John Donne says of this psalm that it is one of the imperial psalms—suitable for every occasion, and one with universal applications. Christians can resort to it under all kinds of circumstances, and according to Chrysostom, a portion of the ancient church would not let a day pass without singing it. All the various challenges of modern life have made even more suitable for regular use.
“O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is . . .” (Psalm 63:1-11).
Summary of the Text
The heading says that David wrote this while in the wilderness of Judah. He appears to have been king (v. 11), but in some danger, which would likely place this turning his brief exile during the revolt by his son Absalom. As such, it is a prayer of dedication and faith, with the object of that faith not yet realized. He will seek God early because of an intense desire to do so (v. 1). What he yearns for is to see God’s power and glory as he has previously seen it in the sanctuary (v. 2). He states that God’s loving-kindness is better than life (v. 3), and as a result David will worship the Lord, lifting up his hands (v. 4). He praises God in faith now, but will praise Him from a position of satisfaction later (v. 5). He will remember the Lord during the night watches, while he lies upon his bed (v. 6), remembering all the ways God has helped him (v. 7). David “follows hard” after the Lord, and the Lord helps him (v. 8). Those who seek David’s life will descend to Sheol (v. 9), falling by the sword (v. 10), only to be consumed by jackals (v. 10). But the king will rejoice and his followers will glory. Those who oppose him will have their mouths stopped (v. 11).
David exalts the loving-kindness of God, exalting it highly. Having placed it on the throne, saying that it is better than life itself, he then appoints seven retainers for that court, seven faculties of his body and mind. These are his lips (v. 3), his tongue (v. 4), his hands (v. 4), his will (v. 5), his mouth (v. 5), his memory (v. 6), and his mind (v. 6). The greatest commandment is to love God with all that you are and have and this is a good example of someone doing just that. David says that God’s loving-kindness is better than his life, and by way of showing this, he throws all the faculties of his life into praising God’s loving-kindness.
Marrow and Fatness
The Christian life is not a lo-fat business (v. 5). Godliness is clotted cream, not skim. Isaiah speaks of the new covenant era this way: “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined” (Is. 25:6). If you lived in a society which thought milk was a poison and honey was toxic—and you very nearly do—then you would be living in a society at odds with God’s descriptions in Scripture
of how He made the world. The promised land, famously, was flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 6:3). When Isaac blessed Jacob (unwittingly), he blessed him with fatness of the earth, and with plenty of
corn and wine (Gen. 27:28). Do not let those in high rebellion against the blessing of God become the arbiters and definers of what blessing is. The Christian life is a potato with melted butter all over it. The soul of the diligent is made fat (Prov. 13:4).
God in the Sanctuary
David is parched in the wilderness, and he wants to pursue God in order to see His power and glory, the way he has seen it before in the sanctuary. The ordinances of God are precious to Him, and ought to be precious to us. Remember that David was out in the wilderness, which meant that he could go out and look at a spectacular array of stars in the sky—but he wanted to see God’s power and glory in the sanctuary. It is better to be in the wilderness with God than to be in the sanctuary without Him, obviously. And the ordinances and sacraments of God without Him present for blessing are nothing but dry breasts and barren wombs. While we can rejoice in natural revelation (Ps. 19), and we can rejoice in private devotions in the houses of Judah (Ps. 87:2), the worship of God in the gates of Zion is greatly to be preferred.
Following Hard After Him
David says here that God is not always easy to find, and so he pursues hard after Him. There are two ways in which a chasm exists between God and ourselves, and true evangelical faith (given by grace) bridges it both ways. The first is the ethical divide, created by our sins, and by the fact that we live in a fallen world. We must seek God diligently, aware that moral traps are set for us on every side. We sin, when we sin, downhill. Isaiah is undone when he sees the Lord “high and lifted up,” but he is undone because of how aware of his sinfulness he has become. His lament should remind us of our spiritual leprosy (Is. 6:5; Lev. 13:45). We put a cover on our lip, and we cry “unclean.” But God cleanses with a coal from the altar.
But there is another aspect to it—which is the infinite gulf between the Creator and the created. This is not a transcendence that severs us from Him, for in Him we live and move and have our being. God does not have to overcome His “transcendence” in order to be near to us. But the Bible teaches us that we have to overcome it to be near to Him—this is another way of “following hard after Him.” God dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen (1 Tim. 6:16). We are to praise His great and terrible name, for it is holy (Ps. 99:3). The voice of the Lord is full of majesty (Ps. 29:4). He sits on the circle of the earth, and we are invited to view ourselves as little grasshoppers of the field (Is. 40:22). The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38:1). But in another gospel irony, we overcome this chasm by embracing it—again, by faith.