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Psalms 42 and 43

A. Read

Thirsting for God in Trouble and Exile.

For the choir director. A Maskil of the sons of Korah.

As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, With the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. 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. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; Therefore I remember You from the land of the Jordan And the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; And His song will be with me in the night, A prayer to the God of my life.I will say to God my rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.

Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation; O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man! For You are the God of my strength; why have You rejected me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me; Let them bring me to Your holy hill And to Your dwelling places. Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy; And upon the lyre, I shall praise You, O God, my God. Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why are you disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, The help of my countenance and my God.

Complete Steps B, C, and D as guided 

      Then see below for a completed study.


Biblical Context

Immediate Context


The second book within the Book of Psalms begins at Psalm 42. The heading, "For the choir director" indicates that it is a "liturgical-instructional psalm" (The Book of Psalms, Nancy deClaisse-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, Beth LaNeel Tanner) and used by the choir director in Temple worship. It is imperative upon us to remember this distinction when we interpret it.


Biblical scholars generally agree that the author of Psalm 42 and 43 intended readers view them as one combined psalm. That assumption is based, primarily, on the lack of a heading over Psalm 43 and the repetition of the phrase, "why are you in despair O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?" found at 42:5 and 11, and again at 43:5.


The two psalms are "lament" psalms – or songs that express deep despair. Nonetheless, the Psalms of Lament give voice to more than depression. The psalmists cry out to God and express their despair but then they acknowledge God -  who He is, what He has done, and what He has promised to do, always ending their laments with praise and worship.


The precise cause of the psalmist's despair in 42 and 43 is not explicitly detailed; however, most scholars accept the psalm was composed by an individual during the period of Babylonian exile. Other scholars believe it was written by a companion of King David when he was running from Absalom and separated from the Tabernacle. 


In other words, we aren't certain of the exact cause (Why) nor the author (Who), nor time frame (When) of the distress; nonetheless, we do know (What) – despair has brought the psalmist to a personal, social, and theological impasse that he addresses with honesty.

Grammatical Context



Soul: 42:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 11; 43:5


Soul thirsts

Pour out my soul

Soul despairs

Soul is disturbed


Despair: 42:5, 6, 11, 43:5

         “Shachach” to sink or depress, bend, bow (down), bring (cast) down, be (bring) low, stoop (Strong’s Dictionary).


Disturbed: 42:5, 11, 43:5

         “Hamah” to make a loud sound (like English 'hum'); by implication, to be in great commotion or tumult, to rage, war, moan, clamor, cry aloud, be disquieted, loud, mourn, rage, roar, be troubled (Strong’s Dictionary).


Repetition of questions:

When? 42:2; Where? 42:3; Why? 42:5 (x2); Why? 42:9 (x2)

Where? 42:10; Why? 42:11 (x2); Why? 43:2 (x2); Why? 43:5 (x2)


Repetitions of references to God:

The living God 42:2; God my rock 42:9

The help of my countenance my God 42:5, 11; 43:5

God of my strength 43:2; God my exceeding joy 43:4

God, my God 43:4


Outline and Primary Message



Lament 42:1-4

   My soul thirsts for God, the living God 42:1, 2

                  When shall I come?

   My tears have been my food 42:3, 4

                  They say: Where is your God?

         I pour out my soul


Hope 5

   Why are you in despair? Why have you become disturbed?

         Hope in God, the help of His presence        

Lament 6-7

   My soul is in despair

         I remember You, Your breakers and Your waves


Hope 8

    The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime

     His song will be with me in the night


Lament 9-10

     God my rock, Why have you forgotten me?

           My adversaries revile me

                  They say, where is your God?

Hope 11

       Why are you in despair? Why have you become disturbed?

             Hope in God, the help of my countenance and my God

Lament 43:1-4

         God my strength, Why have you rejected me? Why do I go on mourning?

               Send out Your light and Your truth to lead me

                      To God, my exceeding joy

Hope 43:5

         Why are you in despair? Why are you disturbed?

                  Hope in God, the help of my countenance and my God

Primary Message


If your soul feels dry and barren, overwhelmed or oppressed, seek God at His altar; our deepest aches ultimately reveal our longing for Him alone and at His altar His presence provides joy and rest.


Interpretation and Application


This life challenges us with struggles that often leave our souls despondent and filled with questions. These questions may cause us to vacillate between lament and hope, despair and praise, grief and thanksgiving. Though God may seem far away at these times, His truth and light lead us to His altar where He provides joy and rest that quiets our minds and delivers us from overwhelming waves of hopelessness and grief. He knows the despair and discontentment in this life, ultimately, finds its basis in one truth - our souls long for Him


If you feel dry and barren, overwhelmed or oppressed, it reveals your soul 's longing for God. He is the only answer for an unsettled mind. At His altar, He reveals Himself as the God of exceeding joy.


The psalmist begins his song with an expression of his longing for the living God. As the deer understands that water is what his famished body needs, so the psalmist understands that the living God is what his thirsty soul seeks (1,2a). He is exiled from God's presence, and his heart grieves at the thought of not being able to quench his thirst. Therefore, his questions begin: "when shall I come?" (42:2)


His enemies have mocked him with their own question, “Where is your God?” (42:3). He remembers once being in God’s presence and his memories triggered by his enemy’s taunts cause his soul more grief (42:4). In addition, the memories of his closeness to God generate a rush of mighty waves of sorrow that threaten to drown him. Interestingly, he calls these, “God’s waves” (42:7).  


All of his sufferings, he understands, are the result of God's judgment. (This indicates the psalm is most likely the words of an Israelite who has experienced exile on account of the sins of the nation.) This acknowledgment is both a lament and a hope; the waves overwhelm him, and yet God fully controls them. Because God controls the waves of despair, He is the psalmist’s only hope for rescue.


Knowing this, three times he turns his questions inward - "why are you in despair…why have you become disturbed?"(42:5, 11, 43:5) He is, however, not seeking an answer to this interrogation; he is reminding his soul of truth: "I shall again praise Him," or I shall again be in His presence, therefore, he reminds himself to hope.


Hope, when expressed in the biblical sense is not a general wishing for something. (I hope I have enough money to go on vacation or I hope my team wins.) Biblical hope is a confident expectation based only on God's faithfulness; it is waiting on something to transpire with conviction in the outcome based on confidence in God’s sovereignty.


Continued below...

Hope (Hebrew "yachal") is also translated, wait, tarry, or trust. Noah waited (or yachal) seven days before he sent the dove out a second time expecting it would not return - because he trusted in God's promise to dry up the waters (Gen. 8:12). "Though He slay me, yet will I trust (yachal) in Him" (Job 13:15), Job declared when he expressed to his unfaithful friends an absolute assurance that God would vindicate him. Used here, the psalmist hopes (trusts, tarries, waits) that his exile from God would end. He is confident in God's faithfulness.


It is tempting for us to view the questions he presents himself as nothing but “self-talk,” as if he is talking himself out of the pit of despair with an encouraging mantra. However, remember Psalm 42/43 is a liturgical/instructional song delivered in worship at the Temple (see Immediate Context above). The psalmist’s questions are not merely “self-talk;” this is not someone trying to wish or talk himself out of despair. “Have hope” is a theological confession of God’s faithfulness. The psalmist is not the focus of his confessions, his sovereign God is.


As Psalm 42 comes to an end, the psalmist has not found a resolution to his first question (When); he has still not returned to the presence of God at His Temple. Yet he has reached a resolution of spirit. He is resolute in his confidence that his struggles (longing to be in God's presence, the oppression of his enemy, and his "forgotten-ness") will be settled when God sends light and truth to lead him home. That is his hope. Rather than listen to the fickle voices that ask, “where is your God?” the psalmist takes heed only to that which is not vulnerable to change – the sovereign King – the King who commands lovingkindness and a song. (v. 8).


Through his psalm, the psalmist teaches his listeners how to live faithfully while in exile from God - don’t try to replace His presence with anything other than that for which your soul most deeply thirsts. From the beginning until the end, he is longing to be in the presence of God. He never allowed his enemy’s oppression, his circumstances, or his disquieted soul to answer the questions of his soul. He acknowledges his deepest longing is for God’s presence and faithfully waits on the only true solution – God Himself.

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” Augustine, Confessions.




We are in exile as well. You may ask, however, how are we exiled from God’s presence when we are no longer dependent on the physical Temple to enjoy the presence of God? That is true; however, God dwelling among humanity is a theme that neither began nor ended when Solomon built the Temple.


Some would say that God's first "dwelling place" among humanity was in the Garden with Adam and Eve. Then He dwelled in the tent of meeting. During Solomon’s reign, God moved into the Holy of Holies inside the Temple. However, when the people refused to heed the call to turn their hearts back to Him, the Temple was destroyed and God abandoned the city.


When the Messiah came, however, he declared he was the Temple (John 2:19). In Jesus Christ, we no longer need to enter the physical Temple building; we have been reconciled to God through Christ, who provided our entry into the Holy of Holies (Mark 15:38). 


Nonetheless, we live in an "already/not yet" reality. We live in the tension between being already redeemed from sin, sons and daughters of God in which the Holy Spirit dwells, but not yet realizing our complete redemption. We are exiles from our true home. The writers of Romans explained it - we “groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved … we wait for it with patience” (8:23). Yes, we are in exile. Therefore, we can apply Psalm 42 and 43 to our lives to answer the question – How do exiles wait faithfully?


The first lesson we can learn from the psalmist’s soul struggles is  


We need God and nothing or no one else can satisfy our souls’ restlessness. Eternal creatures should not settle for temporal satisfaction.


Everyone is searching for a person, an identity, pleasure, or place where they might realize their “ultimate heart's desire.” However, it's simply not possible this side of Heaven because we were created for eternity and, therefore, only an eternal God can satisfy our hearts (Ecc 3:11).  


Jesus taught us to recognize this thirst. Actually, he told us that those who acknowledge their soul's longing for God and His righteousness are "blessed." (Matt 5:6). The psalmist understood this relationship and while he waited, rather than fill his emptiness with a substitute, he continued to hope for God’s presence. When we realize the perversion of choosing “broken cisterns” over the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2), we too will be able to faithfully wait on what only God can provide.


Secondly, the psalmist taught us to


Speak to God about your restlessness because only He is Truth. The world may cause us to question God, our enemy may tempt us to doubt,

but never stop seeking God's truth and light.


The enemy asked, “where is your God?” The psalmist responded only to God; he didn’t feel the need to answer to his enemy’s banter. He turned to God and bore his soul. 


Again, Jesus taught us the same. When his enemies insulted him on the Cross and questioned God, he ignored their mockery but cried out - “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt 27:44-46).  From the Cross, Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, a psalm of David. Reading it in context, we see that this psalm was not a cry of abandonment by either David or Christ. It was an expression of trust. How can that be?


As Luke details, moments after questioning God, Jesus confidently declared, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:45). Again here, Jesus is quoting a psalm of David - “Into Your hands I commit my spirit; You have ransomed me, O Lord, God of truth” (30:5). Because God had been faithful to do what He had promised, no matter how difficult life had become for David, he trusted that God had redeemed him for a purpose to which He would be faithful. Christ, as well, knew He could trust God; the outcome of the Cross was certain because the God of Truth had promised it. 


Though the psalmist lamented that his enemy had reproached him (42:10) with words so cutting he felt his bones would shatter, he trusted his “Rock” (v. 9). The KJV translates shatter, as “a sword in my bones.” He was not suffering insignificant attacks by his enemy; this was painful and emotionally challenging. Yes, he was overwhelmed to the point of feeling like he would drown in the despair that crashed over his soul like the rushing waves and yet he knew he had nowhere to turn except to the same God whom he had just accused of forgetting him. Faced with his drowning emotions and an enemy whose words were like a sword in his broken heart, he reminded himself – “why are you in despair and why have you become disturbed? Hope in God.”


We too can hope in God's truth and His light to lead us from the place of overwhelming grief and despair. Actually, Truth and Light have a name - he is our Redeemer, Jesus (John 14:6). He has redeemed us as He promised and we can trust him - no matter how dire our circumstances appear - because we know He is a God of truth. 

Remember that all Psalms serve a united purpose; the Psalms declare God Reigns. When we allow other people or desires to usurp God's authority, we will often be disappointed by them. Actually, we will always be disappointed by them - eventually. People will betray us, jobs will disappoint us, relationships will fail, and flesh will die. Living for anything other than an eternal God will eventually always disappoint. Our soul knows this; sometimes our minds forget and we ask someone or something else to satisfy us and when they can't, our minds suffer. We become restless, despondent, and overwhelmed.


However, it is our soul's longing for God that causes our restlessness and it is only our soul's longing for God that will sustain us through life's disappointments. Notice the Psalmist did not deny his pain; he cried day and night (42:9). He was in deep pain, to the point he questioned God, but he was also confident that deliverance would come by none other than “the help of my countenance and my God” (42:11).  Don't deny it when you suffer from restlessness or despair, and don't allow Satan's banter to tempt you to allow something or someone else to fill that void. The voices of doubt and oppression often seem very loud in the quiet places of our souls. However, we should remind ourselves that the wait here is difficult and our souls often feel disquieted because this is not our final home - "we are seeking the city which is to come" (Heb 13:14). Exile can be hard and lonely; actually, it should feel that way if we realize we are not made for this world.


We were made for something so much greater and waiting on that should disquiet our souls. Acknowledge the struggle, but acknowledge it for what it truly is – a longing for God and don’t dare let disappointment with this place cause you to trade the fountain of living water for a broken cistern.  Ask the hard questions, cry out to God, feel overwhelmed by the breakers and the waves. Then speak louder than the roar of deep calling to deep at the sound of the waterfalls, speak loudly one truth that we find at the very center of these psalms:


“The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, And His song will be with me in the night.” (42:8)


He will not disappoint.

One last important thought. Not every emotional struggle, depression, or despair is the result of a spiritual need. There are medical conditions that should be addressed with medical help. I do not discount that in any way and my prayer is that you have found a counselor or physician to assist you if you struggle with this illness.

However, despair is not always the result of a medical condition. Sometimes we experience a loss that is overwhelmingly painful, like a sword in our bones. Sometimes we can’t point to a specific cause of our overwhelmed souls – we just know we hurt.  It is in these times that our “not yet” fully redeemed nature might entice us to find something temporal to heal the pain or replace the loss. However, only God can fix our broken hearts; only He can fill our empty souls. At those times, remind yourself you serve a Savior who is a man of suffering (Is 53:3) and he came to redeem us from this world filled with pain and suffering. He is the redemption of every loss, every broken heart, every longing soul. He is faithful; He is true; He is the living God, our rock, and our exceeding joy. And He leads us to the altar where we shall praise God, our God.

"Imagine God appeared to you and said, “I’ll make a deal with you if you wish. I’ll give you anything and everything you ask: pleasure, power, honor, wealth, freedom, even peace of mind and a good conscience. Nothing will be a sin; nothing will be forbidden, and nothing will be impossible for you. You will never be bored and you will never die. Only…you shall never see my face.” Did you notice that unspeakable chill in your deepest heart at those last words? Did your surface desires leap after the first part of God’s deal and your deepest desire freeze in standstill shock at “you shall never see my face”? Your surface mind, which is in touch with your surface desires, may not admit it, but your deepest mind, which knows your deepest desires, knows it: you want God more than everything else in the world."


“If we don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because we have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Our soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.” 

--John Piper

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