Withered Joy And The Splendors Of The Sanctuary—Psalm 63 (Part 1)

A hot and dry land—this is something some of us are familiar with, especially if you live in Southern California with its multi-year drought. Thankfully, we still have enough water for our persons, but our lawns and gardens feel the lack. As summer rises and green turns to brown, we are reminded how essential water is for life, and how dryness and drought are such powerful images of danger, discouragement, and despair. The imagery of a desert so well expresses how we feel when we are tired and down, needy, and weak. Our happiness gets parched, our energy dries up, and our joy withers and languishes.

King David knew this well. He felt this physically as he spent time in a desert, but he also experienced a spiritual drought—parched of soul, his spirit shriveled like a raisin. Yet, in his barren land, David finds help as he looks to God in his sanctuary. And he does so in a way that is a wonderful encouragement to us, and also serves as a beautiful depiction of our Savior.

In the book of 1 Samuel, chapters 20–31, we tag along with David as he is on the run from Saul. And when you trace David’s movements on a map, you see that he is hiding out in the region southwest of Hebron. This is the area of Ziph, Engedi, and Carmel, more broadly identified as the wilderness of Judah. If you type these names into Google images, you will see that this is a bone dry, barren land. Being near the southern tip of the Dead Sea, the wilderness of Judah ranges from rocky hills to deep canyons. And drought is the norm.

This is a desert where animals struggle to eke out a living, much less humans. Not only is David running for his life from Saul and his royal police, but also malnutrition and dehydration daily nip at his heels. While Saul is chasing David, David is chasing water. Fasting is a regular habit for David, not for piety but out of necessity. Yet, even with his cotton mouth, David manages to pen another psalm, this sixty-third Psalm. Somewhere between the caves and the scorching sun, David creates another poetic prayer to his God.

There is one more detail to the desert background of this psalm—namely, that David’s time on the run follows a pattern. He is emulating the pattern of Israel. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness before she entered the promised land of rest. Hence, this is David’s wilderness period, his desert trek. And one aspect of the wilderness is that it is a time of testing and temptation. The desert tests your mettle; it proves your obedience and devotion to the Lord. Before David can sit on his throne, his obedience must be assayed. It was particularly in obedience that Saul failed as king. So, will David do better? This psalm expresses David’s commitment to pass the test, as it discloses David in the throes of his crucible.

If David was married to Job’s wife, she would be telling him about now, “Curse God and die.” In a dry and weary land, water is extinct, and everything seems to be going the wrong way. It is like one of those days where everything is fighting you, but David has had three months straight such days. His body is tired; his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth; his lips are cracked.  Yet, it is not the dryness of his body that parches David the most. Rather, his soul, his whole body, thirsts for the Lord. David’s heart is suffering a spiritual drought. His soul has not been graced with the showers of God’s presence for quite some time.

The imagery of verses 1–2 is that he is in a desert, and he is looking towards the sanctuary. David is either looking in the direction of the sanctuary from a distance or he is remembering a time when he did look on God in the sanctuary. Either way, David is not presently in the sanctuary. In the wasteland, David is separated from the holy dwelling of God. And he misses it terribly. David has missed church for months now and is desperately hurting for the means of grace. Remember in the OT, there was none of this modern notion that you can worship God by yourself in any odd place. No, proper worship could only happen at the place where God revealed himself, which was the tabernacle—God’s sanctuary and home. When David stopped in Nob to visit the priest, it was evident that he was a frequent visitor of the sanctuary. But in the arid wilds, David has been banished from the sanctuary. From a distance, David sets his eyes upon God in his sanctuary. He dreams of being in worship again, and he puts his mind’s eye upon God’s abode because such is the place of God’s power and glory. The majesty of the Lord’s holiness and the splendor of the His love resides in the sanctuary.

In short, David lifts up his eyes to where his help comes from. He prays to God in his sanctuary; he aims his petition at the holy abode of the Almighty, for herein lies the Lord’s steadfast love. David zeros in on one particular attribute of God—his loyal love. This is the Lord’s covenantal affection and care for His people. It is God’s sworn promise to never forsake or abandon His people. When you are down and out, discouraged by everything going wrong, this is precisely what you need to be reminded of. You need to hear that even though everything is falling apart, God loves you. And his love is undying.  So, David cozies up to the steadfast love of God, even calling it better than life.

What, though, does it mean when we say something is better than life?  First, it means the object is highly prized and valued, for what could be more valuable than our own lives? But it also communicates that if we had to choose, we would choose the one over the other. David confesses that he would pick the Lord’s love over his life. He is willing to die. David essentially says, “Lord if this desert kills me, it is okay as long as I have you.” This is an OT way to say, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” David affirms that he is not afraid to die, because he has the love of God.  He is confessing that the Lord’s steadfast love is greater than death; that death will not separate him from God’s love. Is this not a faith that we should emulate? While this earthly life is good in so many ways, God’s love is far more precious. We must prize God’s love in Christ above all else; His love is our shield and comfort amid hardship and in the face of death.

And because David knows the surpassing preciousness of God’s steadfast love, he overflows with gratitude. He is moved to praise and bless the Lord. Like when Paul and Silas sang hymns in the Philippian jail, so David raises a song of gratitude in a barren and parched dust bowl. There are some pairings that on first impression do not seem to match, like salt and caramel or avocado and ice cream. Then you try them, and they marry perfectly. Likewise, in the score of a dry wasteland, you might expect silence or a dirge. Happy music does pair with a desolate desert. But David raises joyful praise in the wilderness, and it is lovely. As his wilted soul turns to God’s steadfast love, he is overcome with thanksgiving and blessing.

And yet, if you look closely, the tense of the verbs in verses 4–5 are decidedly promissory and future. While David certainly praises the Lord presently in the desert, ultimately his crosshairs are on the future. He is looking forward with confidence to a time of sweet worship. This is especially clear in verse 5, “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food.” At the moment, David’s soul languishes, thirsty and parched. In the future, he will feast on the best food.  And the terms for food here refer to a sacrificial feast.  This is to bring a peace offering to God and then to eat of this offering in a covenant meal with Him. Presently, David walks in exile away from God’s sanctuary, but he hopes that God will bring him home in the future. Now, he is in the desert; then he will be in the Tabernacle. Now he is hungry; then he will be full. Now he is far from God; then he will be near. Such is the hope, the longing, and the confidence of David that God will bring him through his desert crucible and return him to the joy of Yahweh’s presence.

This is the first stanza of David’s prayer and in our next installment, we will pick up with stanza two. Nevertheless, amid the howling wasteland, David exhibits a robust faith in God’s steadfast love, and he prizes above all the Lord’s near presence as his chief end and true joy. At present, his life may be all cactus stickers and cracked skin, but he knows all will be well as his future lies safe in the hands of God.

Part 2

©Zach Keele. All Rights Reserved.


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