One of my tasks in aged-care was to try to find out what had made life meaningful for each resident. The first question on the spiritual assessment form was, What has given your life meaning and purpose? For many the answer would probably be their relationships. But human frailties have a habit of getting in the way of relating well, and breakdowns in relationships can sap our lives of meaning.
The answers I often wrote down were really answers to the simpler question, What have been your interests and hobbies? From information I gleaned I’d put down something like gardening or music or pets or sport. Any of which may have provided much enjoyment in the past. But as a source of life’s meaning and purpose they tend to dry up, when you’re overcome by an illness that disables both body and mind.
What does give life meaning, especially when circumstances are far from ideal – when we find ourselves, like the writer of Psalm 63, in a dry and weary place?
The writer of Psalm 63 cries out to God, in a very personal expression of faith. He’s aware that his whole being, body and soul, is dependent on God: “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.”
Without God to cry out to, we’re left in a kind of limbo. We have no higher strength to draw on, when we come to the end of our own. No one to grant forgiveness when we’re faced with the failings and falseness that bedevil each one of us. No one to thank for the good things we enjoy. No sense that the world is ultimately in the hands of its Creator, and that his will for it – and for us as part of it – is incomparably better than the way it is now.
A top Melbourne journalist who died a few years ago said during her last illness, “If there is a God, I don’t approve of him.” Some would agree – it sounds clever – but the evidence is that when creatures dismiss their Creator as not to their liking, or not even there, the world becomes an even drier and wearier place. The ever-obvious example, for people of our generations, is the influence of Nietzsche’s assertion that God is dead. Hitler acknowledged that influence on him, and carried out his self-serving plans by demanding the kind of obedience only a Creator-God would have a right to.
A more recent example is Robert Mugabe proclaiming, “Zimbabwe is mine!” in direct contradiction of God’s word in Psalm 50, “The world is mine, and everything in it.” Under Mugabe’s rule, the world he claimed was his became a very dry and weary place.
Psalm 63 is believed to be written by David – from its reference to a king. Physically he may have been in a dry and weary place, fleeing for his life into the desert – as he did after his son Absalom tried to overthrow him. Absalom had already murdered his brother, to punish him for raping their sister. And now he was bent on ousting their father, in an attempt to grab power and glory for himself. Whatever our state of dryness or weariness, hopefully none of us has experienced quite the level of David’s grief, as he fled from his son.
Any parent experiencing rejection by a child knows the weariness of it. But rather than sink into self-pity or blame, David turned to God, because he’d seen something of a far greater, more lasting reality than the one he was living in. He continues: “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory…..your love is better than life….”
What does it mean that God’s love is better than life? We naturally cling to life. God’s love may not seem so real, especially in times of dryness and weariness. How did David conclude that it’s better than life itself? Perhaps he was thinking how fleeting life is, compared with the character of the eternal God.
When David wrote, in Psalm 63, that God’s love is better than life, he may also have been thinking how his life would have been without God’s love. Even as an unknown shepherd-boy he’d been as dependent on God to protect and provide for him, as his sheep were dependent on him. The Lord was his shepherd, whose goodness and mercy followed him all the days of his life. Whatever successes he’d had were all down to God, who’d even forgiven his shameful adultery, and the treachery and murder he’d committed in order to cover it up. If God had not been gracious to David, his life would have been a mess.
David believed God’s love is better than life after seeing God’s power and glory in the sanctuary – the tabernacle God had directed Moses to construct. So what did he see when he went there?
As he passed through the entrance into its court he saw the basin where the priests went through their ritual cleansing, and the altar where the sacrifices were burnt to obtain God’s forgiveness. Then there was the tabernacle itself – a tent made of curtains of finely twisted linen, interwoven with blue, purple and scarlet, and embroidered with cherubim. Coverings of goats-hair and ram-skins protected it from the weather.
David was not of the priestly tribe, so normally wouldn’t enter the tent. But of course he knew what was inside – the Holy Place, lit by the seven-branched candlestick – itself a reminder that God is the Source of light and truth. There was a table where various instruments were placed, along with the bread of the Presence – twelve baked cakes, arranged in two rows and replaced with fresh ones every Sabbath, to remind Israel that God is the Sustainer of life. In front of another curtain was the altar of incense to symbolize prayer.
Beyond the inner curtain was the Most Holy Place, with its reminders of God’s dealings with Israel – the ark of the covenant containing a pot used for manna, Aaron’s rod and the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. On top of it was the mercy-seat – a slab of gold, with a cherub with outstretched wings at each end of it.
Every item was overlaid with gold, and the whole place would have been clean and uncluttered, conveying a sense of the beauty and order, which the Creator-God has put it in our natures to enjoy. The tabernacle signified the presence of the invisible God with his people.
We who know about Jesus know that what David saw was just a foreshadowing of the power and glory that would be seen in him. John wrote that Jesus ‘tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ God the One and Only, John wrote, has made known the God none of us has ever seen. Like David, we know about dryness and weariness, but we know much more than he could have known about God’s power and glory – and the love that’s better than life.
Earthly power and glory are on display when, for example, an American president is inaugurated for a term in office. God’s power and glory are in a completely different category. His power is seen in creation – and in his restraint. His glory’s beyond our imagining, yet we experience it every day in the glory of his grace to us.
As recipients of that undeserved favour, we find what we’re here for – to live in a way that brings praise to him, and to connect with him through prayer. Psalm 63 is a prayer, in which David vows: “I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will pray.”
Praise and prayer bridge the gap between our reality and the greater reality. To express our dependence on God through prayer is to acknowledge our real position. Praise gives us a truer perspective on our troubles. Our daily round has a point, when it begins, runs its course and ends, with God – our source of wisdom and strength.
The story’s told of a missionary in a remote place whose car would no longer start. For two years he was limited to using it only when he could park on a hill or find a crowd to help him push-start it. Then a new recruit arrived. He took a closer look under the bonnet and found a cable had come loose. He reconnected it and the engine leapt to life at a touch. The power had been there all along, but the connection was loose.
In connecting with God, our souls are satisfied. David goes on: “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods.”
Giving God the praise due to him is actually beneficial to us. Augustine said our main purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So what’s the link between praising God and enjoying ourselves? Anything good quite naturally calls forth praise. Take, for example, a soccer final. Let’s say that right to the closing seconds it’s a draw, but then, from twenty-five metres out, the striker curves the ball so that is goes in at the very top corner of the net. The stadium erupts into praise.
But imagine how it would be if the rule at soccer finals was silence… Well, it’s actually unimaginable – such stifling of our natural instincts would put us all into therapy. The purpose of our being there is to enjoy what’s going on, and adding our voices to everyone else’s is a natural part of our enjoyment.
As it is when we add our voices to the eternal choir of the universe, whose singers are forever increasing in number. John heard their song in his vision of what’s eternally real: “I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea and all that is in them, singing, “To him who sits on the throne and to Jesus Christ the Lamb, be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
Naturally, praising God is much more than singing. Spurgeon put it like this: “Hear the general talk, ‘Things are very bad. Business is dreadful. Trade was never so bad.’ But somehow we’re not all turned to skin and bone. Surely we can mend our talk, and speak more brightly and cheerily of what God does for us.”
C.S. Lewis compared God’s inherent right to praise with the way a great painting calls forth admiration. He wrote, “To admire God is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world. Not to appreciate him is to lose the greatest experience.”
David goes on in Psalm 63:On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Through praise and prayer we focus on God, instead of on our dryness and weariness.
David then provides us with a perfect description of the relationship that gave his life its purpose – words we may echo: My soul clings to you, and your right hand upholds me.