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March 3, 2013
Psalm 63:1-8

This short psalm, with its mixture of metaphors embracing thirst, joy, and rich feasts is a suitable companion text to Isaiah 55. The psalm contains many memorable statements of faith. It conveys a great sense of confidence and trust. However, one senses that difficulties giving rise to petitions for help are not far below the surface. The lectionary writers inadvertently hide that reality by designating only vv. 1-8 for reading. That is understandable as those initial verses are quite comfortable. However, we cannot utter them without some awareness of the thoughts in vv. 9-11 which are less appealing.

Features in the Hebrew text, including repetition of certain letters or words suggest the following structure to the psalm: vv. 1-5, the search for the satisfaction God gives; vv. 6-8, thoughts on God’s help; vv. 9-10, the outlook for those who seek the psalmist’s life; and v. 11, joy when liars’ mouths are stopped.

The psalmist expresses a strong longing for God at the start of the psalm. This picks up on the theme in Ps 62:1 of waiting in silence for God, a similar theme to that in Psalm 27 which was read last week (Lent 2). In today’s psalm the longing for God is likened to that of the body for water in a parched land. The psalmist’s whole being ‘thirsts’ for God. Besides thirsting, the psalmist ‘seeks’ (v. 1a) God, a verb that has an intensity about it (cf. Ps 78:34), and in some cases a sense of doing something early.
It is not uncommon to hear about looking upon God in the sanctuary (v. 2) following an expression of thirst. Expressions of thirst and hunger in relation to the quest for God are part of the language of the temple in the Old Testament (cf. Ps. 42:1-4). However, it is unclear in today’s psalm whether the looking upon God in the sanctuary is something from the past (as implied in the NRSV), or possibly an as yet unfulfilled longing. The Hebrew could be translated as either ‘I have looked for you in the sanctuary to see your power and glory’ or as a prayer, ‘O, that I might look upon you…’). The latter indicates a present need behind v. 1. Maybe such ambiguity in the psalm suggests that this longing and seeking for God is something that continues beyond any fulfilment of the prayer.

The statement in v. 3a, that God’s steadfast love is better than life, does not imply that the psalmist puts little value in their own life. What they speak of here is the relation between God’s steadfast love and their own life. The former preserves the latter, especially in difficulties, but this psalm stresses that even while the psalmist waits for deliverance God’s steadfast love sustains them (v. 8). The psalmist’s praise springs from this deep knowledge.

The opening section of the psalm concludes with a quite new image but one which conveys the ‘richness’ of God’s steadfast love. The psalmist likened longing for God to great thirst in v. 1, but now speaks of their satisfaction with God in terms of being  satisfied with ‘fat’ or the richest of food. This leads to praise with joyful lips. God is satisfaction for the psalmist at the deepest level, a thought they can only express through words of bodily satisfaction (cf. Gen 45:18; Lev 7:25; Ps 36:7-9).

Verses 6-8 continue the main sentiment of the psalm but the language is different again. The psalmist takes up an image used early in the Book of Psalms, their thoughts in bed. While in Ps 6:6 the psalmist spoke of flooding their bed with tears of distress, now their bedtime thoughts and meditations are of God and God’s help. Private contemplation is envisaged leading to an expression of trust and divine help. In vv. 7-8 the mutuality of commitment is the key to the experience of God’s help, and it is commitment within a relationship that allows no substitute.

The psalm shifts tack sharply in v. 9. From thoughts of God on their bed, the psalmist considers those who seek to destroy their life. This is the section omitted from today’s reading. The psalmist, however, reminds readers/hearers that the assurance of God’s protection and help, the understanding of steadfast love as greater than life itself, is only gained in the midst of dangerous times, when life is threatened. As others seek the psalmist’s life, so their own seeking of God is strengthened, but not in any simple, self-centred way, for what the psalmist seeks is not just their own survival. What lies at the end of their longing is the praise of God. That reverberates through the psalm as the psalmist’s final goal (vv. 3b-4, 5b, 11a-b and v. 7b).

In contrast to the fate of those who seek the psalmist’s life, the prayer of the psalm is for the king to rejoice in God, and for those who swear ‘by him’ to exalt. The king is the one who models joy for all.

Suggestions for use of the psalm in worship

Verses 3-4 can be adapted for a call to worship:

Because your steadfast love, O Lord, is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So bless the Lord as long as you live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
Verse 1 would also make a suitable refrain during the prayer of confession:
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.
Finally, vv. 5-8 could be adapted for use in the blessing at the end of the service. This would be particularly appropriate if communion has been part of the service.
You have been satisfied as with a rich feast,
now let your mouth praise the Lord with joyful lips
when you think of God on your bed,
and meditate on God in the watches of the night;
for God is your help,
and in the shadow of God’s wings, sing for joy.
Clings to the Lord;
for the Lord’s right hand upholds you.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
is with you now and forever.
In fact, v. 5 could serve as an invitation to partake of communion:
Come, be satisfied as with a rich feast,
and let your mouth praise God with joyful lips.
Old Testament reading: Isaiah 55:1-9

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