a Satisfied Thirst
Before we begin today, I hope you’ll grant me just a couple more minutes to say something about the events of this week. It’s been a terrible week around the world—first, in the United States. You know that I grew up in America (though I’ve been in France for over a third of my life now), so I thought it appropriate to mention this. It is simply impossible to maintain a racist ideology and believe in the gospel—they are fundamentally incompatible. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to save people from all nations, all tribes, all languages, all skin colors, and that every human being was created in the image of God, and is thus worthy of respect and honor and protection. So if you’re an unbeliever and you watched the news this week and you thought, “Well there’s another reason to hate Christians,” please know that any ideology which says that one human being has more worth or value than another, for any reason, has nothing to do with biblical Christianity, no matter what some may say. It is abhorrent and evil and although that should go without saying, it needs to be said.
And the same thing that motivated the white supremacists in Charlottesville on Tuesday motivated the terrorists in Spain on Thursday—belief in a wicked ideology that says one life is worth more than another. I know it may be frightening to some of you to live in Paris after hearing news like this—it is for us. But as Loanne and I were discussing this week, it is for this very reason that the city needs Christians. Among the people we know, the quickest response to something like this is to anchor themselves even more deeply in their conviction that because a religion created this problem, all religion is dangerous. These people need to see the difference Jesus Christ produces in those who love him and follow him—people who will not only not hate or despise their neighbors, but who will on the contrary give their lives for their neighbors, who will love their enemies. This city needs Jesus, and the only way it will see Jesus is by seeing his church, living out the gospel in their homes and apartment buildings and schools and businesses.
So before we dive into the text today, I’d like to invite you to pray with me.
Father, we are broken before the news which reached us this week. We are confused and frightened when we see the world as it has become, the world our children will grow up in. But help us to remember, Lord, that no matter how dark things get, no matter how much parents have been frightened for their children over the course of history, no matter how angry the horrendous acts of other human beings have been, you have never stopped being the King. You created this world, and you sustain this world, and you still reign over this world. So I pray that you would reign in great power to stop the mouths of those who spread the lie that one human life is worth less than another; to stop the hands of those who would wound or kill another human being; to judge those who dishonor your name by claiming loyalty to you while committing these acts; to open the eyes of all those who need you, that they might turn to you and know you as you are. Protect us, Lord, so that we may continue to live the gospel and share the gospel and love the gospel in our city, in our businesses, in our schools, in our neighborhoods. We love you, and we want others to love you as well. Please help us to see your face and rest in the knowledge that you are King, and you are Lord, and you are here.
In my community group three weeks ago, when we were discussing Psalm 42, we talked about what it means to “thirst for God”—if you were talking with someone who had no experience in the church, who had never read the Bible, how would you explain the idea of being “thirsty for God”? It was Nouchka who hit on what I think it a pretty good definition: a thirst for God is an intense desire to be in contact with God, to hear his voice, to know him.
Psalm 42 begins with this: 1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? Today we’re in Psalm 63, which begins like this: 1 O God, you are my God; earnestly 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. In both cases the psalmists are talking about being thirsty for God; so the obvious question is, if we talked about being thirsty for God three weeks ago, why come back to another psalm that talks about the same thing today?
We often say that context is very important when interpreting Scripture—not just the historical context (that is, what the author was going through at the time he wrote it), but also the context of the text itself (the other things the author says in the same text). If one sentence of the Bible seems unclear, the other sentences that come before or after can help us understand what he meant. And if we look at the context of these two psalms, although they have thirst for God in common, what happens around that thirst is very, very different.
There is a difference between dying of hunger and enjoying a certain food so much that you can’t stop eating. In Psalm 42, the psalmist talks about being separated from the people of Israel, being oppressed by his enemies, and feeling as if God has abandoned him—he repeatedly asks God questions like, “Why have you forgotten me? Why have you abandoned me? Why have you rejected me?” But you see nothing of the sort in Psalm 63. This psalm is resoundingly hopeful and joyful. Or, to put it another way, the difference between the two texts is that Psalm 42 speaks of a desperate thirst for God, while Psalm 63 speaks of a satisfied thirst for God.
In the wilderness
And this satisfied thirst is quite ironic, because the historical context in which it was written is anything but joyful. The title of Psalm 63 reads like this: A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah. There were two points in David’s life when he was in the wilderness. The first was when he fled from King Saul, and that could be this time; but v. 11 tells us that David is the king when he writes this. So it is more likely that David wrote this psalm during the second time he was in the wilderness, when he fled from his son Absalom who was trying to claim the throne for himself (2 Samuel 15). In either case, this is a painful situation—he’s being pursued and hunted by someone he loves, who wants to kill him. So the first verse reflects the desperation of that situation—O God, you are my God; earnestly 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.
So far, it seems as if this is the same situation as in Psalm 42—he is indeed thirsty. And if v. 1 and the title were all we had, we would think that what he’s feeling here is identical to what we saw in Psalm 42. But that’s not all we have. The rest of the psalm seems to go in the exact opposite direction from our first impression.
psalm 63: Satisfied thirst
In v. 1, David explains his present situation. That’s the reality of what’s going on around him—he’s in the wilderness, and he’s thirsty for God. But in v. 2, he gives his response, and it is not the desperate, borderline hopeless longing most of us would feel if we were in his situation. He says, O God, you are my God; earnestly 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. 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
We see a number of things here that are very important: First of all, in order to satisfy his thirst, the first place David goes to is the “sanctuary.” The sanctuary is the place where God’s people meet to worship him together. Strangely, in our day unbelievers tend to do this better than many Christians. When they feel a kind of hunger for spiritual things, a desire to know and understand if there is a God, where do they go? Very often they go to church. But Christians often have a very strong self-sufficient streak in them which makes them want to take care of it themselves—if they feel thirsty, they’ll pray more, they’ll read the Bible more (which of course they should!), but they’ll do it all in private: they won’t talk about that thirst with others, come together with their brothers and sisters to pray and worship and learn. But David’s example here shows us that corporate worship is one of the places we should go first when we’re thirsty for God!
Secondly, David is not thirsty for God because of his situation. He’s not thirsty for God simply because he’s in the wilderness. And we can see this by the way he structures his sentence—notice he goes from present tense to past tense: My soul thirsts for you…so I HAVE LOOKED upon you in the sanctuary. He’s showing a cause and a response. (In the same way as if I said, “I love my family, so I think about when I was last with them.”) He mentions the sanctuary here because he remembers going there to satisfy his thirst for God, a thirst he feels all the more keenly now that he’s in the desert.
And it’s important to see that this thirst doesn’t start in the desert, because many of us will only feel the desire to really know God when all of our other resources have given way—when our friends are no longer a relief, when our usual entertainment is no longer entertaining, when the things we held dear are taken away… Then we’ll go to God. But David was spiritually thirsty long before he was physically and emotionally in turmoil; he is thirsty now, so he remembers where he has always gone to satisfy that thirst. This thirst is a continual fact of his existence, as we’ll see as we go along: no one can say the things David says in this Psalm if he’s only responding to desperation.
Thirdly, ultimately it is not the sanctuary itself which satisfies David’s thirst, but rather what he sees there: So I have looked upon YOU in the sanctuary, beholding your POWER and GLORY. Ultimately it is not the songs he sings, or the prayers he prays, or the fellowship he enjoys with the people of God which satisfy him—all these things are means to arrive at this singular end: seeing God himself. Seeing his power and his glory. God’s glory is everything wonderful and beautiful and praiseworthy about God, made visible. So David comes to the sanctuary, along with his people, to be enabled to see God in all his power, in all his glory. Now, how does that happen?
David sees God’s glory as he is reminded of everything that is actually true about God—which is what happens in the sanctuary. Every song that is sung, every prayer that is prayed, every conversation that takes place, serve to remind us of what is true about God, and it is that knowledge that satisfies us—the rest of the psalm is basically a prolonged celebration of that reality.
V. 3: Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. Again, this is something he could only say from experience. He has seen God’s love for him over and over again in the past, so he knows God loves him still, and that God’s love for him is better than anything he could ever hope to get from God, better than any answer to prayer God could grant him.
And if you think about it, this simple phrase is extraordinary. Your steadfast love is better than life—really? Better than not being in the wilderness? Better than not being hunted by your own son? Better than continuing to be alive? Yes. Your steadfast love is better than life. And he knows it because he’s been thirsty for God for years, and has seen that thirst satisfied over and over again—so even now, in the desert, when all of his comfort and safety have been removed, Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you AS LONG AS I LIVE; in your name I will lift up my hands.
And because he knows God loves him, because he has seen his power and glory in the sanctuary, David trusts that he himself will be satisfied: 5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. He’s not talking about the kind of satisfaction that comes from eating a salad. There is a difference between the way you feel after eating a good salad and eating a Thanksgiving feast. Salads are good, and they can go down great on a hot day. But it’s not the same as eating a huge meal, with turkey and dressing and mashed potatoes and green beans and candied yams (yes, they’re delicious), being filled until you’re practically bursting, then collapsing on the sofa and just enjoying that feeling. That’s the kind of satisfaction David’s talking about here: 5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips…
Now, again, he comes back to what brings him satisfaction—v. 6: 6 when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; 7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. 8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. What brings David satisfaction is knowing God, knowing who he is and what he has done. David meditates on how God has helped him in the past, and how good he still is to him in the present, and he is satisfied simply in knowing him. He sings for joy in the knowledge that he belongs to this powerful and glorious God; in those sleepless nights, he meditates on God and remembers how God has been his help; and knowing this, he is completely confident that God will always protect him to sing his praises.
9 But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; 10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword; they shall be a portion for jackals. 11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped. This is a particularly helpful reminder in the wake of a week like this one. David knows that people are chasing him, that evil is at his heels. But he knows that ultimately, they will not be victorious—God is not an enemy against whom anyone could ever win. David knows he will be protected, and that all who know God will never get to such a place where they cannot worship him.
So you can see the thrust of his argument—it is not despair; it is not hopelessness. He is in the wilderness, thirsty and longing, and yet he knows that he will be forever satisfied by God, because he always has been. His confidence in God’s grace to come, the grace God will show him in the future, is far stronger than his distress in the present. David’s thirst is not the thirst of someone who is desperate or wavering in his faith; it is not the thirst of someone who is confused or helpless. It is the thirst of a man who is in the desert, and yet who knows that there, in that dry place, he has everything he needs, and who even meets the desert rejoicing, because he has God, and if he has God he lacks for nothing. Nothing God could grant him would be better than what he already has: God himself.
Who Here Knows This Satisfaction?
Now, how foreign does this sound to many of us today? What David describes here is something we can barely imagine, much less identify with, because this is not the way we’ve been taught to relate to God. We come to God with guilt, not joy; we serve him out of a sense of duty, not happiness; we come to Christ to escape from hell, not because in him we really believe we’ve found life.
And it’s not that the feelings we have toward God are necessarily bad—we are guilty before him, we do have a holy duty of obedience to fulfill, and we do want to escape from hell. But while these feelings aren’t entirely wrong, they should never be the primary reasons we come to God and obey him. It is a good thing to fear God and to realize we are guilty before him—knowing God’s holiness and power should prevent us from ever coming to him lightly, as if we were just stopping off at a café to visit a friend; it causes us to approach him more like you would approach a lion in an open field. The Bible tells us time and again that when people approach the presence of God, they come with trembling, knowing the greatness of the One they’ve come in contact with. But at the same time, the Bible also tells us that because of what Christ did for us on the cross, we can run to him confidently, knowing that not only is he a lion who is powerful and holy, he is also a lamb who tenderly and graciously forgives his children and welcomes them with joy.
It is a good thing to obey God because he’s God, and we’re not, and he has the right to tell us what to do. But people often apply this truth in an unhealthy way, thinking that the Christian life, because it is a life of obedience, will of course be a very difficult, unhappy life. But the Bible tells us exactly the opposite—when Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, he also tells us why we should do so (Matthew 16.24-25): If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake WILL FIND IT.
In other words, because God is King, he has the right to tell us what to do; but because he is the Creator, he created us in such a way that what he tells us to do is also that which will make us the happiest. We all have an idea of what “the good life” looks like—this idea has been taught to us from culture, from our parents, from our political leaders. And that “good life” you’ve been taught to work for is only a pale imitation of the good life God created us to live. It’s only in letting go of your idea of “the good life” that you’ll discover what “the good life” really is. And remember this came from the guy who, a short time later, would find himself taking on the sins of God’s children and nailed to a cross to pay the penalty for those sins. And even he did it for that same reason—Hebrews 12.2 says that Jesus…for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.
David understands this: he is in the wilderness, being pursued by his son. But he has not resigned himself to the idea that because he’s in the wilderness, because he’s hated by someone he loves, that means he has to be miserable. No matter what his situation is, My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips. For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
It is a good thing to want to escape hell—you’d be a fool not want to. This is why when we share the gospel with others, we so often frame it in that kind of language: you are in danger of condemnation and will be eternally separated from God if you do not accept the gift of his son. And that’s not untrue—we are under condemnation if we don’t believe in God’s Son and place our faith in what he did for us on the cross. But while the prospect of hell and eternal separation from God are important and must be mentioned, the simple desire to escape punishment is not enough to save us, for one simple reason: there is nothing in the fear of punishment that glorifies God. We don’t come to God because he is good, but just because we’re afraid to suffer. And the Bible never presents God as being merely an escape from punishment.
When David Brainerd was ministering to the Native Americans in 18th-century New England, one of the most surprising experiences he had was seeing that the things which convicted them the most of their sin, and ultimately drove them to accept Christ, were not those moments when he spoke of hell, but when he simply spoke of God himself. He wrote, “Yet some were much affected with a few words spoken to them in a powerful manner, which caused the persons to cry out in anguish of soul, although I spoke not a word of terror, but on the contrary, set before them the fullness and all-sufficiency of Christ's merits, and his willingness to save all that come to him; and thereupon pressed them to come without delay…. They have almost always appeared much more affected with the comfortable than the dreadful truths of God’s word. And that which has distressed many of them under convictions is, that they found they wanted, and could not obtain, the happiness of the godly.” They were finally able to see that which they had been lacking all along, and were bursting with joy at the idea that this “happiness of the godly,” which they did not have, was freely offered to them by the cross of Christ.
Our Joy and God’s Glory
It’s easy for Christians to feel uncomfortable with this kind of talk, because as I said, many Christians haven’t been taught to see their relationship with God in this way. We’ve been taught to misunderstand what self-denial really means, what worship really means, what salvation really means. And so when we hear that the Bible actually calls us to pursue our joy, it sounds selfish to us. But there’s an incredibly important distinction to see in this psalm—the happiness that David manifests here has a very specific object: God himself. It is God that he is thirsty for; it is God who satisfies him; it is God whom he remembers on his bed at night; it is in the shadow of God’s wings that he sings for joy; it is in God that he rejoices. In other words, David’s happiness is not for his own sake, but for God’s. When we try to get joy for ourselves by obtaining things we want, we become idolators; but when we seek our joy in God, we become worshipers—our joy in our God glorifies our God.
David’s thirst is a thirst very few of us have felt in our lives. We don’t know what it’s like to enjoy God so much that we can’t get enough of him. We don’t know what it’s like to want more of God, but at the same time to be satisfied in him, to rest in the promise that if we seek him, we will find him; if we hunger and thirst after righteousness, we will be satisfied. So to help us grow in these areas, here are four ways to begin (the first is almost entirely practical):
1) Be careful about your spiritual diet. Every one of us is different, so this will be different for all of us, but as you grow in your faith you’ll notice that there are some habits—ordinary, everyday, very unspiritual things—which will nurture your joy in Jesus, and some habits which will choke them. I know that for me, I love movies—but too much time at the cinema will choke my love for Jesus—I find myself loving movies more than him. On the other hand, there are other things that have the opposite effect: really early mornings, with really good coffee; good meals with good friends (the kinds of friends—we all have them—who, after you spend an hour with them, you just want to serve Jesus more)… Feed those habits—whatever they are—that make you love Jesus more, that make you happy in him; and stop engaging in those things that choke your love for Jesus.
2) Don’t neglect the sanctuary. It is in the sanctuary that David beholds the power and glory of God. It is in the sanctuary that he remembers that God’s steadfast love is really better than life. It is in the sanctuary, with his people, that his lips praise the Lord for his love and protection. And so it is with us: God designed the Christian life to work this way—it is together, in community with your brothers and sisters, that we are taught to nurture this satisfaction in God. The struggling Christian is helped to believe such a thing is possible by seeing it lived out in his brother. The struggling Christian is reminded of who God really is, and what is really true, by hearing God’s Word preached week after week, by singing those truths alongside her brothers and sisters week after week. If you are struggling to be happy in God, do not neglect the sanctuary.
3) Prayerfully think. Think long and hard on what the Bible says about God, and pray that the Holy Spirit enables you to think rightly. Meditate on God’s attributes—think about the fact that he is entirely independent and self-sufficient; that he is unchanging and eternal; that he is everywhere at all times; that he is completely holy; that he is all-powerful and all-knowing; that he is sovereign over all things; that he is entirely just, but also entirely loving. And think about how those various attributes manifested themselves in Christ: how in Christ we see (to borrow from Jonathan Edwards) both infinite highness and a willingness to bring himself infinitely low for us; that in him we see both infinite justice and infinite grace; infinite glory and lowest humility; infinite majesty and transcendent meekness; that he was entirely worthy of praise and at the same time completely willing to suffer evil, so that we might be freed to praise him.
4) Pray to see God’s glory, for it will be your only lasting joy. Thinking is an important element in our joy, and it is important; but ultimately the one thing we need more than anything is the one thing we cannot do for ourselves: we cannot make ourselves see God’s glory. We can know stuff about God, but we cannot behold God himself in those truths without the Spirit’s help. So pray that the Spirit would open your eyes to see his glory as you meditate on who God is and what he has done. Seeing his glory is what we were created to do, and so it is the one thing which will make us unendingly, eternally happy.
Brothers and sisters, the satisfied thirst David speaks of here is not a lost cause for us. The Holy Spirit did not inspire this psalm just to tease us with something we could never have. My prayer for you is that you would remember that the image of “the good life” our society presents to you is just a pale imitation of the abundant life you were created for; that you may not lose heart in the wilderness, but rather that your soul might cling to him, and know that his right hand upholds you. That you might tell God honestly that your soul thirsts for him, your flesh faints for him…and then proceed to worship him by saying with David that Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My prayer is that your soul may be satisfied in him, as with a banquet feast set before you, and that your mouth may praise him joyfully.