The Prayer of a Dry, Drowning and Despairing Believer.

Psalm 42

Background of the Psalm:

The psalmist can only be described as being in a very depressed state.  But who is he, and what were his circumstances?  The Psalm is attributed to the ‘Sons of Korah’, Korah being a descendent of Levi who rebelled with Dathan and Abriram against Moses and was judged by the Lord (Numbers 16).  Despite this his descendants became those who had important non-priestly tasks connected with the Tabernacle (gatekeepers, singers and musicians).  Many have attributed this Psalm to David, but if so when did these events take place?  Some commentators think it is when David fled Jerusalem to escape from Absalom.  But the places described in the Psalm and the short duration of his absence from Jerusalem at that time makes this unlikely.  The most likely scenario is that the events described took place when David was hiding from Saul.  The mention of the ‘Sons of Korah’ could mean when David became King he recounted his experience to one of them who, either on his own or with David, then composed the Psalm.

The structure of the Psalm:

  • The psalmist acknowledges a need – he is desperate to have close fellowship with the Lord and his people as the ungodly surround and taunt him causing him to fall into deep depression (verses 1-7).
  • The right and wrong approaches to lack of fellowship – looking back is not always the best thing!  Reasoning with one’s self is not the first sign of madness (verses 4-6)!
  • The solution: a proper focus on the Lord – the psalmist remembers God’s nature.  Yet he is still deeply hurt and struggling.  But he slowly starts to get a proper focus (verses 8-11).prayering-over-bible

Some observations on the text (all scriptural quotations ESV):

If the Psalm was written by David it is easy to imagine him in exile and while hunting, observing a deer as it approaches a stream to drink.  He raises his bow, but the heavy breathing of the animal suddenly causes him to reflect on his spiritual state.  Just as the animal is gasping for water due to its thirst, David is desperate for the fellowship he once knew before Saul’s murderous intent caused him to flee (vs1-2)!  Charles Haddon Spurgeon sums up David’s situation.  ‘Debarred from public worship, David was heartsick.  Ease he did not seek, honour he did not covet, but the enjoyment of communion with God was an urgent need of his soul; he viewed it not merely as the sweetest of all the luxuries, but as an absolute necessity, like water to a stag.  Like the parched traveller in the wilderness, whose skin bottle is empty, and finds the wells dry, he must drink or die – he must have God or faint.’[1]  The sense of isolation is heightened by the name used for God which is Elohim (Creator God) rather than Yahweh (Covenant God).

The psalmist’s difficult situation becomes clearer in verses 3-4.  This feeling of being separated from fellowship with God is coupled with those around him not sharing his devotion.  The question: “Where is your God?” is an accusation that God has deserted him.  The psalmist desires a return to the days when fellowship was readily attainable.  What verse 4 makes clear is that although the psalmist had a very prominent role in worship he was not bound by formality or ritual as he enjoyed this communal praise and worship (notice the use of the words: ‘throng’ and ‘multitude’).

But looking back to the ‘good old days’ where he joined with joyous and excited pilgrims on the way to one of the festivals doesn’t help at all.  In fact makes him feel a lot worse.  To be constantly looking back to better past times may not encourage us as Christians in our present situation!

Before the psalmist concludes the first part of the Psalm he asks himself a rhetorical question (vs5-6a).  The psalmist already knows what he should do, but this forces him to draw on his knowledge of God and to focus on that rather than wallowing in the pointless and unhelpful nostalgia.  In this case talking to oneself is not ‘the first sign of madness’ but rather the road to recovery.  He is to: ‘Hope in God’ for his salvation.’

But as is often the case when someone is very depressed he succumbs to a sudden mood swing.  Verse 6b makes clear that he is far from home.  The area described is near the source of the river Jordan on the North-eastern borders of Israel.  One can imagine David composing this while sitting by the fledgling stream with its waterfalls and the pools they form (v7).  However, some commentators feel the imagery reflects the open sea.  It’s possible that David makes that connection as: ‘an uncomfortable reminder of the deep, that symbol of chaos and disorder which the Hebrews always found unnerving’.[2]

Some commentators have suggested that the psalmist feels that he is suffering some form of judgment from God.  But this doesn’t sit easily with what follows in verse 8 where he is aware of God’s continual care for him.  He notes that: ‘By day the LORD commands his steadfast love and at night his song is with me’.  What is notable about this verse is that the name Psalmist uses for God has now changed.  It is no longer Elohim, Creator God, but the more intimate Yahweh which is the covenant name for God.  Yet, there is more to this verse as the second part reads: ‘by night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.’  But what exactly does that mean?  John Calvin notes that it is: ‘to be understood as an expression of the delight experienced when by God’s favour we are given free access into his presence.’[3]  That’s a possible explanation, but to my mind it doesn’t quite fit with the sentiments that have been expressed up to this point.  Although the psalmist has acknowledged the relationship he has with God, there is a sense that the origin of this prayer is not the psalmist.  So I offer the following explanation.  The prayer referred to at the end of this verse has its origin in the Lord’s love and his: ‘song’ and therefore originates from him.  It’s possible that it is the psalmist prays it, but this is similar to the priestly intercession of Christ (Hebrews 7:25).  So I suggest that the psalmist is being enabled to pray some form of prayer that has its origin in the Lord’s relationship with him.  The comfort for believers is even when they are up against it; the Lord steps in enabling them, whatever their condition, by his Spirit to seek him in prayer.

Yet despite the psalmist change of tone in verse 8 he has yet to start the process of climbing out of his predicament.  Verses 9-10 showed that he is still struggling.  His continual depression is affecting his judgment.  He realizes that God is the one constant in an ever-changing world but at the same time he feels God has forgotten him.  It makes no sense, but that is often the case when we are depressed!  What the Psalmist needs to do is to stay where he was in his reasoning in verse 8.  God is the one constant which is why the psalmist describes him as: ‘my rock’ (v9).  When we find ourselves in such difficulties we need to take a step back from the situation so we get that perspective and then fixate on the Lord’s steadfast love!  The psalmist starts to do this as he repeats the rhetorical question of verse 5-6a in verse 11.

The psalmist has realized that he has been forgetting God’s attributes and his love towards him.  He needs to make the Lord the centre of his hope so he can make a concerted effort to climb out of the situation!  Martyn Lloyd Jones sums the psalmist up in this way.  ‘He reminds himself of God.  Why?  Because he was depressed and had forgotten God, so that his faith and his belief in God and in God’s power, and in his relationship to God, were not what we ought to be.  We can indeed set sum it all up by saying that the final and ultimate cause (of spiritual depression) is sheer unbelief.’[4]

[1] C. H Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Volume 2, Psalms 27-52, (Welwyn, Evangelical Press, reprinted 1977) 300.
[2] Michael Wilcox, The Message of Psalms 1-72, Songs for the People of God (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 155.
[3] John Calvin, Abridged by David C. Searle, Commentary on the Psalms, (Edinburgh, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 226.
[4] Martyn Lloyd Jones, Spiritual Depression, Its Causes and Cure (London, Pickering and Inglis Ltd, 1965), 20.

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