Last week I spoke about spiritual homes: the places where we “behold God’ beauty and inquire in his temple” (Ps 27:4). Today, in Ps 63, we also hear of the psalmist’s longing for such a place. Its title is, “A Psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah”; so possibly, it is set in David’s exile, either during the years before he became a king, or when he was threatened by the rebellion of his son, Absalom. He recalls worshiping and attaining a sense of God’s power and glory in a sanctuary – not Jerusalem Temple, as it would not be constructed until Solomon’s reign, but likely, one of the sites where the Arc of the Covenant (the ornate, gold-plated wooden chest housing the two tablets of the Law) was temporarily housed. We, too, at times feel strongly engaged in worship in a church, both because we associate the place with the experience, and we are accompanied by people doing the same thing. But, do we also know it in exile: desolate, alone, and far from home?
What strikes me about Ps 63 is its theme of focusing on God as who he is, rather than what he can do for us: “God my desire” (v. 1-4); “God my delight” (v. 5-8); and, “God my defense” (v. 9-11). Of course, as it is also the case with our human loved ones, what they do for us partly defines who they are, so it is impossible to love someone entirely for their own sake without acknowledging what they give us – only God can do that. But, I wonder if we can begin to approximate this stance. We, of course, want such things as protection, relief, hope, help, and rest. But, do we seek them almost as if we can attain them apart from God even as he gives them? Do we seek God or God's love? The psalmist, too, wrote his words in times of trouble: he is in danger of being murdered by his enemies, and lies awake fearful of an attack under the cover of darkness. We know that millions of people on the other side of the ocean are going through this very experience, and when I consider their plight, I feel utterly presumptuous to preach on the words “God’s love is better than life” out of the context of my own safety. The only thing I can say that wouldn’t ring hollow is that, perhaps, the word describing God’s love shouldn’t really be translated as “better”, but rather, “enduring” or “indestructible”, in contrast to life, which is fragile and temporary. And so, here, of course David is praying for an opportunity to shelter under God’s mighty wings (echoing the verse about the mother hen from our gospel last week). In fact, beyond simply praying, because he trusts in his idea of who God is, he also fully anticipates God’s help for victory over his enemies (see the last two verses!). Yet, his desire for these is part of a broader longing for God’s presence; for God’s love itself, and not just the benefits of God's love for this life. A subtle distinction, and difficult to apply; to be sure.
We might begin to process this distinction by reflecting on the nature of God’s own love. Unfortunately – or perhaps, indicative of the limitations of human knowledge – we don’t even have a word in our lexicon that accurately describes it! The Hebrews, apparently, tried one, hesed. It occurs 246 times in the OT and covers a huge semantic range. The Hasidic Jews derive their name from the related word that means “pious”, and I wonder if it is based in Mic 6:8, “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love hesed, and to walk humbly with your God?” The word is also related to “covenant”, used by God to describe himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, and paralleled with such words as “faithfulness”, “goodness”, “strength” and “salvation”. In English, we convey hesed by “kindness”, “love”, “steadfast love”, “loyalty”, “favor”, “devotion”, “mercy”, etc. As none of these are fully adequate, the English word “lovingkindness” was even coined around 1535 specifically to translate the Latin attempt, misericordia. In Greek, the Septuagint sometimes has it as “righteousness”, “grace”, “glory” or “hope”, but primarily, as eleos, “mercy”. It is from the latter that we derive the name for the best known type of icons of the Theotokos, called Eleusa, in which Mary and Christ are shown to be focused on each other with mutual affection, almost clinging or grasping for each other. The image above is my contemporary version of such an icon, which ties hesed (eleos) with another verse that spoke to me from psalm 63:8, “my soul clings to you; your right hand will uphold me”.
For this “clinging of a soul” is what describes the perfect response to God’s hesed – a truly close connection. The word “cling” here has the sense of inseparable joining, such as it does when used in Genesis 2:24, where Adam and Eve are united by mutual love and form bonds that transcend the boundaries of self; and that of loyalty, as in Ruth 1:14, where it describes the relationship of Ruth and her mother-in-law. Perhaps, this kind of a true bond and loyalty we will only be able to offer our Creator in heaven. Until then, we cling to him feebly, like an infant to a mother. David certainly was a man who clung to God in the midst of life’s heights and lows, power and disgrace, and above all, the uncertainty of future. And even in our part of the world, which is marked by the greatest safety and prosperity (though not everyone enjoys these), we face daily pressures that threaten and distract us from our desire to please God. So I would like to conclude with a more contemporary prayer that may be of some comfort to us in today’s uncertainty - in the “wilderness of Judah”:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen
– Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, page 79.