Psalm 42 is the first of the twelve (to fourteen) Psalms that are either directly (or indirectly) attributed to the Sons of Korah. This particular psalm not only reflects a deep devotion to worship of God and fellowship with the brethren, but also the struggle to deal with the relationship of despondency and faith. In its conversation between a faithful man and his own despondent soul, this psalm appears to reflect the tension between faith and depression that one finds in the life of Heman the Ezrahite . Additionally, it appears very likely that both Psalm 42 and 43 were originally one psalm given the repetition of the lament about a soul cast down, and so both psalms will be examined here.
My Soul Thirsts For God
The first four verses of Psalm 42 express a tremendous hunger and thirst for God, as well as reflection on the bitterness of sorrows being one’s food and drink: “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?” 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.”
There are at least three notable aspects of this passage. One is that the anonymous psalmist hungers and thirsts after righteousness. Despite his own sorrows, he is one of those of whom our Lord and Savior says in Matthew 5:4, 6: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted….Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Just as the psalmist thirsts for God, for the living waters that flow from God, and desires to appear before God to plead his case, his identity as a true believer is made plain by his longing for God and God’s truth. Additionally, the fact that he has previously enjoyed the fellowship of his brethren at the Holy Days (the “pilgrim feast” referred to in verse 4), he now feels cut off from fellowship and alone. Instead of feeding and drinking on righteousness his food and drink is his own tears from the suffering of his despondent heart, while his faith his mocked by his enemies. By pouring out his troubles before God, the psalmist puts his own trials and tribulations before the One who works all things together for the good for those whom He has called.
Why Are You Cast Down?
Psalm 42:5-7 introduced the refrain that will be repeated twice more in Psalm 42 and 43, expressing the downcast state of the soul of the psalmist as he writes his lament: “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. 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. Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me.”
It is appropriate to note here a few of the interesting parallels between this lament and other parts of scripture that provide some context. In the psalmist’s lament about being cut off from others (verse 4) and drowning in his sorrows as if the waves of God have drowned him in a fierce storm in the sea (verse 7), the lament here strongly echoes Psalm 88, where Heman the Ezrahite laments that God has removed his friends and acquaintances and family far from him in his sorrows, and also complains that the sorrows he feels are like the waves of a ferocious storm crashing down on over him.
Also of note are the geographical touches of this psalm and their thematic concerns. The reference to Hill Mizar is obscure, possibly referring to the little mountain of Zion or a mountain in the Golan Heights region that was once called Mizar . Additionally, it should be noted that Psalm 133:3, which also references Hermon as a geographical touch, refers to the blessing of the waters that come down off of Hermon into the Jordan to make a spiritual point about unity and harmony. Just as unity brings the refreshing waters of the spirit to believers, so the author of Psalm 42 and 43 refers to Hermon in a similar light given his own hunger and thirst for God.
Where Is Your God?
Psalm 42:8-11 continues the lament of the previous section, echoing and elaborating on what has been said before, according to the technique of parallelism common to the Hebrew poets: “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. 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?” Why are you cast down, O my soul? Why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the Help of my countance and my God.”
In at least a couple ways this particular passage echoes previous passages within the Psalm. For example, verse 11 is a near copy of the refrain of verse five asking why the soul is cast down and disquieted, repeating the self-examination. Additionally, the psalmist wishes for God’s lovingkindness and song to be with him day and night (verse eight) instead of his tears and sorrows (verse four). Again we see here the parallelism that was so noted among the psalmists of the Bible reflecting on the same concerns contrasting the sorrows of life with the promise of help and deliverance from God.
Likewise, this particular passage also has some deep connections with other psalms. For example, it is the habit of oppressors to be blind to God’s presence while they are causing oppression, and to taunt the victims of their bullying with calls of “where is your God?” . Additionally, God’s lovingkindness, covenant loyalty (for which the Hebrew word is hesed) is similarly a frequent concern within the scriptures . Additionally, the concept of God as a rock or fortress of refuge is a common one not only within the psalms of the Sons of Korah (see, for example, Psalms 46 and 48), but also within the rest of the psalms (see Psalms 18, for an example from David’s psalms).
Psalm 43: Vindicate Me, O God
Psalm 43:1-5 itself continues the lament of Psalm 42 with further parallelism and elaboration: “Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; oh, deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man! For You are the God of my strength; why do You cast me off? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Oh, send out Your light and Your truth! Let them lead me; let them bring me to your holly hill and to Your tabernacle. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and on the harp I will praise You, O God, my 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.”
This passage, closing the lament of the Sons of Korah in Psalm 42 and 43, repeats many of the concerns and expands them into greater relief. Verse 5, closing the psalm, repeats the lament of Psalm 42:5, 11, giving the threefold questioning of the psalmists despondent heart. Psalm 43:1-2 repeat the lament of Psalm 42:9-10 about oppression, showing that the concern is not merely an isolated group of bullies and oppressors but an unjust and wicked society steeped in oppression and ungodliness. Let us not forget that many of the problems we deal with and lament are themselves systemic in nature, and are not merely isolated and personal problems. Just as the psalmist reflected on the ungodly society that needed to either repent or face judgment, so too we must confront and call to repentance wicked and unjust societies who abuse others and are hostile to God.
Likewise, we see here in Psalm 43:3-4 the concern for light and truth (as opposed to the darkness and lies practiced by Satan the devil and his human followers) as well as the promise to worship God in his tabernacle and to celebrate his faith in public once God vindicates his cause (an echo is his memory of fellowshipping with the brethren in Psalm 42:4). Here we see a believer who longs for the fellowship with God and his brethren and who feels cut off because of the slanders of wicked men. For those of us who have been harmed because of the slanders of the wicked, we can relate to his experience and claim his lament during those times as our own.
Psalm 42 and 43 in Christian Hymns
There are at least a couple notable hymns that have been set in the last 100 years to Psalms 42 and 43 that readers may be familiar with. One of them, set by Dwight Armstrong, is called “Righteous Judge:”
Righteous judge from foes defend me,
Who deceitful charges lay;
God, my strength, my soul deliver,
And my treach’rous foes dismay;
O send out Thy light and truth;
Let them lead and guide me still;
Let them bring me to Thy dwelling;
Lead me to Thy holy hill.
Then will I come to Thine altar,
God of my exceeding joy;
And with lyre will I sing praises;
Unto God, my God I’ll sing!
Why art thou, my soul, cast down:
Why art thou disquieted?
I shall yet have hope and praise Him;
Unto God shall I give praise!
Another familiar hymn adapted from these psalms is “As The Deer,” lyrics and music by Martin Nystrom, gospel singer and songwriter .
In conclusion, let us note a few things about the importance and relevance of Psalm 42 and 43. For one, let us remember that we still sing these hymns today in our own churches to express our own faith in God and our own hunger and thirst for God. Additionally, let us note that this particular psalm raises important concerns about the equation of despondency or depression with a lack of faith, showing a more complicated picture of despondency over oppression and trials combined with a hope and faith that God will deliver us safely and restore us again to His joy. The concerns of Psalms 42 and 43 with such important issues as God’s covenantal loyalty (hesed), hostility towards oppressors, our longing to be a part of God’s people, fellowship and public worship, and trials is demonstrate of the continued relevance of this song for believers today. The anonymous member of the Sons of Korah who penned these two psalms has left a work of surpassing beauty and bittersweet self-examination for us to follow and examine today, a work that remains valid some 2500-3000 years after it was originally written. Let us therefore thank God for providing us with such a thoughtful set of verses in this lament that many of us can sing from our own heart.