Searching for God in the Darkness
Passage: Psalm 42
When I first started in ministry, if you would have asked me to write a list of the major applications that need to be addressed in preaching, my list would have revolved around my own spiritual challenges. I think that’s how most people are naturally. We know our own struggles, and we assume that everyone is like us. As a result, when I began in youth ministry, I was surprised by how many kids fight depression because I’ve never had that struggle. I am a plodder. I never get super high, but I don’t get very low either. All of us occasionally get down or get in a rut. But most people are able to get out of it pretty quickly. However, for others that rut is more like a canyon and climbing out of it seems virtually impossible. Life is dark. It feels meaningless, and God seems far away. This state of mind is miserable and debilitating. But praise the Lord that he is sympathetic to this struggle, and in his wisdom the Scriptures include some powerful words for fighting despair.
Psalm 42 is a lament psalm. One commentator has defined a lament simply as a “meditation on sorrow or trouble.” These psalms stand out for being brutally honest about the doubts and fears that the psalmist is battling. They often acknowledge that the psalmist feels things about God or his circumstances that he knows the Scriptures contradict, but he feels them anyway. But these psalms do much more than throw a pity party. What makes them especially helpful is how they describe the psalmist’s battle to believe truth and his battle for joy. Whether you are fighting severe depression, going through a trial, or just feeling down, these psalms are extremely beneficial. I’ve especially grown to love Psalm 42 because of how honest it is about the struggle with despair and the wisdom it provides for fighting the battle. I’ve read it many times with people who are facing varying levels of sorrow or pain, and I’ve seen God use it many times to encourage grieving hearts.
Because this psalm is so personal we need to begin by understanding as much as we can about it’s author and his circumstances so that we can identify with him.
I’d like to make four statements regarding the author.
The psalmist has participated in temple worship and hopes to do so again.
It may even be that he was once employed as a temple musician. The heading calls this a “contemplation of the sons of Korah.” Korah was a Levitical musician, whom David and Solomon placed over temple worship. The Sons of Korah is a clan of his descendants who managed the temple music. The heading may indicate that one of them wrote the psalm, though it could also be read as “for the sons of Korah,” meaning that someone else wrote the psalm for them to use in worship. But v. 4 also hints at the fact that psalmist was a temple music, since it describes a musical procession. Some translations actually translate this line as saying that the psalmist led the procession. If this were correct, it would indicate that the psalmist used to lead temple music. At the very least, v. 4 is clear that he had at one time been highly involved with the great feasts in Jerusalem.
But not anymore. The second statement is that…
The psalmist is far away from Jerusalem.
Verse 4 says that he “used to go with the multitude.” And v. 6 says that the psalmist is remembering these times from “the land…” The headwaters for the Jordan River are at the base of Mt. Hermon, which was in the far, far northern regions of Israel on the border with Syria. That’s significant because it meant that the psalmist was as far from the temple as he could possibly be and still be in the land. Some people think that the psalmist was actually in captivity and that Mt. Herman is a figure for distance. But regardless, the psalmist is far away from Jerusalem, and this grieved his soul.
Not only that…
The psalmist’s enemies are mocking what seems to be God’s abandonment.
From a human standpoint, the psalmist does not appear to be enjoying God’s blessing. He’s far away from Jerusalem. He may even be in the Babylonian captivity. Maybe he is ill or dealing with some other physical challenge. And ungodly enemies are taking the opportunity to rub it in. Verse 3 mentions that they mockingly ask, “Where is your God?” Verse 10 again mentions this mocking question.
It appears as if God has abandoned him; therefore,
The psalmist is fighting an ongoing battle against spiritual despair.
This is pretty obvious from the psalm. The psalmist feels hopeless and is crying over his condition. He feels as if God has abandoned him. All of us have been there to varying levels and some of you may even be fighting these feelings today. This psalm is a reminder that you are not alone. An inspired author of Scripture felt the same way. But this psalm is much more than a pity party. It describes the author’s fight for joy, and thereby offers invaluable aid for your struggle.
There are two clearly defined units to the psalm, which are defined by the refrain that is repeated in vv. 5 and 11. It’s actually also repeated at the end of Psalm 43, leading most people to believe that Psalms 42 and 43 were originally one psalm. Beyond the repeated refrain, Psalm 42 is difficult to outline because it constantly moves back and forth between sorrow and truth. It doesn’t have a clear progression of thought like most psalms; therefore, I’ll simply call vv. 1–5…
When Your Soul Is Parched in the Desert (vv. 1–5):
Apart from the refrain in v. 5, there’s not much that is happy about the first unit. I’d like to call vv. 1–2…
A Parched Tongue (vv. 1–2):
Of course, the song “As the Deer” draws its title from v. 1, but the mood of the song and the mood of Psalm 42 are very different. The song describes a longing that is satisfied, but vv. 1–2 describe a desperate, hopeless longing. The psalmist imagines a deer in the hot, dry desert. The tense of the verbs describe him as continually panting. The deer is desperately searching for the relief of a water brook, but he cannot find one. The fact that his thirst is not quenched becomes apparent in v. 2 as the psalmist turns to his own condition. He is thirsting for the “living God” or the God who is the source of his life. Very often our problem is that we don’t sense our need for God. We fall in love with the things of the world, or we try to soothe our pain by drowning it out through pleasure. But the psalmist is keenly aware of the fact that God is his life, and that only God can ease his sorrow. He is longing for God, and specifically, he longs to “appear before God.” Based on the reference in v. 4 to a “pilgrim feast,” we know that v. 2 is talking about attending one of the three pilgrimage feasts at Jerusalem. As I said last Sunday, these feasts were times of great joy as the people experienced God’s presence at the temple and received his grace. But for whatever reason, the psalmist could not make the journey and wondered if he would ever be able. Because of that, he felt like a desperate deer dying of thirst in the wilderness.
And so vv. 1–2 describe a parched tongue, but v. 3 then turns this around and describes…
Wet Eyes (v. 3):
The psalmist says that he is constantly crying day and night. In fact crying is his food, or daily provision. Those of you who have battled depression or deep grief over a major loss know what he is talking about. You’ve experienced crying bouts that come on suddenly and for no apparent reason or that are triggered by the smallest thing. You cannot function as you would like. It’s frustrating and embarrassing and so you hide from the world. The taunting of the psalmist’s enemies compounded his grief. He doesn’t tell us who these people are. I already mentioned that many people think that the psalmist was in exile in Babylon and that these mockers were Gentile captors who claimed that God is not real or that he must be weak. Whoever they were, they added a harsh edge to the psalmist’s pain.
But the psalmist refuses to be overcome by their mocking and his sorrow. Verse 4 describes
A Glad Memory (v. 4):
I mentioned last week that at least for the godly remnant, the pilgrimage feasts were a time of tremendous joy as they worshipped while experiencing God’s gracious presence. The psalmist recalls his past experiences at the festivals. He remembers the “joy and praise” he felt while worshipping with the multitude. Again, he may have even led this worship as one of the temple musicians. These were great memories. He recalls the joy and praise of the festival in order to force himself to remember what God is like. He had to remember because his difficult circumstances were tempting him to think wrong thoughts about God. The first step to overcoming his sorrow was to anchor his mind in right thinking about God. That’s always the first step to the fight for joy. If you are fighting severe depression or you are simply a bit down, the first thing you need to do is forcefully remember the character of your God. But he doesn’t just remind himself of who God is; he also remembers the multitude. I like to say that Christianity is a community religion. God designed our faith to be lived in community. This was true for Israel, and it is still true in the church. There is great strength in the fellowship of other believers. The psalmist encouraged himself by remembering that he wasn’t alone, and he longed to draw again on the strength of the multitude. And we should to as we fight our own battles against despair and grief.
The first unit then concludes with…
The Answer of Hope (v. 5):
This verse continues to paint a picture of the psalmist’s mental state. He describes himself as “cast down and “disquieted.” The second term is especially graphic as it can also be used of a raging sea. He didn’t feel any peace, just sadness and despair. But he was determined not to give in to these feelings, and so he speaks to himself and goes to battle against the feelings that he knows to be false. He asks two rhetorical questions to his soul. He tells himself that he has no good reason for these feelings of despair based on what he knows about God and his promises. Essentially, he tells himself to “Stop it!” Then, on the positive side, he tells himself to “Hope in God.” He is telling himself to wait on God, believing that God would be faithful to help him and to fill his heart again with praise. Notice that he doesn’t say that God will immediately do this. He didn’t actually know when God’s help would come, but he knew that in God’s time he would graciously turn his sorrow into joyful praise. And so the psalmist combines a zealous pursuit of right thinking with submission to the sovereign will of God. Both are essential. Anytime your heart is filled with wrong thoughts and feelings such as despair or anger, you are responsible to fight for godly thinking and desires. But you also have to submit to God’s will and wait on him to do what only he can do. That’s hard because we want it fixed now, but sometimes God wants us to bear it a little longer. Sometimes God knows that we need the pain to make us look to him and remain humble. But he will ultimately give relief, so maintain hope and keep fighting.
We see the psalmist continuing to fight in vv. 6–11, which I’d like to call…
When Your Soul Is Drowning in a Flood (vv. 6–11):
What is fascinating about this section is that the declaration of v. 5 doesn’t immediately resolve the issue. Instead, it simply begins the battle. In this section, the psalmist describes the war in his own mind between despair and godly hope.
I’d like to summarize this unit with three commands.
Remember God even when he seems far away (vv. 6–8).
You can feel the desperation in the psalmist’s voice as he speaks in v. 6. He tells the Lord about the despair he feels and about his efforts to remember the character and promises of God. He is fighting to think biblically, but it is not easy. He is in the land of Jordan and Mt. Hermon. Remember that these are essentially the farthest points from the city of Jerusalem within the land of Israel. Being so far away is extremely difficult. In v. 7, he uses a prominent geographical feature of this region to describe his struggle. Mt. Hermon is very tall and receives heavy snowfall in the winter months. There are deep canyons at the base of the mountains, and the runoff from the snow creates some powerful waterfalls in these canyons. If you’ve ever been near a waterfall, you know that they are extremely powerful and loud. You have to yell in order to communicate, and you can barely stand in even waste deep water that is moving fast. When I was a youth pastor, we took several groups of teens white water rafting in WV, and they said that if you fall in, lay on your back and don’t try to stand because if your feet get stuck, the water can easily push knock you over and drown you in relatively shallow water. Fast moving water is extremely powerful and violent. The psalmist is trying to remember God and sense his presence, but he feels like he is at the base of one of these waterfalls trying to stand in a rapid. It’s so loud that he cannot hear God, and he feels like the water is constantly pummeling him. His fight for a godly mindset seems impossibly difficult.
But he keeps fighting (v. 8). It’s no accident that this is the only place in the psalm that he uses the name Yahweh. This is God’s covenant name, and he continues to think on God’s faithfulness by recalling his “lovingkindness.” This is the Hebrew word hesed, which we’ve said a few times represents God’s loyal love that leads him to act with abundant grace and mercy. And so it’s as if the psalmist is trying to stand in rapid at the base of a loud waterfall. He is surrounded by chaos, but in the midst of this overwhelming experience, he forcefully turns his mind by faith to what he knows to be true about God. He is faithful and full of grace, and reflecting on this truth enables the psalmist to sing. The truth of God gives him an anchor. And so the psalmist has fought to remember God even while he seems far away. But the battle isn’t over.
The second command, I’d like to give from vv. 9–10 is…
Trust God even when it feels like he has forgotten (vv. 9–10).
The mental war continues in these verses. By faith, the psalmist calls God his “Rock” which is a picture of God’s strength and of the fact that he is a sure foundation on which we can stand. But after this statement of faith, the psalmist follows with two very difficult questions. He feels as if God has forgotten him. His enemies are treating him cruelly. Verse 10 states that they continually mock his difficult plight by saying that clearly this must mean that your God is not real or that he has abandoned you. Their mockery felt very loud, and it was so painful that v. 10 compares it to the breaking of bones. It’s a graphic picture of the pain he felt, but God didn’t seem to be doing anything about it. But again, despite God’s seeming inactivity, he clung to the hope that God was his rock. He kept fighting to trust God even while it felt like he had forgotten. He refused to surrender the war, and we ought to be challenged to do the same. Don’t every stop believing what you know to be true about God. God has proven himself many times in the past, and he will remain faithful.
The final command of the second unit is to…
Hope in God even when you feel despair (v. 11).
Again, except for a couple of minor variations, v. 11 repeats the refrain of v. 5, and it will be repeated again in 43:5. Even after pouring out his heart and reminding himself about the truth of God, the struggle remains. He is still cast down and disquieted. But he is still fighting. He is still telling himself that these feelings are not based in reality, and he is still telling himself to hope in God because he knows that God will be faithful to his promises and that he will cause him to rejoice again in his goodness. The psalmist sets a wonderful example of perseverance in hope. He wasn’t dissuaded by his continuing struggle. He knew that God would ultimately be faithful to his word.
And so the central challenge of this psalm is that we must battle spiritual despair through a forceful and enduring pursuit of God and God-centered thinking. I’d like to conclude by pulling together the somewhat scattered thoughts of the psalmist into four concluding challenges.
Seek your ultimate hope only in God.
The fact is that life is filled with darkness, and there really is no way to escape that because we live in a world that is cursed by sin. And Jesus provides the only hope of truly escaping the darkness of this world. When he died on the cross and rose again, he conquered sin and death, and he promises in his Word that one day he will make a new world that is free of sin and perfect. If you are looking for peace anywhere else, understand that it will ultimately fail, but there is hope in the sacrifice of Christ, and so come to him today for salvation. If you’d like to know more about how you can have a relationship with him, I hope you will talk with me or one of the ushers afterwards about how you can become a child of Christ. Second…
Stop listening to yourself and start talking to yourself.
One of the most instructive aspects of this psalm is how the psalmist battles his wrong feelings by constantly forcing himself to think on truth. This is an essential aspect of the battle against despair and against most sins of the heart. It’s so important, because we get ourselves in trouble when we don’t control our thoughts and we just listen to the fears, doubts, and speculations that come to our minds. Listening to yourself will never work because your heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. If you want to win the battle, you must take control of your mind by force and choose to think right thoughts about God and to believe his promises. Third…
Seek out God’s people.
Again, this is not natural. When you are in despair, the last thing your flesh wants to do is go to church, or a small group, or to fellow church member’s home for dinner. But the psalmist recognized that he needed to worship with the congregation. If you are discouraged, one of the most important things you can do is to be in close fellowship with the church. Hearing God’s Word, singing together, and experiencing Christian love will do wonders to build your faith and renew your focus. You will see that you are not alone, that others are struggling also. And one of the best ways to take the focus off your own problems is to get busy thinking about other people’s needs and working to meet them. The church is a wonderful medicine for the soul, and if you are not content with your spiritual progress, than one of the best things you could do is to add another church service to your weekly schedule. All of us need to sense our need for the body and make regular church attendance one of the most significant habits of our lives.
Anticipate an ongoing struggle.
Very often when we face despair or really any significant sin struggle, we just want it fixed. And Christians have wasted a lot of money buying books and videos that promise quick fixes. But the psalmist is very clear that there are no quick fixes. When the psalm closes, he is still battling, and he expects to keep battling. Don’t be discouraged because you can’t seem to kick it. Sin battles are usually long, and spiritual growth is a lifelong process. But it is a process that God promises to complete. Keep fighting and keep hope that God will one day remove all pain and replace it with a perfect joy that will never end.
More in Psalms
March 22, 2020The Shadow the Almighty: Pestilence and Protection in Psalm 91
March 17, 2019Disciples Live in the Word
December 30, 2018Portraits of the King