As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
When I think of the Psalms, I think of David. Lots of the Psalms are attributed to him. Some, like Psalm 51, have to do with events in his life. David was Israel’s rock star. Chapter one of his story is his dramatic slaying of the gigantic captain of the Philistine army; this while he was just a lad. The shepherd boy accepts the challenge of Goliath out of devotion to the God of Israel. Older men – seasoned warriors – are afraid of the giant, but David, the humble shepherd boy who has “slain the lion and the bear with his hands,” steps up and kills the man who dared to profane the name of the God of Israel. We can go on from there to consider David’s career as a warrior in Saul’s army. We know what the adoring crowds said of him. It was enough to make the king himself jealous: “Saul has slain thousands, but David tens of thousands.” On top of all that there is David’s reputation as a poet and musician. He wrote songs in praise to God, some of which have lasted for three thousand years and his harp playing was the one thing that could cool the manic King Saul’s savage breast. Given all of this, we may see David as a larger than life romantic figure; a combination of George Clooney, Jackson Browne and John Rambo.
Thus, when I think of the Psalms, I think of them being written by David, or somebody like him. Somebody out under the stars on the desert plain or high in the mountain meadows of Judah. Someone “training his arms for battle.” This idea is not without some support in the Psalms themselves as many of them are individualistic, existential complaints or praises.
Look at Psalm 42. The poem starts with one man’s emotional statement of his own desire; his desire for God. The writer goes on to complain of his existential agony in exile. This looks personal, individual. But when we get to verse four of the poem, we see that the Psalmist’s experience of the God he thirsts for was formed in church.
Or the Old Testament version of church, anyway. For when the Psalmist speaks of his nearness to God, his taste of God, it is clear that he gained that experience in formal, corporate worship. When the Psalmist experienced God, the Psalmist was leading the throng in procession into the Temple in Jerusalem. They were singing songs of praise and were celebrating a festival. This little verse is a near-complete outline of formal, communal religion.
Thus, the worship the Psalmist knew was associated with a particular place and institution – the Temple. And worship there was corporate – the Psalmist led “the throng.” Moreover, they were singing songs in celebration of a festival, all of which establishes that he was a part of an ongoing, established tradition; one with its own liturgy and calendar.
This is enough to remind us that the religion of the Bible – both of the Old and New Testaments – is a corporate, communal experience that involves the individual being taught and discipled. However romantic the notion of the lone poet on the distant mountain giving praise to God may be, this Psalm reminds us that the knowledge of God, the experience of him, is usually communal and fostered by learning and form and tradition.
This may be a lesson to us modern Americans. We tend to be individualistic and romantic in our view of the world and of faith. We may see ourselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” This Psalm may remind us that spirituality is learned and fostered through formal, corporate religion.