Learning to Lament — Part 3

This post is the third of three on biblical lament. You can read the first here and the second here. Also, if you’re interested in digging deeper into the topic of lament, I recommend checking out Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament by Mark Vroegop.

An Exposition of Psalms 42-43

Psalms 42-43 are the first two psalms in Book II of the Psalter, which contains Psalms 42-72.  While the two psalms are divided in most Bibles and some think they should remain separate, it seems best to treat these two psalms as one.  Longman concludes that Psalms 42-43 “almost certainly were originally a single poem” due to the repeated refrain (42:5, 11; 43:5), the fact that Psalm 43 is one of the few psalms that lacks a title, and that some of the ancient manuscripts list the psalms as a single poem.[1]  As a result, they will be treated as one composition here.  The poem is an individual lament of one who longs for God and is composed of three movements each ending with the repeated refrain: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

Delitzsch summarizes the structure and flow of the poem thus: “thrice [the psalmist’s] pain breaks forth into complaint, and is each time again overcome by the admonitory voice of his higher consciousness… [in which] there is unmistakable progress.”[2] Because of its stirring content and emotional relatability, Kidner calls the poem “one of the most sadly beautiful in the Psalter.”[3]  He goes on to summarize the combined psalm as “the lament of a temple singer exiled in the north near the rising of the Jordan, who longs to be back at God’s house, and turns his longing into resolute faith and hope in God himself.”[4]  As will be demonstrated, this psalm has had a level of popularity and is of great use due to its depiction of the common experience of a believer’s desire for God that is interrupted by distance, persecution, and hardship and that is often squelched by depression.

[1] Longman III, Tremper. Psalms. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 193.

[2] Delitzsch, F. Psalms. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 54.

[3] Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1-72. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 182.

[4] Ibid. 182-183.

The First Movement: 42:1-4

1    As a deer pants for flowing streams,

so pants my soul for you, O God.

2 My soul thirsts for God,

for the living God.

When shall I come and appear before God?

3 My tears have been my food

day and night,

while they say to me all the day long,

“Where is your God?”

4 These things I remember,

as I pour out my soul:

how I would go with the throng

and lead them in procession to the house of God

with glad shouts and songs of praise,

a multitude keeping festival.

Psalm 42:1-4

Beginning in the first movement and continuing throughout the poem, the imagery of water is prevalent.  At the outset, the psalmist compares his soul’s desire for God to a “deer [that] pants for flowing streams.”  This is a powerful simile that demonstrates the author’s desperation, urgency, and vulnerability.  Thirsting in barren places in the Ancient Near East was no laughing matter, but one of life and death.  Kidner notes that the extreme nature of his spiritual quandary “shows itself in the pathetic When? of verse 2, and the emptiness of his landscape is revealed by the onlookers’ taunts in Where? (3).”[1]  Plumer notes three helpful items: 1) the repetition shows the intensity of the desire, 2) the psalmist’s longing is directed towards God – “Piety, which has its seat in the soul, consists much in communion with God, not in rites and forms,” and 3) “the longing for God was increased by the taunts of the ungodly.”[2]  These taunts cause the psalmist to cease eating and instead to give himself to persistent weeping – so much so that he consists his tears to be his “food.”  While finding himself in this situation, he then in verse 4 makes a turn mentally by remembering past, better days of worship at “the house of God” in Jerusalem.  It is here that the hint is given that the author may have been a worship leader or temple musician.  He recounts how he “would go with the throng and lead them in procession… with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”  While these are positive memories that the psalmist recalls to mind, Longman notes that “such a memory would enhance his emotional pain as he compared his present sadness with past joy.”[3]

[1] Ibid. 183.

[2] Plumer, William S. Psalms. (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 495.

[3] Longman III, Psalms, 194.

The First Refrain: 42:5

5    Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation

6 and my God.

Psalm 42:5-6a

At the conclusion of verse 4 the psalmist finds himself longing greatly for God though he is far from home (and the temple), he is persecuted by those around him for his belief in God, and his is sinking in depression.  It is at this point that the first refrain comes in.  Kidner describes the refrain as a “self-communing” since the psalmist directs his questions to his own soul.[1]  There is an inner tension that comes to the forefront in the refrain as a result of all that the psalmist is experiencing and feeling.  In the first refrain, the psalmist makes his first of three complaints.  This initial complaint is concerning the psalmist’s own thoughts and actions.  There is an interplay between what he experiences and what he knows to be true.  Kidner encapsulates the impulse of the refrain well when he writes, “It is an important dialogue between the two aspects of the believer, who is at once a man of convictions and a creature of change.  He is called to live in eternity, his mind is stayed on God; but also in time, where mind and body are under pressures that cannot and should not leave him impassive.”[2]  Longman acknowledges this discord as well and notes how the psalmist “wonders why he is so depressed and then urges himself to hope, to envision a time when his relationship will be restored.”[3]  It is in fact this call to hope that is so powerful about the refrain of the song.  The psalmist, with growing resolution, preaches truth to his own soul in spite of his current experience.

[1] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 184.

[2] Ibid. 184.

[3] Longman III, Psalms, 195.

The Second Movement & Refrain: 42:6-11

6 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 roar of your waterfalls;

all your breakers and your waves

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 do I go mourning

because of the oppression of the enemy?”

10 As with a deadly wound in my bones,

my adversaries taunt me,

while they say to me all the day long,

“Where is your God?”

11    Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation and my God.

Psalm 42:6b-11

The second movement begins with a reprise of the water imagery of the first movement.  However, in this instance, the image of water is that of a foreboding waterfall that threatens and overwhelms the psalmist.  He is likely drawing from his surroundings in the north of Israel as he makes these statements.[1]  Echoed in the language of the “deep” is the formlessness described in Genesis 1:2 and in the language of “breakers” and “waves” overwhelming him is the experience of the Jonah after being cast overboard by the sailors in Jonah 2:3.[2]  Thus, God can be the living water that quenches thirst, but also the devastating and inundating waterfall that brings a form of destruction.  All of these things are called to mind as the psalmist “remembers” God in the land of Hermon and Mizar.  Though overwhelmed by God and His providences, the psalmist continues to assert his faith as is seen in verse 8 as he recalls how “the LORD commands his steadfast love” and how “at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”  God sends His wave and breakers, yet, behind it all, the psalmist grows in assurance that God’s steadfast love is the backdrop for them.

In verses 9-10, however, he makes his second complaint.  Here the complaint pertains to God Himself as the psalmist feels “forgotten” by God and continues in mourning.  Additionally, there is further persecution at the hands of his “adversaries” who again question God’s presence in the life of the psalmist.  The “waves” of God along with suffering at the hands of his peers compounds the feeling of abandonment.  At this low point, the psalmist takes up again the refrain already sang in verse 5.  The refrain again yearns for hope while also expressing the pain of the current experience.  Plumer indicates that the covenant promises of God are in view in the refrain when he writes, “Present appearances were against any hope of a change for the better; enemies were rancorous; his condition was sad and forlorn; but the covenant and its promises stood firm.”[3]  The psalmist grasps for hope in light of God’s covenant with His people.

[1] Delitzsch, Psalms, 59.  

[2] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 184.

[3] Plumer, Psalms, 496.

The Third Movement & Refrain: 43:1-5

1    Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause

against an ungodly people,

from the deceitful and unjust man

deliver me!

2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge;

why have you rejected me?

Why do I go about mourning

because of the oppression of the enemy?

3    Send out your light and your truth;

let them lead me;

let them bring me to your holy hill

and to your dwelling!

4 Then I will go to the altar of God,

to God my exceeding joy,

and I will praise you with the lyre,

O God, my God.

5    Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation and my God.

Psalm 43

The third and final movement begins with a call for justice or vindication.  The psalmist cries out for God to vindicate him before his ungodly accusers.  This request is reminiscent of Job’s desire in Job 9-10.  In verse 2 there is a dual complaint: one directed at God for rejecting him and the other directed inward again concerning his own mourning soul in light of persecution.  He does not slow down in consideration, but instead make a request of God – that he “send out [His] light and [His] truth and let them lead [him].”  Plumer, reflecting on this verse, takes “light” to refer to “the divine countenance” or “the favorable aspect of providence” and takes “truth” to be that “promised to David, involving the divine faithfulness.”[1]  Light and truth are desired for a return trip to Jerusalem, “to the altar of God,” in order to meet with God intimately and praise God as he had experienced in former times.  Kidner indicates that, due to the wording, in is unsure “whether [the psalmist] looks forward to necessarily a literal homecoming or not.”[2]  Regardless, the psalmist seeks the blessing of renewed intimacy with God as well as His providential, covenantal favor.   At this point, the poem concludes with a third reprise of the refrain of “self-talk,” where hope in God is the goal the psalmist exhorts himself toward.

[1] Ibid. 502.

[2] Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 185.  

Making Application

While there are many applications to be made from this lament, only three will be considered here.  Plumer captures the first lesson when he writes, “True religion consists much more in longing desires for more grace and knowledge, than in being satisfied with that, which we have attained.”  The desire for God expressed in this poem is exemplary in both its existence, but also in the psalmist’s struggle towards its fulfillment.  This reality is consistent with the “already, but not yet” nature of the current age between Christ’s comings, where there is a true experience of the new age but an ever-present longing for the eschatological fullness promised. Secondly, though Christians, having the Holy Spirit indwelling them, are never without the manifest presence of God, they “can certainly experience a sense of God’s absence and a longing for his presence.”[1]  Psalms 42-43 are thus the model prayer for believers who find themselves in this place. Finally, the importance and benefits of corporate worship are emphasized throughout this poem.  Both the vertical aspect of communion with God as well as the horizontal aspect of communing with fellow worshipers is commended and held in its proper high esteem in these psalms.  It is good for believers to savor the benefit they have in regular corporate worship while also soberly remembering and praying for believers who may not have the same privilege due to extenuating or extreme circumstances.

[1] Longman III, Psalms, 197.

Concluding Thoughts

In a world fraught with sin, brokenness, disappointment, and despair, God provides mankind with a language of response. This language is that of biblical lament. It is the sanctified form of poetic complaint prescribed by God for the darker instances of life.  Since lament is of God, it is something that must be steadily learned and practiced by sinful mankind.  Moreover, it is a desperate need for today’s culture, which is growing increasingly dysfunctional in its response to sin and brokenness by even trying overlay sad songs with upbeat pop tunes. 

Ultimately, in the sweep of the entire biblical story, Jesus, in His humanity and humiliation, demonstrated the proper use of lament while at the same, in His divinity and exaltation, ultimately provided the only true answer of hope for those who offer up laments. In Jesus, laments like Psalms 42-43, find their goal, fulfillment, and hope. Because of Jesus, the people of God can continue to offer up laments in response to lamentable circumstances in confident hope of the day when there will be no more reason to lament.  The covenant God is faithful still, even through the shadow of the valley of death.

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