Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Psalm 63

“O God... my soul thirsts for you”

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.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
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.
9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Many scholars believe that David wrote this psalm while reflecting on his wilderness trials, perhaps the time when he escaped the murderous King Saul. First Samuel 20 tells us that David is on the run from Saul. David would survive this threat and become the great king of Israel. But at this point in the story he is far from the throne. It's easy to imagine that fear, hunger, and thirst are his constant companions. He knows what it is like to be far from sustenance and safety.

Psalm 63 is not a history lesson, though. It captures the emotions of a common human experience. The people of God sometimes face difficult times. We may endure a wilderness of sorts, a time of disorientation in our lives. It could be illness or death or the challenge of living with the consequences of poor choices. Real enemies, human or otherwise, may seek to undo us. When we are in that sort of wilderness, we may feel that we have been abandoned by God.

Where is God when I need blessed assurance that my life is in good hands? Where is God during the wilderness journeys of life, the parched and dry land of the soul? Where do I look when I need to reorient my life, my priorities, and my values?

In the West African country of Ghana, many Christians offer evening and morning prayers daily. Specifically, prior to retiring for the evening, the believer offers praise to God and asks for protection during sleep. At night people are at their most vulnerable. Any number of dangers can befall one who sleeps. At daybreak, as believers in Ghana awaken, they begin the day with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for providing security through the night. So the day ends and begins with prayer that seeks the protective presence of God Almighty.

The church has traditionally employed Ps. 63 as a morning prayer. The Hebrew word translated "I seek you" (shachar) can also refer to "daybreak" or "dawn," implying an earnest search for God by the light of the new day. Psalm 63 conveys the same sense of waking, perhaps after a sleepless night given to fret and worry. The morning dawns, and the believer longs for the assurance of God's presence. Looking to the rising sun in the east, the believer reorients (orient, "east") herself each morning by lifting holy hands and praising God.

Prayer for safety while we recline on our beds reminds us of a favorite children's prayer:
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Common understandings of soul—that it is a separate aspect of the human being, and that the soul, the eternal spark within us, goes to God at death, while the material (body) deteriorates—derive from Greek philosophical and Gnostic worldviews. According to these views, the universe is composed of differing levels of spiritual and material realities. The High God at the highest spiritual plane created the lower gods, or demiurges; the lower gods, less spiritual, created the material world, the lowest plane of reality. In this scheme, the spiritual world has higher and lower levels of that which is deemed good; and the material, better and worse levels of evil. The human body is a prison; the soul (spiritual, good) desires nothing less than breaking out of the prison and returning to the source of everything good. Gnostic understandings of the world continue to perpetuate this dualistic view of reality, even in the church. Even in our children's bedtime prayer: "I pray the Lord my soul to keep ... to take."

In contrast, the biblical understanding of soul presumes for the most part that the human being is a psychosomatic unity. Rather than saying, "I have a soul," it might be more accurate to say, "I am a soul" or "I am a mind-soul-body unity." The Hebrew word nephesh can be translated "soul," "life," "person," "gullet," and "appetite." Especially fascinating is the reference to gullet or throat. The human
throat provides passage for basic, life-giving elements—air, food, water. From the throat and through the mouth come words and songs of praise to God. Thinking of the soul as a passageway for sustenance and praise gives a provocative metaphor for the devotional life of the believer.

Words related to speaking, eating, and drinking are replete throughout Ps. 63:
• my soul thirsts for you (v. 1)
• my lips will praise you (v. 3)
• call on your name (v. 4)
• a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips (v. 5)
• prey for jackals (v. 10)
• the mouths of liars (v. 11)

If, as some students of the Bible maintain, the wings (v. 7) suggest a mother bird's protection of her babies as a metaphorical frame of reference for the psalm, the open mouths of fledgling birds provide a stunning visual parable. Like the baby birds, mouths open wide, necks craning for the mother's provision, so too we yearn, hunger, long for the sustaining presence of God. As the babies chirp in anticipation and learn to sing in grateful acknowledgment of their mother's certain care, so our lips drink in blessing and sing forth grateful praises to God. The liars in the psalm, like baby birds who do not open their mouths to be fed, will have their lips sealed as they go down to destruction.
Baby birds need more than just a bit of help to survive. Newborn birds are extremely helpless. They need to be protected, fed, and kept warm. "My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me" (v. 8). "Clinging" expresses great intimacy, such as in Gen. 2:24 ("... a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh") and Ruth 1:14 (Ruth clings to Naomi). The psalmist recognizes that personal survival depends on clinging to the parentlike nurture of God. This dependency does not embarrass but leads us to sing with joy.

The Bible is full of images feasting. The table is a place of singular intimacy between God and God's people—from the strange visitors to Abraham and Sarah's tent at the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18) and the consoling word that the Lord sets a table in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23) to the tables of sinners where Jesus sat and the meal that would become a sacrament for us. In Scripture, table fellowship often accompanies the sealing of covenant and conveys the spirit of hospitality, safety, reconciliation, and celebration. In Egypt, during the first Passover meal, God spared the Hebrew firstborn while a plague killed Egypt's firstborn (Ex. 12). Later after Moses received Torah, on Mount Sinai, God sealed the covenant with a feast (Ex. 24).

Isaiah 55 expands the table intimacy of the personal relationship with God to include the community of Israel and the entire world. Written during the Babylonian exile, another wilderness sojourn for Israel, Isaiah's vision proclaims that the One who feeds, protects, and sustains us extends an invitation to all peoples and all lands. All who thirst for God are welcome and are promised a seat at the feasting table.
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters; and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
(Isa. 55:l~2b).

Jesus saw the table as the setting for our promised future home with God. From the supper in the upper room to the table along the Emmaus road, disciples of Jesus Christ are assured that the same God who sustains us in the unfolding years of this life is the very same God who promises eternity to us. Regardless of where we are, God will be found, seeking us, feeding us, comforting us, and leading us to greater faithfulness.

Can you describe a time when you were not certain God was present?
What does God's steadfast love mean to you? Can you describe a time when you knew that love?
How would you respond to someone who is not sure that they matter to God?

You, O Lord, are God.
You made us and we are yours:
We are your people and the sheep of your pasture.
We enter your gates with thanksgiving
and your courts with praise.
We thank you and bless your name.
For you, O Lord, are good;
your steadfast love endures forever,
and your faithfulness to all generations.
—based on Psalm 100:3-5

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

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