|Following hard after God|
by Andrew Lansdown
King David declares to the Lord in Psalm 63:8, “My soul follows hard after you: your right hand upholds me.”* This wonderful statement of faith and desire raises three questions: What does it mean to follow hard after God? Why should we do it? And how can we do it? This essay is a meditation on the what, the why and the how of following hard after God.
What does it mean?
What does it mean to follow hard after God? Essentially, it means to yearn for deeper and yet deeper fellowship with him. It means to seek whole-heartedly an ever-increasing intimacy with him. Oh, that I may know him! This is the cry of the ardent follower. And it ought to be the cry of every Christian.
When we became Christians through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, God himself took up permanent residence in our lives in the Person of his Holy Spirit. However, the reception of God at conversion is not the end but the beginning of the Christian life. It is not the end but the beginning of knowing God. God is a thinking, feeling, loving, communicating Person; and at conversion we enter into a relationship with him. And while every relationship must begin with an initial encounter, there is no such thing as a one-encounter relationship. Love and understanding grow through conscious commitment and continuous contact. This is as true for the relationship between God and the Christian as it is for a relationship between two human beings. We love God more as we associate with him more closely and get to know him more intimately.
In saying, “My soul follows hard after you”, David draws a picture of a hunter and his quarry. Indeed, in this picture, David is the hunter and God is the quarry. David says, “Lord God, I, with my whole being, closely pursue you!”
Other scriptural uses of the expression “follow hard” reveal exactly what David meant in Psalm 63. In 1 Samuel 14, for example, we learn that, due to Jonathan’s bravery, the Philistines were retreating in disarray; and when the men of Israel heard of it, they came out of hiding and “followed hard after them in battle” (22). The NIV says that the Israelites “joined the battle in hot pursuit.” The same term is used concerning King Saul during his final battle: “the Philistines followed hard upon Saul”, “the chariots and horsemen followed hard after him” (1 Samuel 31:2; 2 Samuel 1:6). They sped after him for all they were worth, following his every twist and turn. They chased him closely in an effort to catch him.
This is the picture that David presents us: he was hot on the heels of God. He was pursuing God with all his might. He urgently desired to be more intimately acquainted with God. He was determined to draw near to God in order to know, love and enjoy him to the fullest.
David’s pursuit of God was not passive or easy. It was active and hard. Likewise today, those who would follow hard after God must pursue him with all the energies of their will and intellect and emotion.
Following hard after God involves earnestness. At the beginning of Psalm 63 David declares, “O God, you are my God; earnestly will I seek you”. David was intensely serious and sincere in his desire for God. The apostle Paul was similarly zealous in his desire for the Son of God: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). The pursuit of the Almighty is motivated and facilitated by eagerness and earnestness.
Following hard after God also involves exertion. The pursuer must either exert himself or give up the chase. After routing the Midianites, Gideon and his warriors chased them over great distances. Scripture says, “And Gideon came to the Jordan and passed over, he and the three hundred men who were with him, faint yet pursuing” (Judges 8:4). They had used up all their strength in the pursuit, yet still they followed after! At some time or other, this describes every Christian who follows hard after God—faint yet pursuing.
And following hard after God involves endurance. We must not give up. We must persevere even when the distance between God and ourselves seems to widen. We must press on even when we seem to lose sight of him altogether. Sometimes our experience is like that of the Shulammite maiden in the Song of Solomon (3:1-4): “Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not.” He has eluded us. Yet this does not deter us. Rather, like the Shulammite, we determine: “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” While those about us sleep, we go out to seek him, following hard after him: “I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about the city. [I asked them,] ‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’” No, they have not seen him. But this does not dishearten us. Rather, it spurs us on until the search ends in joy: “Scarcely had I passed [the watchmen], when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him and would not let him go.”
To follow hard after God means to pursue him closely through the twisting streets of life. It means to cling to him as a shadow clings to a runner. This close pursuit reflects and requires earnestness, exertion and endurance.
Why should we do it?
But why? Why should we follow hard after God? David reveals several reasons in Psalm 63 itself.
The heading of the psalm indicates that David wrote it “when he was in the Wilderness of Judah”. The reference in verse 9 to “those who seek to destroy my life” indicates that David was in hiding there. These facts reveal one reason for David’s strenuous pursuit of God: he was fleeing from his enemies, and God alone could save him. As David’s enemies followed hard upon him, so David followed hard upon God. The pursuit of God was his only hope of deliverance.
David’s flight was probably at the time of Absalom’s rebellion, which was part of God’s punishment for his sin with Bathsheba. This being the case, David was also, in a sense, fleeing from the guilt and the consequence of his sins. He had hell at his heels, and the only way to escape was to run to the King of Heaven.
We Christians should heed David’s example. When we find ourselves hotly pursued by Satan or sin or sinners, we should follow hard after God, who alone is the stronghold of our lives (Psalm 27:1).
Escape from evil is one motivation for pursuing God. When we appreciate this we can begin to understand the perfect will of God in the world and in our lives. Why does the sovereign Lord allow sin and suffering and persecution? One reason is, paradoxically, to bring us to himself. For often we will not follow hard after him unless some evil is first following hard after us.
Escape from evil and danger is a negative reason for pursuing God. However, David alludes to three positive reasons for the Great Pursuit.
The first concerns God’s glory. In the second verse of Psalm 63 David states that he has seen the power and glory of God in the sanctuary. A definition of God’s glory can be found in Exodus 33:19. When Moses said to God, “show me your glory”, God replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you …” God’s glory is the radiant revelation of all his goodness. It is the manifestation of his moral beauty and excellence. It is the visible display of his perfection and praiseworthiness. Since the incarnation, God’s glory has been focused in the Lord Jesus and infused in the saints: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Those who have seen God’s glory glorify God; and this giving of glory to God which his glory evokes is our greatest duty and delight. David was following hard after God because he longed to behold his glory and thereby glorify him.
A second positive reason for the pursuit of God concerns his lovingkindness. In verse 3 David declares, “your lovingkindness is better than life”. God’s love is the essence of his Being. David had experienced much of the patience, kindness, forgiveness and mercy that flow from God’s love, and he wanted to experience more of it. Indeed, he desired that love above his own life. God’s love is better than life because it is the source of all life, both temporal and eternal. God’s love is better than life because life is a misery without it. Therefore David followed hard after God in order to enjoy that love. He was fervent in his desire to have fellowship and friendship with God.
A third positive reason for pursuing God concerns our satisfaction. Towards the beginning of Psalm 63 David declares, “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.” In Psalm 42, the Sons of Korah declare, “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” As the body thirsts for natural water, so the spirit thirsts for the living water, which is God himself. We bear the image of God and so we yearn for communion with him. As “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7), so the soul calls to its Creator. He is our beginning and our end. We can be fully and finally satisfied with no one and nothing else.
People outside of Christ seek satisfaction in many things, but all to no avail. Scripture declares, “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” And again, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain” (Ecclesiastes 1:8; 5:10). Hence God asks, “Why do you spend your … labour for that which does not satisfy?” He entreats the sinner to turn from such foolishness and to “Seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:2, 6). For he alone can satisfy the longing soul (Jeremiah 31:25).
David knew that none but God can satisfy the deep yearnings of the soul. Therefore he sought God in the same way that a thirsty deer seeks a stream. And in approaching God his thirst was quenched, his hunger satisfied, and he was able to say, “My soul is feasted with marrow and fat” (v.5). In God he found satisfaction.
What motivates the people of God to follow hard after God? Negatively, we wish to escape our enemies—whether those enemies are evil spirits or evil men or evil circumstances or evil habits or evil temptations. Positively, we desire to witness God’s glory so as to glorify him in adoration and praise; we yearn to experience his lovingkindness so as to fellowship with him more fully; and we long to experience in the depths of our souls the satisfaction that he alone can give.
How can we do it?
Granted that the pursuit of God is desirable, how is it possible? How can we follow hard after him? To answer this question, we must begin with two paradoxes.
Firstly, the pursuit of God is made possible by the possession of God. Indeed, we cannot pursue him unless he first belongs to us, and we to him. This sounds contradictory but it is not. For if the pursuit of God involves entering into a deeper relationship with him, it stands to reason that there first must be a relationship to deepen. It is significant that David opens Psalm 63 with a declaration of his possessive relationship with God: “O God, you are my God”. It is only after he has laid claim to God that he declares, “earnestly will I seek you”.
Herein lies another reason why the possession of God must precede the pursuit of God. Unless we can truly say, “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song 2:16), we will have no desire to pursue him. Indeed, those who are not betrothed to the living, Triune God can see no beauty in him, that they should desire him (Isaiah 53:2). Rather, they ask in contempt or confusion, “What is your beloved more than another beloved …?” (Song 5:9). They do not know him so they do not desire him. They do not desire him so they cannot seek him.
If the pursuit of God is only possible for those who have first found him, where does this leave the non-Christian? Where does it leave the person who cannot say, “O God, you are my God!” To such a person, we can say with confidence, “God is pursuing you!” The Bible declares that the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:11). To the lost we can say, “Listen, and you will hear his footsteps at your back. Listen, and you will hear his knock at the door of your heart. And when you do, turn to him by faith, open your heart and receive him as your Lord and Saviour, and you will be saved. The moment this happens you will begin to desire him and to seek him with all your heart. You will begin to follow hard after him.”
We cannot pursue God unless we first posses him, and vice versa. This is the first paradox—the first truth that pivots by the weight of two seemingly contradictory facts.
The second paradox is that the pursuit of God is made possible by the power of God. We cannot pursue him in our own strength, but must draw our strength from him. This is evident from the second half of David’s statement, “My soul follows hard after you: your right hand upholds me.” We are able to pursue God because he empowers us to pursue him.
Given that God is our God and that his right hand is upholding us, how can we follow hard after him? What must we do? For certainly it is our responsibility to do what God encourages and enables us to do. But what are the methods, the means, the procedures, we must employ in order to conduct the pursuit? In Psalm 63 David mentions several things that must be done.
The first step in the Great Pursuit is praise. In verse 3 David says, “Because your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise you.” Praise is a sure way of drawing near to God. Through praise we rejoice in his goodness, thank him for it, and tell others about it. Praise always involves humility and gratitude, the two heart-attitudes most dear to God. Praise is the wonderful privilege and responsibility of the redeemed: “Through [Christ] let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrew 13:15).
The second step in the pursuit of God is prayer. David’s whole psalm is an act of prayer: he is speaking to God. A relationship cannot grow if the people involved do not speak to each other. There must be communication if there is to be communion.
The third step is meditation. David says in verse 6, “I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the night watches.” God was constantly in his thoughts. He meditated on God—that is, he set his mind to mull over matters to do with God; he made the mental effort to contemplate God; he concentrated his thoughts on God in order to know him better. The pursuit of God demands the pondering of God. We must think about him! Relying for guidance on his word, the Bible, we must think about who he is, what he is like, what he has done for us, and what he requires of us. We must set time aside to meditate on him. More than this, we must discipline our minds to think about him during the course of the day. As the compass needle swings always to the north, our thoughts should swing always to him, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. It is impossible to follow hard after him without thinking hard about him.
The fourth step in the pursuit of God is obedience. While David does not specifically mention this in Psalm 63, his whole life, and indeed the whole teaching of the Bible, affirms the need for obedience on the part of those who desire to draw near to God. Deuteronomy 13:4 reveals the unbreakable connection between following and obeying God: “You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him, and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and cleave to him.” We cannot follow after God if we are following after sin, for God is not in that direction. He is holy, and if we would find him, we must walk in the way that he commands us (Jeremiah 7:23), for this alone is the way of holiness and therefore the way to him.
Praise, prayer, meditation and obedience: these are the chief means by which the Christian follows hard after God.
The pursuit of God is not a limited pursuit because God is not a limited Being. He is infinite—infinite in love, in goodness, in knowledge, in power, in creativity—and so the task of getting to know him is infinite. It will never and can never end. This is one reason why God grants us eternal life: we will need eternity to discover him.
Furthermore, the pursuit of God is not a narrow pursuit because God is the reason for everything. He is the One from whom and for whom all things exist. Consequently, he can be glimpsed in all things. To those who know him, all knowledge contributes to the knowledge of him. To those who desire him, every subordinate pursuit assists in the Great Pursuit.
The pursuit of God is the only pursuit worthy of beings who are made in the image of God. And the reward of this pursuit is the overtaking of God. For he is not reluctant to be “caught” by us. Rather, it is his desire and delight. For he has said, “when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found of you” (Jeremiah 29:13-14; cf 2 Chronicles 15:2, 15). This divine promise is fulfilled in all who earnestly seek him. Like the Shulammite, of a sudden we turn a corner and he is there: we find him whom our soul loves, and we embrace him, and our hearts overflow with adoration. Then he moves ahead of us, and we pursue him again, following hard after him into the very depths of his infinite Being. On and on we go for all eternity, forever “finding out the greatness of [his] loving heart”.
Oh, may God himself uphold us with his right hand so that our souls might forevermore follow hard after him!
* The precise rendering of the King James Version is, “My soul followeth hard after thee: thy right hand upholdeth me.” I have updated the English. The Amplified Bible translates Psalm 63:8: “My whole being follows hard after You and clings closely to You; Your right hand upholds me.” The Revised Standard Version says, “My soul clings to thee; thy right hand upholds me.”
Note: Unless otherwise stated, quotations from the Holy Bible are from the Revised Standard Version (1971).
Recommended Reading: A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Kent: STL Books/Kingsway Publications, 1989).
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown, 1991, 2005