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Better Than Life

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. 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. Psalm 63.1-4.

No wonder God loved David and considered him to be “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13.14) for rarely has God had such a devoted servant.

This psalm is subtitled “A psalm of David when he was in the Desert of Judah” and that gives the clue to the circumstances in which it was written. Twice David found himself on the run in the Desert of Judah — once when Saul was king and was seeking to find and kill David, and once when David himself was king and was in exile from his son, Absalom, who had seized the throne and had himself declared king (2 Samuel 15.10-16). And it is certain that this psalm belongs to the second of those two situations because David refers to himself as “the king” in the psalm’s last verse (Psalm 63.11).

The Desert of Judah is the dry, barren, searingly-hot wilderness east of Jerusalem, which descends in a series of steps to the western shore of the Dead Sea. It is indeed “a dry and weary land where there is no water” — one of the most inhospitable places on earth — and the fact that David, fleeing from his own son and leaving behind all the comforts of his palace in Jerusalem, could pen this morning’s words while living rough in such a place is astonishing.

The key, however, lies in the address with which the psalm begins. For David, God is not just God, he is “my God”. The seeking that David talks about here is not the seeking of someone who doesn’t yet know God but wants to know him; no, it is the thirsting and longing of someone who cannot wait to be reunited with someone whom he already knows intimately and loves deeply. The Bible often refers to God as “the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob” but he is also “the God of David” … and, by the grace of the Lord Jesus, he has become my God, “the God of Neil” too.

In what follows, the NIV has chosen to omit an important “so”. The Hebrew word order is “To see your power and your glory so [as] I have seen you in the sanctuary” and the sense seems to be that, just as in happier days back in Jerusalem David has been caught up in the joy of worship, so, here in the desert he will be caught up in worship too. The Message paraphrase catches it when it says: “So here I am in the place of worship, eyes open, drinking in your strength and glory.” The wilderness has become the cathedral in which David praises his God. David’s circumstances have changed but God hasn’t.

And see from where those praises come. A conviction that God’s love “is better than life.” When I read those words, I am reminded of Paul in Acts 20: “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20.22-24).

As I think on the paucity of my love for God compared with that of Paul and of David before him, the closing verses of William How’s lovely old hymn “It is a thing most wonderful” come to mind …

It is most wonderful to know
His love for me so free and sure;
but ’tis more wonderful to see
my love for Him so faint and poor.

And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;
O light the flame within my heart,
and I will love Thee more and more,
until I see Thee as Thou art.

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