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“As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after you. You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you.” I grew up singing “As the Deer” in church and these song lyrics always come to mind when I read Psalm 42. On the positive side, putting psalms to music is a great way to remember them and it fits the Old Testament example of psalms being sung in corporate worship. On the negative side, a song can become overfamiliar to us and we end up missing the impact the original Scripture is meant to have.
“As the Deer” is a nice song, but it only quotes verses 1-2a of Psalm 42, then fills in the rest of the song with other worship lyrics. I don’t blame the writer of “As the Deer” (Martin J. Nystrom) for this, as the rest of the psalm goes in 5 different directions! It’s like the psalmist took all of the themes of the psalms and crammed them into this short 11-verse song.
It begins with the beautiful imagery of a thirsty deer desiring water as a metaphor for how the psalmist thirsts after God. This is beautiful, but verse 2b takes a blunt turn when it asks, “When can I go and meet with God?” This is asked in a way that indicates he wants to meet with God now, but he isn’t. He can’t find him. He is thirsting and panting for God, desperate for water, but there’s no water in sight. The beauty lessens here, doesn’t it? We know this is the direction of the psalmist because he tells us in verse 3 where he has in fact been getting his water from: his tears. His tears have been his food day and night, with God nowhere in sight. God’s absence is noticeable even to those around him as people taunt him, asking him where his God is, in the midst of his pain.
In verse 4, the psalmist looks back in time at God’s faithfulness of the past. He remembers his time of worship and intimacy with God. He remembers his real relationship with God. In the midst of severe pain, he doesn’t lose faith because he knows what he experienced with God was concrete. So concrete that after reflecting on this love relationship he has experienced with God, he asks his own soul why it is so downcast (the lyrics for another song I sang in church growing up!). The obvious answer can be found in verse 3: Because his only food is his own tears! Because it looks like God has deserted him. But he tells himself to put his hope in God. To praise God, his Savior. All of this in the midst of his pain. In the midst of what looks and feels like God’s desertion. The psalmist is holding on to a truth about God’s love and presence that transcends his circumstances. This is so backwards from how we normally approach God today. We say: God if you take away my pain, I’ll believe in you. The psalmist says: God I will believe in you in the midst of my pain! I know my pain doesn’t dethrone you as God.
Just as he is hyping up his soul to not be downcast in verse 5, verse 6 tells us his soul is downcast! I can so relate to this. We know all the right things to tell ourselves and we do tell them to ourselves, yet there’s often not an immediate effect. So again, instead of forsaking God, he remembers God. He remembers specific geographic locations he has seen God do incredible things in his life. He remembers the incredible power and beauty of God’s creation, evidences of God that can’t be blotted out by anything.
Verse 7 seems to be remembering literal waterfalls and literal waves, signposts of God’s beauty and power. But these literal memories start to meld with spiritual imagery of God’s love and presence in the psalmist’s life. God’s waves and breakers are sweeping over the psalmist. In this experience, the Lord is directing his love toward the psalmist. He is giving him a song for the darkness of the night and a prayer to get him through each day.
God is answering the psalmist’s cry to drink from his living waters by providing him with waves and waterfalls of his love! But even in the midst of all this, the psalmist still asks God (verse 9), “Why have you forgotten me?” He is still in the thick of his suffering and wants to know why God hasn’t made his circumstances better.
The psalm seems to be going in circles. We need to pay attention to this because our emotions and prayer life goes in circles, especially when we experience suffering. Sometimes we think prayer or a spiritual experience is a one-stop fix for what ails us and we’re often even more discouraged when we come down from this mountain top, back to reality with the same circumstances we were in before. The concluding verse of the psalm (verse 11) is a carbon copy of verse 5. This models to us that we are to continue to remind ourselves to put our hope in God. We are to continue to praise him in the midst of our pain. He continues to be with us, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.
Psalm 42 might come across as discouraging for those who hope and expect God to change their negative circumstances right now. I find it to be incredibly encouraging and relatable to what many of my real life experiences and conversations with God are like. It gives me permission to be honest with God when it feels like he’s absent. And his perceived absence in my life doesn’t incriminate him, because he’s obviously been around this block before. So much so that it became canonized into Scripture and as an Old Testament worship song. I’m reminded of how God’s people in the Old Testament would have sung these exact words in their worship services, giving them the hope they needed to continue on in the pain they were experiencing. The psalms are truly a shelter in the storm and a refuge for the weary.
Invitation to reflection:
Prayer for the day: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. God, I remember all of my past experiences with you. I remember your love. I remember your presence. I remember each and every time I’ve experienced your love and seen your hand in my life. I love you.