Thirsty prayer

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 (Ps. 63:1).

Those words have echoed inside me from the first time I read them.

Although I was raised in a home that highly valued the Scriptures, I didn’t read them regularly myself till I was a young adult. And when I came across this first verse of Psalm 63, I found in it the most accurate description of myself I’d ever come across.

The one thing I need is the one thing I don’t have. I’m as thirsty as a drought-ridden land. My soul is so parched, my body is about to give way.

I’m empty, but I know it.

I know it’s not water I need. I’m thirsty for God. It’s not a leisurely life of sex and food and other entertainments I long for. It’s not a solution for the struggle of the day I need. It’s a God-flavor I crave.

I’m thirsty and I haven’t gotten what I need.

The psalm’s superscription calls it “A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah.” I like that. He looked around and what he saw around him reflected what was in him. He was in a desert and he felt like a desert.

There’s wisdom in his looking around and using his context outside of himself as a window into the context inside of himself. He doesn’t force the metaphor. In fact, he moves on from it after the first verse. But it launches the prayer.

It makes me ask myself: How can I become a keen observer of the world around me and also a keen observer of the world within me, using one to see the other?

I haven’t always appreciated this. In fact, it’s my lack of appreciating context which caused me to quite dislike part of Psalm 63. While I loved the first eight verses for their passionate desire for God, I often skipped the last three verses. They ruined it for me. There’s an abrupt shift in the psalm after verse 8 and if I’d been the editor of Psalm 63, I’d have lopped them off.

But the last three verses are the true context of the psalm. The desert is the environmental context, but relational chaos is the life-encompassing context of the psalm. Without the last three verses, Psalm 63 would never have been written, never have been prayed.

There is no context-less spirituality. Biblical faith is always grounded in an ugly reality, messy details of messy lives. Prayers that depart too far from our earthly realities and try to dwell in the heavenlies may seem angelic, but they’re cheats and frauds. If God meets us anywhere, it’s here in the mess.

Worshiping the Creator, the one who made our messy context should have taught us that. Worshiping the Savior, the one who entered into our messy context in flesh and blood Incarnation should have taught us that. But we love clean ideas over dirty realities. And the last three verses of Psalm 63 bring our disembodied spiritualities crashing back to earth.

Even though he doesn’t mention his relational context till the end of the psalm, it’s fully in mind for David throughout. It has established a pressing need which has driven him to prayer. He is thirsty for God.

But instead of bringing up in his memory of a time when God dealt with other foes, as he does in other psalms, David turns his memory elsewhere: to worship.

I have seen you in the sanctuary
    and beheld your power and your glory (Ps. 63:2).

Faced with a battlefield, David doesn’t remember a previous battlefield. He remembers the sanctuary. It’s in worship, not in war, that he’s seen God’s power and glory most clearly. It’s in worship that all the details of life came together and made sense. It’s there that he felt full. And feeling empty right now, that’s where he wanted to be most of all, savoring the God-flavors he’s tasted before.

Past worship has him longing for future worship.

Because your love is better than life,
    my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
    and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
    with singing lips my mouth will praise you (Ps. 63:3-5).

Where his soul is thirsty in a waterless place now, he envisions a time when “I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods.” He’ll go from the parched desert to the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Worship is where the pieces of life fit together. I am there, fully present — body, mind, soul attuned to myself and to God. God is there. And God’s people are there, praying with one heart, singing with one voice, listening to God’s Word with one mind.

In a fractured world, I experience a moment of unity. In an empty world running on its hamster wheel in pursuit of an elusive happiness, I experience fullness. In a hostile world, I experience peace.

But David’s not there yet. He knows that’s what he needs. But for now, he’s tossing and turning on his bed, sleepless.

On my bed I remember you;
    I think of you through the watches of the night (Ps. 63:6).

I have a love-hate relationship with that verse. There have been so many nights where I’ve been sleepless like David — my body tense from caffeine, my mind awhirl with plans and details, or my heart clenched with fear — and these David words will come to mind. And I’ll think, “God, I just want to sleep right now. I don’t want to think of you through the watches of the night!”

But the words will call me to prayer and eventually I’ll give in, grudgingly offering what is disturbing me to the great Listener.

Sometimes, as part of that self-offering, I’ll get up and write out a list of everything bouncing around inside of me and I’ll have written 30 different things by the time I’m done. And I’ll say, “Lord have mercy! Take this chaos. It’s too much for me.”

And there, in the shadow of the night, David finds himself in the shadow of God’s wings. The afflicting darkness with its fears has become the comforting darkness under the fold of God’s protecting wings.

Because you are my help,
    I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
    your right hand upholds me (Ps. 63:7-8).

As in Ps. 149:5, the bed becomes a mini sanctuary and David finds himself singing. I admit I’ve never burst into song in bed during the night. I’m not sure how pleased my wife would be if I did. But clinging to God, now that I have done.

When there’s emptiness inside and chaos outside, there’s one thing I know to do: “I cling to you.”

My fears and my preoccupations drop me in the desert and dry me out. They’re like salt on the tongue. But seeking their solutions won’t quench the thirst they make. It’s God I’m thirsty for.

Dry soul, turn to God and drink.

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