When Circumstances Overwhelm
Week of January 27, 2019
The Point: God lifts us up when circumstances pull us down.
The Cast Down Soul: Psalm 42:1-8; 43:1-5.
[42:1] 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. 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.
[43:1] 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]
“Psalms 42 and 43, which open book two of Psalms, are about depression. Since most of us are downcast at some time or another, we turn naturally to a psalm that asks honestly and forthrightly, Why are you cast down, O my soul? [42.5]. And we are encouraged when it answers hopefully, Hope in God; for I shall again praise him [42:11; 43:5]. These words mean that my present downcast mood is not the final act of my life’s drama. There are a number of interesting changes at this point in Psalms, and the first is that the compositions shift from being almost exclusively psalms of David to being those of a variety of authors. In the first section (Psalms 1-41), thirty-seven psalms are ascribed to David. The first two are introductory, and two others have no opening ascription. David is the only author identified in the first book. In the second section (Psalms 42-72), eighteen are ascribed to David. But in addition, one is assigned to Asaph, another to Solomon, and seven to the Sons of Korah. Three have no names with them. There are more psalms of Asaph, David, and the Sons of Korah, as well as one more by Solomon and a few by other authors later on. Psalms 42 and 43 are by the Sons of Korah. There are two collections under this name: Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, with the exception of Psalm 86. The Korahites were Levites, descended through Kohath, Korah’s father [1 Chron. 6:22-48; 9:17-32; 2 Chron. 20:19]. They were employed in the performance of the temple music. But the interesting thing is this: When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, Korah led a rebellion of 250 community leaders against Moses and perished by God’s judgment along with the other leaders and their families [Num. 16]. For some reason the Sons of Korah were spared, and it seems from their later employment that, in gratitude to God and His mercy, they must have dedicated themselves to producing and performing the music used to praise God at the wilderness tabernacle and later in the temple in Jerusalem. This interesting fact is a reminder that there can be devout children of reprobate fathers as well as devout fathers with reprobate children, and that no child needs to be kept from serving God because of his or her parents’ sins. Another interesting change as we pass from book one to book two of Psalms is that the frequency of the two most important names for God also changes noticeably. According to Franz Delitzsch, in book one the name Jehovah occurs 272 times and Elohim only 15. But in book two, Elohim occurs 164 times and Jehovah only 30 times.
Causes of Spiritual Depression. 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 thrice-repeated refrain links the compositions [42:5,11; 43:5]. The chief reason for taking the psalms together, however, is that both deal with spiritual depression. They give at least six reasons for it, and they indicate the cure. What are the causes of spiritual depression? There are undoubtedly more than these psalms list, but the place to begin is with the causes they identify. 1. Forced absence from the temple of God, where God was worshiped [42:1-2]. We do not know from the title of this psalm who the particular person was who composed it. He is presumably just one of the Sons of Korah. But whoever he was, we know the chief thing that was bothering him. He 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 a deer pants for flowing streams when he cannot find it. We do not know exactly where this unknown author was, either, or why he was there, but we can come close to answering the first question at least. He says he is writing from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar [42:6]. Mizar means ‘little hill’. We know of no hill by that name, but the land of Jordan is the region beyond the Jordan to the north and east, where Mount Hermon is. So Mizar was probably a lesser mountain in the Hermon range. This area is pretty far from Jerusalem, and some writers have suggested that if a traveler (or captive, which the author could be) were headed east in the direction of Babylon, this is the last point from which he might glimpse the familiar mountains of his homeland to the south. So the psalmist is far from home and feels that he is therefore also far from God. It is not that he 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. There is another dimension to this sense of alienation. We need to remember that the employment of the Sons of Korah was at the temple in the performance of the temple music. So the author’s forced absence from Jerusalem was also an absence from his work and therefore from his sense of being useful. It reflected on his whole purpose for living. Perhaps you have felt the force of that in one way or another. I am sure you have if you have ever lost a job or perhaps are stuck in a dead-end job. An early forced retirement will lead to depression like this for some people. So will old age, when a person feels that his or her useful days are done. 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. In ancient times almost no one was a true atheist. The first real atheism came with Greek philosophy. So the taunt did not mean that God did not exist but that God had abandoned the psalmist. It meant, ‘Where is your God when you need him? Where is your God now?’ 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]. The psalmist was also troubled by memories of better days. 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 this 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 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 . It is hard for us to feel the extent of this longing for the exuberant joy of Jewish worship by an ancient Israelite, but C. S. Lewis captures a bit of it in a chapter called ‘The Fair Beauty of the Lord’ in Reflections on the Psalms. He calls it an “appetite for God” and argues that it had “all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a physical, desire.” They are glad and exult [9:2] and they sing aloud to God … shout for joy … raise a song; sound the tambourine [81:1-2]. The absence of these times as well as their remembrance can contribute to depression on the part of the psalmist. 4. The overwhelming trials of life . A bit further on in this psalm the writer speaks of the overwhelming trials of his life, referring to them as breakers and … waves 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. Perhaps he is seated by a mountain stream, watching the tumbling cataracts and currents. Under other circumstances this might be a delightful experience, one likely to draw out thanks to God for creating such beauty. As it is, he sees the waves as waterfalls of evil fortune that have broken on his head. 5. Failure of God to act quickly on our behalf . Verse 9 is a painful cry to God for having forgotten him: Why have you forgotten me? 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, asking, Where is your God? 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. Jesus said, Because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. … If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you [John 15:19-20].
Cure for Spiritual Depression. It is an unusual person who will not be occasionally depressed by malicious and hurtful treatment. We have looked at the causes of depression. What is the cure for spiritual depression? The world turns to many false cures. Some people try to escape the depressing realities of their lives through divorce, excessive entertainment, or frequent vacations. Some pop pills. Some are on habit-forming drugs. It is different when we study what the author is teaching us in this important two-part psalm. The psalm 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. 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. You must say to your soul: Why are you 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 in God; for I shall again praise him. 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. Indeed, it is a part of it. It is to challenge oneself to do what the spiritual self knows should be done: Hope in God. There can be no lasting hope in anything else in this sinful, failing world. There never has been. There never will be. Besides, 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. We can find multiple examples of this in the lives of the Bible’s characters, people like Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and David. Does medicine such as the psalmist prescribes rally 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 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, 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, so ours will not be downcast, which is what the psalmist does.” [Boice, pp. 365-371].
Questions for Discussion:
1. Do you long for God to meet with you? Does your soul pant and thirst for God? Do you have an appetite for God? How is this longing, this hunger, expressed in your life? List the things written about God in these two psalms. What comfort and encouragement can you draw from these truths about God?
2. How will you overcome your dismal night of darkness and despair? When facing oppressors and enemies, where do you place your hope? Do you pose questions to yourself, seeking to evaluate your spiritual condition? What role does remembering God’s past faithfulness play in overcoming discouragement?
3. All of us experience times of discouragement, or even depression. List the six causes of depression that Boice finds in Psalms 42 and 43. What three cures for depression does Boice find? The next time you are feeling discouraged or depressed seek to apply these cures to your life.
Psalms, vol. 2, James Boice, Baker.
Psalms, vol. 2, John Goldingay, Baker.
Psalms, vol. 1, Allan Harman, Mentor.
A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 2, Allen Ross, Kregel.