Psalm 42 (ESV)
We are in our third week of our eight sermons on specific Psalms. We are calling the series, “A Heart For God.” Today we’ll be looking at having “A heart for God when we’re hurting.” We going to treat Psalms 42-43 as one unit. Likely, it was written as one Psalm with 3 stanzas and a refrain. At some point, during the arrangement of the book of Psalms, they were separated into two. Several clues let us know they were likely originally written together as one. First, the refrain in 42:5, 11, and 43:5 are essentially the same. Second, there is no separate title to Psalm 43, which is rare in Book 2 of the Psalms. Finally, in some ancient manuscripts, they are one Psalm.
Psalm 42 is a Song of Lament. In it, the author is describing a troubled situation and asking God for help. Close to one third of the 150 Psalms have an aspect of lament to them. Psalms of Lament often include some complaint. Sometimes, they include a confession of sin or curses on the wicked. Most end with some expression of renewed faith.
The Bible is a realistic book. It doesn’t merely present the world as we would wish it to be, but as it really is. And when the Bible describes the lives of its heroes, it presents their failures and struggles as well as their triumphs.
If you’re not a Christian or not very familiar with the Bible, this may be a new thought for you. If that’s true of you, pay close attention to the Scripture and consider how accurately they capture the human experiences of life.
This is particularly true and helpful in the Psalms. We don’t always know the exact circumstances surrounding each Psalm, though sometimes the title gives us a clue. But, we know a good bit about the life of David, for instance, who wrote many of the Psalms. In the historical accounts of David in 1-2 Samuel we learn about many of the events in David’s life. But, in Psalms, we see into his heart and soul—we learn how he was responding internally to his external circumstances.
This is one of the reasons we find the book of Psalms so helpful. God gives us insight into the heart of his saints. Amazingly, we find that the saints of God struggled with many of the same thoughts, emotions, and doubts which plague us today. If you spend much time in the Psalms you will find a Spirit-inspired expression of something you yourself are going through. With that, you will often find help for your own soul. This is the case in our Psalm for today.
It is always edifying to listen to the experience of a thoroughly gracious and much afflicted saint.
- C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David.
But, we don’t merely go to the Psalms to find someone to commiserate with us. We are looking for how our current experience can be transformed into praise to God.
The Hebrew name for the book is “Tehillim,” which means “Praises.” These songs inspired by the Holy Spirit and given through these human authors to lead the people of God to praise him in the midst of all circumstances of life.
This is not unlike our singing in worship this morning. We sang quite a few songs about God being faithful in the midst of significant difficulties or suffering. You might have come this morning with many struggles and doubts. If so, these songs hopefully met you in particularly helpful ways. But, you might have come this morning with strong, triumphant faith. There are Psalms for that as well, and we’ll learn from some of those before we’re done with our series.
So, let’s enter in together this morning to the struggles of a saint of God who wrote about his experiences. You may feel his experiences keenly. If so, I pray that God would particularly meet you this morning. These can be very difficult and prolonged seasons. Or, maybe it wasn’t that long ago when you could identify with his struggles. At a minimum, God may have future seasons like this for us, and we would do well to learn how to respond when that season comes.
This morning, we will observe three experiences of the Psalmist and how he responded to each in faith. We will see him be 1) dry, 2) drowning, and 3) disheartened.
First we will hear in the writer a deep longing for God. He describes this in terms of a parched soul.
Psalm 42:1–2 (ESV)
He hasn’t yet described the situation that makes him feel this way. Before we look into the details he gives us, let’s consider his description. He is desperately thirsty for God. This is no mere subtle craving for some snack or your favorite flavor of ice cream (Moca chip). It is a deer panting for water. Just so we get the image straight in our minds, don’t imagine a deer calmly meandering through the woods and coming to a stream in the valley and thinking, “I’ll have a drink now.” Instead, we should imagine the deer running for hours, perhaps being hunted. Its sides are heaving. It is desperate for water to continue on. Without water, it will soon have to give up altogether. It is panting and parched.
Have you ever experienced real thirst? I know we’ve been thirsty and in need of refreshment. But the thirst here is vital. An awareness of your hunger can come and go, even if you haven’t eaten, but this thirst is ever present.
What is the Psalmist thirsting for? Not water. There would be plenty of that where he is. He’s gonna mention waterfalls in the next stanza. No, it’s not water he needs, but God—the Living God.
Have you experienced thirst for God? I hope you have. I hope that your spiritual experiences have not simply been academic or cerebral or passive. We should have a healthy hunger and thirst for God.
It is also possible to thirst for religious ceremony or liturgy. These, of course are not bad in and of themselves—they are often good. But, the thirst we are talking about is not for mere religion. Idol-worship will not suffice. He tells us that he’s not merely thirsting for “a” god, but for THE Living God.
We still don’t know what situation has brought about this severe thirst for God. But, he tells us a bit more in the next verse about what his life is currently like.
Instead of the refreshing flowing streams of God’s presence, he is experiencing the salty grief of his own tears. We don’t know how long this lasted; I bet the Psalmist wouldn’t be able to tell you how long either. Such is the way of deep spiritual trials. When weeping replaces eating and sleeping, one’s awareness of lack increases and awareness of the calendar decreases.
And we finally know something of the trial itself. Evidently, the Psalmist is being barraged by others questioning God’s reality or presence or goodness. We don’t know who these scoffers are. Are they Gentile adversaries? Or merely friends that took their cues from Job’s friends? Are they political enemies? He mentions them again in vs. 10 where he names them adversaries who are taunting him. In 43:1-2, he points out that they are ungodly and the enemy.
We don’t know the context of their taunts. It could be in the midst of some other external suffering or loss.
I’m also struck by hints of doubt in verse 3. It almost reads as if his tears are saying to him “Where is your God?” I do think there are actual enemies taunting him. However, one of the most difficult aspects of answering the enemy’s taunts is fighting the gnawing temptations to doubt in your own soul.
What does this look like in our lives? Think of the difference between debating the existence of God with an atheistic evolutionist friend in your class. Now imagine the same conversation if you just suffered the tragic loss of your father to cancer. In the midst of loss, the enemies taunts feel very differently. When all is going well in our own lives, we can put up with a lot more scorn and scoffing from others.
Now let’s look to see what the Psalmist does in the midst of his spiritual thirst.
His answer at this point is to remember—to call to mind a previous experiences with God—times in his life when God was near and actively felt in his life. In the middle of his weeping and pouring out his soul, he is remembering the good ol’ days back in Jerusalem when he was in the Temple worshiping God with glad shouts and songs of praise. In his current valley, he remembers the mountain-top experience.
There are dangers in trying to live your Christian life moving from one mountaintop experience to another. At some point we must trust and obey in the midst of normal, everyday life. But, the Psalmist shows us that there are times when we need to reflect on what God has done in our lives in the past. We need to remember that it hasn’t always felt like the LORD is distanced from us.
He reminds himself of the multitude of people sharing in God’s goodness with him. It wasn’t just his imagination; he was with the throng in a procession to the house of God.
We’ll see in the next section that he is no longer in Jerusalem near the temple. Certainly, part of his current grief is his lack of access to the temple and God’s people singing songs of praise.
In the middle of bringing these happy days to mind, we get to the first refrain. He’ll come back to these words twice more in the passage.
He is giving himself a pep-talk. He’s not ready to give in yet to the internal doubts or external taunts. He asks himself a question, gives himself a command, and gives himself assurance.
We’ll look at the refrain more closely in a moment.
But, before we move on to the next stanza of the Psalm, let’s consider a few questions.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better for the Psalmist. Let’s keep going.
Sticking with our water motif we go from thirsting to drowning.
Psalm 42:6–10 (ESV)
Again, we get more insight into the plight of the Psalmist. Right after the first refrain in verse 5, he reiterates his emotional condition. He had just encouraged himself to wait patiently and hope in the Lord.
Here, he reiterates that his soul is cast down within him. Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote a whole book with this idea called Spiritual Depression.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Bible is a realistic book, honest about the condition of humankind. In this Psalm, we have a believer who is seeking to follow God and submit to his will. Yet, his soul is cast down and in turmoil. It is important to remember that this can be the experience of a child of God. If you come to faith believing that you could never experience a significant, real depression, you could become very disillusioned.
In some way, it’s helpful that we don’t know the exact circumstances of his situation. The Psalms of Lament are particularly helpful to us now because we can see how they generally describe and apply to our own situations today. The symbolic language helps us to put ourselves in the context of the Psalm.
What are the ways that your soul gets cast down? What circumstances make you feel in turmoil? What situations bring about a keen thirst for God in your life?
Is it grief? Or uncertainty about your future? Or a broken marriage? Or a friend’s betrayal? Or Loneliness? Is it wondering if you’ll ever find a spouse or a good friend? Do you fear a time when you could be more persecuted for your faith? Are you in turmoil over your own sinfulness or addictions or failures?
We learn a little more about this particular situation. It seems that the Psalmist is in the northern regions of Israel and unable to travel to Jerusalem to the temple. He is in the land of Jordan and Hermon, at Mount Mizar. We don’t really know where Mizar is, but it could have been a smaller peak in the mountain range with Mount Hermon. It’s interesting that Hermon is only mentioned in three Psalms, and we covered one of those last week, Psalm 133. We learned then that this is a 9,000 foot mountain at the very northern end of Israel. It is where some of the headwaters to the Jordan river form.
I’m tempted to read the description of the waterfalls as if I’m viewing them from a nice veranda off a vacation home in the mountains on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. That’s not the image we need to get from this.
The imagery from the end of verse 7 is reminiscent of Jonah with waves and breakers going over him. The noise and violence of the waterfalls is overwhelming. Remember, he was thirsting for God like a deer in flowing streams, but instead he is overcome and feeling like he is drowning in the loneliness and difficulties of his circumstances.
He reminds us again of the oppression of his enemy constantly asking him, “where is your God?” And, lest you think that he believes “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” he says that these taunting are like deadly wounds in his bones. They are painful and go into the strongest part of him. There is a physicality to the struggle he’s in—it’s not merely in his head. Can you hear his physical exhaustion and pain?
In his season of depression and turmoil, why are these words so painful? Because he is beginning to think that God has indeed forgotten him, and he wants to know why.
In the first stanza in vv. 1-4, he remembers his previous experiences with God. Now he will remind himself of God’s faithfulness.
Even in the mist of feeling like he’s drowning in the turmoil of his heart, he reminds himself of God’s covenant love.
Notice that even in his turmoil, he realizes that God “commands his steadfast love.” God is still in control. Even though God seems distant from him, he is still confident of his covenant faithfulness. And God still gives him songs and prayers in the night.
Also, something else significant is happening in the 2nd stanza. He is beginning to move beyond merely remember God’s past faithfulness and beginning to pray. By the final section in Psalm 43, he’ll be in all-out prayer mode.
Though it is good and right to remember the past, he realizes that what he truly needs is the present work of God.
It is interesting how he addresses God. Verse 9 says, “I say to God, my rock…” He knows that God is his only meaningful protection and security. This isn’t a rock that you can put in your pocket, nor even a boulder one could roll down on his enemies. This rock is a high, difficult to reach, fortress that offers protection from the enemy. In 43:2, hw will reference the God “in whom I take refuge.”
The Psalmist began to move toward prayer in the last part of Psalm 42. Now in 43 he will continue.
Psalm 43:1–2 (ESV)
If our friend here was dry and then feeling like he was drowning in his circumstances, now he is disheartened by God’s response so far. He still maintains that God is his refuge, yet he feels like God has rejected him. He is fed up with his enemies’ taunts and oppression.
He turns to two different types of prayer in this disheartened state. First, he prays that God would vindicate him and judge his enemies. Second, he asks for God’s help for him to move forward.
He doesn’t go as far here as in other Psalms calling down curses on the wicked, but he does ask God to judge—to choose between himself and the ungodly. God’s apparent lack of involvement to this point makes him feel as if God has rejected him. This can be one of the deepest sorrows of saints then and now. Here are some other expressions of this grief.
Psalm 13:1 (ESV) — How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
Psalm 22:1 (ESV) — My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
This, of course, was also repeated by our Lord on the cross.
Psalm 77:9 (ESV) — Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?
Psalm 88:14 (ESV) — O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?
We need to get to what the Psalmist did next in prayer. But, I do want to linger here first on how glad we should be that this kind of language is in our scriptures. We should be grateful that Lord understands this part of our fallenness.
Most saints throughout the history of the God’s people have tasted this bitter fruit—some for brief periods and others for years or decades of their walk with Christ. Christianity does not ask you to lie about your emotional or spiritual condition. It allows a raw honesty.
Psalm 145:18 (ESV) — The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
Spurgeon captures a truth that we must remember here.
A loss of the present sense of God’s love is not a loss of that love itself; the jewel is there, though it gleams not on our breast…
It is at this point as God’s saints that we must pull out all the stops to encourage ourselves in the Lord. (In a pipe organ, pulling out all the stops opens up all of the pipes. The bellows are working hard to force air through every available size pipe to provide the maximum sound available.)
The Psalmist has attempted several remedies to this point. He has remembered God’s former work in his life; he has also reminded himself of God’s covenant faithfulness. Now he is going to implore the Lord through prayer to send him the help he needs.
Psalm 43:3–4 (ESV)
Though it was important to remember what it was like to be in the house of God with the multitude keeping festival, it is critical to get to this point—to ask for God’s help; to turn your gaze Godward; to realize you cannot pull yourself out of this situation without God’s help.
I’m amazed at the writer’s confidence. In one breath, he is praying for deliverance. In the next he is committing to a faith-filled course of action when God answers his prayer.
That is the same confidence which we’ve heard in the refrain along the way. Look at it again in 43:5
Psalm 43:5 (ESV)
Even in the midst of his doubt or discouragement, the Psalmist does not stop encouraging himself in the Lord. We talk a lot at Cornerstone about encouraging one another in the Lord, and that is an instrumental means of grace. But, the mature believer must also learn to speak words of encouragement to himself.
Throughout this extended time of isolation and trial, the Psalmist is refusing to give in to his depression, but continues saying to himself, “wait patiently for God.”
Did you notice that there is no indication that a present deliverance came to the Psalmist? He is preaching to himself with the future in view. He doesn’t say, “if you’ll bring immediate relief, I’ll praise you.” No, he is saying, “wait patiently. Hope in God. There will come a time sometime in the future when he has ultimately provided salvation and I will praise him.” We might even say, “Praise him forever!”
The end of the refrain has an interesting phrase in it. The ESV translates it “my salvation and my God” but literally, the Hebrew says, “the salvation of my face and my God.” The salvation will ultimately be complete, but there is an immediate view that the Lord is the one who lifts our countenance.
What should we learn from this Psalm today? Some of you may be in a similar spiritual depression as our psalmist. Take comfort that God knows and understands. Take heart that you are walking in the path that many of the saints of God have trodden, even our Lord Jesus.
Hebrews 4:15–16 (ESV) — For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
But, whether your are in this place right now or not, here are seven things I’d have you consider.
WORSHIP Team come up
Let me leave you with one more quote from Spurgeon:
The next best thing to living in the light of the Lord’s love is to be unhappy till we have it…
O to have the most intense craving after the highest good! this is no questionable mark of grace. “For God.” Not merely for the temple and the ordinances, but for fellowship with God himself.
- C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David.
…and a few more verses from the Apostle John.
John 4:14 (ESV) — but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 7:37 (ESV) — On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.
This is one of the final invitations of scripture.
Revelation 22:17 (ESV) — The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
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