31 October 2013

Psalm 42

“My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” (v. 6)


In Psalm 42, the psalmist expresses a deep and unyielding longing for God, whilst at the same time remembering better days and wrestling with trying to comprehend how the sense of the Lord's presence has been lost since those times.

The intense yearning for a taste of God's presence is vividly expressed in the simile of the deer, who looks for fresh living water and quenches its thirst (verse 1). It does so in order to live. The psalmist recognises the same need for a fresh experience of the living God and longs for it at the deepest level. At the same time, the place to seek this experience of God is unclear (verse 2) and this bewilderment and the mocking of others brings the psalmist to tears (verse 3).

As is so often the case when spiritual life seems at a low ebb, the psalmist then remembers fondly former times in God's presence, looking back in remembrance, meditating on the pilgrimages to the temple and the festive celebrations of the Passover, Firstfruits, and Tabernacles (verse 4). These memories are not, however, simply the psalmist's equivalent of rueing how much better things were in 'the good old days' but serve as a reminder that as God's presence has been acclaimed in the past, so can it be celebrated once again. The psalmist's current downcast frame of mind is the catalyst for recollection of where God felt most powerfully close: "My soul is cast down within me;thereforeI remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Miza" (emphasis mine).

Yet memories are often a mixture of emotions and it may have been a remembrance of the waters of the River Jordan as they rush down from Mount Hermon that overshadows the psalmist's recollections of times before with an underlying sense of inner turmoil, represented by rushing and falling waters (verse 7). In a state of restless turbulence, the psalmist clings to the solidity and dependability of God, "his steadfast love" (v. 8) and presence by day and night and it is this affirmation of God's strength that enables the psalmist to ask the hard questions. Knowing a powerful and joyous experience of God in the past, and contrasting this dependability with a personal experience of human weakness, the psalmist asks these questions in faith, remembering who the Lord is: "God my rock" (v. 9). It is God's nature that makes these questions worth asking, but they are real and heartfelt questions nevertheless: Why has this dependable God seemingly gone AWOL? Why when God is omnipresent, do enemies mock the seeming lack of evidence for this in the psalmist's life (verse 10)? Why is there a continuing sense of unrest and dejection in the very depths of the psalmist's being (verse 11)?

These reflections bring the psalmist again to a point of despair, self-examination, and a confident affirmation of the future saving acts of God, knowing there is no greater hope. The psalmist bases this not upon current feelings but upon the firmer foundation of experience and knowledge of God's character. As Augustus Toplady's hymn says, "Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee" (Singing the Faith 434).

To Ponder

  • When God seems far away, what are the occasions, people or places, "these things I remember", through which you experienced a strong sense of the Holy Spirit in your life?
  • What questions have you asked God in times of disquiet and turmoil? What was the outcome of your questioning?

Bible notes author

The Revd Tim Woolley