The ancient compilation Apostolic Constitutions (2.59) advises believers to gather for daily worship and to open their service with Psalm 63. Reflecting the same time period (ca. 400 CE), Chrysostom reports that believers sang this Psalm at the begining of their morning assemblies (Commentary on Psalms, cv. 63). It is still part of the communal daily morning prayers of the Greek Orthodox Church. The church, through this Psalm, has expressed the fervant yearning to assemble with the saints in the presence of God.
The use of the Psalm at morning gatherings is rooted in the Hebrew verb “seek.” The term projects an image of one who rises at dawn to seek God. The early Greek translation (LXX) rendered it, “I rise early for you.” In other words, God–or gathering with the saints to seek God–is the first thought on the mind when the Psalmist rises every morning. Our first thoughts, if we follow the model here, are about God. We rise to meet God. We yearn to meet with other believers to share in the prayers and praises.
The Psalm, however, is set in the wilderness; it is prayed by one whose life is threatened by the wilderness or the circumstances that created the wilderness. The wilderness is not only a concrete reality for the Psalmist but also a metaphor for the spiritual anxiety permeating the author’s soul. The felt need is deeply rooted in the psyche of the Psalmist. We hear the voice of lament in these opening lines.
Separated from community and from the presence of God at the sanctuary, the Psalmist thirsts for God’s presence like a parched wanderer in the desert. This yearning is so deeply felt that it is like an unquenched thirst. The deep need to experience God reverberates through the body; the spiritual desire has a somatic effect. The body trembles, even faints, due to the lack of spiritual nourishment.
This thirst, however, is not created merely by the seeming absence of God but by the concrete absence of community in the presence of God. It is the absence of assembly before God with other believers that spiritually troubles the Psalmist. Without assembly the Psalmist is restless, distressed, and dissatisfied.
So, what the Psalmist longs for is not an individual experience but a corporate one. The Psalmist longs for the sanctuary of God, the place where God dwells. Divine encounter is like a drink for a thirsty person; it is a satisfying meal of rich (fatty) food! Assembling for worship in the presence of God is spiritual nourishment.
The Psalmist remembers a time, and longs for future moments, when the glory of God was experienced. To “see” God–to behold divine power and glory–is an experiential metaphor. God is revealed in the congregational experience of worship. We hear, see, and taste God there.
Through such worship, the Psalmist learned to confess: “your hesed (love) is better than life.” Believers confess this in the midst of worship and it is worship which forms and shapes that confession. The early church heard this on the lips of its martyrs, but this is not simply about physical life or delieverance from death. Rather, it is fundamentally about a divine relationality who faithfully (loyally) loves. It is covenantal language. This love (covenant loyalty) or divine faithfulness is true life. Authentic life leans into that divine faithfulness and comittment. We confess through worship that God is the center of authentic life.
The experience of hesed in the temple (sanctuary) is a practical and spiritual obsession for the Psalmist. Nights are filled with meditations as well as the recognition that this hesed has perserved the Psalmist’s life in the wilderness. Consequently, praise falls from the lips as well as up-lifted palms. Both lips and hand express our worship.
Worship reminds us that God is with us. We rejoice under the shadow of God’s wings even as we sleep with our fears throughout the night. While the Psalmist is pursued by enemies, we are often pursued by our fears. Fear subverts faith; unbelief gives birth to fear. We often fail to trust.
The Psalmist expects those fears to dissipate as enemies disappear. Nan Merrill (Psalms for Praying, 116) offers this dynamic equivalent for contemporary readers of this Psalm. What the enemy was to the Psalmist is what our fears are to us. But worship–divine encounter–transforms fears. “The fears that seem to separate me from You shall be transformed and disappear; As they are faced, each fear is diminished; they shall be gone as in a dream when I awaken.”
We pursue God in the wilderness and we yearn for the satisfying feast–both drink and food–in which our restless souls find peace in union with God. To encounter God in the sanctuary as part of a community with other believers is to experience joy and satisfying peace.
This experience is not dependent upon how well the songs are sung or even which songs are sung. It is not dependent upon whether the service is “boring” or “exciting.” It is not even dependent upon the excellence of the leaders though we value the giftedness of the community. Rather, it is dependent upon the gracious presence of God who comes to us through the praises of the saints. Worship is authentic because God is present and not because we have performed so well.
Only God’s presence satisfies thirst and dispels fears. This is for what humanity longs–peace, rest, satisfaction. Psalm 63 leads to the fountain that quenches thirst.