Psalms 42 and 43

The Sad Song

What sad songs remain with you?

Psalm 42

For the Chief Musician. A contemplation by the sons of Korah.

1 As the deer pants for the water brooks,
so my soul pants after you, God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night,
while they continually ask me, "Where is your God?"
4 These things I remember, and pour out my soul within me,
how I used to go with the crowd, and led them to the house of God,
with the voice of joy and praise, a multitude keeping a holy day.
5 Why are you in despair, my soul?
Why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God!
For I shall still praise him for the saving help of his presence.
6 My God, my soul is in despair within me.
Therefore I remember you from the land of the Jordan,
the heights of Hermon, from the hill Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep at the noise of your waterfalls.
All your waves and your billows have swept over me.
8 YHWH will command his loving kindness in the daytime.
In the night his song shall be with me:
a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I will ask God, my rock, "Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?"
10 As with a sword in my bones, my adversaries reproach me,
while they continually ask me, "Where is your God?"
11 Why are you in despair, my soul?
Why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God! For I shall still praise him,
the saving help of my countenance, and my God.

Psalm 43

1 Vindicate me, God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation.
Oh, deliver me from deceitful and wicked men.
2 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?
3 Oh, send out your light and your truth.
Let them lead me.
Let them bring me to your holy hill,
To your tents.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God, my exceeding joy.
I will praise you on the harp, God, my God.
5 Why are you in despair, my soul?
Why are you disturbed within me?
Hope in God!
For I shall still praise him:
my Savior, my helper, and my God.

World English Bible

"You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips." This was the opening line from the 1964 hit, "You Lost That Loving Feeling," sung by the Righteous Brothers. The sweep of the melody and almost moan of Bill Medley's baritone in the opening line clearly communicated tragedy. Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production heighten the sense of love lost. I personally believe this was one of the great singles from the 1960's; it marked a high point in the careers of everyone involved. And, it was a favorite tune of the high school dances I attended in the mid 1960's.

What would have happened if the song had a hopeful chorus? It would have changed the tenor and meaning of the song. The sad song would have been leavened. "Love lost" would have become "love postponed." Such was the sad song found in Psalms 42 and 43. Desperation is mixed with hope. Tough times will have a happy ending.

Although they are listed separately, Psalms 42 and 43 were originally one hymn. The hymn has three stanzas with a refrain; the refrain ("Why are you in despair...Hope in God) is repeated in 42:5, 11 and 43:5. The psalms mixed distance and desperation with the hope for divine intimacy. The psalms had a geographic goal: the Temple in Jerusalem. Their mood and the language evoked the atmosphere of the Jewish community during their captivity in Babylon.

The first stanza (42:1-4) spoke of distance, yearning, even desperation. The psalmist "thirsted" for his creator, like a deer in the desert wilderness. What was the reason for this yearning? Why couldn't the psalmist appear before YHWH in the Temple (42:2)? Why was the singer melancholy, holding a memory of Temple worship so bitter-sweetly (42:4)? The answer is found in the rhetorical question posed by the psalmist's enemies: Where is your God (42:3)? The question pounded the singer's heart, for the distance from Jerusalem and its worship made the singer feel shame and loneliness. He could not enjoy the presence of the Lord along with the worship assembly.

The second stanza (42:6-10) continued the mood of the first, but with flashes of hope. This time, the psalmist fondly remembered the mountain terrain of northern Galilee; Mount Hermon is snow-capped all year round, so feeds roaring waterfalls (42:6-7). The singer grasped at the covenant love YHWH promised to his people; this was his nighttime prayer (42:8). But, the enemies of the psalmist were relentless. The question, "Where is your God?" caused the singer to despair: Where are you, God? (42:9-10)

The third stanza (43:1-5) was a prayer for justice and a vision of renewed Temple worship. Vindication was based upon a seemingly unending persecution, yet the prayer ended in hope for return. "Send out your light and your truth" so the psalmist can again praise God in the place of his sure dwelling.

Notice the role of water in the psalm. The psalmist has a spiritual thirst (42:1-2) and dreams of a place with flowing water (42:6-7). Yet, only worship in the Temple could refresh the singer. This belief echoed the Ezekiel's vision of a river that found it's origin at the Temple (Ezekiel 47). The "holy hill" (Mt. Zion, the location of the Temple in 43:3) was the source of spiritual nourishment.

Also notice the question of the enemies: Where is your God? During the Babylonian exile, Jews knew their capital and its Temple lie in ruin. The kingdom was no more. Without a focus for national pride, the power of a national deity came into question. The question of the enemies must have been a constant burden to those in captivity. Without a king, without a capital, without a Temple for YHWH to dwell in, where was your God? The enemies seemed to imply God's impotence. No wonder the psalmist called out in desperation. Yet, he insisted upon hope.

The chorus punctuated the down tone of the psalms. It recognized desperation with a rhetorical question, but answers it with hope and an act of the will. "Why are you down? Hope in God! I will praise him still, my Savior and my Lord." The prayer of the chorus counterbalanced the prevalent view of psalm 42 and part of psalm 43. The answer to troubles was not despair but a seemingly irrational hope. Despite the conditions in life, we are to hold on to our trust in God.

Sad songs bring a sigh, sometimes a tear. But, sometimes they bring a glimmer of hope. Such is the hymn of Psalms 42 and 43. They challenge us to hope, despite the cost, despite the context. No matter what happens, we are to tenaciously trust God.

How has God challenged you to hope?