This is a favourite psalm of many, for good reason. The Psalms give us words to say to God, to both express what is in our hearts but also to shape what is in our hearts, and this psalm has a wonderful honesty and hope in it. It is less obvious in the new NIV, but in the old version three phrases suggest a helpful way to see and understand the progression of thought through the psalm – “my soul thirsts” v.1, “my soul will be satisfied” v.5, and “my soul clings” v.8.
David writes this “in a dry and parched land”, and in those outward circumstances he sees a reflection of his heart experience. He longs intensely for God, who feels far from him. Sometimes it is when stripped of all else that we might too easily seek to find satisfaction in, that this deepest need and most fundamental appetite is laid bare. We saw often enough in John last term that Jesus offers satisfaction (eg Jn.4:14, 6:35) but nevertheless this is still Christian experience. That appetite has been awakened in us, which is dulled in others, which God uses to keep drawing us to Him.
At the start of the psalm the psalmist is thirsty, but by verse 5 he is confident of that thirst being quenched and satisfied; we might ask how he gets there. As in many psalms, memory plays a key role. He remembers happier days, when he didn’t feel far from God, but stood in the presence of God in temple. I don’t think we need imagine he is referring to a vision as such in verse 2 – he saw with his mind’s eye, I take it. At the heart of the sanctuary was the Ark, a symbol in part of God’s power and rule, and God’s glory was reflected in the magnificence of the building and in all that was done there – both the sacrifices offered and the Scriptures taught. Obviously it spoke clearly of the covenant relationship, grounded in God’s steadfast love – a love more precious, more wonderful than life itself. Though he might feel far from God at the moment, remembering what he had once seen clearly, what had once deeply satisfied his soul, encourages him to believe that God will again satisfy this thirst within him. His heart is moved to praise this God.
Wakefulness through the night suggests the difficult situation David finds himself in at the start of the psalm; the night is a time when our fears and worries can plague our thoughts, but deliberately he turns his thoughts to God. Verse 7 is a lovely image (it crops up a number of times in the Psalms and we will see it again in Ps.91:4). As he remembers God now, it is not with the longing and sense of distance he felt in v.1, but with a confident sense of God’s help and tender, watchful protection. The two halves of verse 8 are telling and instructive: like a toddler to a parent we cling tightly, but it is his strong hold on us that keeps us safe and sustains us. This trust in God gives fresh confidence and hope for the future. All that threatens us will not destroy us, but will rather be destroyed. Joy awaits us.
The psalm was perhaps written when David’s kingship was being rejected by his son Absalom, who had launched a coup, but David ends with a confidence that his God-appointed role will be restored, to the good of all his loyal subjects. As David’s experience points forward to Christ’s, we could consider how Jesus might have sung this song. He certainly experienced a profound thirst on the cross (not just physical thirst), and faced murderous opposition. He could look back to all he had seen of God’s glory in the real sanctuary of heaven, and could look forward to “the joy set before him”. He counted God’s covenant love of greater worth than his own life. His joy in the Father now gives us cause to glory in him. And in him this psalm can be our song too.