A deer pants for water because it is thirsty. A soul thirsting for God, feels that God is not as near as it needs Him to be. Throughout this psalm and the next the writer is expressing his despair as he lacks the “closeness” to God that he had come to know while serving as a worship leader in the house of God. Not only was his desperation felt within his soul, but it also manifested itself in his appearance to others. The ungodly around him would use it as a taunt saying, “Where is your God?”.
Many scholars speculate that Psalm 42 and 43 were at one point the same psalm. There are two reasons for this. First, they both contain very similar refrains that we read in 42:5, 11, and 43:5.
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him
For the help of His presence.
The second reason they are considered to be one, is that Psalm 43 contains no title in the Hebrew text. When read together, the two songs flow from one to the other as if one continuous stream of expression. That being said, whether they are one song or two, we can derive from these psalms tremendous insight into effectively handling our own moments of despair and anxiety. First, let’s look at what is said in this refrain. There is much to see.
He begins by inquiring of his soul—”Why are you in despair?” and, “why have you become disturbed?” He remembers the times when he would lead the people in procession to the Temple for worship. His was a voice of joy and thanksgiving, (1 Thess. 5:16-18, Col. 3:15-17). Then, he poses his questions, as if to say, “What do I have to be despairing about?”.
We spend most of our days beating back the effects of the curse. Our spirit fights against our flesh, and at times we become weary of the battle. Our prayers feel paper thin, and we feel like God is a billion miles away. We examine ourselves; we confess our sin and seek forgiveness; and still our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling right back on us. So, we change our environment; we change our posture; we change our background music; but still, our spirit feels empty. Our problem isn’t technique, environment, or anything else so superficial. Our problem is sin.
We may not be holding on to some grievous transgression that we refuse to let go; and there may not be some hidden offense in the remote corner of our consciousness that we’ve failed to deal with. The problem may not be any particular sin at all, but simply that we are sinners. What we are lacking may not be forgiveness – we know that we are forgiven. But the effects of man’s sinfulness have left us living out our lives in a constant battle between the desires of the flesh and Spirit that indwells us, (Romans 7:14-25, Gal. 5:17). As this songwriter tells us, the remedy to our despair may be summarized in two words—resolve and perseverance.
The writer of these two Psalms repeats his two questions, and by the end of Psalm 43, he remains in his state of despair, still wondering why. But he has a response, and a response is better than a reason. Rather than simply telling us why we feel the way we do, it gives us a course of action. Notice what he says. “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”
Hope in God…
First, notice that hope, in this context, is a verb. It’s not something we feel, nor is it something we intrinsically possess. We tend to think of hope as something we simply have, but in this psalm it’s something the writer is resolved to do. It’s a choice he’s making, not just an emotion he’s feeling. It’s also interesting to note that the Hebrew word for hope in this passage, yachal, can also be translated “wait for.” So, he is resolved to wait for God; but he doesn’t stop there.
…for I shall again praise Him.
Praising God takes our focus off of ourselves and places it on the one and only person deserving of it. With our eyes fixed unwaveringly on God, and offering up sincere praise of who He is and all He’s done, we can begin to see our despair dissolve into joy. Better yet, we can experience joy in the midst of despair. It is also noteworthy that the word for “again” in the original can also be translated “still.” In other words, the psalm writer is not saying that he knows he will someday praise God. He’s saying that he will not stop praising Him. Why? Because he knows that the only remedy for his despairing soul is God.
God is the only answer. This is Paul’s perspective when he talks of what he calls “momentary light afflictions,” (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Speaking in verses 8-9 of being “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” Paul, like the writer of Psalm 42, was resolved to keep his eyes firmly fixed on Christ, persevering until that which is temporal has faded into eternal glory.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
Helen Lemmel, 1922
We will have moments of despair. Thankfully, we can know joy in the midst of despair by fixing our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross to establish and preserve for us a place in His Kingdom that can never be taken away. Hope in God. Do not cease to praise Him. Look with thankfulness, wonder, and anticipation of what He can and will do.