When most people envision what Israel looks like, they think of an extremely dry and dust land. In part, they are right. Back more than a century ago when he visited Israel himself, described Israel this way when he wrote about the “hot sun and dust of this land of the Bible.” While Jerusalem receives almost as much rain as London does in one year (primarily between November and March or so), and while it actually snows in the Golan in the north at least 3-4 meters each year (on Mt. Hermon), most of the southern regions of Israel receive a very limited amount of rainfall, maybe 3-4 inches every year in the Negev. At the most southern regions near Elat and the Red Sea, as well as the Midbar (the Wilderness of Judah), especially near the Dead Sea, it rains maybe once or twice a year. Other than a few weeks in the winter where green patches of grass and desert flowers dot the desert landscape, the Judean Desert qualifies as a “dry and weary land.”
It is here in the context of this Judean Wilderness where David writes Psalm 63. Psalm 63:1-2 reads this way – “O God you are my God. I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this ‘dry and weary land’ where there is no water.” It’s quite a descriptive picture of the barrenness of this chalk-limestone desert! Yet it is here where David recalled God’s unfailing love and His ability to quench his spiritual thirst.
While a student back in the 80s (when you could do such a thing), I’ve walked the path that descends through the heart of the Wadi Qelt about a half a dozen times. This wadi (dry river bed, essentially) follows the path of the ancient aqueduct built by Herod the Great for the purpose of bringing water to one of his winter palaces at Jericho. Towards the end of the Qelt, there is a Greek Orthodox monastery (St. George’s). Some of its dwellings are actually cut into the canyon walls. It is an amazing experience to walk this route, knowing that this was the context in which David wrote such psalms as Psalm 63.
Similarly, David write in Psalm 61, “O God, listen to my cry! Hear my prayer! From the ‘ends of the earth’ (and the Judean Wilderness really feels like it is the end of the earth, especially in the hot summer months) I cry to you for help when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:1-2). Believe me, when walking through the canyon of the wadi, with looking up to the high cliffs on both sides, it’s easy to picture David dwelling here. Depending on the time of year, this dry river bed would contain a few water holes where shepherds would bring their flocks to drink. The image of Psalm 23 is made real in these surroundings as well.
The best time to be overlooking the Wadi Qelt is at sunset. With the sun’s final casting of light, the white chalk-limestone remarkably is transformed with a golden color. It’s always a perfect time to read Isaiah 40, when the prophet says, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness – ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight a highway for your God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low, the rugged places a plain…” (Isaiah 40:3-4). John the Baptist would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy 700 years later right here in this area!
Truth is, each of us goes through a dry and weary season of life where we find ourselves spiritually thirsty, maybe even alone. Like David who no doubt hiked within these wadis and canyons himself, he was one who discovered the fortress of God’s presence, even though left alone in this physically dry and weary land. But even in David’s lamenting words, he found refreshment in God. So can we!
The Judean Desert is one of my favorite places to visit. Come join us on one of my Israel tours and see and experience this remarkable place yourself!