A Bible Lesson on Psalms 42 and 43

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a lesson on a passage not in the current ISSL schedule on Psalms 42 and 43.  Commentators are agreed that the 42nd and 43rd are really two parts of a single poem.  Together they open the “2nd Book” of the Psalms.

Psalm 42 Book Two To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah.

This is a Psalm attributed to one or more of the temple singers.  The exact circumstances of composition aren’t clear.  Commentators mention possibilities varying from the writer being a captive who has been carried off by a foreign invader, to this being a person who is ill and can’t go to the sanctuary, to this person simply living too far from the sanctuary to regularly get there.  In any case, it deals honestly with the way we are as humans, alternately settled in God and then anxious about life.

The poem that is Psalms 42 and 43 has 3 stanzas, that all end with the same refrain (verses 42:5, 42:11 and 43:5).  The middle of the 3 stanzas has an extra verse in it, at the middle of the poem, a verse that like the refrain speaks in terms of faith and trust.  The first stanza begins

1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.

Without water, there’s no life.  The picture here is one of severe drought.  The deer, that in good times is swift and strong, is now weak and desperate for life-giving water.  So, says the Psalmist, is he towards God.  Figuratively speaking, he’s desperate for the presence of God.  Again, we don’t know the exact circumstances, but for some reason, he sees himself as cut off from God.

2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?

In particular, the Psalmist sees himself unable to get to the sanctuary and join the public worship of God.  For most 21st century people, that would be no big deal, but for the Psalmist, it’s a most desperate state of affairs.

3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

The Psalmist has been constantly mourning his perceived separation from God.  Day and night we see him in grief.  There’s no thought of even eating, he’s so consumed with his longing for God, the worship of Him and participation with those who love God.  And to make it worse, there are the taunts of the ungodly.  This fellow has publicly identified himself with God, and now that things aren’t going well with him there’s the snicker of the pagan “Where is your God?”  And though it isn’t said yet, you can hear the echo in the heart of this person, that the same thought has gone through his own mind.  In the hard place and time, Where is 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.

Oh, for the good old days and times.  The Psalmist says that as he suffers and wrestles with whatever has him tied up in knots, he thinks about better times, when he was in the presence of those who love God, singing and worshipping Him.  That was good, very good.  But that was then and this is now.

Then, he temporarily comes to his senses, grabs himself by the scruff of his neck and speaks to his soul.  This may be the pits at the moment, but it isn’t the end of the story.  Here’s the refrain.

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. 

This is real, honest human experience.  On the one hand, this person was made for eternity.  He was made for life in God’s presence.  On the other hand, he and us with him are presently in a fallen temporal world.  Real difficulties come and he wouldn’t be a real human if they didn’t weigh on him and upset him.  But, the final reality is God.  And the Psalmist speaks to himself as we ought to speak to ourselves and says “Hope in God.”  There’s where there is stability, sanity and health.

Here is the end of the first stanza.  It doesn’t sound much like that popular syrupy chorus with the words of verse 1.  That’s just too light in comparison to the real story here.

Now to the 2nd stanza and back into the battle of life.

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.

My soul is cast down.  Whatever the particular circumstances, the Psalmist is under pressure and it’s wearing on him.  Whether he’s speaking from northern Israel at the headwaters of the Jordan looking longingly down south to the sanctuary, or whether he’s in exile looking back longingly to the Jordan isn’t clear.  What is clear that as pressure comes, his thoughts turn to God and his life experience with God.

7 Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

“Deep calls to deep”   The most plausible literal reading of this is a reference to God’s storehouse of water above pouring down from the heavens and ending up in the depths of the ocean.  His “deep” above pouring into the “deep” below with a roar in a thunderstorm.  But there is probably more in the phrase than that.  The Psalmist goes on to say that breakers and waves have gone over him.  It seems like he’s drowning, and he knows that that the circumstances are ordered by the Almighty.  If he’s drowning, it’s in a flood or an ocean that is within the divine providence of God.  But again his vision clears, and we are at the middle of the poem and the extra verse, the verse upon which the poem pivots.

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.

God’s there, by day, by night.  His love is steadfast.  He’s to be trusted.  He’s the central figure of all existence, and the Psalmist is not really cut off.  The circumstances may say so, but the circumstances are wrong.  God’s there and in those moments when the vision of the Psalmist is clear, he sees that.  But then again

9 I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”

The circumstances (whatever they are) are severe enough to cause the Palmist to now out loud ask essentially the question his enemies ask, “Where is God?  Why doesn’t He relieve the situation?”  The Psalmist (and we with him) know better, but our hearts ask “How much of this can I stand?”  The Psalmist knows better, he’s just said what is true, but he’s human and in weakness he asks if he’s been forgotten.

10 As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

And if the Psalmist’s own wrestling with himself isn’t enough agony, there’s the needling of the pagans.  “If your God’s really God, why is life so tough for you?”  They come back with the question of verse 3, “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.

Again the Psalmist speaks to his soul in the refrain.  This time, because it is a refrain, it seems it seems less like what he forces himself to say and think, and more like what he has solidly resolved to consistently say and think.  Indeed, all hope is in God.  He is our salvation and our God.  So ends the second stanza.

The third stanza doesn’t describe a completely smooth ride, but we can sense in it a healthier resolve on the part of the Psalmist to cast himself upon God.

Psalm 43:1 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!

If there is hope, it is in God.  If there is vindication it is in God.  And you can feel the Psalmist beginning to do a better job of adding things up.  Rather than the exhausted desperate picture of 42:1, this prayer has some spunk.  There’s some life in it.  There’s no sign that the circumstances are any better, but this is a saner Psalmist than the one that was seeing the world in terms of a deer dying of thirst.

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?

Even this darker verse isn’t as whining as 42:7.  The Psalmist doesn’t picture himself either overcome with thirst or crushed by God’s own design.  He testifies that he takes refuge in God.  He does lapse and against what he knows to be true, repeats 42:9b saying that he’s been rejected, but darkness is lifting.

3 Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!

The Psalmist calls on God to send light and truth.  He’s in gloom and darkness.  God send light!  He’s thinking wrong and misconstruing the gracious hand of the Father.  God send truth!  Now the guy is making sense.  It’s God’s light and God’s truth that will bring him to God.  It’s not a change of circumstance or venue, it’s seeing things the way they really are.  It’s trusting God.  That’s what brings one into His presence.

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.

The final chapter isn’t written.  The Psalmist will again have opportunity to join others in public worship … but the primary thing is that God is his exceeding joy.  He’s not estranged from God or cut off from Him. Rather, he’s intimately acquainted with him.  So for a final time, there comes the refrain.

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.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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