Lesson Focus: This lesson is about worship as an expression of our desire to be in God’s presence.
Thirsting for God: Psalm 42:1-5.
 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul 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 the day long, "Where is your God?"  These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. [ESV]
Psalms 42 and 43 need to be taken together because both deal with spiritual depression. They give at least six reasons for it, and they indicate the cure. (1) Forced absence from the temple of God, where God was worshipped [42:1-2]. The psalmist was far from Jerusalem and its temple worship on Mount Zion, and he therefore felt himself to be cut off from God. The psalm begins with his panting after God as the deer pants for streams of water when he cannot find it. It is not that the psalmist does not believe that God is everywhere, or that God is not with him. He is praying to God in these psalms, after all. But his being away from home has gotten him down, and his depressed state has caused him to feel that God is absent. (2) The taunts of unbelievers [42:3,10]. In this distant land the psalmist was also surrounded by unbelievers who taunted him with the biting challenge, Where is your God? This must have hurt him a lot, because he repeats the line twice in just this one composition. The taunt did not mean that God did not exist but that God had abandoned the psalmist. That is a cause for deep depression. 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? (3) Memories of better days [42:4]. There is a proper use of memory in times when we are depressed, remembering God’s past acts as an encouragement to believe that He will act for us again. But that is not the first use of memory we find in these psalms. What we find here is the writer’s wistful remembrance of the good days when he would lead the worshippers in procession to the house of God. (4) The overwhelming trials of life [42:7]. A bit further on in this psalm the writer speaks of the overwhelming trials of his life, referring to them as waves and breakers that have swept over him. We do not know what these trials were, though we can imagine that they were the adverse circumstances that had borne him away from Jerusalem. (5) Failure of God to act quickly on our behalf [42:9]. Verse 9 is a painful cry to God for having forgotten him. It is not unusual for a depressed person to feel forsaken by God. (6) Attacks from ungodly, deceitful, and wicked persons [43:1]. The second of these two psalms brings in another cause of depression. It is attacks by unscrupulous and deceitful enemies. These are probably the same people who taunted the psalmist earlier in verse 3. But in this section we learn that they had also been attacking him unjustly, since he prays for vindication and a pleading of his cause by God. Most of us can relate to this too, since it is not unusual for those who try to live for God to be unjustly accused, attacked, and slandered. It is an unusual person who will not be occasionally depressed by malicious and hurtful treatment.
What is the cure for spiritual depression? The psalmist tells us how the godly person can win out over depression. (1) He takes himself in hand. The most important thing to be said about the approach to depression taken by the author of this psalm is that he does not give in to depression or self-pity but rather takes himself in hand and wrestles through it. He reminds himself of what he really knows and finds that no reasons for being cast down are so strong as those for elation and calm hope. Talking to ourselves rather than allowing circumstances to talk to us is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. It is a case of the mind speaking to the emotions rather than the emotions dictating to the mind. (2) He challenges himself to do what should be done. The second step in the battle against depression follows from the act of addressing oneself in this manner. It is to challenge oneself to do what the spiritual self knows should be done. Put your hope in God. There can be no lasting hope in anything else in this sinful, failing world. The believer has put his or her trust in God in past days. He can do so again. It is a mark of simple sanity to do what the psalmist urges should be done. (3) He reminds himself of a great certainty. To hope in God leads to the final step in the crusade against depression, the reminder, based on the character of the God we trust, that I shall again praise him. This is a great certainty. God has not changed. Therefore, His purposes for me have not changed. He has led me to uplifting victories in times past. He will do so again. Therefore, instead of looking at the past glumly as something I have lost, I will look to it as a foretaste of the many good things yet to come. Does medicine such as the psalmist prescribes really help? Does it effect a cure? The progress achieved by it is evident throughout the psalm. Look how the thought flows and the mood rises throughout this two-part composition. In the first stanza the psalmist remembers the former days at the temple and is oppressed by the memory; in stanza two he draws on memory again, but this time it is to remember God and His goodness. In the first stanza he is troubled by the taunts of enemies who say to him, Where is your God?; in the second stanza he answers that God is with him . In verse 1, God is absent. In verse 9, God is his rock. By the time we come to Psalm 43:2, God is his stronghold, where he takes refuge, and he is praying confidently that God will guide him back to the place of worship and the joys of former days. The first two stanzas were laments; the third has become a strong, believing prayer. The same movement carries into the flow of thought in the last stanza, for the motion he anticipates from God is marked out in four anticipatory stages. First, it is backward to Mount Zion, the holy hill of verse 3 from which he has been removed. Second, it is to the temple upon Mount Zion, the place where God dwells. Third, it is to the altar of God before the temple. Finally, it is to God Himself: to God my exceeding joy. Is there a cure for depression? Yes. But it is not in us. It is in God. The cure is to seek God’s face (presence), so ours will not be downcast, which is what the psalmist does.
[1-5] The longing of the psalmist for God’s presence is clear from the use of images and the references to God. First, the image of the deer expresses the intense yearning for a taste of God’s presence. The deer looks until it finds water and quenches its thirst with great joy. So the psalmist longs for God’s presence with his whole being (soul). People intensely long for (pants … thirsts) fellowship with God and will not be content until they can return to Jerusalem and praise God with great joy. So strong is the psalmist’s physical longing for God that C .S. Lewis described the psalmist’s craving as an “appetite for God.” Second, in the references to God, the psalmist’s longing for God increases in intensity. He addresses Him as God , then as the living God , and finally expresses his profound hope to appear before God . In view of his need for God, the psalmist asks when he can return and experience once again the presence of God. This raises the question of how a person who desires God’s presence can experience alienation from God. The question finds its resolution in the development of these psalms. The psalmist is hemmed in by his own question, by his longing for God’s presence and by his enemies, who tauntingly ask Where is your God? . Living in isolation from the land, he cannot experience God’s presence in the magnificent structure of the temple. Down deep in his heart he asks the same question, “Where is my God?” for this reason he mourns continually. The depth of his sorrow is hyperbolically expressed by tears as his food. The taunts of the enemies serve to bring him closer to despondency. For the present, it seems as though God does not have the power to deliver. With these questions he lives all the day long. Not knowing where else to turn, he looks back in remembrance, digs deeply into his own soul, and then looks to God for the final answer to his despairing feeling. Adverse conditions often create an optimum context for reflection. The psalmist cannot do much more than remember. What things did he remember? He meditated on the pilgrimages to the temple, the festive celebrations, and God’s triumphs in the history of salvation. During the three annual pilgrimage festivals, the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem and presented their offerings and sacrifices with great rejoicing. It is true that many people were apostates, as the prophets bear out. But the godly minority (the remnant) focused their hope on a purification of the people, a catharsis of the temple worship, and a new age. The period of exile was the transition between the old age and the new age. The transition period proved immensely difficult for the godly. The pouring out of the soul is an expression of the intensity of one’s emotions. The psalmist analyzes his feelings and asks questions of himself [5, 11; 43:5]. The threefold refrain in verse 5 reflects the emotional state of many of God’s people during the exile and, for that matter, any crisis situation. The inner feelings express themselves in questions, despair, and hope in God. The questions are overtaking him. Yet while hemmed in by the questions in his desperate situation, he still could engage himself in dialogue. There was no voice from God. In the loneliness of alienation, his faith was tried, and it triumphed! Faith despairs and in despair hopes! Hope leads the psalmist away from despair. His hope is in God … my salvation and my God. Hope, in essence, is waiting for God to act. Hope is focused on the glorious acts of salvation and victory of which the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets speak. Hope longs for the praise of God for the acts of salvation. Hope says, “You are my God,” in anticipation of the fulfillment of the promises, even when help is far off.
Despairing for God: Psalm 42:6-11.
 My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.  Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.  By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.  I say to God, my rock: "Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?"  As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, "Where is your God?"  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. [ESV]
[6-11] In spite of the psalmist’s reflections and expression of the triumph of hope, the experience of alienation is still there. He is still cast down, therefore he returns in his memories to the Promised Land, symbolized here by the land of Jordan and of Hermon. The upper Jordan Valley, the Hermon range with its peaks reaching nine thousand feet above sea level, and the unknown Mount Mizar point our attention to the region of the sources of the Jordan River. The psalmist returns to the water imagery with which the psalm began. But this time, the memories of water are overshadowed by a deep sense of despair. The waterfall, with its rocks, breakers, and waves and its awesome noise of the rushing and falling waters, metaphorically portrays his condition. Instead of enjoying the living water of the living God, he is continually faced with an expression of God’s judgment. He has no control over his present circumstances and undergoes the present troubles, not knowing where he will end up. Has doubt triumphed? In his self-doubt the psalmist remembers the covenantal love of the Lord. By day and night he experienced the evidences of God’s care, protection, and blessing. He sang praises to Him and prayed to Him morning and evening. That was a time of fellowship with a God who was always present. The very experience of communion with God made Yahweh real to him as the God of my life. God’s continual love is a comfort for the soul continually beset by questions and mourning. In his moments of doubt and reflection of God’s absence, the psalmist raises questions to God – questions he asks in faith, because he remembers who his God is: God, my rock. Regardless of how despairing the situation, the Lord is still “the Rock” of Israel. He is the place of refuge. Twice he asks pointedly why God has forgotten him. In the present situation, the psalmist has no other recourse than mourning in the agony of his own perplexity. He has been abandoned to godless people, who taunt him continually with the same mocking question, Where is your God? He is like a dying man, and his God, the Rock, is silent. His whole being is distressed by his foes and by God’s silence. These reflections bring the psalmist again to a point of despair, self-examination, and an affirmation of hope in the future saving acts of God.
Confidence in God: Psalm 43:1-5.
 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!  For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?  Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. [ESV]
Times of tribulation either make us or break us. That is, it either drives us closer to God, or it drives us further away from God. But no one remains the same through the experience of deep pain. It all depends upon where a person’s faith rests. A time of adversity for the person whose trust is in the Lord becomes a season of increased dependency upon the Lord. So it was for the psalmist, whose ordeal drove him close to God. Psalm 43 is an epilogue of Psalm 42. In Psalm 42, the psalmist found himself in difficult times, increasingly reliant upon those things that could not be shaken. The psalmist’s storm showed no sign of lifting, so in Psalm 43, he continued to seek God in prayer while still oppressed. The source of this trial was an ungodly nation , which posed as an enemy , and threatened the security of Israel. In this situation, the psalmist was removed from Jerusalem , thus this prayer that God would return him safely . He asked that God would lead him back to the holy mountain, Jerusalem , so he could worship God again at the altar . In the midst of his despair, while endangered by an ungodly nation, he challenged himself to put his hope and trust in God . This psalm speaks to every believer, whatever his despair may be. The message is loud and clear: Hope in God . Using courtroom language, the psalmist called out to God, Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause. He wanted God to be both his judge, examining him, and his defense counsel, defending him against an ungodly nation that threatened the security of Israel. This is a prayer for vindication from his enemies in which he asked God to plead his cause before them. He wanted God to rescue him from the deceitful people who threatened his life. The identity of this nation is not mentioned. With growing confidence, the psalmist boasted, you are the God in whom I take refuge, the one who could defend him from all attacks. Nevertheless, as his enemies seemed to be gaining an advantage over him, the situation gave the appearance that God had rejected him. He lamented, Why have you rejected me? If God was his sure defense, he wondered, Why do I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? Seemingly, God had rejected him. He prayed that God would lead him back into His presence. Personified as the psalmist’s personal guide, God’s light was the divine illumination necessary for a person to understand His truth. In other words, a God-given understanding of God’s Word would lead him back to worship in Jerusalem. The psalmist needed the providential care of God to overturn circumstances before he could go back to Jerusalem. Once he got back to Jerusalem, the psalmist pledged he would go to the altar of God who was his exceeding joy, the satisfaction of his soul. Repeating the familiar refrain from the previous psalm [42:5,11], the psalmist searched and asked his own heart, Why are you cast down, O my soul? He wondered how he could be so emotionally distraught if God was so great. He directed himself, Hope in God. In other words, have confidence in the Lord! Rather than focusing outwardly on the enemies who surrounded him, he must look upward to God. With a firm resolve, he determined that he would praise the Lord who alone was his Savior and God. Conclusion. In the midst of life’s troubles, the believer must direct his heart towards God and anchor his soul in him. Unwavering hope must be placed in God, regardless of the circumstances around us. To do this, the believer must call himself to exercise confident faith in God. The character of God, particularly His faithfulness to His people in times past, should be a strengthening comfort to believers today. God alone is the Savior and sustainer of His people. He alone can rescue us from our darkest trials and troubles.
Questions for Discussion:
1. List the six reasons these two Psalms give for spiritual depression. What cures for spiritual depression do these Psalms offer?
2. What does the psalmist mean when he writes that his soul pants and thirsts for the living God? C.S. Lewis described this as an “appetite for God.” How is your appetite for God? What can you do to make your appetite for God increase? Just as our appetite for food can be diminished by “junk food” so too can our appetite for God be diminished by filling our minds and hearts with “junk food.” Pray about what worldly things you are allowing to diminish your appetite for God.
3. What role does hope play in enabling the psalmist to survive his experience of being alienated from God? How can hope sustain and encourage you in times of alienation, loneliness, despair?
Psalms, Volume 2, James M. Boice, Baker.
Psalms, Volume 2, John Goldingay, Baker.
Psalms, EBC, William VanGemeren, Zondervan.
Psalms 1-75, Steven Lawson, Holman Reference.