Psalm 42 and 43: Thirsting for God

Variety fills our lives. Happiness, sadness, fatigue, gratitude, and disappointment fill the time between birth and death. It’s no coincidence that variety also fills the Psalms. We see psalms of praise, thanksgiving, wisdom, lamentation, and confession. The Book of Psalms matches the variety of our lives and teaches us to direct our souls Godward through the highs and lows of life.

The experience that Psalm 42 and 43 describe is not something we’ve looked at in this column. It’s a psalm of yearning and thirsting for God. At first, we might assume in these psalms that the psalmist is merely talking about being far from the temple or tabernacle. He speaks of “the land of Jordan and of Hermon,” which refer to the land north of Israel (Psalm 42:5). He longs to return to God’s people where he can worship joyfully (42:6) and cries out for God’s truth and light to lead him to God’s holy hill (43:4). However, it’s not a place but a Person that the psalmist longs for: It’s God Himself.

Most scholars group Psalm 42 and 43 together since the same refrain occurs in both psalms (42:5, 12; 43:5) and because the tone of each psalm is so similar. Regardless of whether the two psalms were originally one song, it is helpful to treat them as a unit. What we see in these psalms is one who deeply longs for God even while experiencing persecution and disappointment. Christians who take these chapters seriously can learn at least three vital lessons.

First, we can expect seasons of emptiness in life. Psalm 42 begins with the psalmist hungering and thirsting for God’s presence (Psalm 42:1-2). To thirst for something means that you don’t have enough of what you want. The psalmist’s enemies were taunting him and claiming that God had left him (42:3, 9-10; 43:1-2). The important point is to bring our sense of emptiness to God in prayer and song. Seasons of emptiness keep us from trusting in ourselves and remind us that we do not yet see God face to face (2 Corinthians 1:9, 1 Corinthians 13:12).

A second important lesson we learn from these Psalms is that sometimes we need to preach to ourselves. This point is one that pastor-physician Martyn Lloyd-Jones made in his book “Spiritual Depression.” At three points in these psalms, the psalmist preaches to his own soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5). Part of following Christ means recognizing that you don’t always feel how you ought to feel. The answer to the psalmist’s discouragement was to tell his own soul to hope again in God. Part of this lesson is also remembering that hoping in God is sometimes a fight.

A third vital lesson from these psalms is to ask ourselves where our chief joy comes from. It’s possible to worship God each week and yet still seek our primary joy in the temporary things of this world. The psalmist is cast down; discouragement and grief fill his heart. Yet, he knows where his joy comes from. God is his salvation, rock, refuge, and “exceeding joy” (Psalm 42:5, 9, 43:2, 4).

In these two psalms, we don’t see pat answers or easy solutions to life in a fallen world. What we do see is what following God in the dry seasons looks like. A key part of the answer is remembering that in Christ Jesus the drought will one day end (Revelation 7:16-17).

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