Exultation in Distress: Praising God in the Desert
By Daniel Mayfield
David says some strange things in this Psalm—I’m thirsty for your God! When I look upon you, it’s like I’m eating a fat, rich plate of food! I lie awake at night because I can’t stop thinking about you! I sing aloud to you while I’m tucked underneath your wing! Just picture that for a moment. My soul clings to you! Those are some very strange things to say.
But the first sentence of the Psalm normalizes all of it. David says, “O God, you are my God.” Now let me ask you: when David addresses God as “God”—he says, “Oh God”—is it redundant to then say, “You are my God?” In other words, is there a difference between the two uses of “God” in that first sentence?
And I would say, there’s a WORLD of difference! And I think that the level to which we see David’s Psalm as normal is proportional to the level of which we can fully use God’s name in both of the ways David used it. Let me phrase that another way: if we can legitimately share with David in all of the honest sincerity in his opening statement, then the rest of what David says in the Psalm will appear very normal to us. We will say, “Yes, I’m also thirsty for a big drink of GOD! Oh yes, I know what it’s like to sing to God while he hides me under his giant wing!”
We won’t say things like, “Whoa, David is weird,” or, closer to home for many of us, “David is ultra spiritual. I can’t imagine being that spiritual. There’s no way there could be a modern day David.”
So let me explain what David is saying in his opening sentence. The difference between David’s two uses of “God” in the sentence, “O God, you are my God,” is the same as the difference between calling somebody by their name (one one hand) and knowing them personally as a friend (on the other hand). “Oh God—^^that’s your name^^—you are my God—that’s your position and authority over my life (pointing down).”
Now I think very often when we say, “O God, you are my God,” what we really mean is, “God, I recognize you as my deity of choice,” which is to say, “You are God, and Allah is not. You are God, and Vishnu is not. You are God, and Osiris is not. You are God, and Buddha is not. You are God, and Mother Earth is not.”
And that’s good to acknowledge—because all wisdom starts there—but that is not what David meant when he said this! It is good to know Yahweh is God, to the exclusion of every other deity, but James made plain that even the demons agree on that.
Again, when we say, “O God, you are my God,” I think often the only thing we mean is that God is the deity we choose to acknowledge as true. And in that sense, he is “My God.” So if we see David’s words in this Psalm as either ultra-spiritual, or unobtainable, or strange, I think we are leaning closer to saying, “God, you are the deity of the whole world, and I acknowledge that,” instead of saying, “God, my every thought and action is done to seek you, because you are MY God!”
That’s what David is saying. “God, you are my God!” And I think the rest of the Psalm describes what that looks like. So depending on where you’re at in your walk with God, these things will either be very normal or very strange or very distant. But this is where God would like all of us to be. He’d like us all to be in a place where we crave God like David does in this Psalm.
We can’t think of the Psalms as merely being songs or prayers that express the feelings of men—they are that—but they are the feelings of men being directed by the influence of the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 3:7-8 reads, 7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness. The Hebrew writer quoted Psalm 95, and he said those were the Holy Spirit’s words! So when we read about David’s feelings and his thoughts in this Psalm, the Holy Spirit is directing us in the way that we ought to think and the way that we ought to feel about God. He’s saying, “I want you to pray to God like this! I want you to think of me like this! I want you to be at a point where you’re right at home with prayers like this. And if you can’t pray like this, then maybe I’m not really your God.”
Let me begin with an overview of what is happening here, and then we will explore some key elements of the Psalm. We won’t be able to uncover everything happening here—that would take me six months—but we will look at some highlights and get some insights.
The Ultimate Reality as Recognized by David
First, David understands what 99% of the world does not—every matter of import in this life relates to the soul of a man. Another way to say that is to say that all of reality is first spiritual, and we simply can’t physically see those things.
In verse 1, David says, “My soul thirsts for you.” Everybody’s soul is thirsty for God, but they just don’t call it that. Instead, they say things like, “Something’s missing in my life. I just don’t feel fulfilled,” or “I’m depressed,” or “I’m surrounded by friends and objects, but I feel so empty.” Those kinds of words are the desperate pleas of thirsty souls, and they just can’t find the stream from which to drink and satisfying that need.
So, they do one of four things: (1) They seek out God and find him. That’s the best. (2) They devote themselves to some kind of humanitarian work, finding fulfillment in helping other people—which is closer to where they need to be because they recognize that fulfillment isn’t found in things, but it’s not all the way there. They still don’t recognize that such a need was given them by God. (3) They keep themselves constantly drunk on things of the world—always in a new relationship to distract them, always buying something new, always getting high off of pornography or alcohol or drugs. They constantly mask their soul’s hurt by getting high off of the world. (4) They just quit and choose to end their life because they can’t take the emptiness any longer.
We see these kinds of things all the time. Those are the blind groanings for the fountain of life! And David merely understands that those inner longings are thirsts for God—and there’s not a thing in the world that will quench them besides God.
He says in verse 5: “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food.” More will be said about this in a moment, but the point is, again, David understands that his soul is the object of import here. He then says in verse 8, “My soul clings to you.”
So again, David sees what most people don’t, which is the spiritual reality behind this physical life; and for that reason, he seeks to fulfill his soul!
Soul Before Body
Now, in modern psychology, one theory of broad recognition is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You all have probably heard of it. The needs are illustrated by a pyramid shape where the base of the pyramid depicts matters of first importance, and it works up from there. Starting at the bottom, there are 1. physiological needs (food, water, warmth, rest), then 2. safety needs (security, protection), then 3. belongingness and love needs (intimate relationships, friends), then 4. esteem needs (prestige or feeling of accomplishment), then at the very top is 5. self-actualization (achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities).
Now I want to show you something of interest here. Utilizing clues from the Psalm itself, we can make some assessments as to the physical situation in which David penned this Psalm. You’ll notice before verse 1, the text reads, “A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” So David wrote this while in the desert, which probably explains why he compared his soul’s need to the physical needs of being in the desert in verse 1. Verse 1 says, “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Miranda and I were in the Judaean desert this summer, and I’ll tell you—David isn’t exaggerating. There’s no water. So David, being in the desert, would have been very limited on how much water he had carried with him. He describes his flesh as fainting in a dry and weary land. Again, that desert gets very, very hot.
Look at verses 5-6: “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.” So, David isn’t sleeping when he’s supposed to be sleeping. Instead, he’s thinking about God late into the night.
Then look down at verse 9: But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth. So David is lacking in water; his body is weary from desert heat; he’s not getting proper sleep at night; and he has enemies who are seeking to destroy him! As far as I can tell, much of Maslow’s most basic needs are not being met in a physical sense! And yet, David’s primary concerns are that of his spirit! Getting his spirit to drink from God’s fountain. Getting his spirit to feast on God’s glory!
It’s not that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is totally inaccurate (though I take issue with some of his higher need assessments)—it’s just that Maslow missed the most fundamental need of every living being, and it is to first find the soul’s fulfillment in God! When that need is met, we are able to forgo a lack of physical needs to a much greater extent than somebody else.
I really believe this is why Paul said in Philippians 4:11-12, I have learned in whatever situation, I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. [And what is that secret?] 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
I mean, is that not exactly what David is doing here!? He’s running from an enemy in the hot, waterless desert, and his primary concern is to get some soul food—which is God!
Read with me verses 1-3 together: O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So he’s relating his physical condition and its needs to his spiritual condition and its needs, and he has decided that his spiritual condition is more important. That’s why he said, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. In this terrible physical condition, I think the very best thing would be to go and meditate on the glory of God. I think I’ll just stop and think about how beautiful he is.
And the sane person says, “Dude, you’re either gonna die of dehydration or you’re gonna do from your enemy, so why do you think it logical to go and meditate on the glory of God???” And David answers that question in verse 3: Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. If I lack water but have God, life is GOOD. But if I lack the steadfast love of the Lord, yet have all the physical provision and safety in the world, then I’ll be no better off than my enemy, who in verse 9 will merely go down to the grave.
Do we look at it like that? God, your steadfast love is better than life itself! If you take my life, but I have your love, then all is good! The Holy Spirit would have us get to a point where we really do see it that way. Do we see it that way? I think very often, we do not.
Exultation in Distress
This last section of the message inspired its title—“Exultation in distress: Praising God in the Desert.” As I studied this Psalm, I was floored by the number of times David speaks of praising God.
In verse 3, Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
In verse 4, So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.
In verse 5, My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.
In verse 6, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
In verse 11, But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped.
Church, it is very often that when things go badly in our lives, we stop singing. We stop praising. And I can understand that, because praise is typically the response of something going good. But this Psalm reminds us that there is always something good. Even when we would say, “everything is bad,” there is always something very good—GREAT, in fact.
David calls it “the power and glory of God” (v. 2) He calls it the “steadfast love” of the Lord (v. 3). He calls it “God’s help” (about half way through verse 6—for you have been my help). He calls it the “upholding right hand of God” (verse 8).
When you’re down and out because of some great trial—either physical or spiritual—nobody is telling you to pretend those things are not there. David didn’t do that. He didn’t lie to himself and say, “I’m not really in the desert—I’m not really being hunted down by murderous enemies” (forced smile). He rather said, “Your love is better than life!” So even when all has gone wrong in this life, the impetus behind authentic Christian praise is to meditate on God’s love, his glory, and the ultimate deliverance from sin found in Jesus.
At the opening of the message, we talked about David’s first line, “O God, you are my God.” If we really believe that, then we won’t question his presence when we feel alone. We won’t doubt his love when others hate us. We won’t fill ourselves with the world when our soul feels empty. If we say, “You are my God,” then we mean, “I will seek you and submit to you and praise you even when every fleshly impulse says to do otherwise.”
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