King David was in a very inhospitable environment with disastrous circumstances beyond his control when he composed Psalm 63. His son, Prince Absalom, instigated a revolt against him. King David fled eastward from Jerusalem through the Judean Desert, most likely at the end of the summer (cf. 2 Sam. 16:1). David escaped to the Levitical city of Mahanaim, in the friendlier region of Gilead on the other side of the Jordan River (2 Sam. 17:24; CBA 109).
As we examine this psalm, we will see David’s desire to worship the Lord even though he had been cut off from access to the sanctuary in Jerusalem. He uses three metaphors from his own personal experience to convey this desire and how God might bring it to pass: (a) thirsting for the Lord in the wilderness, (b) satisfaction after a gourmet banquet in the sanctuary, and (c) following the Lord as his Shepherd and trusting in His protection so he can return to the sanctuary and worship the Lord.
Historical and Geographical Setting
This psalm’s superscription reads: “A psalm of David when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.” The Wilderness of Judah (Midbar Yehuda) is a specific geographical location within the tribal territory of Judah (Josh. 15:21, 33, 48, 61). It is situated to the east of the cultivated farmland of the Hill Country of Judah and slopes down to the Dead Sea with a vertical drop right before the sea. Its northern limit was the Hill Country of Ephraim, delineated by the present-day Wadi Auja to the north of Jericho, and it extended south about 96 kilometers (60 miles) to the Biblical Negev. The words wilderness and desert are used interchangeably in different translations of the Bible for the Hebrew word midbar. The same will be done in this article.
The Wilderness of Judah is easily distinguished on a geological map because it is composed of Senonian soft chalk. The chalk formation is not conducive to agriculture, but grass and flowers do grow there during the rainy season, thus providing food for pasturage.
The prophet Isaiah describes the wilderness (of Judah) in his comfort passage (40:3-9). The Voice, John the Baptizer (cf. Mark 1:3, 4), was crying out: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath [ruach = hamsin winds] of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:6-8; all quotations from Scripture are from the NKJV). Isaiah is describing the phenomenon of the hot, dry hamsin winds that blow from the Arabian Desert soon after Passover in the spring. This east wind kills all the grass and flowers very quickly. David had used a similar word picture in Psalm 103:15-17.
Bethlehem, the hometown of David, was in the transitional zone between the agricultural land of the Hill Country of Judah and the pastures of the Wilderness of Judah. As its name, literally House of Bread, implies, there was plenty of fertile soil around Bethlehem in which to grow wheat and barley (cf. Ruth 2), and yet just to the east was the place for shepherding.
There are three periods in David’s life when he was in the Judean Desert. For each period in the wilderness, there were important lessons for David to learn.
For young David, the Wilderness of Judah was a place of growing and learning. While tending his family’s flock, he honed his hunting skills by killing a lion and a bear (1 Sam. 17:34-37). There was plenty of time to practice using his slingshot. His preparation paid off when he went big-game hunting in the Elah Valley and bagged the giant, Goliath. There was plenty of time to fine-tune his musical talent as well. The Lord used David’s skillful harp playing to calm the distressing spirit that possessed King Saul (1 Sam. 16:14-23). The Lord would also use David’s musical abilities to bless and instruct the souls of men and women throughout the ages as they sang his psalms, some of which were composed in the Judean Desert.
The wilderness also afforded David solitude and quiet times to contemplate the Lord, His ways, and His attributes. At night, while tending his flock, he saw the majestic starlit sky and sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).
While in the wilderness, David also learned some lessons in shepherding that would be helpful when God called David to shepherd His people Israel (2 Sam. 7:8). Yet David realized it was the Lord who was his Shepherd and He was the One who provided for David, guided, protected, and comforted him until he dwelt in the House of the Lord forever (Ps. 23). The prophet Ezekiel tells us that, in the future, a resurrected David will be the shepherd over a united Israel (34:22-25; cf. Jer. 30:9).
The second time David spent time in the Judean Desert was during his flight from Saul (1 Sam. 19:18-27:6; CBA 92).
The final time David was in the Judean Desert was when he fled from his son Absalom (2 Sam. 15-19). The internal evidence of Psalm 63 suggests that the historical setting for this psalm was during this flight. The psalm was composed after David had become king (63:11) and after he had seen the Ark of Covenant (63:2).
There is no consensus among Bible teachers as to the literary structure of this psalm. For the purpose of this exposition, one phrase (actually one word in Hebrew) that repeats itself three times in this psalm will be used as the touchstone for each stanza. That phrase is “my soul” (63:1, 5, 8). The word God (Hebrew El) is found only in verses 1a and 11 and it forms an inclusio (bracket) for this psalm.
The psalm begins with a superscription that is part of the inspired psalm and states where this psalm was composed. Unfortunately, it does not tell us the circumstance (the when), but the time frame can be discerned by examining the internal context of the psalm.
The psalmist longs to worship the Lord in the sanctuary in Jerusalem, but he cannot, because he is in the Wilderness of Judah fleeing from those seeking to kill him. His confidence is in the steadfast, covenant love (hesed) of God, because it is better than life itself. The psalmist trusts the Lord to protect him from his enemies so that he will again be able to rejoice and praise the Lord in the sanctuary.
David’s Declaration of Faith and His Purpose in Life. 63:1a
David begins this psalm with a declaration of faith:
O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You.
David declares his faith in the Lord as his personal God. For David, God was not an idol of gold, silver, wood, or stone. He was the living God who acted in history and was intimately involved in David’s life. David had a personal relationship with the Lord. Today, a person can have the same personal relationship with the Lord through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our personal relationship with the living God begins by realizing that we are sinners because we have offended a holy God. Our sin separates us from God. Yet God reached down to His creatures by sending His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth to live a perfect life, not sinning once, and then dying on the cross outside the walls of Jerusalem in order to be the Perfect Sacrifice to pay for all our sins. The Lord Jesus did the hard part to reconcile us to God – He died. But three days later, He was bodily resurrected from the dead to demonstrate that all sin had been paid for, Satan had been defeated, and death had been conquered. Now He offers each of us salvation as a free gift, which one can receive by simply putting one’s faith in the Lord Jesus and trusting Him alone for salvation. When a person puts his or her trust in Christ alone, he or she is born into God’s family and becomes a child of God (John 1:12).
In this verse we also see David’s purpose and priority in life. He states: “Early will I seek You.” His purpose in life was to seek the Lord and His face. This he could do in the tent sanctuary that rested near his palace in Jerusalem. His priority was to do this early, apparently early in the morning. This passage seems to suggest that the first thing he did in the morning was to leave his palace and visit with the Lord in the tent sanctuary. This pattern can also be seen in the life of the Lord Jesus. He would rise up early in the morning for prayer (Mark 1:35).
David’s Soul Is Thirsting for God in the Wilderness. 63:1b-4
In the first stanza, David sings:
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.
David uses hyperbolic language to describe his longing for the presence of the Lord in His sanctuary. The Judean Desert is depicted as a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. David, when he was a shepherd in the Judean Desert, knew where all the springs and waterholes were. In the summertime, even when it is extremely dry, there is water in the desert. It may be scarce, but there is water nonetheless. Yet this language expresses the fact that David is totally cut off from the Lord and His sanctuary in Jerusalem. The people with David, however, were hungry, weary, and thirsty when they got to Mahanaim (2 Sam. 17:29).
In the rainy months (October to April), the Judean Desert gets between 100 millimeters and 350 millimeters (4-14 inches) of water. Most of the rain falls in the Hill Country; rainfall tapers off to about 100 millimeters near the Dead Sea (Rasmussen 1989: 42). There are five sources of water in the wilderness. Three of the sources are natural: rainwater, springs, and waterholes that collect run-off water. The other two sources are man-made: wells and cisterns dug by the inhabitants of the area (Hareuveni 1991:57-66).
I have the utmost respect for the sun and dry heat in the Judean Desert in the summer. The air is so dry that your perspiration evaporates almost instantaneously, which means that one may be unaware that he is dehydrating. Therefore, it is very dangerous to be in the Wilderness of Judah without adequate water.
The first summer I was in Israel, I experienced what David describes. Several fellow students and I walked the approximate 14 kilometers (8 ½ miles) down the Wadi Qelt from Ma’aleh Adumim to Jericho on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Each of us had brought one canteen of water. In the blazing summer heat, it was not enough. By the time we got to the oasis of Jericho, each of us had a headache and was very thirsty. I’ll tell you, freshly squeezed orange juice never tasted so good!
Later, when I was a field-trip instructor in Israel, I always encouraged my students to drink plenty of water. I informed them that I knew where all the toilets were in Israel and would be glad to stop if they ever needed to use them. I would quip, “It is easier to stop for toilets than it is to take you to the hospital because of dehydration!” Water is essential for survival in the Judean desert. Now, when I hike in Israel during the summer months, I leave early in the morning, wear a hat, and take two or three one-and-a-half-liter bottles of water with me.
In the second verse, David reminisces about the power and glory of God in the sanctuary. Early in his reign, after he had conquered Jerusalem, David brought the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem from Kiryat Jearim (2 Sam. 6:12-23) and placed it in a tent dwelling (2 Sam. 7:2, 6). He had the desire to build a house for the Lord, but was not allowed to build it because he was a man of war and had blood on his hands (1 Chron. 22:8; 28:3). Yet God made a covenant with David that stated that his son would build a house for the Lord and that one of his sons would sit upon the throne of David forever and ever (2 Sam. 7:12-16). After this unconditional covenant was made, David went into the tent and sat before the Lord and prayed (2 Sam. 7:18-29). More than likely, David saw the Ark of the Covenant, God’s strength and glory, on this occasion (cf. Ps. 78:60-61; 96:6; 132:8).
When David fled from Absalom, the Levites brought the Ark of the Covenant out of Jerusalem. David insisted that they take it back. He said to Zadok: “Carry the Ark of God back into the city. If I find favor (chen) in the eyes of the LORD, He will bring me back and show me both it and His dwelling place. But if He says thus: ‘I have no delight (hephzati) in you,’ here I am, let Him do to me as seems good to Him” (2 Sam. 15:25-26).
David resigned his fate to the Lord but was fully confident in His sovereignty and lovingkindness. In verse three, David declares that the LORD’s “lovingkindness is better than life.” The Hebrew word for lovingkindness is hesed and it has a powerful word picture associated with it. Like a stork (hesedu) that lovingly watches over and guards its young so the Lord is lovingly loyal to the covenants that He made with His people Israel. He is faithful to His people, even when they are not faithful to Him. He watches over His people, provides for them, and protects them because He made unconditional covenants with Abraham and David. Because he understood this important attribute of God, David said that, even with parched lips, he would praise the Lord. He blessed the Lord by lifting up his hands and would do this for the rest of his life (63:4; cf. Ps. 104:33; 146:2; 1 Tim. 2:8)
David’s Soul Is Satisfied in the Lord as after a Gourmet Banquet. 63:5-7
In the second stanza, David sings:
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.
Because You have been my help,
Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.
Although David was thirsty because of the dryness of the wilderness, he was satisfied and content because his confidence was in the Lord and His promises. As the king lay awake that night contemplating the lovingkindness of the Lord, he was reminded of the sacrifices that were offered in the sanctuary. He said he was satisfied as with “marrow and fatness,” in other words, the best and richest food. David could be contemplating a banquet in his palace, but it is more likely that he was thinking about the sacrifices in the sanctuary. The “fatness” (chlev) was the result of the pleasant Bar-B-Q aroma of burning animal fat on the altar. The Mosaic Law prohibited people from eating any fat (Lev. 7:23-25) because all the fat was for the Lord (Lev. 3:16). Don’t worry; God does not have a problem with cholesterol! We do. David’s palace was not that far away from the sanctuary, and, if the wind were blowing just right, he could smell the sweet-smelling aroma of burning fat.
As David lay awake that night in the Plains of the Wilderness (2 Sam. 17:16) near Jericho, he was trying to sort out the day’s events. He was thankful to the Lord for His help in getting his family and followers out of Jerusalem before Absalom’s army was able to approach the city and do any harm to it. He remembered the goodness of God and meditated on the Lord Himself.
The word meditate is the same word used in Psalm 1:2: “But his delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law he meditates day and night.” It is in the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) that the Lord and His ways are revealed. The word meditate is a pastoral word that David gleaned from observing his sheep. Sheep have four stomachs. The sheep would eat the grass and flowers in the fields, and the foliage would go down into one stomach. Later, while the sheep was resting in the shade, it would regurgitate, which is the same word that is translated meditate, the foliage, chew it over again, and send it back down to another stomach.
I am sure David had large portions of the Torah memorized so that at night he could bring to mind those passages that spoke of the Lord and apply them to his present situation. God is an avenging God. “’Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; cf. Deut. 32:35). When David heard that Ahithophel was conspiring with Absalom, David prayed: “O Lord, I pray, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Sam. 15:31).
David rejoices in the shadow of God’s wings. Some commentators have suggested the wings were a reference to the cherubim above the mercy seat in the sanctuary. Moses used a similar word picture in Psalm 91:4: “He [the Almighty] shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge.” David uses this word picture in other psalms (Ps. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1). I think David’s word picture came from nature. Perhaps that evening David had seen a partridge in the wilderness gathering her young under her wings when she felt threatened by the people with David, or, in the heat of the afternoon, the young might have sought shade under their mother’s wings.
The Lord Jesus uses a similar illustration in His Olivet Discourse. He said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who were sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37).
Twice in this stanza David praises the Lord with rejoicing in spite of his terrible circumstances. The Lord Jesus might have had this psalm and David’s circumstances in mind when He instructed his disciples: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). David was a prophet (Acts 2:30). This was the same lesson that James the son of Zebedee recounted in the opening verses of his epistle: “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (1:2).
David, as he fled over the back side of the Mount of Olives, was cursed by Shimei at Bahurim (2 Sam. 16:5-14). David’s servants wanted to behead Shimei, but David forbad them. He said: “Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him. It may be that the LORD will look on my affliction, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing this day” (16:11-12). When the revolt was over, Shimei sought forgiveness from King David and it was granted to him (2 Sam. 19:16-23). On his deathbed, however, David instructed his son Solomon to kill Shimei (1 Kings 2:8-9). Solomon eventually carried out this instruction when Shimei reneged on an oath he had made to the Lord at Solomon’s request (1 Kings 2:36-46).
David’s Soul Follows His Shepherd as a Defenseless Lamb. 63:8-10
In the third stanza, David sings:
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.
David turns to his younger days for the word picture of a defenseless lamb following close by its shepherd for protection. The right hand of God is always the hand of power and protection. David was advised by his commanders to stay within the walls of Mahanaim while they went out to fight Absalom’s army. The revolt ended with the slaughter of twenty thousand Israelites in the woods of Ephraim and the death of Absalom at the hands of Joab (2 Sam. 18:1-18, 28). The dead went into the “lower parts of the earth,” another description of Sheol, the place of the departed spirits (cf. Luke 16:19-31; Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol).
The bodies of the dead were eaten by scavengers. The Hebrew word shaliem is translated foxes or jackals. In the context, jackals makes more sense because jackals are the vacuum cleaners, or scavengers, of the desert. On a number of occasions as he wandered in the Judean Desert, David would have seen dead animals. Later, when he walked past the same place, the animal carcass would be gone. Jackals had been there and cleaned up the mess, bones and all. The only thing to be seen was the jackal poop! David is saying that his enemies would not be afforded a proper burial with their families, as was the Israelite custom and practice.
Absalom’s body, however, was placed in a pit in the forest of Ephraim and covered with a huge pile of rocks (2 Sam. 18:17). This was to keep the jackals away, but it also symbolized the death of a rebellious son who should have been stoned to death (Deut. 21:18-21).
David’s Declaration of Praise because His Critics Are Silenced. 63:11
David concludes this psalm by singing:
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 speaks of himself in the third person as “the king.” His victory, however, was bittersweet. The revolt had been suppressed, but his son was dead. On a personal level, David mourned the death of his son (2 Sam. 18:33-19:7), yet he says in this psalm that, because the revolt was over, the king rejoiced.
David and his followers had sworn an oath to the Lord and were victorious because they feared Him (Deut. 6:13; 10:20). But those who had not sworn by the Lord were speechless (Ps. 38:12; 41:5-8). This is a euphemistic way of saying they died. Ahithophel hung himself and Absalom was killed by Joab and his men (2 Sam. 17:23; 18:14-15).
Singing Psalm 63
The songwriter David Strasser adapted the first part of this psalm in his composition of the lyrics for the song “Step by Step.”
O God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You!
O God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You!
I will seek You in the morning,
And I will learn to walk in Your ways.
And step by step You’ll lead me,
And I will follow You all of my days.
Lessons from the Psalm for Our Daily Life
There are several lessons that we can learn from this psalm that should encourage us in our daily walk with the Lord.
The first lesson is set forth by the eloquent late fourth century AD preacher, John Chrysostom (“golden-mouthed”) of Antioch-on-the-Orontes, when he commented: “That it was decreed and ordained by the Primitive Fathers that no day should pass without the public singing of this psalm.” Based on the phrase, “early will I seek you” (63:1), this psalm was sung on a daily basis during the morning liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Without being legalistic or ritualistic, perhaps this practice of singing, or reading this psalm, at the beginning of our daily quiet time would sharpen our focus on the Lord in spite of any adverse circumstances in which we might find ourselves. Also, David and the Lord Jesus set apart the early morning hours for prayer and communion with the Father. We should follow their example and set apart a portion of our day for Bible reading and prayer.
The second lesson we can learn from this psalm is that David resigned his fate to a sovereign God who was in control of the affairs of history. He was content with whatever the Lord had in store for his future; whether he lived or died he would be content because the lovingkindness of the Lord was better than life. He knew that if he died, he would be with the Lord forever. The Apostle Paul had the same attitude. When he wrote to the Philippian believers, he said: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21; cf. Acts 20:24).
The third lesson we can learn from this psalm is that David rejoiced in the Lord in spite of his terrible circumstances. This he could do because he remembered the Lord and meditated on Him and His ways. Our contentment and joy is based on Christ’s unfailing lovingkindness and mercy toward us and is not based on our circumstances. The Lord Jesus is always faithful to us and can be trusted to get us through our difficult circumstances. Thus, we can live joyfully and triumphantly in the midst of unpleasant circumstances. We are reminded of the words of the Lord Jesus when He said to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:12). Similarly, James tells us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2).
The fourth lesson to be learned is that God will eventually vindicate His children and set things in order. David was confident that those who sought his life would have a reversal of fortune and God would judge them. This lesson is probably the most difficult to learn because we have no control over our future. We see Christians being martyred for the cause of Christ, and God does not seem to act on their behalf. Ultimately, God will set things in order, if not in this life, then He will do so in the future. For those who are martyred, there is the crown of life (James 1:12; Rev. 2:10).
The final and probably most important lesson for the believer in the Lord Jesus who is walking close to the Lord is that there is no spiritual refreshment to be gained from watching most of the popular television shows or movies, listening to contemporary secular music, or even reading the latest fiction book if it is devoid of spiritual content and Biblical truth. Refreshment and satisfaction for the soul are found only in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Word of God. It is only when we are content and refreshed that we can come together corporately to truly worship and sing praises to the Lord Jesus Christ. Our sole focus must be on Him.
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