (“Why is this happening to me?!”) or for vengeance. What he cries for is more and more of God. My flesh faints for you, (NRSV) he says, or my whole being longs for you (NIV).

Let me note at the outset that I think this passage illuminates the Shema. The Shema, found at Deuteronomy 6:4-5 states:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (NRSV).

Jesus calls this passage the greatest commandment (Matthew 2:34-38).

What does it mean to love the Lord?

I grew up hearing that love was synonymous with obedience—that the two words were interchangeable in the Bible. But that’s not quite right. While most of my spiritual teachers were extremely wary of emotionalism in religion, I have come to believe that the emotional God of the Bible craves not just obedience but actual affection. In fact, I think these words from Psalm 63 capture what it’s like to fully achieve what God envisioned in the Shema.

Recall that David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Perhaps the reason God called him this was because David had developed this longing for God—a desire that borders on the erotic. His “soul thirsts” for God; his “flesh faints” for God; his “soul clings” to God, his “whole being longs for” his Lord. You might say he loved the Lord with all his heart, his soul, and his might.

I can’t usually get away with talking about my body yearning for someone, unless it’s my wife. I think even my best guy friends might be a little weirded out if I told them my soul was thirsting for them when they weren’t around. But here is an ancient warrior chieftain using such terms to describe his attraction to his warrior God.

The Creator of the Universe likes being craved. He designed us to want him. Men and women alike should not be afraid to let themselves love the Father, Son, and Spirit with reckless abandon.

Notice also that Psalm 63 reveals that David has this longing for God because he’s experienced God personally and powerfully.

How did David get so passionate? It seems God appeared to him in a vision while he was worshipping. The Psalm continues, I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. And in the midst of this power and glory, David felt the force of God’s overpowering love.

I wonder whether this passionate longing for God seems rare today because people are not experiencing God in worship as David did. And I wonder whether people are not experiencing God because they don’t expect to. And perhaps because many post-Enlightenment churches have structured their religious practices in ways that make divine encounters unlikely.

God wasn’t something abstract for David. He had experienced God’s presence and couldn’t get over it. Once that’s happened to you, you want so much for it to happen again. The touch of God changes you. It creates the thirst, the yearning, the aching for his presence that we saw in verse 1.

3 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.

When you touch God, you feel earth shattering love. It takes you captive. Then all you can do is reach toward him and praise his name forever.

David continues. He says, I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night. David’s recollection of his divine encounter leaves his soul “satisfied as with a rich feast.” His mouth will praise his Lord “with joyful lips:”

7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

There is such a thing as a personal relationship with Jesus and a personal relationship with God. Psalm 63 is Exhibit A. I pray that the Lord will cultivate within you a soul that clings to him. May he make you thirsty—not just for doctrinal knowledge or for getting everything right. But for him.

Frankly, the image in verse 8 (of clinging to God and being upheld by him) makes me think of a nursing infant and its mother. Or maybe you’d prefer to envision a baby kitten, desperately sinking its tiny claws into your shirt. You feel sorry for the kitten because it looks so helpless and afraid, clinging to you and mewing in desperation. So you gently place your hand under its rump and hold it secure. That’s how David felt about his relationship with God while lying in his mat in the wilderness. May the same be true of you.

I encourage you to open your Bible and read these eight verses as your prayer. May David’s words become your words. May you see God. May he reveal his power and glory. And may it leave you forever changed.

Bren Hughes
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Comments 2
  1. “… perhaps because many post-Enlightenment churches have structured their religious practices in ways that make divine encounters unlikely.”

    Church religious practice is the tool, but not the reason for experiencing or not experiencing God. I do not believe David encountered God in the synagogue and I think divine encounter is a private matter (be it in a private setting or a public setting).

    If David had his fields where he shepherded his sheep, then we need to find our place and time for divine encounter in our own lives. Maybe during worship time at our church or maybe while doing our daily commute or maybe in the shower singing “set a fire” at the top of our lungs.

    It is between God and us.

    1. Thank you for your comment. My commentary turned to churches because of the psalmist’s statement, “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.” The reference to the “sanctuary” actually strikes me as unexpected.

      When people meet God in the Bible, it often happens outdoors (I’m thinking Hagar, Jacob, Moses, Gideon), which is where we usually see David until the death of Saul.

      I also had my first personal experiences of God (around age 11) in nature, and never really felt God’s presence in a brick-and-mortar church building until my 30s. Perhaps that’s why David’s report in Psalm 63:2 fascinated me — I might expect him to sing about seeing YHWH in a starlit field, but David’s memory instead flashes to an encounter in the holy tent. I harbor this pastoral vision of David strumming his harp while watching over the sheep, so imagining him surrounded by the candles and incense near the Ark made an impression on me (precisely because it’s counter-intuitive).

      Although for most of my life God’s palpable presence seemed absent from church assemblies, I continue to believe that worship assemblies SHOULD be places where one senses the “power” and the “glory.”

      Thank you for reminding us that divine encounters happen everywhere. Mine were private for most of my life (I’m a shy loner by nature). But now my most powerful experiences happen when I’m doing something less comfortable — like worshipping him with abandon in the assembly or making myself vulnerable with a person in pain.

      Perhaps I would be remiss to not also note that as Spirit-filled new covenant people, we ourselves are now the “sanctuary” of God, corporately (I Cor. 3:16) and as individuals (I Cor 6:19). He is as close as our own heartbeat. May he show me more of that power and glory.

      Keep on singing in that shower. And God bless you.

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