Psalms 42–44: Longing & the Living God

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 15: Wednesday

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So my soul pants for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God;
When shall I come and appear before God?
Psalm 42:1–2 LSB

Today’s Bible reading of Psalms 42–44, begins the second book of Psalms, Psalms 42–72. Derek Kidner comments on the psalms in this book:

“Psalms are brought together here from various sources: the Sons of Korah, who were temple musicians (42–49); Asaph, the founder of another temple group (50); David (51–65; 68–70); Solomon (72). There are also three anonymous psalms: (66, 67, 71).”1

These psalms are cries of the heart. The word oppression is found in all three psalms; Psalms 42 and 43 contain the phrase, the oppression of the enemy.

Under the weight of oppression, the psalmist is in despair. That’s not surprising, is it? The word despair is found three times in Psalm 42 and once in Psalm 43. While it is not used in Psalm 44, the words of the psalm strike the same note.

These psalms are also psalms of whys. Notice all the whys. There are six in Psalm 42, and two in both Psalm 43 and 44.

Psalms 42 and 43 are considered to be one poem. Kidner writes:

“While each of this pair of psalms can be sung by itself, they are in fact two parts of a single, close-knit poem, one of the most sadly beautiful in the Psalter. Not only does one title serve for the two psalms, but the soliloquy ‘Why go I mourning . . .’ is heard in both (42:9; 43:2), and the refrain which closes the two parts of Psalm 42 at verses 5 and 11 comes a third time at 43:5 to round off the whole.”2

Psalm 42 begins with this well-known plaintive cry.

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So my soul pants for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God;
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

These things I remember
and I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go along with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God,
With the sound of a shout of joy and thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
Psalm 42:1–4 LSB

M’Caw and Motyer comment:

“The imagery of a timid fallow-deer audibly panting because of extreme thirst vividly expresses the intense and searing sense of want experienced by the psalmist (cf. Pss. 63:1; 84:2). His craving to draw near to the living God who is the fountian of living water (cf. Je. 2:13), is inseparable from the remem­bered habit of going up to the sanctuary. But the repetition of ĕlōhîm (God) shows that the yearning is for communion with God Himself…

“[In verse 6] The psalmist now reveals to us that he is in the far north, where snow-capped Hermon looks down on the head-waters of the Jordan. How he came to be there he does not disclose, but the deep sadness of his poem suggests that he was one of the many strings of captives led off by invading kings.”3

Throughout his prayer the psalmist repeats this refrain at the end of each stanza of the poem:

Why are you in despair, O my soul?
why are you disturbed within me?
Wait for God, for I shall still praise Him,
For the salvation of His presence.
Psalm 42:5 LSB
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
Wait for God, for I shall still praise Him,
The salvation of my presence and my God.
Psalm 42:11 LSB
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
Wait for God, for I shall still praise Him,
The salvation of my presence and my God.
Psalm 43:5 LSB

Look now at how each stanza begins, and what the psalmist then says. In Psalm 42:1, he opens his prayer by telling God how he longs for Him, and how he thirsts for Him. Kidner describes the psalmist’s state of mind in the first stanza, Psalm 42:1-5.

“…the psalmist seems to have had in mind the slower agony of drought (cf. the similar Joel 1:20), a condition grimly depicted in Jeremiah 14:1–6 with its withered landscape and dazed, dying creatures. His long spiritual ordeal shows itself in the pathetic When? of verse 2, and the emptiness of his landscape is revealed by the onlooker’s taunts of Where? (3).

“This self-communing is the major refrain of the two psalms: see verse 11 and 43:5. It is an important dialogue between the two aspects of the believer, who is at once a man of convictions and a creature of change. He is called to live in eternity, his mind stayed on God; but also in time, where mind and body are under pressures that cannot and should not leave him impassive. Cf. ‘Now is my soul troubled…’ (Jn. 12:27f). The psalmist’s refrain teaches us to take seriously both aspects of our existence.”4

In verse 6, the psalmist prays O my God, my soul is in despair within me. Then he tells God, Therefore I remember You. This is similar to Jeremiah’s cry in Lamentations 3:19–23. Kidner describes the psalmist in the second stanza of Psalm 42:6-11.

“This is a totally different figure. The poet’s thoughts are set in turmoil by the alien scene in which he stands, where the river Jordan, nor far from its source on the slopes of Herman, rushes among boulders and over falls…

“Here is the picture of all that is overwhelming: his footing gone, and wave after wave submerging him…

“Yet his faith keeps asserting itself…There is no easing of the stress, but the emotions now have the background of strong convictions. So there is a telling contrast between the mentions of day . . . and . . . night in verse 8 and verse 3.”5

Psalm 43 is the last stanza of the poem. Here the psalmist prays by crying out to God for justice and protection. Kidner comments:

“Throughout Psalm 42 there has been a growing reliance on the things that cannot be shaken, although the storm of suffering has given no sign of abating. The process continues here. The dark moods (2b, 5) alternate with increasingly affirmative praying…And the ordeal of darkness and insecurity is apparent to us now only through a positive request, a plea for the light and truth (i.e., divine faithfulness) that will dispel them (3)…

“So the chief refrain (5), at its third appearance, can take up the brave words of 42:5, 11 with a different tone, confident rather than doggedly defiant. Homeward bound or not, the poet can praise God as his ‘exceeding joy’ and—not merely his help, which is too weak a word—his ‘salvation’. Outwardly nothing has changed: but he has won through.”6

Go back to the refrains that mark the end of each stanza. These are the anchors of his prayer. The psalmist knows His presence is my salvation, and He is the salvation of my presence. This is why the psalmist thirsts for the Living God as the deer pants for water. He knows that God puts an end to despair and an end to his disturbance. With God there is hope and deliverance; with God there is peace.

Psalm 44 is the cry of a nation that is suffering.

But for Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are counted as sheep for the slaughter.
Psalm 44:22 LSB

Kidner comments that in this psalm:

“…the crux is in verse 22, with the phrase for thy sake. The psalm does not develop it, but it implies the revolutionary thought that suffering may be a battle-scar rather than a punishment; the price of loyalty in a world which is at war with God. If this is so, a reverse as well as a victory may be a sign of fellowship with Him, not of alienation. So Paul quotes verse 22 not with the despair of the ‘more than defeated’… but with conviction that ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’ (Rom. 8:36ff). The divine sleep, aloofness and inattention of verse 23f. are the appearances; the reality behind them is given the last word in the psalm: thy steadfast love.”7

This last word of appeal to God remembers who He is.

Rise up, be our help,
And redeem us for the sake of Your lovingkindness.
Psalm 44:26 LSB

These are stark psalms and once again you can see the raw emotion of the psalmist. In the midst of his oppression, his despair and his whys, the psalmist remembers who God is; and he bears witness to us that God is a God of lovingkindness and faithfulness.

As you pour out your soul to God, you may be remembering, as the psalmist did, of your longing for God, your tears, and your suffering. In your place of despair, remember who God is as the psalmist did: a God of lovingkindness and faithfulness, and wait for God.

Then I will go to the altar of God,
To God my exceeding joy;
And upon the lyre I shall praise You, O God, my God.
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
Wait for God, for I shall still praise Him,
The salvation of my presence and my God.
Psalm 43:4–5 LSB

For a brief overview of the structure and poetry of Psalms see my post, The Five Books of Psalms.
Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
The panting deerJan van’t HoffGospel Images. Psalm 42:2–3.
1,2,4,5,6,7Derek Kidner, Psalm 1–72 (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1973) 165, 165, 166, 166–167, 167–168, 170.
3Leslie S. M’Caw and J. T. Motyer, “Psalms,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds. (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1970) 478.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and other ones at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2011–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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