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Psalms 42 and 43: A Passionate Desire to See God

Lesson ▪ 2021
Tags: Psalm 42; Psalm 43; Emotions; Desire; Enemies; Worship; Fellowship with God; Suffering
Related Resources: Spiritual Maturity through Affliction: Insights from Psalm 119Life in the Vine: Notes on John 15:1-17

Introduction

Question for the audience: How long can you live without water?

Thirst is a fitting metaphor for an urgent, passionate, even desperate desire for something that we regard as essential.

Psalm 42 begins by using such a metaphor as a description of the psalmist’s desire for God. In certain parts of the land of Israel, water is a scarce resource, and thus the metaphor of thirst carries a powerful punch.

Psalms 42 and 43 call us to ask, “How passionately do we want to see God?” There is much to be learned from this jewel of biblical poetry.

Read the biblical text aloud, or have someone in the audience do so.

Biblical Text (ESV)

To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah.
42 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?
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.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation  6 and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
    at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
    have gone over me.
8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock:
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my bones,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

43 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
    against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man
    deliver me!
2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
    why have you rejected me?
Why do I go about mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?
3 Send out your light and your truth;
    let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
    and to your dwelling!
4 Then I will go to the altar of God,
    to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
    O God, my God.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

Question for the audience: How would you describe the psalmist’s state in Psalms 42 and 43?

The Rationale for Studying Psalms 42 and 43 Together

Question for the audience: We often think of psalms as entirely independent literary units, where the sequence of “chapters” is arbitrary. Why, then, might it make sense to study these two psalms together? Are there any cues that indicate that they should be taken together?

Structural and lexical consistency

  • “Ps 43:5 is identical to the refrain in Ps 42:11 and almost identical to the refrain in Ps 42:5” (NET Bible, fn to Psa. 43).
  • Similarity between 42:9 and 43:2

Thematic continuity

  • Longing to enjoy corporate worship in Jerusalem (42:2; 42:3-4; 43:4)
  • Personal distress, as reflected by seven occurrences of נֶ֫פֶשׁ (něʹ·p̄ěš, “soul”; 42:1; 42:2; 42:4; 42:5; 42:6; 42:11; 43:5) and other verbiage (“tears” [42:3]; “mourning” [42:9; 43:2])
  • The desire to be vindicated in the face of opposition (42:9-10; 43:1-2)

Other evidence

  • “Many medieval Hebrew mss combine Psalm 43 and Psalm 42 into one psalm. Psalm 43 is the only psalm in Book 2 of the Psalter (Psalms 42-72) that does not have a heading, suggesting that it was originally the third and concluding section of Psalm 42” (NET Bible, fn to Psa. 43).

Superscript

“The meaning of the Hebrew term מַשְׂכִּיל (maskil) is uncertain. The word is derived from a verb meaning ‘to be prudent; to be wise.’ Various options are: ‘a contemplative song,’ ‘a song imparting moral wisdom,’ or ‘a skillful [i.e., well-written] song.’ The term occurs in the superscriptions of Pss 32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, and 142, as well as in Ps 47:7” (NET Bible, fn to Psa. 42:1).

According to VanGemeren, “The sons of Korah (Pss 42; 45–49; 84–85; 87–88) were descendants of Kohath, son of Levi, who served in the temple as musicians (1 Ch 6:22). From them we have the collection of the Korahite Psalms: 42–43; 44–49; 84–85; 87–88” (63).

42:1-6a

“The Hebrew term נֶפֶשׁ (nefesh) with a pronominal suffix is often equivalent to a pronoun, especially in poetry (see BDB 660 s.v. נֶפֶשׁ 4.a)” (NET Bible, fn to Psa. 42:1).

The Lexham Bible Dictionary describes the deer thus: “An animal that is ceremonially clean and thus fit for eating (e.g., Deut 14:5). Deer often appear in Wisdom literature and Hebrew poetry (e.g., Psa 42:1), particularly as a symbol of beauty or virility (Prov 5:19; Song 2:9; 8:14). They were common in the ancient Near East in Old Testament times, but they are now rare in that region” (“Deer”).

“The usual identification with the European-Asian red deer (Cervus elaphus) has been challenged (A. E. Day) because its usual habitat is N of Palestine. This does not mean, however, that it was not in Palestine in the time of Solomon (1 K. 4:23). In prehistoric times it was present in the Middle East, as bones discovered in caves in Carmel and the mountains of Lebanon testify. A similar genus, the Cervus Capreolus or roe deer, may be the biblical ‘hart.’ The hart, the male of the species, may weigh as much as three hundred pounds and has six-pronged antlers. Unlike the gazelle it cannot thrive in arid countries; hence the appropriateness of the psalmist’s simile, ‘As the hart pants for the water-brooks …’ (Ps. 42:1). This beautiful beast (30 in. [75 cm.] high) was last seen in Palestine during World War I” (Turner 911).

The Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible provides context to explain why water is such a critical resource in Israel:

  • The land is situated between arid and wet regions, and the amount of rainfall varies widely from one location to another.
  • There are two major seasons—rainy (mid-October through April) and dry (mid-June through mid-September)—that are separated by brief transitional periods.
  • In the southern and eastern portions of the land, which are naturally drier, year-to-year variations in rainfall can have a significant impact on the ability to grow crops and sustain human life (Rasmussen 24-26).

It is not difficult to envision that wild animals, including deer, are very much dependent on rainfall for their survival.

“Pants” (ערג, ʿrg) occurs twice in Psalm 42:1. It occurs in only one other biblical text, Joel 1:20:

20 Even the beasts of the field pant for you

because the water brooks are dried up,

and fire has devoured

the pastures of the wilderness.

According to VanGemeren, “the simile of the ‘deer’ expresses the intense yearning for a taste of God’s presence. The deer looks until it finds water and quenches its thirst with great joy. So the psalmist longs for God’s presence with his whole being (nepeš, GK 5883, ‘soul’)” (381-82).

The Masoretic Text of 42:2—“when shall I come and appear the face of God?”—is awkward (Broyles 197; NET Bible, fn to Psa. 42:2). As the ESV footnote acknowledges, a slight modification would yield “see the face of God,” but theological reservations may have led to the use of alternate vowel pointings, thus “appear the face of God” (Broyles 197). According to VanGemeren, “The Masoretes changed any text suggesting that a human being could see God” (383).

“In view of his need for God, the psalmist asks when he can return and experience once again the presence of God. He wants to ‘meet with God’ in the temple on Mount Zion (v. 2; 84:7). … The rhetorical aspect of the question lies in the problem of how a person who desires God’s presence can experience alienation from God” (VanGemeren 382).

At first glance, verse 3 might seem to refer to doubts arising from continual sorrow (so Broyles 196), but verse 10 attributes them to taunting on the part of the psalmist’s enemies.

According to the NET Bible, the first line of verse 4 literally reads, “These things I will remember and I will pour out upon myself my soul” (fn to Psa. 42:4).

“Instead of the normal practice of pouring out one’s heart before God (62:8; the title to Ps. 102; 142:2), this psalm reads, I pour out my soul ‘upon myself’ (Hb. ʿālay), thus underscoring the sense of aloneness and alienation from God” (Broyles 196).

Question for the audience: On what three annual occasions were male Israelites supposed to attend a national feast? (The answer is in Deuteronomy 16:16, among other texts.)

Male Israelites were directed to attend three centralized worship-feasts each year: unleavened bread/Passover, firstfruits/weeks/Pentecost, and ingathering/booths/tabernacles (Exod. 23:17; Deut. 16:16).

“The psalmist cannot do much more than ‘remember.’ … He meditated on the pilgrimages to the temple, the festive celebrations, and God’s triumphs in the history of salvation. During the three annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Firstfruits, and Tabernacles; cf. Ex 23:17; 34:18–26; Lev 23:4–44; Dt 16:1–17), the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem and presented their offerings and sacrifices with great rejoicing” (VanGemeren 382).

The context of corporate worship in verse 4 is consistent with the reference in the superscript to “the Sons of Korah.”

“Why are you cast down?” (42:5; 42:11; 43:5) is literally “Why do you bow down?” (NET Bible, fn to 42:5).

The NET Bible comments on the use of יָחַל (yakhal), which the ESV renders as “hope,” but the basic meaning of which is “wait”: “The Psalmist presents a mixture of emotions and is at odds within himself. Given his level of distress, it is very possible that he is telling himself (his soul) to just hang on and not give up, while another part of him is confident that he will have reason to praise God in the future” (fn to Psa. 42:5).

The NET Bible suggests the following reading for the refrain found in 42:5; 42:11; and 43:5: “‘[for] the saving acts of the face of my God,’ that is, the saving acts associated with God’s presence/intervention” (fn to 42:5). “In a refrain, an important indicator of the psalm’s main point, he rebukes himself for his melancholy and puts his hope in God to give him ‘a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair’ (Isa 61:3)” (Grogan 97).

Although God remained silent and the psalmist’s questions remained unanswered, he dialogued with himself and turned from despair to hope. His doubt coexisted with faith (VanGemeren 383-84).

Drawing on Psalms 42-43, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us! … I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. … Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. … Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s [i.e., the psalmist’s] treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’” (20-21).

42:6b-42:11

Verse 6b literally reads, “upon me my soul bows down” (NET Bible, fn to 42:6).

The Zondervan NIV Atlas of the Bible provides the following details regarding Mount Hermon:

  • “The tallest mountain in ancient Israel” (Ridley).
  • Altitude: 9,232 feet (Rasmussen 238); 9,230 feet (Ridley)
  • Location: “27 mi. WSW of Damascus” (Rasmussen 238)
  • “Its peaks, … sometimes visible from over 100 miles (160 km.) away, receive more than 60 inches (1500 mm.) of precipitation annually” (Rasmussen 30).
  • “Snow-covered most of the year, tributaries of the Jordan River originate at its base” (Rasmussen 238).
  • “The springs at the foot of Mount Hermon, which are fed by the melting snows, form the headwaters of the Jordan River” (Rasmussen 20).
  • It is located near Caesarea Philippi, where Peter made his great confession; it is possibly the site of the Transfiguration (Rasmussen 30, 171).

Question for the audience: How does Mount Hermon compare with mountains in Appalachia?

By comparison, Flat Top Mountain in the Peaks of Otter is a mere 4,001 feet tall. The highest peak in Virginia is Mount Rogers, at 5,728 feet. The tallest mountain in the Appalachians, Mount Mitchell, located northeast of Asheville, NC, rises to 6,684 feet.

“The Hebrew term מִצְעָר (mitsʿar) is probably a proper name (‘Mizar’), designating a particular mountain in the Hermon region. The name appears only here in the OT” (NET Bible, fn to 42:6).

“The Hebrew noun תְּהוֹם (téhom) often refers to the deep sea, but here, where it is associated with Hermon, it probably refers to mountain streams. The word can be used of streams and rivers (see Deut 8:7; Ezek 31:4)” (NET Bible, fn to 42:7).

“Whether the geographical references of verse 6 are literal … or figurative (for a region remote from the temple) is not clear either way, but the notion of alienation is clear. This region is especially appropriate for this psalm not only because of its remoteness but because it is the source of the headwaters of the Jordan. Hence, the psalm employs the image of the roar of your waterfalls. Now instead of the living God supplying streams of water for the speaker’s thirsting soul (42:1–2), he drowns him: all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Broyles 196-97).

VanGemeren writes: “The psalmist returns to the water imagery (v. 7) with which the psalm began. But this time, the memories of water are overshadowed by a deep sense of despair. The waterfall, with its rocks, breakers, and waves and its awesome noise of the rushing and falling waters, metaphorically portrays his condition. Instead of enjoying the ‘living water’ of the ‘living God,’ he is continually faced with an expression of God’s judgment” (385).

“The daily tears and taunts (v. 3) are countered by God’s reminder of his covenant love (חֶסֶד, ḥesed, v. 8), so prayer becomes God-given song” (Grogan 97).

VanGemeren sees in verse 8 a remembrance of past communion with God, of a time when, unlike the present, his love and presence seemed evident (385).

Longman describes Psalms 42 and 43 as a lament, a sub-genre that may be characterized by complaints about self, enemies, and God. All three elements are present in the psalms we are studying (26-27). According to Longman, “In most cases the references [to enemies] are vague, and we have every reason to believe they are so intentionally. The psalms are purposefully vague in reference to historical events so that they can be used in a variety of situations” (27).

VanGemeren states that “it is evident that the psalmist was isolated from worship at the temple. He may have been a refugee, but it is more likely that he had been exiled to Aram, Assyria, or Babylon and was in the hands of taunting captors” (380). In Broyles’s view, on the other hand, enemies “do not … appear to be depicted as the primary cause of distress. Rather, they appear simply to exacerbate the speaker’s existing agony with their taunt, ‘Where is your God?’” (197).

“In the present situation, the psalmist has no other recourse than mourning in the agony of his own perplexity (cf. 35:14; 38:6). He has been abandoned to godless people, who taunt him continually with the same mocking question, ‘Where is your God?’ (v. 10). He is like a dying man, and his God, the Rock, is silent” (VanGemeren 386).

The ESV’s “deadly wound” reflects the fact that רֶ֫צַח (rěʹ·ṣǎḥ) is a derivative of רצח (rṣḥ), meaning “murder, slay, kill.” However, the significance of רֶ֫צַח is that of “shattering” (TWOT 2208, 2208a).

43:1-5

VanGemeren comments on 43:1-2: “In this last couplet, he intensifies his prayer for redemption and for the enjoyment of fellowship with the Lord. God has demonstrated his love (ḥesed, 42:8) in the past, but the psalmist is not satisfied until he is fully restored to his God. … This God is powerful to ‘vindicate’ (v. 1, šāpaṭ, GK 9149; cf. 7:8; 26:1; 35:24) him in the sense that Yahweh alone can defend him, prosecute the enemy, and execute his verdict (rîb, GK 8189, ‘plead my cause,’ v. 1; 35:1, 23: ‘contend for’) against the enemies” (387).

“Defend my cause” in 43:1 is legal language; it could be translated “argue my case” (NET Bible, fn to Psa. 43:1). Nevertheless, “the petitions of 43:1 need not refer to legal circumstances of a court case but to circumstances that threaten God’s worship at the temple and the speaker’s participation in it. The prayer for rescue from deceitful and wicked men may imply that they somehow restrain the would-be pilgrim from journeying to the temple” (Broyles 199).

43:2 is similar to 42:9, made more intense by substituting “rejected” for “forgotten” and using a different stem (Hithpael vs. Qal) for the verb “walk around” (NET Bible, fns to Psa. 43:2).

VanGemeren describes the psalmist’s prayer for “light” and “truth” in verse 3: “In the darkness of the adversities, there is no other way than to ask the covenantal God to remain faithful to his promises. … The light of God is the experience of the fullness of his redemption (36:9; Isa 58:8, 10; 60:1, 3). The ‘truth’ (ʾemet) of God is the expression of his covenantal fidelity (40:10; 57:3). If only God will send these two (personified) expressions of his love to ‘guide’ him back, then he will experience restoration” (387-88).

“The plural form מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ (miškenôteykā, ‘your dwelling places’; NIV, ‘place where you dwell’) is an intensive plural: ‘your very dwelling place’” (Van Gemeren 388).

In 43:4, “to God my exceeding joy” is literally “to God, the joy of my happiness”—an appositional genitive (NET Bible, fn to 43:4).

Grogan comments on 43:4: “‘The holy mountain,’ ‘the altar,’ even the harp may not be literal but symbolize nearness of access to God even in his present location. So in his despondency he finds joy in God himself. The reiterated use of God’s name and of the possessive pronoun gives emotional depth to this verse” (97).

According to Broyles, “The psalm as a whole is a clear testimony that, while circumstances may put restraints on the people of God, they do not have ultimate control. Worshipers can exercise a measure of control over how they respond to hardship and over the state of their soul, especially when they commit their hopes to God through prayer” (Broyles 200).

Application

Why are these psalms special to me? I remember that they became so while I was in college—probably during my sophomore year. Young adulthood is a time of transition, a time when we make choices that will define our futures. My college years were not only a series of steps toward independence, but also a time in which my faith was tested, questioned, and affirmed through seasons of learning and adversity. I honestly can’t remember going through a particular crisis when these psalms were etched on my heart, but they made a deep enough impression that I wrote a song. I suspect that I wrote them because the psalmist’s experience—the alternation of joy and anguish in the pursuit of God—resonated with my own experience.

As I reflect on Psalms 42 and 43 almost 30 years later, I continue to be nourished and challenged.

Question for the audience: What spiritual lessons stand out to you from Psalms 42 and 43?

Below are some lessons that stand out to me:

  • A desire for God is a sign of a healthy relationship.
  • Seeking God passionately entails deep emotional investment, and this can lead to exhilarating experiences.
  • When God seems unusually silent or distant, we may feel a sense of desperation.
  • We may find it difficult to manage the dissonance between our beliefs and our life experiences.
  • The verbal jabs of the unfaithful may add to the distress of God’s seeming absence or rejection.
  • We need to control the “conversation” that prevails in our own hearts.
  • We must learn progressively to trust him even when circumstances don’t make sense.
  • Ultimately, our only recourse is to wait for him to show himself “faithful to his promises” (VanGemeren 387).
  • Relief may not come in the form that we expect. As the song says, “Sometimes He calms the storm / And other times He calms His child.”

Conclusion

As I prepared this lesson, I was struck for the first time by thematic overlaps between these psalms and the Beatitudes, as recorded in Matthew 5. Note the Beatitudes’ references to mourning, thirst, seeing God, and the taunts of evildoers.

  • 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
  • 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
  • 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
  • 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Works Cited

Broyles, Craig C. Psalms. Baker, 2012.

“Deer.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, edited by John D. Barry, Lexham, 2016.

Grogan, Geoffrey W. Psalms. Eerdmans, 2008.

Harris, R. Laird, editor. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody, 1980.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. Eerdmans, 1965.

Longman, Tremper, III. How to Read the Psalms. IVP Academic, 1988.

NET Bible. 2nd ed. Biblical Studies Press, 2009. https://netbible.org/.

Ridley, Brandon. “Hermon, Mount.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, edited by John D. Barry, Lexham, 2016.

Turner, George A. “Deer.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, fully revised, vol. 1, Eerdmans, 1979, p. 911.

VanGemeren, Willem A. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5: Psalms. Edited by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, rev. ed., Zondervan, 2008.


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