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Psalm 42 -- The Longing

Do you long for God? Like insatiable-thirst long? We can and should.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Psalm 42

The Psalms are a prayer book, and prayers get personal and messy. In Psalm 42, we have a man struggling to reconcile his faith with his reality but realizing that he needs to trust what he knows to be true (not what he fears to be true). God is with us, even when our past seems to be better than our present.

Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God. (42:11)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

So many discussion options! I’ll list more than you need. Use them wherever you want to—at the beginning as icebreakers, as illustrations along the way, wherever.

Exhilaration! (The Eclipse). Micah got out of school early, so I took the afternoon off and drove took him Abbeville where we had an incredible view of the eclipse. It was an amazing feeling—exhilarating. Ask your group about their most exhilarating moments. There’s usually a buildup, like the large concert crowd who’s been waiting for the headliner. Or the first time you skydive. Or a big roller coaster. The feeling of exhilaration is amazing, combining mind, spirit, emotion, body, everything. Our psalmist today used to have that feeling when joining the holiday procession to the Temple in Jerusalem. To him, there was nothing like it. (But now it’s been taken away from him.) Then tack on the followup question: when was the last time you had that feeling in a purely spiritual setting? (Maybe a big concert, or meeting a Christian leader?)

Looking Forward to Worship. The psalmist loved the processions leading into a feast day. What worship events do you look forward to? For some, it’s a Chris Tomlin concert, or a Sons of Jubal concert, or a southern gospel convention, or a major revival, or a homecoming. What do you look forward to and why? Do you like the feeling, the people, the bragging rights? What we should look forward to is the special opportunity to praise God (like the psalmist). When we go into worship, we should take extra time of preparation to make sure that we are engaging our heart in praising God for who He is and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ.

The Power of Crowds. You might follow that up with this question: for many people, those good/exhilarating experiences come in a crowd. I remember watching movies at the on-campus theater at Texas A&M and loving it—everybody gets to hooting and hollering, and it was so much fun. What makes a crowd so important for us?

I think it’s because when we’re around other people who share our experience and validate it by their verbal feedback, we feel validated in our emotional connection with what just happened—as in, we’re not the only person in the world who feels this way. We have to be careful when applying this to worship, that we’re not worshiping the experience, but God. In the case of the psalmist, I believe he loved those group processions because he knew that other Jews loved praising God and even that future generations were being brought into the experience. That’s a good and healthy approach.

Your Favorite Thirstquencher. Set the stage: you’re really hot and very thirsty; what’s your favorite way to quench a thirst? The reason I feel okay with this potentially controversial question is if anybody answers with an alcoholic beverage (or even a soda), you can deflect with “Aha! You’ve fallen into my trap! Alcoholic beverages and caffeinated beverages are just about the worst things you can put into your body when you’re overheated.” And that’s actually true. Alcohol is a diuretic; it prevents your body from absorbing water! It dilates your blood vessels, making you more likely to pass out. And in the sidebar I mention that dehydration impairs your brain; adding alcohol to the mix will make you make bad decisions! Caffeine is a mild diuretic. And soda includes lots of calories (your body needs water to process calories)—in fact, Americans get 7.1% of their calories from soda! That’s 15 pounds of body fat a year just from soda (instead of water).

So, what should you drink to quench your thirst? Start with water! But not super-cold water (it will make your stomach cramp). Sports drinks can help replenish the minerals you have sweat out, but some put too much sugar back into your system. You now have to read the fine print on every bottle—things that advertise being healthy are often packed with sugar. (PSA free of charge this week.)

The Hottest You’ve Been. When were you the hottest? Summer football practice? Repairing a roof? A vacation at the beach? How does your body feel when you’re really hot? When I’m really hot, everything feels just a little off. I know I’m more cranky. I get sore quickly. Getting in the shade and having a cold drink sounds abnormally desirable! Well, the psalmist feels as if he’s been out in the desert searching for water. That should clue you into his physical state right there!


Psalm 42: The Setting

Some scholars put Psalm 42&43 together—repeated themes. It’s a “maskil” like Psalm 32, where I said it was probably related to instruction (a “wisdom” psalm). And it is of the Sons of Korah. Korah was Levi’s grandson and led a rebellion against Moses in the wilderness wanderings. God wiped out everyone who was a part of it. Clearly, not all of Korah’s family was involved! Later, his descendants became the gatekeepers of the Temple (1 Chr 9:19). While there might be some residual regret for his family history (like modern Germans and Japanese still feel toward WWII), we have no reason to believe that the past is on the psalmist’s mind, or that his situation is caused by familial shunning. Rather, it seems that the psalmist had moved away to the north where he cannot come to the Temple regularly and is surrounded by people who don’t believe in God. Sympathize?

Even though it sounds like a plural author, it’s definitely an individual lament. Perhaps not knowing the exact circumstances of the psalmist’s sorrow is why the Sons of Korah thought it should be included because it has universal appeal. If we include Psalm 43 with it, the structure is impressive:

   42:1-5            Lament / Refrain

   42:6-11         Lament / Refrain

   43:1-5            Prayer / Refrain

The refrain helps us see the movement from despair to confidence, even the hope (at the end) that the outcome will be favorable. Why Lifeway didn’t follow that outline in constructing this lesson I don’t know.


Part 1: Thirsty (42:1-4)

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while all day long people say to me, “Where is your God?” I remember this as I pour out my heart: how I walked with many, leading the festive procession to the house of God, with joyful and thankful shouts.

Of course I can’t think of this psalm without starting to sing “As the Deer”. But I try. Without stirring up trouble, ask your group if they can tell when their pet has gotten dehydrated. With dogs, it’s easy (the heavy panting and laying down). With birds, it’s the open beak and fluttery wings. With others, it’s harder to tell. (It’s so important to make sure your pet has access to shade and water in hot days like right now! And never, ever leave your pet in your car any more than you should a child!) When animals get really, really thirsty, they get desperate. That’s the image the psalmist is going after—a wild animal trying to survive in the desert/scrub highlands during the dry season (see the following sidebar). In the sidebar, I mention that there is a literal and spiritual element to this image. We can all imagine a physical deer on a physical search for water. This deer was possibly the small roe deer (roebuck) whose range was once all of Europe and the Near East. (Incidentally, though it became extinct in Israel, it is being reintroduced.) We are supposed to then think about a time when we have been on a search for something precious. Describe three categories of searches to your group: (1) you’ve heard about something amazing and are on the lookout for it; (2) you’ve run out of something and need to buy more; (3) you’ve run out of something and don’t have access to anymore. How does each scenario make you feel? That last one sounds pretty desperate! That’s where the psalmist is: wanting to be in God’s presence but far, far away. (Thank goodness we now understand that we don’t have to go to Jerusalem to be with God!)

There’s a parallel between “living water” (a flowing stream) and the “living God”. There’s no comparison as far as the quality of water goes. Likewise, my guess is that the psalmist is surrounded by pagans who worship false idols (dead, stagnant blocks), and he longs to be near the one True God. So . . . why can’t the psalmist just travel to Jerusalem and be done with it? We can only guess.


Some have speculated that he was being disciplined/exiled for a mistake. Others say he was just waiting impatiently for the next standard pilgrimage (Ex 23 stated that all Israelite males were to go on pilgrimage three times a year). Neither of those seem to line up with the sentiment. Rather, it seems like the psalmist is being prevented from going to Jerusalem. My guess is he is sick—the symptoms may even include dehydration (have you ever had diarrhea at summer camp?), too sick to travel. And that’s why the people around him make fun of his God’s “inability” to heal him. That was a double cut to him: his sickness was keeping him from God and bringing God’s name into disrepute (however unfairly). (Another possibility is he is trapped there by raging floods; similar idea.)

There are lots of water images in here. The tears are in juxtaposition to the drink that the psalmist wants (the living God). (By the way, have you ever heard anyone tell you to “drink your tears and it will make you strong”? Strange.) And he is “pouring out” his heart in prayer—emptying a vessel he can no longer refill. The implication is that he used to have his heart “filled” by the great worship processions in Jerusalem. Together with God’s people, they would shout for joy to the Lord as they went to the Temple to worship. That’s a good thing to find filling! And this would be where you use some of those discussion ideas you didn’t use at the beginning of the lesson.


Aside on Dehydration

Water is the most important nutrient for human beings (and every other living thing). Our bodies are 67%+ water; our bones are 20% water! Water transports nutrients, hormones, and waste to the right places. We get thirsty at just 2% dehydration (or less). At 3%, our brains start to get fuzzy. At 5%, we can lose as much as 30% of our energy.

Our body is designed to regulate its temperature to about 99°. When our brain registers a heat increase (work, exercise, being outside, even stress), it signals the body to sweat. You have 3 million sweat glands, and they secrete a clear fluid (mostly water) which, when it evaporates, cools your skin down. Blood flow to your skin is increased to maximize this thermal exchange.

Dehydration is a very serious condition. If you don’t replace your body’s water (lost through sweat, diarrhea, or vomiting), your body loses its ability to send chemical/hormonal signals, leading to seizures; its ability to flush out the GI, leading to kidney stones or failure; its ability to maintain a minimum blood volume, leading to hypovolemic shock. Warning signs of dangerous dehydration include shallow breathing, increased heartrate, dizziness, having a very dark urine, or having no more urine or sweat. When your body starts trying to conserve water through those extreme measures, you are in bid trouble and need to see a doctor!

How much water do you need? Take your body weight, divide it by 2, and that’s the number of ounces of water you need. (If you weigh 160 lbs, you need 80 ounces of water a day, or 10 glasses.) *Listen to your doctor before something you read on the internet.


Part 2: Drowning (42:5-8)

Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God. I am deeply depressed; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your billows have swept over me. The Lord will send his faithful love by day; his song will be with me in the night—a prayer to the God of my life.

The water images continue here, except in ironic fashion. Now, instead of searching for water, he sees his life as being overwhelmed by a great flood of sorrow and pain. He tries to put a good face on with the “why are you downcast?” I talk about this on the back page—intellectually I know that I should not doubt God, but emotionally I’m having trouble. The psalmist is trying to force himself to remember the good times; that’s wise, but nostalgia is no substitute for reality! And he tells us his probable location far to the north of Jerusalem. Hope is as distant as he is from Jerusalem.

And then he throws out the “deep calls to deep” line. There are two ways to understand this. If you know the Chris Tomlin song “Waterfall” which is based on this line, you know that he thinks this is all good and positive. But that is so out of context with the psalmist’s spiritual state! Another way of looking at this is negative/ironic. The psalmist longs for the living streams of water that nourish his soul. But there in the heights of Mount Hermon, he can only think of the raging waterfalls that unexpectedly rush down the valleys, flooding out everything in their path. Yes, it’s water, but it’s too much water and dangerous! Even the good is bad in the psalmist’s estimation. “Deep calls to deep” is not some “deep” spiritual idea—it’s not good. It refers literally to the chaotic sound of rushing water (most often used of the sea in a storm); in this case, one chaotic roar calls out to another. He is surrounded by chaos. He recognizes that it is all of God (“Your breakers”), but is terrified by it.

When I read verse 8, I get the sense of a man stranded on a boat at sea, surrounded by water but utterly helpless. All he has left is hope of God seeing him and the words of his prayer. Rough!


Aside: Deserts in Judea

The psalmist mentions being in the heights of Hermon (the little red arrow north of Galilee), one of the sources of the Jordan River. Google “northern Golan Heights” if you want an easier time of finding about about the climate! This part of the country, being elevated (Mount Hermon is the highest point in Israel—2300m, about 1.5miles), is colder than the lowlands but also dryer. It is blocked from the Mediterranean by a mountain range, and the eastern desert supplies a lot of the wind (but the western mountain range blocks much of the dust and sand, at least). Consequently, rainfall is measured in inches per year, and most of it is actually snow. Being fed by such a wide area and because snow takes longer to melt in the colder days, streams in the region often flow longer here than further south, but the hot summer lasts about 7 months. Eventually, the streams run out.

The psalmist certainly intends a literal image here. Animals could be extremely vulnerable to dehydration and death when their stream ran out. Animals will drink stagnant water when desperate (and get sick, just like people) and range far and wide looking for more. But there is also a spiritual image—we call it today having a “dry time” in our spiritual life. I’m sure we’ve all been there. Not stranded in a desert and dying, just in a dry season looking for “water” and being discouraged in our search.


Part 3: Crushed (42:9-11)

I will say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about in sorrow because of the enemy’s oppression?” My adversaries taunt me, as if crushing my bones, while all day long they say, “Where is your God?” Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God.

And then we end with the real downer. In all seriousness, you might read on into Psalm 43 to see the resolve of the psalmist kick into high gear. These great concerns follow the same pattern of the other laments we have been reading recently. (Point to emphasize: “sticks and bones may break my bones . . .” Well, words really hurt, too.) I would make this clear to your group: having doubts does not have to mean that you have lost faith. There is a difference, and God can handle our concerns. Losing faith, however, is a different matter. I have a friend who lost a grown son and since lost faith in God. This same friend previously counseled people to keep up their faith even in the hard times—counsel he could not keep himself. It’s one thing to speak of having “faith” when things are good. True faith is what remains when things are hard. The psalmist has to convince himself to maintain this attitude, but that’s exactly what he’s doing. He is letting what he knows to be true (God’s presence) inform what he fears to be true (God’s absence).

Ask your group about the great Christian leaders they have known. How many of them have never had really, really hard times? Probably not many. Early in his career, Billy Graham had a real failure of a crusade right about the same time one of his co-preachers in Youth for Christ had disavowed the inspiration of Scripture. It was a real crisis of faith and calling. Eventually, he took the stand of saying, “Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!”. Matt Chandler, when The Village Church was still only 6,000 members, suffered a major seizure brought on by undetected brain cancer. It changed his entire approach to life and ministry, but he never said anything about questioning his faith. Mother Teresa apparently suffered from extreme emptiness most of her life: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God … The torture and pain I can’t explain.” (That could be a product of the great evil she lived among in India, or it could be the result of a Catholic faith devoid of Christ’s unfailing presence.) Charles Spurgeon went through a deep season of depression when other Baptist leaders in London began to move away from biblical inerrancy into the liberalism that was sweeping society. The list goes on and on. Christians have seasons of doubt.

The truth is that God allows our lives to be messy. Ask your group how they get through those times, and that should be your losing discussion. Really, it’s the point of the psalm! The psalmist is trying to work through his depression back to fuller trust in God. The Pew Research group found that 1 in 4 pastors/ministers deal with mental illness (usually some kind of depression). Yes, a lot of pastors probably have no business being in ministry, but that still leaves a lot of God-called men and women struggling with life. What does that mean for you? It’s normal to struggle with discouragement and even depression (tell your group to take depression very seriously!), but as Christians we have hope in salvation, love of God, and peace in Jesus. We need to pour that love on the people around us in their “dry seasons” of life.


Aside: Pure Water, Pure Life

I found this amazing: here’s just a partial list of ministries dedicated to clean water for families: Living Water International; Samaritan’s Purse Water; Lifewater International; CBN Clean Water; The Water Project; Nazarene Compassion Clean Water; Water Mission; Safe Water International; Gospel for Asia Clean Water; Water for LIFE; Living Water Charity; Project Clean Water; Living Waters for the World; Oasis World Ministries; Mercy Corps. And on and on. Look them up to see why clean water is important. The UN said that now fewer than 800 million people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water due to the work of these and other ministries. High five!


Closing Thoughts: GODISNOWHERE

When you read that sentence, what do you read? Most people I ask say “God is nowhere”. But it could also be “God is now here.” (Feel guilty about that, eh?) My Greek professor used that sentence to demonstrate the challenge of reading ancient Greek or Hebrew—there are no spaces or punctuation in the original Bible! If you’re fluent in those languages, no problem. But even then, we have to know the context to know where certain words need to be divided.

I recommend putting that sentence on a board for your group to read. The psalmist says on multiple occasions that his enemies accuse God of not being there. What does he say to that? How does he respond? You can tell that he has even gotten a bit desperate in his “search” for God. Ask your group this very important question: how do you know God is there? The old song goes, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” Yes, but that’s not good enough for me. A lot of things live in my heart; that doesn’t make them real. How do we know that God is there? I usually break this down academically (which obviously won’t work for most people): intellectually, I know God is there because I know that God exists (else the universe could not exist), and because God is omnipresent, I know God is there (wherever there is). Spiritually, I know God is there because the Bible tells me He is, and that’s pretty simple. Emotionally—well, that’s the problem. Our emotions are all over the place. Sometimes, like the psalmist, we don’t feel that God is there. Things are going badly. Our heart is cold. Our relationships have dried up. Whatever. That puts us in a place like the psalmist, who is “missing” God. When that’s the case for me, I let my mind tell my emotions to get in line. God is there; I need to get a grip.

But how do we convince non-Christians of that? I don’t think we can.




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