Commentary on Psalm 63:1-8
The psalm opens with longing.
By longing, I do not mean what this consumer-driven culture tells us that we want. I mean real longing. When is the last time you longed for something or someone? Maybe it was a partner far away by necessity or a child across the country in school or a long-deceased parent. This type of longing is born out of a relationship of love and support. A relationship full of memories and moments shared. This psalm invites us into that same longing for our God. Its first words are personal, “O God, you are my God.” Lent reminds us of the personal and intimate connection we share with Christ. We are called to remember our longing for communion with God.
This one “thirsts” and “faints” to be with God and equates this feeling to a cry parched land seeking life-giving water. The opening verse reminds us that we are to be an active participant in our relationship with God. This is not simply an intellectual pursuit; it is a deep abiding spiritual need. Our need for communion with God is compared here with our absolute need for life-sustaining water. Our bodies are 60 percent water and so our chances of survival without it diminishes significantly after three days. This prayer notes that our spiritual survival will not be long without being fed by our relationship with God. God’s presence is as life-sustaining as water and food.
Verse 2 is one of remembrance of God. Longing activates those memories and this prayer draws us to remember God’s power/strength/might and God’s honor, or in the Hebrew God’s “heaviness.” We are invited to imagine the greatness of God and the weightiness of God’s purposes. God’s decisions on our behalf to save us through great sacrifice may be the “heaviest” of all of God’s acts. It reminds us that this sacrifice was not entered into lightly and that God’s heart is heavy and laden with pain. God has the greatest power in the world, but instead of a world where we serve God, God chooses a life of service and salvation for the world. The memories are ones of power and importance given in service to us and there is nothing to do in the face of this but wonder and express grateful awe.
The prayer continues this theme praising God’s great love or hesed is said to be “better than life.” Hesed is the definition of this decision of God’s to serve and love. It is the “heaviest” of God’s attributes because God’s unconditional love of us costs God a great deal. The prayer reminds us that it is better than life because it transcends life. It was there at the beginning when God’s love proved stronger than God’s anger in the Garden, and it continued to the Cross and beyond. It is what will welcome us home into the arms of God at our earthy death.
God’s ways are a reason to praise and bless God’s name (vv. 2-3). We could spend our lives trying to contemplate such love, but the magnitude of it is beyond our understanding. We can do nothing but offer praise and wonder at the depth of God’s mercy. And this is what the next verses do. Praise is not an end unto itself; praise brings us back to the contemplation of what God has done. These final verses move from the contemplation of God’s great acts for all back to where the psalm began, with God’s personal involvement with the one. Meditation on God brings memories of God’s help in times past. God has been this one’s “help” (v. 6), “wings” (v. 7) that protect, and the one to whom this one “clings” (v. 8). The intimacy at the beginning is seen here in the last verses of the reading. This is a psalm that praises God’s faithfulness and love through the generations but the intimacy reminds us that God’s acts are not only communal, but also very personal.
The psalm integrates well with the Isaiah text. It could be seen as the response to the cry of the prophet that invites those in need to come to God for rest and refreshment. If Isaiah is the call to believe in the promises of God, then the psalm is the answer from the one who trusts God to provide. It also speaks of the relationship Jesus is referring to in the Luke text. Faith is not about avoiding the judgment of God; it is about a relationship where one repents of their selfish inclinations and enters into a lasting relationship with God. Indeed, the parable of the fig tree returns us to the beginning of the psalm. Without tending, the relationship withers and the result is alienation and spiritual death. God tends to one side; it remains our responsibility to tend actively to our part of that relationship. What better time than the season of Lent to remember again and again God’s power and heaviness that is given freely for us.