An instinctive thirsty deer appears to be an appropriate metaphor for an ardent seeker after Yahweh; with God depicted in the narrative as dried-out water brooks (Ps 42:1). It is obvious that this is no ordinary Divine absence to one who is expecting to be ‘quenched’ by his familiar personal and interactive relationship with his Lord. But he is disheartened, hence his lament, “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 day long, “Where is your God?”” (Ps 42:2-3). Assuredly, he is dying of spiritual thirst! For some unexplained reason, the psalmist had lost his inner sensing of God’s presence in his life, and his predicament is certainly not due to his disbelieve in His Creator’s omnipresence nor a matter of guilt or unremitting sins encroaching on his conscience. In point of fact, there is a total absence of any language of repentance in the whole psalm. The aridity of his once blossoming relationship with his God is indicative of a period of spiritual drought or darkness. No one is ever comfortable with spiritual dryness, but when it does happen, and we do nothing about it, it will eventually degrade our faith to the point we become blasé about the things of God. How does the psalmist explain spiritual barrenness as he confronts it head on?
For whatever reason(s), he found himself in northern Israel. Exile had been suggested by some as he was being tormented and ridiculed by his ‘enemies’ over his spiritual struggles (Ps 42:3b, 9-10), but this is controversial. As he reminisced aloud, his most vivid and endearing recollections were on his past dynamic communal participation around the temple in the southern kingdom (Ps 42:3-6), when he appeared to be closest to his God. What is revealing is that when we are focused on God and deeply involved with fellow believers in the local body of Christ, learning and encouraging each other, and being accountable to responsible community leadership, we are more aware of His presence. The Apostle Paul reminded us that we are not meant to be isolated spiritual individuals, but to be part of a wider community as we comprehend the love of God for His world together (c.f., Eph 3:17-19).
Often when one is undergoing spiritual darkness, inevitable disheartening questions would arise, both internally and from others, and these enquiries would likely further distress one’s already incontrovertible strivings. It is credible that the psalmist was facing some humanly complex issues that caused him to question within his soul the veracity of his faith in God, “Where is your God?” and “Why have You forgotten me?” (Ps 42:3, 9, 10); or perhaps, “Why would God allow that to happen to me?” No doubt with some adversarial contribution from his erstwhile spiritual enemy. His despair over time impacted both his physiological and spiritual wellbeing in a downward spiral: depriving him of sleep, the loss of his appetite, and weeping day and night over his predicament (Ps 42:3) – intimating a depressive state.
What was the psalmist’s solution for rising above his spiritual discouragement? First, he poured out his soul before God (Ps 42: 4). It is distinctly discernible that the whole psalm contained this rehearsing of his contemplative meditation before his God: his implied instruction to us is to continue worshipping God despite a loss of sensing His presence, to carry on reading and meditating on His Word even though nothing seems to penetrate, and not to cease from praying even when our prayers just seemed to have hit the ceiling (c.f., Ps 66:19; 1 Peter 3:12; 1 John 5:15). And to continue to ‘talk’ about all these issues with an ‘absent’ God. Secondly, he re-examined where he had placed his earlier hopes and reinforced his present hopes in God (Ps 42: 5, 11). Thirdly, he deliberately recalled God’s lovingkindness (chesed; Ps 42: 6-8, 11), turning it into a song of remembrance of His past faithfulness. Finally, he preached to himself after he had listened to his heart in order to discern any false hopes that he may have harboured previously, before lifting his face towards God; “Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God” (Ps 42: 5, 11).