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Psalm 42 describes a man of God who is severely depressed. When times are tough, we must cry out to the Lord in our distress. We cannot afford to remain silent. We must pray, but what else can we do? Psalm 42 and 43 tell us how to think and act while we wait for intervention.
This is a two-psalm song with three verses and a chorus. Psalm 42 contains the first two verses and the chorus twice. Psalm 43 consists of the final verse and chorus. While both psalms form the whole, this study will focus exclusively on the Psalm 42.
The superscription tells us this is a Maskil or Psalm of Instruction. Psalm 42 is intended to teach us something and our instructors are The Sons of Korah. These were the Levites who dedicated themselves to producing and performing worship songs in the temple. They were an energetic, enigmatic, and enjoyable group. And yet, they produced this timeless depiction of deep internal darkness and despair. It goes to show that anguish can find a home anywhere, regardless of who you are or what you do. The song’s structure is straightforward. Its musical verses reveal several causes for depression while the chorus contains the cure.
1. The Causes for Depression
Where does depression come from? What causes the soul to implode upon itself? What makes us spiritually depressed? The writer of Psalm 42 provides eight common causes for dark nights of the soul.
The first cause is Separation from God.
This feeling finds expression in the first two verses. He says, as a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. He compares himself to an animal that does not last long in the desert. Unlike the camel, the deer requires a constant supply of life-giving water. In this case, flowing streams represent his source of life, his vitality. This is his internal energy supply. It is a charging station for his spiritual battery. The verb “pants” is a progressive imperfect. So his panting (his breathless gasping and his all-consuming desire for water) will continue until he finds satisfaction. He will not stop until he gets it.
Verse 2: My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. He needs God. Thankfully, the psalmist knows that the living God is the only source of life. Everything else is a false promise and a hallow experience. Knowing this truth, the psalmist asks, when shall I come and appear before God? He misses the fellowship and communion he once had with the Lord.
Since God is everywhere all at once, the separation he feels from the Lord is not physical. It is emotional, spiritual, and relational. Sometimes our prayers fail to make it past the ceiling due to sin (Isaiah 59:1-2), failing to honor the obligations of our horizontal relationships (1 Peter 3:7), or not spending time with God. The psalmist finds himself in the final category. He is far from home and remembers his time in the house of God. He misses the fellowship he once had with God and God’s people.
The second cause is Sarcasm about God.
He says, my tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “where is your God?” Ironically, the psalmist is thirsty for life-giving water but all he drinks are his own tears. Day and night, his grief is on a perpetual cycle. He is saying, “My sorrow is what sustains me (when I am awake and when I am asleep) because my faith is met with the sarcasm of this statement: where is your God?”
When this psalm was written, hardly anyone was a true atheist. Almost everyone believed in some form of deity. Atheism as we know it did not really take off until Greek philosophy came along. So these accusers are not saying, “There is no God” or “Your God is an illusion.” Instead, they are saying, “Your God has abandoned you.” Or, at the very least, “Your God is no better than ours. You say that your God is the living God. If He is really your life-giving sustainer, then where is He? Why hasn’t He helped you?” The psalmist picks up on this attitude all the day long. For as long as he interacts with these people, his heart is filled with more grief.
The third cause is Sentimentality over God.
Verse 4: 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. As he pours out his soul, his mind wanders to happy memories and better days. He thinks of a time when he was satisfied in God, when he was not parched and desperate for more of Him. These satisfying memories only add to his dissatisfaction because they do not match his current situation.
There is an appropriate time and place to look back and remember the past when trouble comes. The psalms encourage us to recall how God has acted for us in the past and to remind ourselves that He will do it again. Unfortunately, that is not what the psalmist is doing here. Rather, he describes the ancient equivalent of a church-camp experience.
“Throng” is a rare word that only appears here. It typically means a thicket or a dense covering like a lion’s den as it is related to the word, “booth.” He uses it here to describe a massive interwoven multitude of worshippers on their way to the sanctuary. The verb for lead them in procession is tricky, but rightly means “to move slowly.” He remembers when the multitude would slowly march towards the temple in anticipation of praise and fellowship with God. As time slowly marches on, even happy memories can become bitter when compared to present circumstances.
Verse 5 introduces the chorus: offering hope and encouragement for those depressed. Like many modern songs, it appears at the end of each musical verse. We will save its treatment for the end.
The next stanza of causes consists of verses 6 through 11. In this section, his depression gets worse not better. One might call the first section “the drought of depression” and this unit “the depths of depression.” He describes himself as one sinking deeper and deeper into the darkness of his own soul.
The fourth cause is Stagnation towards God.
He says, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. In the chorus, he asks, why are you cast down, O my soul? By his own admission, the immediately answer to his question is: my soul is cast down within me.
He then reveals his physical location as being in the land of Jordan and of Hermon. Mount Hermon is located at the far north of Israel on the border with Syria. Therefore, the land of Jordan must be a reference to the Jordan River whose headwaters spring up from under those northern mountains. Specifically, he is in the area of ancient Tel Dan (otherwise known in the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi). “Mizar” means “littleness.” The songwriter is likely holed up in one of these smaller mountains. Alternatively, he might be describing the way he feels – small and insignificant, a little man surrounded by large mountains.
As a son of Korah, he is not only a long way from home, he is far from his job as a Levitical worship leader. He has been cut off from his ministry, employment, and sense of purpose. He should be leading God’s people in worship. Instead, his circumstances have led him to a place of isolation. He is out of work and out of place. No wonder his soul is cast down within him. He is stagnant and stuck in a place that limits his desire and duty towards the Lord.
The fifth cause is Suffering under God.
Verse 7: Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. This is a vivid word picture of the overwhelming sorrows of life. The psalmist calls upon his surroundings to describe his internal chaos. The word “deep” typically refers to the waves and currents of the sea as a place of death, violence, and darkness. However, verse 7 describes the waterfalls nestled in the deeper canyons of the region. Here, the water rushes downward to form the Jordan River. These rapids call out to each other as the roar of the water crashes against the rocks. The psalmist pictures himself in the middle of it all as he is swept to a death more violent than drowning.
The bellowing of the water from one side of the canyon to the other drowns out every other sound. Leaving him isolated from the outside world. Even his thoughts of glad shouts and songs of praise have been overpowered by the intensity of his suffering. The deep pools of water remind him of the overpowering certainty of death, especially if he were to fall into them. With great emotion, he puts himself there – where hope is lost and all efforts at survival are engulfed in grief.
These furious trials have not found this poor man by chance and he acknowledges their source. He calls them your waterfalls, your breakers, and your waves. The psalmist recognizes the total sovereignty and complete control of the living God over his chaos. This causes him to lament because he knows God is allowing him to receive this trouble. If God does not intervene he is a dead man. Even the life-giving water a helpless deer needs to survive can become deadly and destructive should God choose to use it that way. So he suffers under the hand of God.
The sixth cause is Sleeplessness with God.
Verse 8: By day the Lord commands His steadfast love, and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. At last, the author provides a shaft of light in this otherwise dark and depressing state of loss. The God who commands the deep commands His faithful love. The son of Korah sees signs of this love day after day. At night, he cries out in song to the God of his life. He might not feel Him, but he knows He is there.
These are good thoughts for the restless mind. However, the one thing he is not doing at night is sleeping. Sleep is one of those activities we cannot live without. Everyone requires food, water, and sleep. Until we can enjoy our resurrected bodies, sleep is an essential part of our emotional and spiritual well-being. Without it, we set ourselves up for sinking deeper and deeper into despair.
The seventh cause is Silence by God.
Verse 9: I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” These are the prayers he makes at night when he cannot sleep. It is important to point out that although his faith in God is certainly tested, he never waivers in his belief and trust of the Lord. Even now, he turns to his God and calls Him his rock.
In Psalm 43:2, he says, you are the God in whom I take refuge. This is why God’s silence is so troubling. The psalmist has turned to the Lord before and the Lord has saved him. His protection has given him a reason to praise Him in the past. He now feels separated and disconnected from God. So he wonders, “Why have you not answered my prayers?”
He asks, why have you forgotten me? This is a question of faith, not doubt. As a believer, it is especially painful when heaven is silent, and you do not know the reason why. The songwriter provides this follow-up question: Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? His grief is tied directly to the Lord’s decision not to save him at this time. However, the fact that he asks these questions despite the separation, sarcasm, sentimentality, stagnation, suffering, and sleeplessness he has already described… tells us he has not misplaced his faith in the Lord. Rather, he is desperate enough to demand an answer.
Charles Spurgeon had this to say about verse 9:
To know the reason for sorrow is in part to know how to escape it, or at least to endure it. Lack of attentive consideration often makes adversity appear to be more mysterious and hopeless than it really is. It is a pitiable thing for anyone to have a limb amputated, but when we know that the operation was needful in order to save life, we are glad to hear that it has been successfully performed.
The eighth cause is Slander for God.
Verse 10: 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?” He brings us back to the sarcastic comment we saw in verse 3. Only now, he calls these mockers his adversaries. They are his opponents and sworn enemies because their sarcasm has a way of shaking him to the core. The expression with a deadly wound in my bones literally renders “with a breaking in my bones.” His heart is crushed. His bones (his internal structure) have been shattered within him because they say his God has abandoned him. As a man of faith and son of Korah, these taunts wound his soul.
Psalm 43:1 reveals these adversaries are ungodly, deceitful, and unjust. The first cry to escape the writer’s lips after the chorus is “vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause.” He is enduring more than subtle sarcasm. This is slander. These people are destroying this poor man by kicking him while he is down and saying, “your God won’t save you.” It is a verbal attack on the man’s God and the man’s character. Slander is a powerful weapon. A broken body often heals a lot faster than the broken bones of a wounded soul.
Any one of these causes are enough to send a man spiraling into despair. The songwriter is experiencing all eight at once. And yet, this list is far from comprehensive.
In his book, Spiritual Depression, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones adds the following:
Temperament – Some are more inclined to become depressed than others.
Physical Conditions – Poor physical health can play a significant role in affecting a person’s emotional state.
A Down Reaction after a Great Blessing – He cites Elijah after his victory over the prophets of Baal.
The Attacks of Satan – Satan loves to distract us and take our eyes off of the Lord.
Simple Unbelief – This is perhaps the greatest cause of all. The believer falls into deep spiritual depression when they begin to doubt the Lord’s goodness, faithfulness, and care.
With so much stacked against us, what can we do to fight our own depression? Thankfully, this song has a chorus that provides the cure.
2. The Cure for Depression
The Chorus: 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.
This 2-part chorus provides practical action items for the spiritually depressed.
Action Item Number 1: Correct Yourself
The rhetorical questions of the first half are a form of self-rebuke. To cast down is to bend low under the weight of despair. This word, “turmoil,” means “to make noise” or to “growl boisterously.” It is the word used in Psalm 46 to describe the raging sea. Like the waves, his soul is tossed back and forth in the chaos of his pain. These rebukes expose the internal struggle the psalmist is having between faith and misery. He is torn between what he knows and how he feels.
Rather than give in to self-pity, he grabs himself by the shirt and commands his mind to speak to his emotions – not the other way around.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones writes in his book, Spiritual Depression…
You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou 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 thou in God’—instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. ― pg. 21
If you are depressed, the first thing you must do is correct your own thinking. You must wrestle your soul to the ground and remind yourself that your reasons for elation and hope in Christ are far better than any reason you have to be discouraged.
Action Item Number 2: Counsel Yourself
The psalmist tells himself to Hope in God. He challenges himself to do what must be done. Unfortunately, too many people hope in other things before hoping in God. They turn to man-made solutions and false cures that promise escape but fail to satisfy. Some turn to their work, a hobby, excessive entertainment, or habit forming drugs. Others seek to escape through divorce, over-eating, or spending money they don’t have. Whatever the case, lasting peace and genuine contentment can only be found in one place: Hope in God.
To Hope in God is to patiently and expectantly wait for God to work. Allen Ross writes…
It is not merely hope against hope, but a solid anticipation of the living God; the hope is anticipation because the power to deliver was not in himself or in others, but in the living God alone. But even a strong faith must at times be accompanied by hope, for faith must wait for God to act.
We must challenge ourselves to Hope in God and do it with confidence. The psalmist is certain that he will again praise God for delivering him out of his present circumstances. He knows that the living God is his Salvation and his God. After all, He has proved Himself faithful in the past. Surely, He will do it again.
What are you thirsty for? Where do you go for life-giving satisfaction? People turn to all kinds of distractions and various forms of escapism, hoping to distance themselves from their sadness and find satisfaction. By setting up these dead idols in their heart, things get worse rather than better. Dead things produce death. We need a living God. One who will truly satisfy our needs, fill our hearts with joy, and provide rest for our restlessness. Only the living God can produce life in the dusty soil of a discouraged heart. If you are emotionally and spiritually dehydrated, every other stream that promises life and refreshment will leave you empty and less fulfilled than before. No one will satisfy your heart like the One who made it.
For many of us, our happiest memories are anchored in the joyful experience of worshipping God with His people, the church. When circumstances prevent us from gathering, it is appropriate for us to mourn because God has designed the church to be a body of many members. He does not call us to become lone-ranger Christians. However, it is not spiritually healthy for us to obsess with sentimentality over the past. Especially, when we know the day will come when we will praise him together again. When we do reminisce, our focus should be on God and His faithfulness. We should not fixate on the things we cannot enjoy for the seasons where God has placed us.
Unfortunately, when most of us find ourselves ripped apart by the trials of life, we don’t immediately turn to the Lord for help. Rather, we blame Him for allowing the breakers and the waves of life to come and overtake us. We say things like, “Why me? Others don’t have these problems! It’s not fair!” A better response is to meditate on passages such as 2 Corinthians 12:9, Philippians 4:8, and 2 Corinthians 4:17. Only a living God can make promises such as these and keep them. It is a great comfort to know that all things (including every source of despair) will work their way out for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28). His ownership of the waterfalls, the breakers, and the waves is not a bad thing if you also belong to Him.
When you find yourself overwhelmed to the point of sleeplessness, do what the psalmist does. Reflect on the Lord’s love and use your restlessness wisely. Also, look to the Lord for answers. There is nothing wrong with asking God “why?” When He chooses to not answer right away, don’t give up. Keep knocking until He intervenes.
Christians get depressed. When we do, we must certainly cry out to the Lord for help. But let’s not forget to correct and counsel ourselves along the way. There is only one cure that provides lasting peace and genuine contentment. When depression comes, hope in God.
It’s funny how happy memories of what you once had can become bitter. Our literature has certainly picked up on this reality and ran with it. I remember as a kid in school, our teachers would choose the most depressing books for us to read in our English classes. Books like: Bridge to Terabithia, A Separate Peace, and (everyone’s favorite) Lord of the Flies.
I’m sure most of us will probably never forget one of the first truly depressing books we ever read, Where the Red Fern Grows. The delightful story of a little boy named Billy who buys two dogs, Big Dan and Little Ann, and teaches them to coon-hunt in the Ozarks. It’s a charming tale of autobiographical fiction… until a mountain lion attacks them, the dogs save the boy’s life, and Old Dan dies from his wounds. In the end, Little Ann loses the will to live and she dies of grief on top of Old Dan’s grave… leaving little Billy heartbroken.
Hidden beneath all those layers and motifs of death, you walk away with the heavy weight of loss. At a young age, we discover this awful truth… that by losing what you once had and allowing the memories of those better days to become bitter, the weight of loss is heavy enough to crush you to death and squeeze the life out of you. That is what the psalmist is does in verse 4. However, he is not reflecting on a lost loved one or happy childhood memory. Rather, he remembers what he has lost in his separation from God.
Supposedly, when we lose just one hour of sleep every spring for Daylight Saving, we see a subsequent 24 percent increase in heart attacks. At the same time, in the Fall when we gain an hour, we see a 21 percent decrease in heart attacks.
Perhaps, you have heard the story of Randy Gardner. As a teenager in the 1960s, he broke all records for the longest interval a person has gone without sleep. In order to win the 10th Annual Greater San Diego Science Fair, he stayed awake for 264.4 hours (11 days and 25 minutes). Around day three, he began feeling nauseous and relied on citrus to stabilize his system. Surprisingly, his body didn’t start shutting down under the strain of fatigue. However, his mood was severely affected. According to those who monitored his health, he experienced moodiness, a lack of concentration, short-term memory loss, paranoia, and hallucinations. Now in his seventies, he blames many of his current health issues on that experiment.
William Cowper was a gifted composer who struggled with serious bouts of depression. As a young man, he was admitted to St. Albans Insane Asylum because he kept failing in his attempts to commit suicide.
At first he tried poisoning himself. When that didn’t work, he decided to jump off of a bridge. So he hired a horse-drawn cabbie to take him to the river. However, it was one of London’s foggiest nights, so they got lost. After an hour of sitting in the cab, a disgusted Cowper decided to walk the rest of the way. To his surprise, they had travelled in a complete circle and he was back at his own doorstep. The next morning, he fell on a knife but the blade broke. After that, he tried hanging himself, but someone found him in time and cut him loose. He was unconscious, but still alive.
It wasn’t until one of the doctors at the asylum gave him a Bible that his eyes were opened, and hope flooded his heart. He went on to publish a hymnal with John Newton and write many songs of the faith.
However, even in ministry, he still struggled with serious bouts of depression. At times, he would find himself discouraged to the point of longing for death. With each attack, he found himself relying on God more deeply. It was after one of these episodes, he shared his testimony in a now famous hymn saying…
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform:
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour:
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms 1–89: Commentary, vol. 2, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2011–2013).
Anson F. Rainey, “Hermon, Mount,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 27-57, vol. 2 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.).
Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 15, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).
Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).
James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005).
Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000).
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 2nd ed., vol. 19, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2004).
Steven J. Lawson, Psalms 1-75, vol. 11, Holman Old Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003).
Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Worshipful, 1st ed., “Be” Commentary Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Cook Communications Ministries, 2004).
Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997).