Longing and yearning in the Psalms
This week’s psalm is one of my favourites, 62/63, because it is one of the psalms that expresses pure longing. I was thinking about this group and why I find them so attractive and distinctive. It’s not a big group in itself compared with some other topics, only half-a-dozen or so psalms, but they do make a recognisable sub-set, and I love them, so I want to write about them.
Different sorts of psalm categories
The Bible psalmists were clearly all sorts of people, and they wrote all sorts of psalms. Psalms can be praise songs, appeals, requests for help (urgent and less so), celebrations, either of victories in battle or more abstract, e.g. the joy of the Law; litanies, pilgrim songs, accounts of real events (history in digestible and memorable form, like the Kings of England in rhyming couplets), catalogues of creation, curses upon enemies, songs of repentance and there are other categories too. Some psalms are one topic only, but mostly they cover more than one. The Book of Psalms is truly an infinite resource. Some groupings are obvious, like the psalms of repentance – usually counted as seven, but there are different opinions as to what to include; but the yearning psalms is my classification rather than anyone else’s, and they are easier to recognise than to define.
List of yearning psalms
This is my list of yearning psalms. Sometimes you catch the same note in other psalms (e.g. 60/61, 100/101), especially if the Response has been chosen to emphasize the wanting and waiting, but these particular psalms seem to me to be the classic ones.
Ps 41/42 : Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God
There is a most beautiful setting of this single verse of the psalm by Palestrina. He did also set the next verse, and may have done the whole psalm, but we don’t have it (though it might still turn up). His setting accentuates the waiting and longing, and ends with everyone reaching the word for God and just hanging on in perfect, blissful harmony.
Ps 62/63 : O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting (Sunday psalm for this week)
The second verse of Ps 41/42 is ‘My soul is thirsting for God’, so the same image keeps recurring. It’s interesting that Jesus uses so much water imagery for the good news he is bringing (John 4, 1-25). People can put up with being hungry for a while, but thirst is somehow much worse. I tried to set it so that it’s beautiful and thoughtful, but doesn’t come to a satisfactory finish, because I felt that was more appropriate. Different country Responses triggered different tunes, more wistful for CAN and OZ, possibly a bit too upbeat for UK – it’s difficult to get the tone right.
Ps 72/73 : How good God is to Israel, to those who are pure of heart
This one is wordier than most. It dissects the problem of wicked people thriving and the innocent suffering. The author has clearly grappled with this for a long time without solution, but the psalm ends with complete confidence that God knows what he is doing. This is included in my list because of vv 25-26 : ‘What else have I in heaven but you? Apart from you I want nothing on earth. My body and my heart faint for joy; God is my possession for ever.’ Heaven is nothing, everything is nothing; only being with God matters.
Ps 83/84 : How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, God of hosts
which goes on ‘my soul is longing and yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord’, not because of any other reason, but because God is there. ‘One day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’
Ps 129/130 : Out of the depths
This is usually classed as a repentance psalm, but I include it here because of vv 5-6 : ‘My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak. (Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord.)’ This illustrates beautifully what I was saying about confidence. The psalmist longs for the Lord, knowing that he will be coming; – so nothing else matters, even down in the depths. He knows that joy will come in the morning. On this basis, I could almost include Ps 136/137 (By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept), because it is yearning for the return to God’s house that is the motor spring of the whole psalm, but the feeling of desolation is so strong that it takes over.
Ps 130/131 : O Lord, my heart is not proud
This might be regarded as cheating, but it’s a tiny psalm which I include even though the word yearning is not mentioned, because of the beauty and serenity of its central image. ‘Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. A weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul.’ Note the detail of this image. It’s a weaned child, so it’s not fussing or trying to feed; it’s at peace, knowing everything is all right. But this is a living person speaking, with all the daily problems that everyone has, so it’s an act of will : ‘I have set my soul’. The child still has enormous needs, but it is totally confident that they will be met.
Ps 138/139 : O Lord, you search me and you know me
I can’t not include this one, even though here the focus has shifted right round, and this amazing psalm talks about God’s yearning for us rather than the other way round. It portrays someone so in love that he literally can’t take his eyes off the beloved. God’s knowledge is total; he knows my resting, my rising, all my ways, everything I say before I say it, he pursues me, he besieges me. There is nowhere to hide from him in the whole of Creation: ‘If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, even there [..] your right hand would hold me fast.’ There are a couple of verses praying for the downfall of the wicked but they seem very peripheral; what stays in the mind is the picture of God pursuing, overwhelming, almost intimidating, the Hound of Heaven, in Francis Thompson’s beautiful but unfashionable poem. The only reason the psalmist is not overwhelmed and intimidated, is because he knows that love alone is the cause of this pursuit.
Why yearning psalms are distinctive
Some of the most frequently-recurring themes in the psalms are hurrah for God and the Lord hears me whenever I call upon him (Ps 4 and passim), and those can still be threads in a yearning psalm, so what makes them special, what makes them so recognisable? I think it’s because they are the psalms in which everything else is simply not enough. They are a celebration of longing. Not a hopeless love, like troubadour songs or La Belle Dame sans Merci; they are even confident and secure in the knowledge of love, but it’s not enough. They aspire to union with God, and nothing else will do. It’s not a question of distress or current danger, just an unsatisfied yearning, which the psalmist even knows is unsatisfiable now, but it’s the only thing he wants to focus on.
Some subjects of yearning
The psalmist longs to be in God’s house, to savour his sweetness and behold his temple in Ps 26/27, but this isn’t a real yearning psalm, because it turns out that his main concern is protection from his enemies. The upright long to see God’s face (Pss 10/11, 16/17, 23/24, 26/27); they seek God’s name (82/83); but often in these early psalms the longing for God is overtaken by a clear and present danger, and the psalm switches to a cry for help. Obviously that is going to be the focus if you are in trouble, so one of the distinctive features of the yearning psalms is that the psalmist is not in dire need and has time to reflect. He has won through to that state of confidence where he is not afraid of what is happening to him, because he is confident in God’s loving mercy; but he is still unsatisfied.
Always wanting more
Waiting on the Lord is a normal situation for the psalmist, as we’ve seen before (Ps 39/40), similarly wanting to fly away to be with him in his house (54/55), wanting answers (76/77), wanting deliverance (114/115), but in the real yearning psalms, the psalmist doesn’t want anything specific except God. This is what sets these psalms apart. They are breath-taking when you think about it. ‘What is man, that you should keep him in mind?’ (Ps 8), and yet here he is, one puny individual creature, demanding nothing short of union with the Almighty Creator. Heroic; impressive; terrifying. Paul, out of his personal experience, blinded and knocked off his horse, tells us that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31), and he was a person of enormous self-confidence, far more so than these reflective and gentle psalmists. In spite of every possible drawback, the psalmist wants to be with God, nothing more, but nothing less.
Zeus and the importance of disguise
One of the recurring stories in the Greek myths is that the sight of a god can consume you. This is why Zeus appears so often as something else, a shower of gold, a bull, a swan; because when he appears as a god, the human frame of his partner cannot cope. There is an important truth in this myth. God in the Bible appears safely swathed in a cloud, or disguised as a bush, or warns people to cover their faces. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; the psalmist knows this better than we do, and he still wants nothing else other than to be united with him forever. The differences of scale and everything else seem to him to be totally irrelevant. And remember that this is all Old Testament, not the loving Father that Jesus tells us about. Perfect love casteth out fear, but we are far from perfect yet.
Common factors of the yearning psalms
One striking feature of all the yearning psalms is the simplicity of their language. The diction in the book of Psalms varies considerably, partly, obviously, because they are written by several authors. Some are high style, some are simple and direct, some are allusive and mysterious, but the yearning psalms all tend to be written in simple language which expresses the longing very directly. And they address God very directly and on a level, unlike many of the other psalms.
The language is often very physical. The body of the speaker is consciously present, even though often the words concentrate on the feelings of the mind, soul or heart (more or less equivalent at this stage of human understanding). This is striking if you compare Ps 118/119, where the language is simple but not intimate. The psalmist there expresses great love for God’s las, but it’s all the mind and the heart, and not the body. In the yearning psalms, ‘my body pines for you…..your right hand holds me fast.’
There is almost a sense of stasis, of having come through rough seas but now reaching smoother water with time to reflect, as I said earlier. The attitude is one of conscious, patient, confident waiting (the Advent/pregnancy nexus again), also marked by singlemindedness. God alone can satisfy this wanting. This is the better part, that Mary chooses, sitting to listen and be with the Lord.
The reason we yearn for God is because he yearns for us. We can’t rescue him, or save him from his enemies, or protect him, or even give him somewhere safe to live, but we can love him and long for him, as he loves and longs for us; and that is why the yearning psalms are so special.
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