Thirst Brings Health; Despair Brings Hope


Possibly, according to some observers of this Psalm, this reflects the mourning of the pious Israelite during the Babylonian Captivity. More likely, it has a similar origin to Psalm 141 (from last week’s lesson) and Psalm 63, in which the thirsting for God in a time of desolation is quite prominent. As David, probably fleeing from Absalom in this instance, had in mind the use of this Psalm in worship, he thought of the gifted sons of Korah to execute it beautifully when he was restored to the assembly. Not only for their musical talent did he think of them, however, but as a corporate testimony to the marvelous mercies of God in bringing a people from judgment and desolation to spiritual riches. Korah, along with 250 men of the Levites whom he had gathered in protest against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, was swallowed by the earth alive and “they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Numbers 16:33). The sons of Korah, however, were spared (Numbers 26:11). In 1 Chronicles 6:33 they were denominated after their grandfather, Kohath, but in 9:19 they were aligned directly to Korah: “And Shallum the son of Kore, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, and his relatives, of his father’s house, the Korahites were over the work of the service, keepers of the threshold of the tent; and their fathers had been over the camp of the Lord, keepers of the entrance. And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar was ruler over them previously, and the Lord was with him.” (See Numbers 25). The sons of Korah, after the destruction of their father, had been under the authority of Phinehas, whose zeal for the holiness of God had been singled out as paradigmatic for the life of a priest (Malachi 2:4-6). Thus, even in writing this Psalm “To the chief musician, a Maschil, for the sons of Korah” David anticipates a return to a place of merciful favor. Again, he will worship and will not live perpetually in a downcast state.

Matthew Henry suggested that this Psalm alternates between the distress of the senses in a forlorn situation and the voice of faith contemplating the covenant faithfulness of God.


I. (Verses 1 and 2) — An intense experience of the holy beauty of God drives the fluctuations of despair and hope.

A. He compares his desire for God to the desire of a hunted, famished, and fainting deer who must have water even more than food if it is to survive. Jesus used the image of thirst and the vital importance of water to emphasize his place as the giver of eternal life.

  1. This is not a pleasant, pastoral, scene of gentle beauty but the rush and snort of a desperate animal near death because it is near dehydration. David’s soul pants for the presence and mercies of God even more than the distraught animal pants for water. He knows that the health of his soul depends on the constant nourishment it receives from fellowship with God. He knows that the God of covenantal faithfulness alone can restore his soul.
  2. When the woman at the well in Samaria wondered that Jesus offered her water when he had nothing with which to draw from the well, he told her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13, 14).
  3. Later in Jesus’ ministry, when he attended the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem, he announced, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37, 38).

B. He thirsts for the “Living God.” He wants the God who has life in himself, is self-existent. He wants the God who has created all things and has given vitality in all its various dimensions and proportions to all living things and upon whom all these things presently depend. He wants the God who is not made with men’s hands, who hear not, speak not, smell not, see not, and who are protected and housed by their makers. He wants the God who is the author and merciful giver of eternal life.

  1. All persons have a thirst for the living God, but in their fallenness seek to slake that thirst with an abundance of temporalities, passing pleasures that, like salt water, give a deceitful sense of momentary satisfaction but lead to deeper thirst and death.
  2. Only those whose hearts have been opened by the Spirit of God will know that their thirst is for the Living God. They will refuse to be satisfied with anything, or anyone, less than he. When they have seen his beauty in holiness, sensed his benevolence in daily providential care, tasted the freedom of soul in justification, and embraced the hope of the resurrection, only God will do.

C. “When shall I come and appear before God?” As an individual, God always is with him. That which has caused such distress is David’s absence from the congregation’s joining in worship according to the revealed structure for corporate worship. David missed and yearned for the fellowship with God as he met with the entire body of Israel in worship. In this flight, David had sent the Levites back into the city with the ark of the covenant, saying, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back and let me see both it and his dwelling place” (2 Samuel 15:25). It is for this that he longed, but he also looked to the possibility that God might respond, “I have no pleasure in you.”


II. (Verses 3 and 4) – A time of physical and spiritual desolation has crushed his spirit. He has been driven from Jerusalem by his own son, cursed by Shemei, in an act that David looked upon as providentially arranged (2 Samuel 16:5-14).

A. So deeply has the turn of events in the rebellion of Absalom affected David that tears constantly flow from his eyes. He probably is reflecting on the scene when he and the people that stayed with him were passing over the brook Kidron: “And all the land wept aloud as all the people passed by and the king crossed the brook Kidron” (2 Samuel 15:23). And later: “But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went” (2 Samuel 15:30).

B. “They say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” Shemei, a Benjaminite, cried out to David as he journeyed into exile, “Get out, get out you man of blood, you worthless man! The Lord has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul in whose place you have reigned, and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See your evil is on you, for you are a man of blood.” Would God receive him back, or would God have no pleasure in him?

C. He recalled his joyous times of worship with the people, particularly at the three great days of praise and feasting during Passover, Pentecost, and Booths. David was exhilarated in the company of other worshippers, and even in this writing is composing an instructive Psalm for the time of corporate worship. For these times, all the people of God should yearn. Much is gained in the united affirmations of truth, in the swelling union of voices in praise expressing an intense purity of spiritual emotion in contemplation of the redeeming mercies of God. The corporate expressions of truth enhance each individual experience. We are brought to a time of “teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms, Hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19).

D. When we are absent from the fellowship of kindred mind, shut off from the company of believers who share the same truth and the same experience of saving grace, and unite in love to the Redeemer, we feel as if we are placed in desolation. A dry and weary land is every place where we cannot have access to the “assembly of the first born who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:22).


III. (Verse 5) — He calls upon his knowledge of God’s faithfulness. After looking around at his situation and contemplating the spiritual desolation it implies, he seeks to look beyond the immediate difficulties and recall more substantial, long term realities of his relationship to God and his eternal purpose.

A. In carrying on this conversation with his soul, David seems to view himself from two different perspectives. He remonstrates with his soul for its giving in to despair and poses the question as to why it is so disturbed by this sharp, but certainly temporary, interruption of his position as the leader of his nation.

  1. He reminds himself to “hope in God” for, instead of words of despair, he will yet again utter words of praise. To this he looked when he considered the cursing of Shemei and his decision to take no action against him. “It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today” (2 Samuel 16:12).
  2. Because “hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he already has,” we must do as David did and say in the times of soul-disturbance, “Hope in God.” Our portion of joy is not bound up with the present distress or even with the present life, but is yet to be fulfilled in Christ. If our greatest joy and the season of perfect peace is yet future, then we will with patience wait for it.

B. Praise will displace despair. God’s aim for us is to let his praise always be on our lips. Every time of being downcast, therefore, is for the purpose of lifting us up by his merciful and sovereign intervention. We know that “I shall again praise him for the help of his presence.”


IV. (Verses 6-8) — “The spasm of despondency returns” (Spurgeon). Now, after the affirmation of hope and the confidence that praise will return, he calls to mind his position as a despised outcast from his people and from the congregation of worship. Yet now he does it with a remembrance of other days and immediate anticipation of more demonstrations of mercy. This involves the biblical responses of faith and hope—faith being a trust in divine mercies already accomplished and hope being the anticipation of divine mercies yet to come.

A. We cannot hide the state of our soul from God; he sees its doubts, its confusion, its internal contradictions, as well as its sincere yearnings for an unbroken vision of and participation in divine joy.

  1. Since God cannot be fooled, but knows us better than we know ourselves, we should seek to sort out the state of our spirit as thoroughly as possible before him. We should not spout our doubts and frustrations with the apparent absence of beneficent providence before the public — “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ behold I would have betrayed the generation of your children” (Psalm 73:15; Also review verses 1-14 for the stirring of soul of the Psalmist).
  2. Even the most despairing of all the Psalms, Psalm 88, is set in the context of “the God of my salvation” and leads the reader to contemplate the true despair of a soul that senses itself under the wrath of God. Like Psalm 22, except without its relief (19-22), we see the struggles within the soul of Jesus as the wrath of God descended on him at the most thoroughly propitiatory of the hours on the cross. He sensed these terrible hours “from my youth on” (15) but found their culmination in an unmitigated display of divine wrath meted out in pure justice. Through the wrath that encompasses the sufferer of Psalm 88, others will find the reality of “wonders, … praise, … lovingkindness, … faithfulness, … [and] righteousness” (10-12).

B. In this admission of despair, David employs two ordained means of coping with despair through the lens of faith and hope.

  1. He remembers the goodness of God himself and that his call to know him and worship him is intensely personal as well as embedded within the community. Though driven from his usual places of worship and of sweet communion, he finds the places of his exile to be filled with the presence of God. The mercies he knew elsewhere, he can also know here; the goodness and grace that sustained him there are not shut out from here. Pressed to the banks of the Jordan, he recalls and embraces the mercies of Jerusalem; pushed away from the glories of the peaks of Mount Hermon, the small hill of Mizar will do, for God made them both and inhabits the whole earth. “It is great wisdom to store up in memory our choice occasions of converse with heaven; we may want them another day” (Spurgeon).
  2. Even the recurring pressures of trouble, rolling upon him like a tumultuous storm, or like the flood of waters that destroyed the earth coming from above as well as below (Genesis 6:11; 2 Peter 3:5, 6), like Jonah later in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:3), wave after wave of divine discipline flow over him; but note that the Psalmist sees them as “your waterfalls, your breakers, and your waves.”
  3. God’s lovingkindness is his eternal covenant love toward his people given through the blood of the eternal covenant (Hebrews 13:20). Election, calling, justification, glorification all arise from this lovingkindness “which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Note that he “commands” this lovingkindness; it is not in our power but eternally resident in the nature of God himself and is commanded by him to perform the tasks intrinsic to it, like the actions of his justice are done as intrinsic manifestations of his wisdom. David knew that he was a child of the covenant, and his experience of it in the daytime became the source of his song and prayer in the night.


V. Verses 9-11 – David gives a final complaint and a renewed expression of hope.

A. Such was the despair caused by the rebellion of his own son, Absalom, against him and the rallying of the tribes to Absalom’s side, that David again slips into a sense of helpless despondence. Having affirmed eternal lovingkindness, now he asks why God has forgotten him. In Psalm 38 he spoke of his mourning prompted by a consciousness of his sin (Psalm 38:6), but this mourning is prompted by the historical turn of events, an apparent providential forgetfulness, in which a fuming, unforgiving, vengeful, conniving son has usurped his place by insincerity and deceit. Once sin brought the mourning, but now it is the “oppression of the enemy.” How can this happen under the watch of lovingkindness?

B. Absalom, my son, my son! One who had a right to be David’s enemy would not cause so much pain as this inflicted by a beautiful, talented son. A deadly wound (ESV), a shattering (NASB), a breaking (NKJV), like a sword in his bones (KJV), piercing through the marrow he was struck in the most debilitating way short of death itself. It seemed to give justification to the taunt of his enemies already mentioned in verse 3, “Where is your God?”

C. We see from this example that such a return of confusion and despair is natural to us as we walk this dark terrain, but it is just as clearly unwarranted, not justified. Has God’s character changed. Do his promises fail? Is his purpose thwarted? “No” to all. (Malachi 3:6; Psalm 33:11). His eternal covenant of redemption will glorify his Son with a full reward of the people for whom he shed his blood (Isaiah 53:11, 12).

D. The Psalmist, therefore, is brought back to question the despairing condition of his soul. We are not such victims of emotions that we cannot see truth and affirm that its reality far transcends in importance the fluctuating state of our condition-driven judgment. This also points to the deeply established distinction between emotions and affections. In his affections, altered by a God-effected shift in the ultimate object of his love, the Psalmist thinks of nothing more desirable than living without interruption in the presence of God. In his emotions, he is ruled by the hardness of the present situation, its assault on his spiritual comfort and joy, and makes him present queries concerning divine consistency.

E. His affections combined with the certainty of the divine covenant, his past experience of God’s goodness, and the promises of the future bring him to his final admonition and affirmation. “Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

F. Many of the experiences and observations of David are in their mature state related to Christ, David’s greater Son and his true heir. (Acts 2:25-28, 34-36 Romans 2:3). The words of this Psalm apply with unwavering accuracy to Christ. His panting for the presence of the Father was more pure and unstinted, more consistent and never-wavering in his manhood than that of any other person (John 14:27-31). He was assaulted with accusations of God’s absence more than any person (Matthew 27:39-43; Luke 23:35-37). His soul was troubled with true justification more than any other person (John 12:27). He was rejected by the people over whom he had the right to rule (John1:10, 11). Only because he was truly hated by the world, do we experience the deepest suspicion and rejection from the world (John 15:18-21). As a human, the head of the new covenant people, his hope was more sound than that of any other person and is the only true foundation for our hope (John 14:1-4; Romans 8:28-30; Philippians 3:20, 21; 2 Timothy 4:18; Titus 2:13, 14; 1 John 3:1-3).


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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