Psalm 42 – Honest Prayer from a Discouraged Saint
This psalm is titled To the Chief Musician. A Contemplation of the sons of Korah.
We don’t know when the psalms were gathered into five books, but the separation dates back to before our oldest manuscripts, compiled in the Masoretic Text. This is the first psalm of Book Two; the psalms of Book Two share some general differences with the psalms of the Book One.
The Hebrew word in reference to God is emphasized differently in the first two books of Psalms. “According to Franz Delitsch, in book one the name Jehovah occurs 272 times and Elohim only 15. But in book two, Elohim occurs 164 times and Jehovah only 30 times.” (James Montgomery Boice)
In Book One of Psalms, 37 of the 41 are specifically attributed to David, and the four remaining are unattributed. David is the only known psalmist in Book One.
In Book Two of Psalms, David authored 18 of the 31, more than half. But now, other psalmists appear: Asaph and Solomon have one each, seven (perhaps eight) psalms belong to the sons of Korah, and three have no author listed.
The sons of Korah were Levites, from the family of Kohath. By David’s time it seems they served in the musical aspect of the temple worship (2 Chronicles 20:19).
Korah led a rebellion of 250 community leaders against Moses during the wilderness days of the Exodus (Numbers 16). God judged Korah and his leaders and they all died, but the sons of Korah remained (Numbers 26:9-11). Perhaps they were so grateful for this mercy that they became notable in Israel for praising God.
A. The deep need of the psalmist.
1. (1-3) A sense of great need, distance from God’s house, and discouraging words bring a deep sense of despair.
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul 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,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”
a. As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God: The sons of Korah began this psalm with a powerful image – a deer aching with thirst. Perhaps the thirst came from drought or from heated pursuit; either way, the deer longed for and needed water. In the same way, the psalmist’s soullonged for and needed God.
i. “Ease he did not seek, honour he did not covet, but the enjoyment of communion with God was an urgent need of his soul; he viewed it not merely as the sweetest of all luxuries, but as an absolute necessity, like water to a stag.” (Spurgeon)
b. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God: The psalmist wasn’t thirsty for water, but for God. Drinking and thirst are common pictures of man’s spiritual need and God’s supply. Here, the emphasis is on the desperation of the need.
i. One may go many days without food, but thirsts shows an even more urgent need. “Which is more than hungering; hunger you can palliate, but thirst is awful, insatiable, clamorous, deadly.” (Spurgeon)
ii. For God: “Not merely for the temple and the ordinances, but for fellowship with God himself. None but spiritual men can sympathise with this thirst.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Sorrow is always a sense of lack. The sorrow of bereavement is the sense of the loss of a loved one. The sorrow of sickness is the lack of health. The ultimate sorrow is the sense of the lack of God. This was the supreme sorrow of the singer.” (Morgan)
iv. He is the living God in at least three senses:
· He alone has life in Himself and of Himself.
· He alone gives life.
· He is distinct from the dead, imagined gods of the heathen.
c. When shall I come and appear before God: For the sons of Korah – connected to the tabernacle and the temple and their rituals – there was an appointed place to appear before God. This was a longing to connect again with God and His people at the tabernacle or temple.
i. Appear before God: “In the place of his special presence and public worship. See Exodus 23:15, 25:30. What is called before the Lord, 1 Chronicles 13:10, is before or with the ark, 2 Samuel 6:7.” (Poole)
ii. “It is not that he does not believe that God is everywhere, or that God is not with him. He is praying to God in the psalms, after all. But his being away from home has gotten him down, and his depressed state has caused him to feel that God is absent.” (Boice)
iii. “A wicked man can never say in good earnest, ‘When shall I come and appear before God?’ because he shall do so too soon, and before he would, as the devils that said Christ came ‘to torment them before their time.’ Ask a thief and a malefactor whether he would willingly appear before the judge.” (Horton, cited in Spurgeon)
d. My tears have been my food day and night: These tears can perhaps be understood in at least two ways. First, they demonstrated the grief that made the psalmist long for relief in God. Second, they showed the psalmist’s grief over the perceived distance from God. Either or both of these could be the case; yet the need was plainly deep and great.
i. “The next best thing to living in the light of the Lord’s love is to be unhappy till we have it, and to pant hourly after it.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Possibly his tears and grief took away his appetite, and so were to him instead of food.” (Poole)
e. While they continually say to me, “Where is your God”: Making the problem worse was being in the company of those who wanted to discourage the psalmist. They wanted to make him feel that at his moment of need, God was nowhere to be found.
i. “The first real atheism came with Greek philosophy. So the taunt did not mean that God did not exist, but that God had abandoned the psalmist.” (Boice)
ii. “Other of God’s suffering saints have met with the like measure. At Orleans, in France, as the bloody Papists murdered the Protestants, they cried out, Where is now your God? What is become of all your prayers and psalms now? Let your God that you called upon save you now if he can.” (Trapp)
iii. Where is your God: “David might rather have said to them, Where are your eyes? where is your sight? for God is not only in heaven, but in me.” (Sibbes, cited in Spurgeon)
2. (4) Painful memories bring further discouragement.
When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.
a. I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God: The remembering of happier times made the psalmist sadder. He thought of the times of joyful worship at the house of God and felt so distant from those better days.
i. Pour out my soul: “My soul is dissolved, becomes weak as water, when I reflect on what I have had, and on what I have lost.” (Clarke)
ii. I pour out my soul within me: “In me, i.e. within my own breast, between God and my own soul; not openly, lest mine enemies should turn it into a matter of rejoicing and insulting over me.” (Poole)
b. With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast: He especially remembered the high times of the holidays that marked the Jewish calendar. He thought of the multitude and excitement (voice of joy and praise) that marked the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
3. (5) Wise speaking to his own soul.
Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.
a. Why are you cast down, O my soul: The psalmist paused from the painful memory to challenge his own soul. He did not surrender to his feelings of spiritual depression and discouragement. Instead, he challenged them and brought them before God. He said to those cast down and disquieted feelings, “Hope in God. He will come through again, because He has before.”
i. This is a long way from the surrender that often traps the discouraged or spiritually depressed person. He didn’t say, “My soul is cast down and that’s how it is. There is nothing I can do about it.” The challenge made to his own soul – demanding that it explain a reason why it should be so cast down – is a wonderful example. There were some valid reasons for discouragement; there were many more reasons for hope.
ii. It also wasn’t as if he had not already given many reasons for his discouragement. Many things bothered him.
· Distance from home and the house of God (42:2, 42:6).
· Taunting unbelievers (42:3, 42:10).
· Memories of better days (42:4).
· The present absence of past spiritual thrills (42:4).
· Overwhelming trials of life (42:7).
· God’s seemingly slow response (42:9).
Still, it was as if the psalmist said, “Those are not good enough reasons to be cast down when I think of the greatness of God and the help of His favor and presence.”
iii. “The result is not deadening his sense of sorrow but rather setting it in right relationship to God.” (Morgan)
iv. “You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down – what business have you to be disquieted?’” (Lloyd-Jones, cited in Boice)
v. “David chideth David out of the dumps.” (Trapp)
b. Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him: In his discouragement, the psalmist spoke to himself – perhaps even preached to himself. He didn’t feel filled with praise at the moment. Yet he was confident that as he did what he could to direct his hope in God, that praise would come forth. “I don’t feel like praising Him now, but He is worthy of my hope – and I shall yet praise Him.”
i. “Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey towards it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us.” (Smiles, cited in Spurgeon)
c. The help of His countenance: The psalmist knew to look for help in God’s countenance – that is, the approving face of God. He found a better place by challenging his sense of gloom and seeking after God’s face, His countenance.
i. For the help of His countenance: “Hebrew, for the salvations of his face.” (Poole) “Note well that the main hope and chief desire of David rest in the smile of God. His face is what he seeks and hopes to see, and this will recover his low spirits.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “When the sun arises, we cannot be without light; when God turns his countenance towards us, we cannot be without ‘salvation.’” (Horne)
iii. In seeking the help of His countenance, the psalmist understood that the answers were not within himself, but in the living God. He didn’t look within; he looked up.
B. Bringing the need to God.
1. (6) An honest prayer from a distant place.
O my God, my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
a. O my God, my soul is cast down within me: In an almost detached sense, the psalmist reported his cast down soul to God. This was wise, because a common tendency in such times is to stay away from God or act as if we could hide the problem from him. The psalmist did neither.
b. Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan: This explains why he was so far from the house of God and could not appear at the tabernacle or temple. He was far north of Jerusalem, in the heights of Hermon.
i. “We know the chief thing that was bothering him. He was far from Jerusalem and its temple worship on Mount Zion, and therefore felt himself to be cut off from God.” (Boice)
ii. The Hill Mizar: “‘Mizar’ is probably the name of a hill otherwise unknown, and specifies the singer’s locality more minutely, though not helpfully to us.” (Maclaren)
2. (7-8) A prayer from the depths of discouragement.
Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.
a. Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls: Perhaps the psalmist saw or thought of a waterfall in this high country. He saw how the water plunged down into a deep pool at the base of the waterfall and thought, “I feel that deeply buried under my misery.” It was as if all Your waves and billows have gone over me and he was buried under.
i. The psalmist knew, “I’m in deep trouble on the outside and I’m in deep trouble on the inside.” These two depths seemed to collide in him, sending him deeper still. It is a powerful and poetic description of despair.
· I hear the constant noise of the waterfalls; it never stops.
· I fell from a previous height.
· I plunged down quickly, and was taken down deep.
· I feel buried under all of this.
· I feel like I’m drowning.
ii. Even in this, there are points of light, giving hope.
· I am deep; but You are also – so Your depths call unto me in my depths.
· The waterfalls are Yours; if I am plunged under, then You are with me.
· The waves and billows are Yours; You have measured all this.
iii. “The whole compass of creation affordeth not, perhaps, a more just and striking image of nature and number of those calamities which sin hath brought upon the children of Adam.” (Horne)
iv. Deep calls unto deep: “One wave of sorrow rolls on me, impelled by another. There is something dismal in the sound of the original [Hebrew].” (Clarke)
v. F.B. Meyer thought of this as the depths of God answering to the depths of human need. “Whatever depths there are in God, they appeal to corresponding depths in us. And whatever the depths of our sorrow, desire, or necessity, there are correspondences in God from which full supplies may be obtained.” (Meyer)
· “The deep of divine redemption calls to the deep of human need.” (Meyer)
· “The deep of Christ’s wealth calls to the deep of the saint’s poverty.” (Meyer)
· “The deep of the Holy Spirit’s intercession calls to the deep of the Church’s prayer.” (Meyer)
b. The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime: The covenant name of God – the LORD, Yahweh – is somewhat rarely used in Book Two of Psalms. Here it is used with special strength, with great confidence that God will command His lovingkindness to be extended to the despairing one.
i. “His expression is remarkable; he does not say simply that the Lord will bestow, but, ‘command his lovingkindness.’ As the gift bestowed is grace – free favour to the unworthy; so the manner of bestowing it is sovereign. It is given by decree; it is a royal donative. And if he commands the blessing, who shall hinder its reception?” (March, cited in Spurgeon)
c. His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me: The psalmist came to a place of greater confidence, secure in God’s goodness to him in the daytime or at night. In the more frightening night, he would have the gracious comfort of His song to be with him.
d. A prayer to the God of my life: This is another statement of confidence. The song from God will be a prayer, but not unto the God of his death, but to the God of my life.
3. (9-10) More honest telling of the psalmist’s discouragement.
I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
a. I will say to God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me”: There is a pleasant contradiction in this line. The psalmist had the confidence to call God his Rock – his place of security, stability, and strength. At the same time he could honestly bring his feelings to God and ask, “Why have You forgotten me?”
i. The more experienced saint knows there is no contradiction. It was because he regarded God as his Rock that he could pour out his soul before Him so honestly.
b. Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy: The psalmist senses God sustaining him, but his battle is not over. There is the constant oppression of the enemy. The taunt, “Where is your God?” continued from them.
4. (11) A return to a confident challenge of self and focus upon God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.
a. Why are you cast down, O my soul? As the oppression of the enemy continued, so the psalmist would continue to speak to himself and challenge his own sense of discouragement.
i. “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.” (Kidner)
ii. “The higher self repeats its half-rebuke, half-encouragement.” (Maclaren)
b. Hope in God: The pleasant words of Psalm 42:5 are repeated as both important and helpful. The psalmist – and everyone buried under discouragement – needed to keep hope in God and keep confidence that he shall yet praise Him.
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org