Recently while I was reading Psalm 42, verse 4 took on new meaning for me. It reads:
These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.
This makes fine fodder for “corona conversations.” Our COVID-19 circumstances make us sensitive to such sentiments. Said succinctly, the psalmist is grieving the fact that he doesn’t get to go to church like he used to.
For those trying to cope with the loss of regular church attendance and its accompanying joys, this is a reminder that the Bible speaks to your loss. And Christians and Jews living with the strange reality of empty pews during the recent Holy Week aren’t left without hope, as the rest of this psalm affirms.
The hope of Psalm 42 is often obscured by our treatment of the two opening verses. Honestly, I usually tune out right after that. These verses are often read and passionately sung as an expression of love for God and commitment to following hard after Him:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
But we must consider this psalm’s original setting, and the superscription above it is a good place to begin: “For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah.
Several things are indicated here, including the fact that the author is among those who lead the worship of the tabernacle and that this musical piece is somewhat complicated. It therefore requires added skill — the meaning of the musical term maschil.
Song of exile
This author and his worship team are in a bad situation, far away from home. In Notes on the Psalms, G. Campbell Morgan points out that “This is the song of an exile, and moreover, of an exile among enemies who have no sympathy for his religious convictions.”
This explains why tears have been the psalmist’s main diet for a while, brought on by the mocking inquiry of his enemies who demand, “Where is your God?” (v. 3.)
No wonder his soul is cast down, his spirit “disturbed” within him (v. 5), and “deep calls to deep” (v. 7), quite likely a reference to the waves of emotions that overwhelm him to the point of despair.
Now we’re able to place this psalm in its proper category. There are different kinds of psalms: prayer, praise, wisdom, lament, royal or messianic, thanksgiving, etc. Clearly, this is a psalm of lament, given to express deep sorrow, loss, and grief.
From this perspective, the opening verses are more likely a cry of desperation, rather than a bold declaration of anything. Perhaps the deer has no idea where the brook is. And maybe the psalmist’s question “When can I go and meet with God?” is another way of asking, “Will I ever get to go back to church?”
But the beauty of this psalm is seen in what its author does in the midst of his misery. He not only talks to God (vv. 9, 10), he also talks to himself, to his own soul. Twice he asks, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (vv. 5, 11).
And since the answer is obvious, the psalmist offers his soul this counsel: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
Notice that he doesn’t minimize his grief or explain away his sorrow. Rather, in the midst of the darkness, he reminds himself of the things God showed him in the light. Still in exile, surrounded by his enemies, he turns to the only thing he has: hope.
The crisis brought upon us by the coronavirus outbreak is a stark reminder that we’re not in charge of our lives, that nothing is certain, and that there are things over which the most powerful governments in the world have no control. Their best strategy in this battle is hope.
So when hope is all we have, we have all we need. When the world suddenly comes to a standstill, when isolation and loneliness become our new normal, when the bells no longer toll for the dead, and when fear of an unknown future lurks within the heart, we’re left with hope — the one thing we can’t live without.
Hope and lament
It’s been said that “Human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.”
Psalm 42 is a timely reminder that the coexistence of hope and lament in the same heart is not only normal, but healthy. These days, counselors and mental health professionals are underscoring the importance of lament. It is very much part of the biblical narrative, and we know from experience that it is out of the ashes of grief that hope rises.
N.T. Wright captures this principle at the conclusion of his recent article on the way Christianity should respond to COVID-19:
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain — and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.
So, is sheltering-in-place getting the best of you? Feeling isolated and afraid? Don’t sit around and sing the blues. If nothing else, reread Psalm 42, this time through the lens of lament mingled with hope. Read it in various translations. Think of it as a “hope exercise,” or as chicken soup for the COVID soul!
Like the psalmist, your troubles aren’t over, but hope in your coming deliverance gives you strength to stay the course. For as Vivian Greene puts it, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.