<To the leader. A Maskil of the Korahites.>
1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
The forty-second Psalm begins the second book of the Psalter which runs from Psalm 42-72. In addition there is a significant change in the way that God is addressed in Psalms 42-83: in the first forty-one psalms God is typically addressed by the name of God (YHWH, translated LORD in most English translations) while this group of Psalms is sometimes referred to as the Elohistic psalms because God is normally called Elohim (the Hebrew word that is the is translated God, Elohim can refer to the God of Israel or used generically as a god depending on the context). Finally, this Psalm also begins one of two collections of Korahite Psalms, written by a group of Levites and not by David. The Korahites are mentioned in the line of the Levites for the first time in Exodus 6:24 and in 1 Chronicles 9:19 we hear that the Korahites “were in charge of the work of the service, guardians of the threshold of the tent, as their ancestors had been in charge of the camp of the LORD, guardians of the entrance.” Psalm forty-two and forty-three may have been one psalm originally but I will treat them separately here and then when I look at Psalm forty-three, I will also consider the two Psalms together.
Psalm forty-two begins with an image that has been set to song, but the song while beautiful misses the emotion and direction of the psalm. The initial verse of As the Deer by Jerry Sinclair sets the scene:
As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you
You alone are my hearts desire and I long to worship you (Worship and Praise , 1999, p. 9)
Yet, Psalm forty-two is a song about separation from God rather than closeness. Unlike the imagery of the As the Deer, where the deer is satisfied by the waters and the worshiper sits safely in a space where they can worship God our Psalm turns on the question “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” The song is beautiful and has a place within the language of worship but so does the honest and hauntingly beautiful language of the psalm where the speaker finds themselves in an exile, spiritual or physical, in a world that has changed around them leaving them isolated from God and from the worship of the community.
Water imagery comes up multiple times in this short Psalm, beginning with the metaphor of a deer longing for a flowing stream being matched with the individuals longing for God. God’s presence becomes as essential as the water needed to sustain life but like a deer in an arid land coming upon a dried-up streambed the psalmist is in a relational desert where God is unavailable or distant. As the waters they sought have remained elusive they have been fed instead by a well of saline tears that come from their own body. Later in verse seven the speaker returns to the memory of the depths of God’s steadfast love imagined in the image of the deep, large waterfalls, and waves that break upon the shore or the side of a ship. Once God’s presence was so abundant that it threatened to overwhelm the speaker but now, they are left in a wilderness with only their own tears for nourishment.
The taunting question of the adversaries of the speaker, “Where is your God?” intensifies the experience of the speaker’s own isolation from God. The question appears first in response to the tears of the psalmist but later is expanded to become a wound that threatens to be fatal. As the psalmist has been denied the presence of God, they need for life the taunting of their opponents intensifies the perception of distance. The psalmist can cry out, “Why have you forgotten me?” The poet could not forget God anymore than they could forget to drink, and yet is appears to the poet that God has forgotten them at this moment in time. They can examine the distance between the past when they could lead the great throng in procession and the present when they feel isolated from God, oppressed and wounded by some in the community and longing for that time when they shall again praise their God who is their rock and their help.
This Psalm, and the next Psalm, act as an internal dialogue of faith in a time when God seems distant. The speaker returns multiple times to the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope for God; for I shall again praise him.” Even in the experience of isolation the psalmist trusts that their current reality is not the final answer: they have been overwhelmed by the abundance of God’s steadfast love that crashed over them like the waves that break upon the shoreline, they will not walk in the parched wilderness forever. Their inmost self longs for God and they will come upon God’s waters again, their tears will be wiped away and their adversaries will be silenced. The parched feeling of being isolated from God will eventually pass, the refrain reminds the speaker that God will not remain distant forever, will not forget them and even amid their struggle they can still hope for a return to the waters they long for.