You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.
I always think that this sounds like quite a ‘nice’ Psalm. It conjures up images of a hot summer’s day and cool refreshing drinks. It all sounds very pleasant and chilled out – sitting on a deckchair or a lounger, enjoying the sunshine, your thirst quenched by a cold drink of whatever you fancied. In reality though the Psalm is anything but gentle. The title of the Psalm says David was in the desert of Judah. And the desert – in reality more of a wilderness – can be barren and brutal with no escape from the relentless heat of the sun.
Like the desperate all-dominating thirst of the traveller stranded in a waterless wilderness such is David’s craving for the living God. Knowing God isn’t ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant’: it’s a matter of life and death. The great French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about the void which we try in vain to fill with everything around us, realising ‘though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.’ Life doesn’t make sense without knowing the one who created us for himself.
David’s present longing is made more poignant because of his previous experience of beholding God’s power and glory in the sanctuary (v. 2). David doesn’t dwell on or live in that past but his reflections lead him to think about the future – and he declares that the loving kindness of God that he has witnessed is better than life (v. 3).
The English word translated ‘love’ or ‘loving kindness’ is the Hebrew word ‘ḥesed’ and it is one of the most important words in the Old Testament. John Goldingay writes that ḥesed refers to ‘an extraordinary act of generosity, allegiance or grace whereby someone pledges him or herself to someone else when there is no prior relationship between them and therefore no reason why the person should do so… It can also refer to a similar extraordinary act that takes place when there is a relationship between people but one party has let the other party down and therefore has no right to expect any faithfulness from the other’ (Psalms for Everyone, Psalms 1-72, p. 228).
Because of God’s ‘ḥesed’ David says he will glorify God as long as he lives (vv. 3, 4). Having witnessed God’s committed loyal love David made the decision to praise God – even in the wilderness. If we are to seek a historical context for the Psalm it would be after David had become king (v. 11) and after he had seen the Ark of Covenant (v. 2) and when he had to flee from his rebellious son, Absalom (2 Samuel 15-19). Some of us have had troublesome or rebellious children but they didn’t go that far! It’s difficult to imagine David’s pain, not just as a king with the danger of losing his crown but as a parent with his own flesh and blood having turned against him.
We have seen God’s ‘ḥesed’ fully revealed to us in Jesus. We might also go through wilderness experiences such as David’s, what St John of the Cross described as ‘the dark night of the soul’, but because we have witnessed God’s power and glory embodied in Christ we can still make the choice to praise God.
In vv. 6–8 David returns to his present because that is where the future begins and these verses and those that end the Psalm (vv. 9–11) remind us of David’s particular circumstances. He is being hunted down (v. 9), which is why he so desperately seeks God’s protection. David’s time in the wilderness was a time of danger and insecurity: during that time David needed to remember what he had witnessed of God’s ḥesed, his faithful love, and that remembrance became the basis of future hope (v. 11).
The Psalms are our tutors in prayer. We are unlikely to find ourselves in circumstances like David’s but there are times when we can feel under attack, when circumstances and people appear to be against us. David invites us to focus on the God of faithful love and, in remembering who he is and what he has done in the past, to be filled with hope for the future.