The Third Sunday in Lent
O God, you are my God, 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.
Today is the Third Sunday in Lent, but this is actually the fourth sermon in a Lenten series called “Words Matter,” because I started on Ash Wednesday, remember? And I told you that in this season I would be preaching from the Psalms, and listening for the one word that jumped out at me from each one. I started with Psalm 51, and the word wash. And then it was Psalm 91, and the word shelter. Last Sunday it was Psalm 27, and the word light. Today it is Psalm 63, and the word satisfied. It’s right there in verse 5. David writes: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips.” The image that came to mind immediately as I read that verse was one of my son-in-law, Nick, eating a full rack of ribs from Buz and Ned’s Barbecue, smacking his lips and making other happy sounds. Because he loves Buz and Ned’s, and he loves barbecued ribs, and when those two things come together it is a rich feast: an experience of complete satisfaction. But what the psalmist is saying is that his soul has been satisfied like Nick’s taste buds and stomach are satisfied, and I want to know more about that. What is the soul? Where do you find it? And how do you feed it?
Some of you have been reading through the Bible with me this year and watching the videos from the BibleProject.com that explain each book of the Bible and go into greater depth on certain words and themes. You may have seen the video on the word soul, which is only one part of a six-part series on the Shema, that famous passage from Deuteronomy that begins, “Hear, O Israel,” or in Hebrew, Shema Israel (I wish I could just step out of the way and show you the video, because it’s really well done, but I will put a link in the sermon manuscript so that when you look it up on the church website in a day or so, you can watch it).[i] The narration is by Tim Mackie, who has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies. He seems well qualified to tell us everything we ever wanted to know about the Hebrew word for soul, and this is what he says:
“For thousands of years, every morning and evening, Jewish people have prayed these well-known words as a way of expressing their devotion to God: ‘Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God the LORD is one, and as for you, you shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your strength. We’re going to look at the word soul. The Hebrew word is nephesh. It occurs over 700 times in the Old Testament. The common English translation of this word is soul, and that’s kind of unfortunate. Here’s why.
“The English word soul comes with lots of baggage from ancient Greek philosophy. It’s the idea that the soul is a non-physical, immortal essence of a person that’s contained or trapped in their body to be released at death” (and this is where I wish you could see the video because it shows some kind of vapor going into a Grecian urn with the figure of a warrior on it, and then the urn is turned around, and you see the warrior has turned into a skeleton as the vapor rises out of the jar toward heaven). Tim Mackie says, “This notion is totally foreign to the Bible. It’s not at all what nephesh means in biblical Hebrew.”
So, what does it mean, Tim?
He says, “The most basic meaning of nephesh is throat. Like when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, they’re hungry and thirsty, and they say to God, ‘We miss the cucumbers and melons we had in Egypt, and now our nephesh has dried up!’ Or when Joseph was hauled off into slavery in Egypt, his nephesh was put into iron shackles. But nephesh doesn’t only mean throat. Since your whole life and body depend on what comes in and out of your throat, nephesh could also be used to refer to the whole person.
“Like in Genesis, there were thirty-three nephesh in Jacob’s family, that is, thirty-three people. In the Torah, a murderer is called a nephesh slayer, and a kidnapper is called a nephesh thief. On the first pages of the Bible, both humans and animals are called a living nephesh. And if the life-breath has left a human or animal, the nephesh remains. It’s just called a dead nephesh, that is, a corpse. So in the Bible, people don’t have a nephesh; rather, they are a nephesh—a living, breathing, physical being.”
And then he says, “Now that might surprise you, because most people assume the Bible says the soul is what survives apart from the body after death. And while the biblical authors do have a concept of people existing after death waiting for their resurrection, they rarely talk about it. And when they do, they don’t use the word nephesh. So even though nephesh is often translated as soul, the Hebrew word really refers to the whole human as a living, physical organism. In fact, this is why biblical people can often use this word to refer to themselves. And it gets translated ‘me’ or ‘I.’ Like in Psalm 119, most translations read, ‘Let me live, that I may praise you.’ In Hebrew, the poet literally says, ‘Let my nephesh live, that it may praise you.’ By using nephesh, the poet emphasizes that their entire being, their life and their body, offer thanks to God. In the Song of Songs, the young woman constantly refers to her lover as ‘the one my nephesh loves.’ And of course, love isn’t just an intellectual experience. It’s an emotion that activates your whole body, your entire nephesh.
“This helps us understand the brilliance of other biblical poets who could combine multiple meanings of nephesh in one place. Like in Psalm 42, we read, ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my nephesh pants after you, my nephesh thirsts for the living God.’ So on a physical level, your throat can be thirsty like a deer’s, but then that physical thirst can become a metaphor for how your whole physical being longs to know and be known by your creator.
“Which brings us all the way back to the Shema. To love God with all your nephesh means to devote your whole physical existence to your Creator, the one who granted us these amazing bodies in the first place. It’s about offering your entire being with all of its capabilities and limitations in the effort to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. And that’s the Hebrew word for soul.”[ii]
Now, call me crazy, but I think that kind of word study makes a huge difference in how we understand the Bible, and even how we understand ourselves. It helps to know that the soul is not an internal organ, like the stomach or the pancreas, and it helps to know that the soul is not an immortal entity, that somehow survives death. No, the soul is us; it’s you and me and everything in us; it’s who we are, not something we have. And that makes a difference in how we read Psalm 63, because then we begin to see the beauty of poetic imagery, and the power of metaphorical speech.
The Psalm begins: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you (that is, “my nephesh,” and maybe here it should be translated as throat, as in, “My throat thirsts for you”); my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” I don’t know if you have ever been truly thirsty, but here the psalmist is saying that he is thirsty for God like someone who is wandering in a waterless desert. It reminds me of a story I heard my brother-in-law Chuck tell, about a time when he and his friend Lyndon were hiking in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Big Bend is a desert, and if you’re going to hike there you have to carry all your water. The recommended amount is one gallon per person per day. But a gallon of water weighs eight pounds, and if you are going out on a five-day hike you could, theoretically, add 40 pounds to your pack. Chuck and Lyndon decided to drive to the midpoint of their hike, hide a five-gallon container of water, and then drive back to the beginning. And so they started off carrying five gallons between them, about twenty pounds apiece, knowing there was water waiting for them. It should have lasted them two-and-a-half days, but it was hotter than they thought it was going to be and they were more out of shape than they wanted to admit. By the end of the second day they were almost out of water, with five miles to hike before they got to their stash.
They had just enough water to cook supper with a few sips left over to get them through the night. But they were thirsty, and by midnight they had emptied their water bottles. And then they began to imagine the worst: what if they couldn’t find that five-gallon container of water they had hidden? Or what if someone else had found it and taken it, or what if it had sprung a leak? What if they ended up in the middle of the desert with no water at all? Can you imagine how those kinds of thoughts would keep you awake at night, and can you understand why they broke camp at three o’clock in the morning and hiked the next five miles in the moonlight? But here’s the good news: they found their water right where they had left it, and they each drank until they couldn’t hold another drop.
That’s what it’s like when you find God, the psalmist says: it’s like quenching your thirst in the middle of a hot and dusty desert; it’s like drinking until you can’t drink anymore and then pouring a full bucket of water over your head. But the psalmist hasn’t gone to the desert for that experience; he’s gone to the temple. Because he knows that his soul is not an internal organ, nor is it an immortal entity: he takes his whole self to the sanctuary in the same way that many of us have today. Because his nephesh is thirsty, his entire being is parched, and where else would he go? “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,” he says to God, “beholding your power and glory. And here’s the important thing: it’s not water he’s looking for, it is the steadfast love of the Lord, or in Hebrew, the hesed. That’s what quenches his thirst. He says, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you (like someone who has just drunk his fill in the wilderness). So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.”
And then there’s that next verse: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips,” as if the psalmist had finally eaten after going days without food. And that made me wonder if any of us even know what hunger is anymore. Here in the land of plenty can you remember a time when you were truly hungry? Allison Collier has been trying to help us appreciate the spiritual discipline of fasting, but I noticed that not everyone was flocking to her Wednesday night class. The very idea of going without food, even for spiritual reasons, seems almost un-American. And yet it is an ancient practice, and it teaches eternal truth. One of the things it teaches is how to hunger and thirst for God.
I’ve told you about my own experience with fasting. The first time I did it wasn’t for spiritual reasons. It was because some group at my boarding school was trying to raise awareness about world hunger. But I decided to try it—to go 24 hours without eating anything. I was sixteen years’ old, and at the very height of my metabolic powers. I could turn a double cheeseburger into pure energy in about thirty seconds. Food was fuel for me, and I burned a lot of it in those days. So, to go without it, even for a few hours, was difficult. To go without it for 24 hours seemed like the ultimate challenge.
I won’t go into how miserable I was during that one endless day, or how many times my thoughts turned toward food. I will only tell you that the next morning, when I went down to the dining hall for breakfast, I loaded my tray with every good thing I could find, and then I wolfed down the bacon, the scrambled eggs, the waffles, the orange juice, the fruit cup, the muffin, the tall glass of milk, the second helpings of everything until I was stuffed. I finished my breakfast with one last piece of bacon and then pushed back from the table and praised the Lord with greasy lips.
That’s what it’s like for the psalmist as he feeds on God. He says his soul is satisfied as with a rich feast. He has come into God’s sanctuary to eat and drink until he can hold no more. But not only the sanctuary! Some of you know those places that “feed your soul,” but all of us know those moments when our soul has need, maybe in the middle of the night, when we cannot sleep. In those times the psalmist turns his thoughts to God. He says, “My mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on 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 sing for joy.”
The final words in today’s passage are these: “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Maybe it’s only because I’m a grandpa, but when I read those words I picture my daughter Ellie taking my sleeping grandson, Leo, out of his car seat. Even in that unconscious state he will sometimes put his arms around her neck and rest his head on her shoulder, and she will hold him there with her strong right arm, as she reaches for her purse, his diaper bag, that other thing she needed to take inside…. But if I put a frame around that moment when she is holding him it reminds me of another of David’s psalms, the one that says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child on its mother’s breast; like a weaned child, my soul—my nephesh—is satisfied” (Ps. 131:2).
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[ii] Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, “Soul,” BibleProject.com (https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/nephesh-soul/)