Part of the power — and problem — of the psalms is that they were written in a certain context for a certain people at a certain time… but speak to, and for, other people living at other times in other contexts.
Psalm 63 is described as being written by David “when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” It’s not clear which when or wilderness this was: when David eluded Saul’s wrath by hiding the hills around Ziph (1 Sam 23), or when David fled his son Absalom for the wilderness on the other side of the Kidron Valley (2 Samuel 15)? Maybe both.
But one way or another, it seems important to read these words with some of understanding of what’s behind them. David “thirsts for” God spiritually while his body thirsts for water in the desert (v 1); his “soul clings to” God while he grieves his betrayal by people he loves but now “seek to destroy my life” (vv 8-9). These are metaphors, and they are not: David is fainting for God “as in a dry and weary land”… while he’s actually in a dry and weary land.
But as soon as this poem moved from being the cry of one man to a part of the shared experience of collective worship, it became less literal and more figurative. From the first time it was sung in worship to the present day, the people of God have used its particular language to express their particular concerns.
So a part of me feels awkward praying with the language of the desert when I have never felt a thirst that dire. But even as part of my mind then starts meaning these words on behalf of those around the world who do experience such privations, another part realizes that these ancient words are universal enough to express modern anxieties.
The psalm invites me to ask: what is my “dry and weary land” in 2020 America?
Not a physical wilderness, but an emotional one: a desert of affection, as public health precautions leave us feeling disconnected, unable to rejoice and mourn together, or even to feel the reassurance of a hug or the welcome of a handshake. I’m not stung by the betrayal of a Saul or an Absalom, but our divisive politics do tempt me to see enemies in the faces of fellow citizens, and to wish our more foolish leaders to be “given over to the power” of democracy’s version of “the sword” (v 10).
And if those concerns are universal enough to be expressed by this psalm, then surely David’s comfort and assurance are mine, too: that God’s “steadfast love is better than life” (v 3). When I rise in the “watches of the night” (I’ve been struggling with a bit of insomnia lately), I can meditate on a God who has “been my help” as much as he was David’s.
“O God,” we sing — together, across time and space; as individuals, inhabiting time and space — “you are my God.”