This psalm was probably composed on the second occasion on which we know that David was “in the wilderness of Judah” (see superscript). That would be when he was fleeing from the daggers of Absalom and his henchmen (see 2 Samuel 17).
The first night out was one of great anticipation of God’s deliverance, and all was in place for David to soon return. In fact, it may very well have been on that night when he composed Psalm 3. But the second night out was a different story. Things looked humanly pretty desolate. This is why it is all the more remarkable that David wrote this psalm.
As you read, it you would hardly know that David was fleeing for his life. It reads more like a love poem than a song of lament.
When C. S. Lewis commented on this psalm, and others like it, he made the following observation: “There … I find an experience fully God-centred, asking of God no gift but of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.”1 He goes on and says that this psalm, and others like it, expresses an appetite for God, that is, “it has all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a physical, desire.”2
Though he understood that these longings were rooted in great love for God, he chose this word “appetite” because of the danger of a sentimental baggage concerning the word “love.”
Without getting into that debate, I appreciate this descriptive phrase. It is clear, in psalms such as the one before us, that David hungered and thirsted after God. He had a very real, powerful and life-motivating appetite for God.
I think that this idea of appetite for God is a dominant theme in Psalm 63, yet perhaps there is one that is even more dominant: facing life knowing that you are in the grip of God.
As David faced a difficult time, he did so with great confidence because he knew that the Lord was “upholding” him (v. 8). David was glued to God because God was gripping him. As Motyer says, “The whole thrust of this psalm is just to recall all that is known about the Lord, to keep him in mind, to covet and enjoy his presence, to affirm and reaffirm the truth, and to rejoice in God.”3 He knew he was in God’s grip.
As we study this psalm, we will do so keeping the theme of God’s grip quite central. We should consider what it means to be in God’s grip, how to enjoy being in His grip, as well as the practical implications of being in His group.
It should be noted that this psalm is outlined various ways by commentators. I found it difficult to do so. I think the reason is that this psalm, as with so many others, was written with deeply felt emotion. Love songs don’t often follow a neatly ordered pattern.
In the outline that follows, I have sought to capture the overriding theme. May it lead us to glue ourselves to God as we feel His gracious grip on us.
Let’s put to the test our claim to be glued to God and therefore in His grip. We will do so by asking several pertinent questions that we must answer from this text.
Is God your Hero?
David begins quite simply: “O God, You are my God” (v. 1a). The question before us is simple: Whom or what do your Revere? To whom do you run?
If you will know the experience of being in the grip of God, you must be able to identify with the opening, passionately relational address, “O God, You are my God.”
“O God,” of course, was not a disrespectful address but rather a passionate acknowledgement of the great God in whom David was trusting. This is seen further when he says, “My God.” Note a couple of important observations.
First, in the original this means, “strong, mighty God,” “the strong among the mighty,” or “mighty hero.” David was impressed with God. He was his hero. And who your hero is can make all of the difference how you respond to trials.
Second, David viewed God in intimately relational terms. He said “my God.” Only those glued to God can speak genuinely in this way. Derek Kidner notes, “The longing of these verses is not the groping of a stranger, feeling his way towards God, but the eagerness of a friend, almost of a lover, to be in touch with the one he holds dear. The simplicity and boldness of ‘thou art my God’ is the secret of all that follows.”4
Before moving on, let me simply ask, is God your hero? Is He the one to whom you run? I want to be careful here, but there is a danger in a church like ours that people can run to each other while, in fact, not running to God. Churches will fail you, and you will fail churches, but God will not.
Finally, be sure, when you say, “O God,” that this is followed with, “My God.” Otherwise you are in danger of taking God’s name in vain.
Is God Your Greatest Hunger?
We see in vv. 1b–4 that God was David’s supreme hunger:
Early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. So I have looked for You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory. Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You. Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name.
If the opening words express the true focus of your heart then what follows is to be expected. That is, you will hunger for your Hero. Note the words: “Early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.”
I think that Alec Motyer is correct when he observes, with reference to these words, that David “wants us to make sure that our spiritual needs (and their satisfaction in God) are every bit as real to us as whatever physical or circumstantial need we may have at any given moment.”5
A Morning Psalm
This psalm has been known throughout history as the Morning Psalm, based on the opening words. These words, however, in most modern translations read, “Earnestly I seek you” (see ESV, etc.) The Hebrew words mean “to break forth,” and therefore were often translated as “dawn” or “morning.” But both ideas of “early” and “earnest” are valid. For if we earnestly hunger for the Lord, then we will go after Him early. Boice notes, “The point is the desirability of regular, early, daily longing after God.”6
David says that he “thirsts” for God and that his “flesh longs” for Him. He likens this to being “in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” “There is no thirst and sense of fatigue like that of a person who walks around in the desert.”7 This is a graphic picture of the great thirst and hunger that David had for God.
As he experienced this literally, he confessed that his greatest thirst was for God. “It is the ‘water of life’ for which he thirsts; the spiritual refreshment with which God revives the fainting soul.”8 He hungered for that which alone could satisfy: God Himself. It is for this reason that he developed the habit of going after God early and earnestly.
We can learn from this that our prioritising of our relationship with God will affect our resolve. To once again quote Motyer, “David greeted the troubled and troublesome day with an affirmation of faith in his great and sovereign God with a determination that his spiritual needs should be his paramount objectives—a recipe for us for troubled days.”5 This brings us to the next observation.
Habits of the Heart
Note that David’s hunger determined his habits: He was in the habit of frequenting the temple to clear up and to grow in His vision of God. He writes, “So I have looked for You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory.”
The word “looked” speaks of “beholding intently,” and the word “see” was used predominantly of a prophetic vision. The point is that David, long before he was in this predicament, was in the habit of going to the sanctuary to behold the beauty of the Lord. The tense of “have” is to be understood of David having done so in the past. The past nourished and undergirded the present. This was his habit. David’s theology was shaped before he faced these difficult circumstances. But all too often we allow our theology to be shaped by our circumstances.
David remembered what he had learned and was now applying it.
“Power” speaks of splendour, majesty and glory. David saw that God was “heavy,” that is, weighty. God’s weight was far more significant to David than the heavy burdens he was carrying.
To properly bring God’s weight to bear on our burdens requires that we know God. So get into the sanctuary and see the Lord as you get into the habit of getting into the Scriptures. That’s heavy, man!
Happiness and a Hymn
It would seem that David’s habits of the heart gave direction to what came out of his mouth. This should not surprise us, for Jesus taught that it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). We see this in v. 3. Because David remembered God’s gracious redemption he was constrained to rejoice: “Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You.”
With reference to v. 3, Leupold writes, “Though life is commonly regarded as being almost our chief treasure it is far surpassed by the realization of how great God’s faithfulness in His dealings with His children actually is.”10 And Kirkpatrick helpfully adds, “His life was threatened, but the danger fades out of sight in the consciousness of God’s love.”11
David’s habit of gazing upon the Lord reminded him time and again of God’s covenant love. The gospel moved him to praise God.
Note another result of David’s “remembrance,” this time in v. 4: “Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name.”
The reference to “name” means all that God has revealed concerning His character. The word “bless” literally means “to bow the knee,” and it does so in honour of one who is greater. We see here David’s humility before the Lord. This is particularly noteworthy as we recall the situation in which he found himself.
But there is another indication here of David’s humility, this time in the expression, “I will lift up my hands in Your name.”
The word “hands” is literally “palms.” The picture is that of surrender. We can conclude that, as David faced this conflict, his hunger for God was such that we do not see him irreverently asking God “why.” Instead, he has extended his upturned palms in surrender. His was the attitude of Jesus: Not my will, but yours be done.
How sad it is that so many who claim to the love the Lord all too often display bitterness towards Him. I would ask, where are the palms? Stop with the fists. Rather, open the hands and extend them in humble, hopeful and holy submission to the Lord.
I think that it was C. S. Lewis who once said that those who resist God will one day be cast into hell and will hear God say, “Fine, your will be done!”
Does God Make You Happy?
In vv. 5–6 it is clear that God was the source of David’s full satisfaction, as He should be of ours. He expresses his happiness in the Lord when he writes, “My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.”
David expresses that, for his “soul,” the most excellent part was to be with and to trust God. This happiness was fed by his deliberate efforts to think about God. He mused on God, and this was like “marrow” to his soul.
The “night watches” were times that could have fuelled anxiety. After all, the enemy might be lurking nearby. Yet David used them to build his faith. As Leupold notes, “Whenever the thought of it all, particularly of God Himself, comes to him by night, the very watches of the night shall pass in pleasant reflection upon this happy theme.”12 The best part of his day was to be alone with his thoughts and with God.
James Boice says it so well:
The one who has found God able to satisfy his longings in the past can know that he will continue to satisfy him completely in the present and in the future too…. In view of such great love, isn’t it strange that we spend so much time trying to find satisfaction elsewhere, even in earthly loves, and so little time seeking and enjoying the lasting love of God?13
What is Your Hope?
Verses 7–11 confront us with the question, what is our hope?
Because You have been my help, therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice. My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me. But those who seek my life, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword; they shall be a portion for jackals. But the king shall rejoice in God; everyone who swears by Him shall glory; but the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped.
It might appear strange for David here to seemingly become negative as he speaks of those who slander him and their ultimate judgement. But he is not. He is simply being realistic. As Boice points out, it is natural for him to include these words as he closes the psalm, for
they simply bring us back to where we started, in the desert with David, and they remind us that this is a real world after all and that, if we are to be genuinely satisfied with God’s love, it must not be in some never-never land but right here in the midst of this world’s disappointments, frustrations, and dangers.14
Nevertheless, these verses overflow with hope. David was not living in a dream world. He was undergoing great personal pain. His own son had turned on him. His trusted friends and spiritual advisors had turned on him. No doubt, his conscience was bothering him. After all, he no doubt understood that this was, in part, a fulfilment of God’s pronounced judgement for his sin (2 Samuel 12). Yet he was experiencing an amazing peace. How is this?
He Recollects God’s Past Mercies
Verse 7 says, “Because You have been my help, therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.” In other words, God had been his defence in the past; God had rescued him before. He had no reason to doubt God’s loving care at this point.
He Rejoices in God’s Faithfulness
He continues: “But those who seek my life, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword; they shall be a portion for jackals. But the king shall rejoice in God; everyone who swears by Him shall glory; but the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped.”
David was on the run in 2 Samuel 17, but his hope was established in 2 Samuel 7. God’s covenant gave him every reason to rejoice (even if only silently; after all, shouting when the enemy lurks might not be too wise!). And so he did so.
These words may sound severe, especially when you consider that one of David’s enemies was his own son. Yet David realised that, because of his unique covenantal position, the enemies of his kingdom were ultimately enemies of the Lord. Thus this observation is correct: “The Divine Warrior will triumphantly subdue the enemies…. They had planned to destroy the righteous, but the Lord will bring them down, down, down to the lowest parts of the earth…. The psalmist expresses his hope in the final triumph of divine justice.”15
Yet this is precisely why we can read this psalm and be as hopeful, if not even more so, as David. For as Kidner notes, “If David’s faith in his kingly calling was well-founded, still more is the Christian’s.”16
It is precisely because of the Davidic covenant that we can have hope in the midst of our many challenges. Jesus Christ, God’s greater David, has fulfilled all righteousness. He has established His kingdom. He is ruling it and reigning over it. He is working His plan. Absalom’s opposition matters little; the kings (Revelation 1:5) can rejoice!
But this brings us to the concluding matter.
He Rests in God’s Grace
Note these thematic words in v. 8: “My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me.”
“Follows close” means to cleave or to adhere firmly as if with glue. “Uphold” means to take hold and support, to sustain, like the time when Aaron and Hur supported Moses’ arms on the mountain while the Israelite army was at battle in the plain (see Exodus 17:12).
David had been glued to God, and he was glued now. But he understood that, even though all the forces of hell may try to unstick him, nevertheless the Lord would keep him in His grip. In other words, David appreciated the reality that he was living day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment in the grip of God’s grace.
The take away for us is that all that has been said in this psalm about our relationship with the Lord is the result of God’s grace. And grace experienced creates a stewardship. We are responsible to be faithful stewards of this grace. We have a responsibility.
We need to be good stewards of our happiness. As VanGemeren comments, “The Lord has promised to be close to his own, but he also expects his children to draw close to him.”17
Jesus urged, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Ask, seek and knock. Those who seek the Lord will be found by Him. Use the available means of grace in order that you might find yourself experientially embraced in the grip of God’s amazing grace.
I mentioned earlier that this was often called a Morning Psalm—and for good reason. Listen to what Chrysostom said:
The Fathers of the Church appointed it to be said every morning, as a spiritual song and a medicine to blot out our sins; to kindle in us a desire for God; to raise our souls, and inflame them with a mighty fire of devotion; to make us overflow with goodness and love, and send us with such preparation to approach and appear before God.18
Our Hero determines our hunger, which determines our happiness, which yields our hope, which drives us back to v. 1.
Have you been graced to be glued and to be gripped? Why not now?
- C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Glasgow: Collins, 1985), 48. ↩
- Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 47–48. ↩
- Motyer, Treasures of the King: Psalms from the Life of David (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2007), ??. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press), 1973, 224. ↩
- Motyer, Treasures of the King, ??. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 518. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:425. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Psalms (Cambridge: The University Press, n.d.), 354. ↩
- Motyer, Treasures of the King, ??. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 465. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Psalms, 354. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, 466. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 518–19, 20. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 521. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:428. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 227. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:427. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Psalms, 353. ↩