The song, “As the Deer”, is certainly popular for many followers of Jesus. The source of the song is Psalm 42, well, at least the opening verse. Although, the tone of the song and the tone of the psalm do not seem to be in sync.
The images that are conjured up when we sing the song are of a quiet stream with a deer coming to find refreshment from the newly found source of water.
The images that are conjured up when we read Psalm 42 (and really 43 together with it) is one of being parched for water and refreshment and not find the water we were looking for! There’s even a twist to the scene, as the writer is drenched in his own tears, but there is no water! It seems to me that the deer would not be standing by the calm stream — it would be barely able to take the next step in the search for the next drink to stay alive.
Psalm 42 (and 43) is written from a state of depression, these psalms are not about taking a long drink on a hot summer day that ends in, “ahhhhh“.
Psalm 42 (as well as Psalm 43, which needs to be taken with it as the second part of a longer original composition) is by the Sons of Korah (more could be read about their past of course, these were the ones spared by God’s mercy, employed in the performance of the temple music).
Most commentators would agree that Psalms 42 and 43 need to be taken together for several reasons: (1) in a number of the Hebrew manuscripts the psalms are joined together as one unit; (2) Psalm 43 has no introductory title, although every other psalm in book two, except for Psalm 71, does; and (3) the repeated refrain (three times) links the compositions together (42:5, 11; 43:5). The main reason–both deal with spiritual depression and they do so in a similar manner.
It is interesting to note the reasons that these psalms state for the downcast soul. This is from my reading of these psalms last week and I am still learning more as I enter this week.
- Forced absence from the temple of God, the place where they worshipped, the thing that gave them significance (42:1-2). The writer(s) is far from Jerusalem and the worship at the temple. He felt cut off from God. He is panting because he cannot find the “water.” For the sons of Korah, this is significant. Temple worship was their occupation. Their livelihood. Their life. Reflecting on the events from last year, this hits home (as do the other five reasons below). Fleeing home. Dear friends being taken abruptly away from us. Life thrown into a spin. Ministry suddenly taken away. Forced absence from your sense of being used by God, could that have been the experience of the sons of Korah in this psalm?
- On-going taunting and shaming by unbelievers (42:3, 10). Wherever the writer was at the time, he was surrounded by a biting challenge, “Where is your God in all of this?” We know that this was significant, its repeated several times. Where is God indeed? Where is God when I am in a far country, separated from my usual work, taunted by enemies? Why doesn’t God seem to hear my cries? Why doesn’t he intervene to change my circumstances? This is a very real situation for so many followers of Jesus living in harsh cultures — the stress is real.
- Troubled by memories of “better days” (42:4). We are supposed to be encouraged by thinking of the better days, but there are psalms where we see that at times it brings the opposite effect. The writer here doesn’t seem to be remembering God’s past acts as an encouragement to believe that he will act for us again(especially when verse 4 is followed by verse 5, and the downcast soul).
- Overwhelming trials (42:7). The water of verse one is now being used in a different way by the psalmist. Now, the water (trials from life) are breaking over the writer like smashing waves, pushing him to the bottom under the weight and pressure. The deer “gets” his water, but it is crushing in force! Life can be just like that.
- Unanswered prayer (42:9). Verse 9 is a painful cry to God with the sense that he has forgotten the psalmist. Interesting the statement in verse 9 is preceded by verse 8 (God’s steadfast love by day and at night his song is present), and the fact that even in verse 9 he declares that God is his Rock. Yet, he feels forsaken, forgotten, not heard.
- Attacks from the ungodly (43:1). Taking the freedom to connect these two psalms, the last reason that the psalmist gives for the depression would be this: the ungodly are attacking, deceiving, and acting out wickedness directed at him. Not a great feeling. Could these be the same ones that brought unrelenting taunting in Psalm 42?
And what does the psalmist do with this situation, this state of depression?
1. He is real with himself, real with his state, and questions himself.
Martin Lloyd-Jones has some good words about this in his book Spiritual Depression…
“You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’—what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’—instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way.”
2. He rises above the “now” to see that this is not how it will always be. Three times the psalmist declares (to himself), “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.” He knows he will come out of this because God will deliver him. Dark clouds will move off into the distance and a day is coming when God will scatter every dark cloud!
Samwise Gamgee’s words (The Lord of the Rings) seem fitting for the life of pilgrims…
“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered, full of darkness and danger they were. Sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when there’s so much bad that had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”