Envying the Psalmists’ Love for God

Marc Chagall The Psalm of David, ca. 1956 Drawing for the

Do these words about the psalmists make you feel a little uncomfortable? “They were people who knew far less about God than we do, yet loved him a great deal more” (Alec Motyer). If so, a healthy spiritual envy should drive us to this question: what can we learn from the psalmists about loving God?

Asaph

“Whom have I in heaven but you? / And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” Psalm 73:25

Asaph isn’t saying that he finds everything on earth undesirable. The psalms often declare the goodness of earthly things such as “wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart” (Psalm 104:15). No, what Asaph means is that there is nothing in the world that competes with God in his affections, nothing that runs a close second to God. God has won his heart, and he has no rivals.

But it wasn’t always that way. At the start of Psalm 73 Asaph admits that his feet “almost slipped” when he “saw the prosperity of the wicked.” The turning point in the psalm is verse 17: “I entered the sanctuary of God.” Something about the sanctuary – God’s temple in Jerusalem – restores God to his rightful place in Asaph’s heart.

In the temple he would have seen the blood of animal sacrifices, reminding him that God lovingly offers forgiveness. The temple was also the venue for festivals celebrating God’s loving acts: Passover, commemorating God’s liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt; the Feast of Weeks, marking God’s kind provision of abundant crops; and the Feast of Tabernacles, reminding the Israelites that God led them from their trailer park in the desert into the promised land with its “houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:11). So the temple reminded Asaph of God’s love for his people, a love that the wicked reject to their own destruction (vs 17, 19 & 27). God’s love for Asaph stirred up Asaph’s love for God.

We can learn from this. Let’s spend time reflecting on the love of God shown at the cross and seen in his sustaining care as we journey towards a better Promised Land. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Meditating on God’s love for us can be the turning point that restores his place in our affections. Let’s be honest, meditation – consciously thinking about something for an extended period of time – takes a bit of effort, which might be why we do it so little! As Thomas Watson says, “The reason we come away so cold from reading the Word is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.” Anyone who truly envies Asaph’s love for God will be driven to that fire.

David

“O God, you are my God … your love is better than life.” Psalm 63:1,3

In his book More than Conquerors, Simon Guillebaud tells a story from Burundi that chimes with David’s experience in Psalm 63: “A fellow missionary out here saw an old man in grubby clothes at one of the many displacement camps. She wondered what his story was, and so approached him to find out … He had seen his wife and children hacked to death and his house burnt down. He had walked many days to get to the camp, and had lost just about everything he ever owned, except the rags on his back. Yet at the end of his story of horrific personal loss, he was able to declare, ‘I never realized Jesus was all I needed until Jesus was all I had.’” In Psalm 63, David is in a similar position of utter deprivation. It’s one of the times when his enemies are seeking his life (verse 9), and he’s fled to “a dry and weary land where there is no water” (verse 1). And yet, like that refugee in Burundi, he’s able to find satisfaction in God: “Because your love is better than life, / my lips will glorify you.” What’s his secret?

To begin with, he seeks God “earnestly” (verse 1). He’s not messing about! And if we have real spiritual envy of David and the other psalmists, we’ll also demonstrate great earnestness in seeking God. We can’t expect our love for him to match the psalmists’ love if we seek trifling things in this world more earnestly than we seek God.

The second point to note is that, like Asaph, David focuses on God more than focusing on his feelings about God. He’s aware of his feelings about God (vs 1 & 8) but his eyes are turned upward much more than inward: “I have seen you in the sanctuary / and beheld your power and your glory” (verse 2); “On my bed I remember you; / I think of you through the watches of the night” (verse 6). What C. S. Lewis says about joy applies equally to love: “Its very existence presupposes that you desire not it but something other and outer.” That’s why we can’t increase our love for God by straining to produce loving feelings for him in our hearts. You could put it like this: more love for God comes from having more of God.

The final thing David does that helps him love God greatly is sing his praises (vs 5 & 7). David is the Poet King. Psalm 63 is a song. Singing is meditation with a melody. It’s a way of focusing on God so that we love him more. Pick a song of praise and sing it!

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