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Psalm 63:1-8

The Morning Hymn

Psalm 63 holds a high place in the history of Christianity. A Psalm of David, it is traditionally attributed to being written in the wilderness of Judea, when David and those loyal to him were caused to flee Jerusalem during the rebellion against him by his son Absalom (II Samuel 15-18). During that episode, David spent a short amount of time in the northeastern portion of the wilderness of Judah before he crossed over the Jordan River to safety and his eventual return to Jerusalem. In that desolate and bleak landscape, fleeing for his life, dealing with disillusionment and betrayal at the hands of his own kin and former friends, David wrote Psalm 63. It is possible that Psalms 61-64 represent a catanae or series of Psalms that represent his inner thoughts and prayers during this time.

Psalm 63 is one of the most beloved psalms of Christianity. The great English pastoral poet John Donne (1572-1631) noted “the spirit and soul of the whole book of Psalms is contracted into (it).” The ancient golden-mouthed preacher of Constantinople, John Chrysostom (347-407), wrote “that it was decreed and ordained by the primitive fathers, that no day should pass without the public singing of this Psalm.” In fact, the Apostolic Contstitutions, Book VII called for the singing of Psalm 63 at the beginning of each Sunday service and referred to it simply as “the morning hymn.” There are abundant references to it in the commentaries, both ancient and modern, and in the liturgical offerings throughout Christian history, particularly in monastic services. Simply put, the words of David noting our need to seek God, depend on his provision, and trust in his care have continually been on the lips of worshippers and the pages of Christianity since at least the 3rd century.

Preaching Psalm 63 in Lent

Preaching Psalm 63 will require the preacher to connect the themes of seeking, longing, singing, praising and remembrance to the presence of God and his care in the Christian life. These are not just ‘stair-steps’ to right praise, but an overview life with God that is a comprehensive pattern of Christian reflection. As a Lenten text, this is a clear call to reflection for the person who has come into the clear realization that faith in God is a dependent relationship where God is the stabile and dependable one and that we are utterly dependent on God in our relationship to him for life itself--from conversion to death, through good times and bad. As a Lenten text, the blessings of this are two-fold. First, there is the opportunity to remind the gathered faithful that Lent is an extended season for reflection on our relationship with God, a still pool of water in a bend of the ever-rushing current of the river of life. During lent things slow down and we are to make good use of the time by returning in heart and mind to the beginning of our relationship with God and to times of persecution and difficulty and take stock of where things now stand between us and God and to see if we have drifted from our ‘first love.’ There is a call to memory, renewal of joy, and even repentance in Psalm 63 and Lent is a season of repentance and recovering joy in God where these things are the meat of our spiritual diet, shedding the things of this world and embracing the stark reality of utter dependence on God. Second is the occasion to use this pattern as a call to return to the joy of knowing God, of trusting in God completely. As much as penitential reflection is a part of the Lenten disciplines, so also is re-establishing patterns of prayer and life that continual lead us to God as the source of our joy, sustenance, and blessing as we live constantly in the life-giving, life-governing presence of the almighty.

With all this in mind, there is fabulous poetic phrasing in Psalm 63 through which to preach these themes during Lent. Thirsty? Hungry? Fearful? Weak? Lost? Then seek God who satisfies thirst in a dry, parched land. Remember that in the household of the Lord is a rich banquet feast which never fails to satisfy. Look and see the enfolding wings of God which protect you even in the most severe darkness. Search your heart and mind and remember all that God has done as you sense that you have lost your way and know that the strong hand of the Lord is still your guide. As one commentator has noted of Psalm 63: “The poetry plays a resonant chord that I think strikes home within the hearer’s mind. It is honest and open in its appraisal of human experience, the contours of theological imagination, and capacity for reflection about life issues in relationship with God. The words play like chords and melodic runs in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. They are familiar and have a capacity to touch listeners with musical truth that can speak to profound dimensions of human experience and thereby prompt reflection.”[i] Let your preaching mind loose to play in a landscape rich with the presence of God and an honesty about the human condition.

Practicing Pastoral Care in Psalm 63

Psalm 63 hits right where we live. The opportunities to use preaching to practice pastoral care are abundant. If we fail to see where those who hear us preach are in the midst of personal fear, spiritual hunger, and lack of faith, we are simply not paying attention. Preaching this psalm is the chance to see beyond our pastoral myopia and allow the text to work its power as we lead in preaching and worship where we are entrusted to do our work. First, there are clear connections to the life and ministry of Jesus here that should be featured in our preaching. The ‘I am’ sayings—living water, bread of heaven—come quickly to mind. The season of Lent also calls to mind the passion scenes toward which we are proceeding as we walk with God through the desert of Lent. As Fred Craddock used to say, you can get to Easter, get to Jerusalem, without going through the desert, but if you do, when you arrive you won’t find Jesus and you won’t be able to live in the power of the resurrection. We should also be reminded that poetry begets poetry and the preacher will not have to look far to find appropriate, thoughtful lines to highlight these common spiritual ailments and their connection to the life of Jesus. One of Carl Sandberg’s early poems to mind as a fitting example of this:

"Take up your cross and go the thorn way.

If a sponge of vinegar is passed you on the end of a spear,

take that, too! Souls are woven of endurance. God knows!"

Using poetry to preach poetry is often a daunting task but the words become fixed reminders in the hearts and memories of those who hear them and can serve as clarion calls to Christ-likeness and depending upon God in times of difficulty, threat, and fear—realities too often neglected in preaching these days.