Saved by Hope
As Pants the Hart
O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; to see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.—Psalm 63:1,2
A verse-by-verse study of Psalm 42
Nothing whets the appetite for God more than a life of hardship and trials. Prosperity diminishes man’s need for God, while opposition and persecution strengthen it. King David of Israel was one who could testify to these facts. He had experienced both sides. As king and conquering warrior he knew the accolades of the crowd—“Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). But as a refugee from the wrath of Saul and later put to flight by the almost successful rebellion of his son Absalom, he knew the depths of discouragement.
David was a multi-faceted man. He combined the warrior-like qualities of a great military man with the gentle nature of a poet. His reflective qualities earned him the praise of God as “a man after mine own heart” (Acts 13:22). The thoughts of his heart are preserved for us in the Book of Psalms.
The Title of the Psalm
For the director of music. A maskil for the sons of Korah (Title).
Unlike other portions of the Bible where superscriptions are inserted at the whim of the translator, the titles of those psalms which bear superscriptions or subscriptions are part of the inspired record. The annotation “for the director of music” suggests that the psalm was meant to be used in temple service and was to be assigned to the group of singers known as “the sons of Korah.”
In preparation for the temple services David had divided the singers into twenty-four courses, with one noted director from the three descendants of Levi over each of the three groups of eight courses (1 Chronicles 6:31-53). The three leaders were Heman, a Kohathite (v. 33); Asaph, a Gershomite (v. 39, 43); and Ethan [otherwise called Jeduthun], a Merarite (v. 44). The singers led by Heman were called the “sons of Korah” because they were his lineal descendants.
In fact, Heman had two noted forefathers—Korah and Samuel. Heman descended from Samuel through his son Joel who “walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment” (1 Samuel 8:3).
In this simple illustration we see the mercy of God, overlooking the gross misdeeds of the forebears to honor the heart devoted to his service.
The word maskil is derived from the Hebrew sekel [Strong’s #7922], which is frequently translated “understanding.” Psalms so marked were designated as “teaching psalms,” or “psalms for instruction.” This psalm is an excellent example of a “teaching psalm,” where the lesson to be learned is that in times of distress the only reliable help is in seeking the Lord.
The Search for God—Verses 1 to 3
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?
Anyone who has visited the arid Negev wilderness in the area of En Gedi where David was holed up in his flight from the wrath of Saul can well imagine the imagery he uses here. He pictures before us a young hart, or deer, in flight from a hunter. After the long chase he enters the green oasis of En Gedi, panting from fright and the rigor of flight, hot from the searing sun overhead, longing for the cooling, refreshing waters of the streams that tumble into this narrow valley.
In this graceful creature of the wilderness David sees a simile to his own experiences. He, too, has been wearied from the flight and distraught within from the continuous pursuit of his king. He, too, longs for refreshment, not the refreshment of En Gedi’s cooling streams, but the more lasting refreshment that comes from a knowledge of the favor of God.
There is similar imagery between this and the sixty-third psalm, a psalm which was penned “in the wilderness of Judah,” probably the last of the wilderness psalms. David’s life, like the scene around him, was “a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Psalm 63:1).
We are told that while men can go for long periods without solid food, they will die of dehydration if they are without water for as few as three days. David felt that he could only bear up a short time without knowing about his relationship to God.
He had been feeding on the tears of discouragement. Now he sought to wash them down with a refreshing draft of fellowship with his God. His feeling of estrangement was heightened by the taunts of his enemies: “Where is your God?”
His desire for God was not merely a reassurance of God’s presence but also an invitation to approach him in prayer and lay out his trials before him—“When shall I come and appear before God?”
Have we ever felt the same way? Has the road at times become so dreary and discouraging that we feel unable even to pray? Like Esther said of her husband King Ahasuerus, “I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days” (Esther 4:11). We cry, like Job: “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: On the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him.” We unfortunately at times lack the faith to take the next step: “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:8-10)
These seasons of spiritual drought in our lives are not without value. We need such experiences to feel that deep heartfelt longing which caused David to write the words of this psalm.
A Soul Poured Out—Verse 4
When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.
In sharp contrast to present experiences, David recalls earlier, happier days. Here and in verse six we get the impression that this psalm was written later in David’s life, perhaps during the flight from Absalom, noting the similarities with his earlier flight from Saul.
The “house of God” at that time was in a private residence, the home of Abinadab (1 Samuel 7:1). Yet even here it was attended by festive crowds. From this verse we learn a great lesson about the worship of ancient Israel. We discover that it was not a time so much for solemnity as it was a time for the outpouring of joy. The two words translated “multitude” in this verse bear out this thought. While the first word means simply “a throng, or mass of people,” the second word describes a loud and jubilant festive procession.
This is further emphasized with the words translated “a voice of joy and praise.” Strong’s Concordance defines the Hebrew word translated joy as a “shrill sound,” usually referring to a joyful outbreak. The word for praise contains the thought of “extending the hand” and is thought to refer to a choir of worshippers, or it could even be descriptive of such Jewish round dances as the hora.
Worship was not looked at somberly, but joyfully, in appreciation of God’s protective care and generosity to them. Where religion envisions a stern and harsh God, praise can be evoked only by a fear of the consequences if it is not given. Where God is viewed as a God of love, joy predominates in his worship service.
This joyful worship was reflected when Ezra read the law to the people of Israel upon their return from Babylon: “Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
In order to afford to travel the long distances to the feasts of the Lord, a faithful Israelite was to lay aside a special tithe for this purpose. The laws of this tithe are given in the fourteenth chapter of Deuteronomy. One of the provisions was for turning the tithe into cash and taking the proceeds to the place where the festival was to be held. We read of this in verse twenty-six: “And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household.”
The house of the Lord is more a house of smiles and good-hearted laughter than it is a house of tears. While sobriety is always encouraged, so is a cheerful heart. Rather than continual remorse for the sins of the past, there is the lightness of heart that comes from the certainty of their forgiveness.
Depression Defeated—Verses 5 to 8
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. O my God, my soul is cast down within me: therefore will I remember thee from the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites, from the hill Mizar. Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me. Yet the LORD will command his lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life.
Here we see the two faces of David: his abiding spirituality and the weakness of his human nature. Even though David knew by personal experience that God was with him and there was no real cause for depression, yet he was experiencing that very depression. While discouraged by his present situation, he points to the one antidote for all depression: hope.
To hope is to firmly grasp the future. Thus hope requires faith: faith in the reality of the future which God promises, that it will not only be better than today but that it will also show the purpose of today’s hard experiences. In a similar vein, while fleeing Saul in the wilderness of Judea, David pens these words: “Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee. Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:3-5).
The New American Standard version translates the last phrase of Psalm 42:5 as, “I shall again praise him for the help of his presence.” This conveys the correct thought of “countenance.” It is as though God had turned his face away from David, leaving him to suffer his afflictions. But David retained the confidence that God’s face would once again be turned back toward him, and that he would continue to have God’s abiding presence in each and every experience.
The geographic descriptions in this passage relate more to David’s flight from Absalom than to his seeking to escape the wrath of Saul. He fled Saul in the wilderness of Judea, encamping near the oasis at En Gedi. It was when Absalom made his move to seize the kingdom that David fled northward to Mahanaim and was met with a caravan of supplies from Amman in Jordan (2 Samuel 17:24-29). Mount Hermon and the nearby hill of Mizer were still further north, in what is today the country of Lebanon.
The metaphor changes in verse seven from that of an arid desert to a boisterous sea. Perhaps that is why this psalm forms the basis for the prayer of Jonah while in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2). The change of illustration teaches us that regardless of the cause of our turmoil, whether it be the aridness of prolonged hardship and separation from God or being caught up in the turbulence of life, it is best to leave the outcome to our loving heavenly Father, confident that he is too wise to err.
The obvious contrast between God’s abiding care in the brightness of our daytime joys and in the depths of sorrow’s dark night is a comfort to all of his people. Yet the lesson is even stronger. The word translated “daytime” in verse eight (yowmam, Strong’s #3119) is better translated “daily.” Not only can we count on God’s loving kindness, his mercy, day and night, but every day: “daily.”
In the contrast between “day” and “night” there is also a rich lesson for the Christian. Our nighttime hours are a good opportunity to reflect upon our daytime experiences. They provide time to thank God for his daily leadings. They are not merely reflections of the evening, but “songs” in the night, songs of praise for God’s loving kindness. These expressions of thankful praise continue despite the hardships of the day. As David expresses it elsewhere: “The bands of the wicked have robbed me: but I have not forgotten thy law. At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments” (Psalm 119:61,62).
Hope is the Answer—Verses 9 to 11
I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, Where is thy God? Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.
The thought of God being David’s “rock” is that of a fortress or defense. Note the synonymous phrases he uses in another psalm: “The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower” (Psalm 18:2).
God is always the “rock” in the Old Testament, while Christ is the “rock” in the New. This fact is not a proof of the doctrine of the trinity. Instead, it merely shows the essential oneness in purpose and work between the two. This dual analogy shows how God provides his strength to man—through his son, his “right arm.” The fact that Jesus’ name to fulfill the prophecy would be “Emmanuel,” God is with us, demonstrates that it is through Jesus that God operates as a stronghold, a “rock,” to bring deliverance.
Rather than ending on a negative note, the closing words of this psalm are upbeat. David clearly states his trials—the feeling of desertion by God and the sarcastic reproaches of his enemies—but immediately rebuts these negative feelings by countering his negative feelings with the antidote of hope. Because of this deep-seated hope, David can continue to praise God even while going through the rigors of flight from mighty foes. His God has become “the health of [his] countenance,” maintaining the ruddy glow of an optimistic man, and not the gloomy disposition of one defeated in spirit.
The word “health” in this closing verse is the Hebrew yeshuwah (Strong’s #3444), usually translated “salvation.” It is the Hebrew word from which the name Jesus is derived, a name meaning Savior. David’s hope has become his salvation, saving him from the downcast countenance of a defeated man, and giving him the true optimism of one primed to continue faithfully on in the struggles and hardships that lie ahead.
“For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?”—Romans 8:24