Psalm 42 The poetry of Psalm 42 resonates profoundly with those attempting to live out their faith in authentic ways. It provides language and insight for those who wrestle with their understanding of who God is, who we are, and who we are called to be in light of our relationship with God. It moves beyond an annoyingly unrealistic optimism that can be found in many communities of faith. Understanding this psalm is a way toward understanding the complexities, agony, and genuine hope that accompanies being caught up in the story of God. A key to interpreting Psalm 42 is noticing the theme of ‘soul’ that the psalmist weaves throughout the poem and explicitly mentions six times. The word commonly translated in English as ‘soul’ is the Hebrew word ‘nephesh.’ It is a word that has multiple meanings in addition to soul, including a living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, and emotion. Soul is the life within you. It is the part of being a human that makes you a human being. It is the energy within you. It makes possible experiences of great joy and euphoria as well as pain, suffering, and grief. It engages faith and your relationship with God and causes you to seek meaning purpose and meaning in life. In Psalm 42, the author is struggling in this critical area. The psalmist knows things could be better, but they are not and is experiencing the gap between a preferred future and a harsh present reality. With this understanding of ‘soul,’ it becomes easier to understand those who will resonate with this Psalm. Psalm 42 is for those who have a strong, uncontrollable desire for God. The poem opens with an image of a deer driven by thirst. The animal instincts within the deer drive it to seek streams of water. In the same way, the psalmist desires to soak in the living God, battling impulses deeply embedded and not fully in control. In a similar fashion, many experience this unquenchable desire for God and are not able to simply turn it off. Others have this desire and are not aware of it or are aware of its source. Ultimately in God we ‘live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)’ and so the Psalmist names one of the deepest needs of all humans. Psalm 42 is for those who remember a past when God felt near. The psalm quickly reveals that the author remembers a time of worshipping God within a community, and indeed, that the psalmist was a leader of worship in that community (v. 4). Presumably the psalmist was a worship leader in the Temple in Jerusalem, but something has happened. The psalmist is now isolated and alone, no longer welcome in the Temple. The suffering is palatable as the psalmist is not able to eat and has been crying out both day and night (v. 3). Additionally, the author must hear taunting from others who question the presence of God. This psalm resonates with those who have been a part of a beautiful community of faith and have also been burned by that same community. It is for those who have lived through the pain of having others question their faith and the presence of God in their life. Psalm 42 is for those who seek depth. One of the great lines of the poem is in verse 7: ‘Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me (New International Version).’ The depth of God calls out to the depths that are within us, plunging us deeper into the mystery that is God. In the end, the vastness of God is overwhelming and we are caught up in it. Standing on the shoreline of the ocean, it is amazing to think how much water the ocean contains. Stepping into the water and moving into it, one quickly becomes engulfed into a larger living body. In the same way, entering into the life of God is recognizing that the depths of God are all-consuming. Psalm 42 is for those who wrestle with the paradox of God. In verse 9, the psalmist offers a paradoxical statement: ‘I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have your forgotten me?’’ With the same breath, the psalmist identifies God as a rock, a place of stability and certainty, and also declares that God has been undependable and missing. Being in relationship with God requires embracing the paradox. At times, God can seem intensely personal and intimate, and at other times distant and absent. God is both the ground of being and the holy other. God is good and the giver of all good gifts, and yet life is marked by suffering and death. Those who wrestle with these paradoxes appreciate the acknowledgement by the psalmist. Psalm 42 is for those who hope through suffering. The chorus of this psalm that is repeated twice in verses 5 and 11 is an admission of suffering and a determination to hope through it. The psalmist asks the question that resonates throughout human history: ‘why?’ The psalmist recognizes a deep discontent with the soul and struggles with it. And yet, the psalmist is resolute in hoping and trusting in God. Eventually all of our suffering and struggling, our death and our life, even our soul, belong to God and the deepest form of wisdom is to hope in God and praise God as the Savoir of all.
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