In the shadow

In the pursuit of a better understanding of joy, I’ve come across some rather counter-intuitive things in Scripture. For instance, sacrifice, obedience, and hardship can all actually increase the amount of joy one has. Ultimately, according to what I’m finding in the Bible, the ultimate source of joy has nothing to with the circumstances I’m going through right now and everything with the God who brings me through them. I will admit that, on more than a few occasions, this has seemed like an empty promise to me. Not that I am going through anything particularly unpleasant in life, but there have been moments when my levels of joy have been severely depleted, regardless. When the kids are at each other’s throats, for example, or on Mondays after a rough Sunday (e.g., low attendance, flat message), it’s very easy for me to lose my joy. The really frustrating part of that is that the “troubles” I go through pale in comparison to those other believers around the globe experience, and yet they can still know joy. So the question that I have is, what am I missing?

The answer may be found in Psalm 63, where we read in verse 5-7, “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; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy” (ESV).

It’s a great statement all on its own, but it becomes all the more relevant when I consider the caption at the top of the chapter: “A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” Suddenly, I realize that, though the ESV Study Bible isn’t sure whether this is a reference to the time that David was fleeing from Saul prior to becoming king or (more likely) from Absalom when his own son attempted to usurp his throne, these words were penned while David was on the run for his life. In other words, these are far from the best of times. In fact, as I reflect on verse 5, the appearance of the word “as” strikes me because we could read it “as though” or “as if.” As in, he didn’t actually have fat or rich food. Rather, at this point in time, David was stuck foraging for whatever meager nutrients he could find in the middle of the desert. And yet, David was able to speak of praising God in each of verses 3, 4, and 5; blessing God in verse 4; remembering and meditating on God in verse 6; and yet having joy in verses 5, 6, and 11. Note that last bit. Even on the run for his life, in the wilderness (read that, desert), David knew joy. How?

Well, I think there are a number of keys in this psalm. For instance, in verse 1, he declares, “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.” David knew all about dry and weary lands where there was no water; he was in one right then. But the key here is that he sought the Lord – all the more earnestly – even then. He continues in verse 2, “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” David was miles from the sanctuary, and if he went there, he would have been found and killed. Yet he knew God’s power and glory from having regularly spent time in His presence. And he adds in verse 3, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” David had experienced God’s love, which he knew to be consistently faithful beyond measure. And he chose to praise the Lord, even in the midst of this hardship.

And then we come to the joy part. As I mentioned above, the use of the word “as” is noteworthy. It indicates that he didn’t really have good food. He didn’t have the stuff that kings were supposed to have. He didn’t even have the things normal people had. Indeed, assuming that the psalm was written during Absalom’s rebellion, we’re told in 2 Samuel 17 that, while David was in hiding in the desert, some men “brought beds, basins, and pottery items. [They also brought] wheat, barley, flour, roasted grain, beans, lentils, honey, curds, sheep, and cheese from the herd” (vss 28-29 ESV). Notice that, while they had sheep, they did not have steaks or pork chops or lobster tail. For a king, this was roughing it!

David was in real hardship – not to mention danger – and yet he declares, “my mouth will praise you with joyful lips” (vs 5), “in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy” (vs 7), and “the king shall rejoice in God” (vs 11). The first of these statements is simply an intent. And the third speaks to things I’ve already discussed (e.g., the presence of the Lord brings joy). But I do find interesting this seventh verse.

A few months ago, our family was engrossed by the internet-streamed hatching of three eaglets near Decorah, Iowa. In the first days of their lives, the parents would gather the young eagles together and sit on them to shelter them from the cold. Then, as they grew too large to sit on, the parents would still gather them close and wrap their wings around the kids. Why? To keep them warm and safe when it was cold and/or dangerous. David was able to sing for joy under the sheltering, protective wing of the Lord, even in rough times.

But something else occurs to me about this. In order for the eagle parents to shelter their eaglets under their wing, they would have to gather the eaglets close. Really, really close. To the point where I sometimes wonder if the kids sometimes thought they were being smothered, but that’s beside the point. Here’s the deal. When I go through tough times, I think, quite often, God’s objective is that I would be drawn close to Him. Really, really close. So that He can wrap His arms around me and shelter me from the cold and danger of life.

It is this realization which gives David cause for joy. As tough as his life was at that moment, he knew that it was really designed to draw him into an ever-closer relationship with the Lord. And the closer he grew to the Lord, the warmer and safer things became.

Note, though, that being under God’s wing doesn’t mean that the storm goes away. It doesn’t mean that the bad guys fly off and the sun comes out. In fact, the storm can rage even more. Outside. But in the shadow of God’s wings, we can still find joy.

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