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Preaching to your Soul (Psalms 42-43)

What is one to do when all you’ve had for breakfast is tears, followed by a late night snack of sorrow? The answer of the psalmist sounds as strange as the question: Preach to your soul! Take yourself in hand, look yourself in the eyes, and preach this message: “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” (Ps. 42:5,11; 43:5).


If the sentiment of Psalms 42 and 43 sounds familiar, it’s because here we once again encounter the psalms of lament, those mournful prayers birthed in desperation and affliction. These two psalms should probably be read as one (a number of Hebrew manuscripts join them together; also, Psalm 43 has no heading of its own and concludes with the same refrain found in Psalm 42:5,11). Although probably written by the Sons of Korah (note the superscription), they likely describe David’s experience, perhaps during his time of exile when Absalom had rebelled (see Psalm 3).


In spite of the disconsolate spirit of the psalmist, there is an undeniable poetic structure to his anguish. In fact, within Psalms 42-43 we have three smaller psalms, each self-contained, each with three parts. There is, first, an expression or declaration of anguish in which the psalmist, in a manner of speaking, lets himself go (42:1-3; 42:6-7; 43:1-2). Second, he forces himself to think, by way of remembrance, of what God has done in the past (42:4; 42:8; 43:3-4). Third, and finally, in the refrain or chorus, he composes himself, pulls himself together, as it were, and preaches to his soul (42:5; 42:11; 43:5).


I’ll briefly comment concerning each.


No simple words will suffice to account for the depth and intensity of his longing for God. “I’m like a deer panting for flowing streams of life-giving water. O God, I thirst for you!” (Ps. 42:1-2). No one has explained this more vividly than Spurgeon:


“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 luxuries, but as an absolute necessity, like water to a stag. Like the parched traveler in the wilderness, whose skin bottle is empty, and who finds the wells dry, he must drink or die – he must have his God or faint. His soul, his very self, his deepest life, was insatiable for a sense of the divine presence. . . . Give him his God and he is as content as the poor deer which at length slakes its thirst and is perfectly happy; but deny him his Lord, and his heart heaves, his bosom palpitates, his whole frame is convulsed, like one who gasps for breath, or pants with long running. Dear friend, dost thou know what this is, by personally having felt the same? It is a sweet bitterness. The next best thing to living in the light of the Lord’s love is to be unhappy till we have it, and to pant hourly after it – hourly, did I say? Thirst is a perpetual appetite, and not to be forgotten, and even thus continually is the heart’s longing after God. When it is as natural for us to long for God as for an animal to thirst, it is well with our souls, however painful our feelings” (1:2:270-71).


It would be enough had all he faced was the sense of God’s absence, but his grief was heightened by the taunts of others (“they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”; Ps. 42:3). David was no doubt asking himself the same question! “O my God, where are you indeed?”


The lament continues in vv. 6-7, 9-10. “My soul is cast down within me” might more literally be rendered, “my soul prostrates itself upon me,” the picture being of the soul bent double upon itself, a vivid portrayal of a downcast and disconsolate person.


“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me” (v. 7). This vivid imagery calls to mind an ancient Near Eastern symbol of the powers of chaos and evil crashing in upon him. “His woes were incessant and overwhelming. Billow followed billow, one sea echoed the roaring of another; bodily pain aroused mental fear, Satanic suggestions chimed in with mistrustful forebodings, outward tribulation thundered in awful harmony with inward anguish: his soul seemed drowned as in a universal deluge of trouble” (Spurgeon, 274).


Goldingay points out that “as the stanzas develop the screw gets tighter, the agony deeper. At first it was ‘I can’t get to God’ (42:1-2); then ‘God has forgotten me’ (42:9); now ‘God has abandoned me’ (43:2). . . . I came to you as my refuge, my hiding-place; and you shut the door and left me at the mercy of my pursuers. Why? (42:9a). Why? (42:9b). Why? (43:2a). Why? 43:2b)” (33-34).


What possible hope is there? The psalmist, though in lament, is not in despair. He turns his mind from the disease to the cure, from anguish to remembrance, deliberately recalling to mind God’s grace and faithfulness and covenant vow. He forces himself to think of realities other than his own troubles. It is here that we come to the second element in these two psalms: remembrance (42:4; 42:8; 43:3-4).


He begins by calling to mind those glorious seasons of corporate celebration at the temple of God (42:4). This was, no doubt, a bittersweet experience, for it both aggravates his distress (in that he is at present far from it) and alleviates it (confident that in the future he will return). Although sensibly bereft of God’s love, he reminds himself of God’s steadfast affection for him (42:8). What he needs most is a personal experience of the Exodus itself! His desire is for the light of God’s presence that guided Israel by day (cloud) and night (pillar of fire) (43:3-4). He longs to recapitulate in himself that national liberation from bondage and deliverance into the place of God’s presence (43:3).


Thus far we’ve seen in each stanza how the psalmist first expresses his grief and frustration and then forces himself to think of past victories God brought to his children. The third element in each stanza is his determination to resolve the tension between these two. He argues with himself; he pulls himself together and regains his composure, preaching to his soul. “As though he were two men,” says Spurgeon, “the Psalmist talks to himself. His faith reasons with his fears, his hope argues with his sorrows” (272). David chides David out of the dumps!


What does he say to himself? Hope in God! Wait for God! This is no mindless meditation, a closing of the eyes or a passive twiddling of the thumbs. Rather we are to envision an expectant, straining anticipation for God’s deliverance. This is a spiritually aggressive confidence that God will act and show himself faithful based on past performance.


In fact, David begins to praise God and thank him for his gracious deliverance while yet mired in his grief and affliction! “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him” (42:5b; 42:11b; 43:5b). Faith makes it possible to say “Thank You” before one receives the answer. “Given what I know of God’s record in dealing with his people,” says David, “my confidence triumphs over my despair. I don’t have to wait until he acts to thank him for doing so!”


There are countless lessons to learn from these two psalms, but I’ll note only three. First, the psalmist grieves, remembers, and composes himself with a sermon to his soul, not once, or even twice, but three times! David never felt as if he were being needlessly repetitive or that his pleadings were akin to nagging. Rather, he was spiritually relentless, refusing to concede the battle to his enemies, knowing that his God was the kind of God who quenches the thirst of those who faithfully seek him for the water of renewal and hope.


Second, we learn much of the nature of prayer in these psalms. David gives vent to his fears and confusion, not merely in emotional catharsis but in a focused expression of faith that the God who acted graciously on his behalf in the past would do so yet again in the future. He is up front with God, telling it to him straight away. “He assumes,” observes Goldingay, “that God is big enough to take it and loving enough to absorb it” (34).


Finally, the troubles that David endured (and dare I say, the troubles that you likewise often face), “come with God’s knowledge and according to his will, not by his oversight or weakness” (Goldingay, 35). Look again at 42:7 – “at the roar of YOUR waterfalls; all YOUR breakers and YOUR waves have gone over me.” The powers of chaos, trouble and evil that threaten David’s life are not beyond God’s sovereign control. They all must submit to his overarching Lordship.


“At first sight,” says Goldingay, “the belief that God is behind the trouble that comes to us is a frightening doctrine: what kind of a God is this, whose purpose includes so much distress? But the alternative – a God whose purpose is continually being frustrated by evil – is even more frightening. Better a God whose mystery we cannot understand (but who has given us grounds for trusting when we cannot understand) than one whose adequacy we cannot rely on, or whose interest we cannot be sure of” (35).


So, perhaps the time has come for you to take hold of yourself and preach a sermon, not to others, but to your own soul! Remember God’s ways! Recall his faithfulness! Compose and calm yourself with the reminder that he who acted powerfully in the past will do so yet again in the present and future.