God-Centred Depression (Psalm 42:1–11)

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Recently, one of my fellow elders preached from Psalm 102 about depression: some of its causes and the way towards its cure. In this study, we will look at Psalm 42, which also has reference to depression—but this is of a different kind. This depression is what I refer to as being “God-centred depression.” In a sense, this kind of depression is caused by God. But it is also cured by God.

Authorship and Occasion

This is one of the “orphaned” psalms in that we do not know the particulars of who wrote it. Neither do we know its occasion. What we do know is that it is the second of the so-called “maskil” psalms. This word carries the idea of “contemplation” (NKJV), and these contemplations seem to have been written for the purpose of giving instruction. We might call it a “didactic poem.”1 These psalms were specifically for the purpose of putting the mind to them to draw instruction for life. We should pay close attention.

We also know that this is the first of nine psalms linked with the phrase, “the sons of Korah.” Korah, of course, was Moses’ cousin who led a rebellion against Moses’ authority in Numbers 16 and was judged by God for it.

He was a scoundrel who challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron. God literally wiped him and his co-conspirators from the face of the earth. But

God’s judgment was tempered with mercy for they were later appointed as guardians of the camp of the Levites and warders of the sacred tent erected by David on Mount Zion prior to the building of the Temple (1 Chronicles 9:17-19; Nehemiah 11:19). Under David they also became leaders of Israel’s praise in Temple worship.2

What we do not know is the conditions or the occasion under which the psalm was written. Some have suggested that it was written by a wandering Levite as he lamented his absence from the house of the Lord and therefore from His presence. It is clear that “the psalmist feels himself separated from God. It is an inner separation which greatly disturbs him.”3

Others suggest that David wrote it as he fled from Absalom. At least one commentator has strongly suggested that Hezekiah penned it as he lay ill with a loathsome disease, one which God healed and then gave him another fourteen years to live. Others have suggested that it was penned by King Jehoiachin as he was being carried away by the Babylonians. Though the last suggestion may be the best, nevertheless two things must be said about it.

First, there is no way to know for sure and so we would be wise to not be dogmatic.

But second, the idea of being carried away to Babylon is helpful, and one that I believe the text suggests, both here as well as in this psalm’s counterpart (Psalm 43).

These two psalms very likely were originally one psalm. The wording is identical in some places, and the theme of each is clearly the same.

Putting these psalms together, it is clear that the writer was concerned that God’s name was being dishonoured by the enemies, and that the enemies were foreign enemies. The evildoers do not seem to have been fellow Jews (though they were not guiltless). No, the enemies were clearly aliens from the covenant God.

Note that the longing of the writer has to do with being separated from the “face” of God (v. 2). This language is that of the temple. To appear before the “face” of God is language that speaks of going to the temple. Further, 43:3–4 references the temple or tabernacle of God.

But note v. 6, which may be a further clue as to the setting of this psalm: “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” The writer seems to be on a journey. The names of these places indicate that he is in northeast Palestine, on the north-eastern side of the Jordan. He is on “Mount Mizar,” which cannot be identified with any certainty, but whose name means “little mountain.” Geographically, the mention of Hermon suggests that he was on his way out of Israel, heading toward Babylon, and this was his last opportunity to look back wistfully at the beloved Promised Land.

Though we cannot say for sure what the circumstances were, it is quite clear that this psalm arose from depression arising from the work of God in chastening His people. This man was leaving the land, but not by choice. He was about to experience alienation.

But since God “caused” the depression, He could also cure it. The writer expresses his “depression” as being thirsty for God. May we have such a thirst and believe that it will be quenched.

The Character of the Thirst

The author’s thirst was theological in nature—the kind we all need: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God” (v. 1).

His thirst was an exceptional thirst because it was God-centred. This man was thirsty for the glory of God. He was thirsty for the presence and power of God. He was thirsty for the vindication of God’s name.

Exceptional

The language here is strong language, which pictures a drought-stricken deer looking for water (see Joel 1:20). His desire is for this thirst to be assuaged, to be quenched.

Perhaps there is no physical desire stronger than thirst. We have read of horrific stories of hunger and thirst. It would seem that unsatisfied hunger eventually subsides; the starving person may fall into a deep sleep and simply die. But not so with thirst. It gnaws and is relentless as it only grows stronger. This is the picture here. This lover of God will not be satisfied with anything less than God. But in what sense?

The rest of the psalm will reveal this, but let us pause first and examine our own hearts. What is it that depresses us? When we answer this correctly we may find ourselves exposing various idols. What do you want above all? What are you willing to ultimately sacrifice for? What depresses you when you do not get it? Are you thirsty for that which can truly satisfy?

The Cause of the Thirst

In vv. 2–4 we learn the cause of the thirst:

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 continually say to me, “Where is your God?” When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.

(Psalm 42:2–4)

Maclaren notes, “The whole psalm reads like the sob of a wounded heart.” What was its cause?

God-Centred

As we have seen, the immediate cause was his separation from the temple of God. This man was cut off from worship of the living God. This man was in exile and it depressed him. Without spending too much time here, it is interesting that this man’s separation from the house of God made him thirsty. It contributed to his depression.

Maclaren says, “He was depressed because he was shut out from the tokens of God’s presence; and because he was depressed, he shut himself out from the reality of the presence.” We will address the latter issue later but for now consider: How do you feel when absent, when providentially cut off from the house of the Lord?

What so discouraged him was why he was cut off from the house of the Lord. And this was because the house of the Lord was about to be destroyed. The living God was going to be scorned by the enemy as His house was desolated. This psalmist wondered if he would ever have the privilege of seeing this reversed.

Perhaps he understood that the Judeans would be carried off for seventy years and then a promised remnant would return. But would he be one of them? Would he live long enough to see the glory of God return to Jerusalem? This man’s depression was an honourable one; it was centred on God and His glory.

Taunted to Tears

When was the last time you wept over the condition of the church and of the advance of the kingdom? Whatever drives your passions is what is going to determine your depressions. What is the source of your most serious of discouragements? Perhaps if you were correctly depressed you would be less depressed!

The writer’s depression was caused by those who cried, “Where is your God?” (v. 3). Are we indifferent to the scorn of God’s enemies? This man was not. He was so moved by the taunts of the enemies concerning the character and the faithfulness of God that he could not eat.

The enemies accused God of being either completely invisible (absent) or impotent and perhaps indifferent. These were atheistic taunts. Do similar taunts bother us?

We must remember that these taunts arose ultimately because of the failure of God’s people to honour God. And this is so often the case in our own day. We need to think carefully about to respond to such taunts.

I recently received a newsletter regarding an atheistic group known as OGOD who are pursuing legal channels to remove all prayer and Bible-reading from a group of schools in South Africa. The newsletter was appealing to Christians to take action to stop this group. While I appreciate the concern, two things immediately struck me.

First, this group actually has some good standing in terms of the South African Constitution. They may well win their case, because they are arguing in line with the Constitution.

Second, however, I wondered as I read the newsletter whether the parents who are opposing OGOD are as passionate about Bible-reading and prayer in their homes. Perhaps they are, but if not, that strikes me as problematic. Surely it makes no sense to be up in arms about prayer and Bible-reading being removed from schools if these things have already been removed from the home?

Perhaps rather than seeking to stop an atheistic organisation is actually standing on strong Constitutional legs, Christians parents should be more concerned about getting their kids out of Babylon. Let’s face it, the public school system in South Africa is a Babylon. Do we really think that we can convert Babylon into Jerusalem?

God’s counsel to the Jews in exile was to seek the peace of Babylon. Rather than seeking to overthrow Babylon, they were to live faithfully in their own homes, to raise their children faithfully even in a godless culture. Are we serving God faithfully by establishing, developing and maintaining Christian homes?  Do we evangelise our community and nation? Are we committed to making disciples and strengthening the church along with advancing church planting efforts? Will we disciple our children to be future leaders of the nation? If not, repent, pray and seek God’s face.

Precious Memories, How They Sting

The psalmist transparently shares that, when he thinks upon the past blessings in Jerusalem with reference to temple worship, he is overwhelmed. His soul is unleashed in pain. He remembers that he used to be a worship leader and how he and fellow worshippers would shout praise to God in an atmosphere of thanksgiving. At the appointed festivals, Jerusalem indeed seemed to live up to its name of being the city of God.

But, alas, such memories, though perhaps temporarily providing a smile, eventually were too painful for his soul. Those memories depressed him. His exile gave little reason for excitement.

Sometimes God does discourage us. He does so by allowing His name and His work to seemingly lose ground in this world. We look around and we wonder why the church does not seem to be advancing as we think it should, as we believe God has promised.

The onslaught of homosexuality and the proliferation of a militant atheism seem to sound the night of the church’s defeat. And yet this makes no sense, as we see it, because God has promised gospel success. So where is the fulfilment of Habakkuk 2:14? Why does God allow the setbacks of His church? Why is the church in seeming exile? How should we respond?

I recently addressed, both from the pulpit as well as from the pen, an issue that church historian Carl Trueman raised in an article. He argues that the church has been culturally exiled. He says that not only have Christians been shut out of the public square, and that therefore we are a voice crying in the wilderness in the larger culture, but that we should not expect things to change. He basically argues that the status quo will always be the status quo—until Jesus returns. He would be able to find comfort from Psalm 42. But as I will attempt to prove, the expectation of the psalmist is far more optimistic than is Trueman. And so should our own expectation be.

This man was in exile and he was wondering when things would change. He may have been in deep distress as he remembered better days and better times. He remembered the days when, as a choir member and perhaps even a choirmaster, he led many on their pilgrim festivals. He remembered Israel in her better days, even if those better days were long preceding his own. However, he remembered God being honoured when the likes of the Queen of Sheba came and, in breathless declaration, said that the she had not heard the half of the glory with which God had blessed Solomon. But where was the glory? Where, in fact, was God? Where was the day of great and large things?

Boice suggest that these memories teach us that “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.”4

Perhaps you can relate. You read history and wonder why we do not experience what the likes of Edwards or Calvin or Wesley or the Moravians experienced by the power of God’s hand.

I recently read a little bit of a history of a great awakening that broke out among the Southern Army during America’s Civil War. I wondered, why not again? Why not here? Why not now?

If you read missionary biography you too will be challenged about God’s great works in history: Henry Martyn, Robert Murray McCheyne, David Brainerd, William Carey, J. Hudson Taylor, St Patrick in Scotland, John Paton, Robert Moffatt, etc. Like me, you may come away wondering, where are you God? Or as Elisha once put it, “Where is the God of Elijah?” (2 Kings 2:14). Perhaps like John the Baptist, you have doubts, and you may articulate them as he did: “Are you really the One that should come? And if so, will you come and do your thing—again?”

So, how do we handle such a God-caused depression? When God providentially produces this gnawing and seeming hopeless thirst, what do we do? I am glad you asked! Look at the next section.

The Cure for the Thirst

In vv. 5–8, the psalmist reveals the cure for the thirst: When exiled with an exceptional thirst, exercise yourself.

Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance. O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan, and from the heights of Hermon, from the Hill Mizar. Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me—a prayer to the God of my life.

(Psalm 42:5–8)

There are at least three practical responses that the psalmist exercises in an attempt to assuage his thirst and to overcome his God-centred depression. The same three are necessary if we too will have our thirst quenched.

Talk

First, the psalmist recognised the need for talk—both to himself (v. 5) and to God (v. 6).

The psalmist begun by talking to himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance” (v. 5). “His spirit addresses a challenge to his lagging soul.”5

The psalmist seeks to speak God’s truth to himself. He, as it were, makes himself a self-appointed prophet.

  1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was famous for saying that the problem with Christians is that we spend too much time listening to ourselves and not enough time talking to ourselves. He was right.

This man listened to the taunts and he listened to his memories. But he did not stop there. He did not take those as the final words on the matter. No, he spoke God’s Word to himself. He spoke truth into the appearance of reality. He reminded himself about God, the God who was “the help of his countenance,” which “apparently means: the help to which my countenance turns”6 Which direction are you looking? Inward, or outward and upward?

The word “help” is plural, and literally means “salvations.” He placed his hope, his expectation, in God—the God who saves His people, the God who delivers His people because He is the God who delivers on His promises.

This believer really believed. He refused to accept the current situation as the conclusive situation. He believed that a better day was coming. He believed the prophecies of Jeremiah that God would restore Jerusalem, and he probably believed in the final restoration under the new covenant of Jesus Christ. And when he believed this, his face revealed his faith. If you are happy and you know it, then please inform your face!

Take yourself in hand. Talk about the promises of God. Tell yourself the truth. Take responsibility for your mood.

Having spoken to himself, the author then turns to speak to God: “O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan, and from the heights of Hermon, from the Hill Mizar” (v. 6).

If all you do is talk to yourself, it may not be healthy! But when talking to yourself leads to talking to God, then you are well on your way to recovery.

If the writer was indeed a captive of Nebuchadnezzar, Boice helps make sense of this cry to God: “If a traveller (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.”7

Here he cries out, “O, my God, my soul is cast down within me.” This man is honest to God. When we are humbled by our circumstances, we are in a wonderful place to be honest with God. He did not try to hide his heart; he was transparent about his thirst. This is the way to healing.

Note in v. 7 how he faces the reality of God’s thunderous voice of judgement. He confesses that he feels overwhelmed by God’s chastening hand. But rather than turning bitter, he is about to be made better.

When overwhelmed, do what you don’t naturally want to do: Pray! Talk truth to yourself and talk truth to God. The thirst will be assuaged.

Think

In vv. 7–8 the author begins to think aright about God. It is clear that before this believer began talking that he did some serious thinking. “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me—a prayer to the God of my life.”

The writer observes the cataracts of cascading waterfalls and contemplates God’s sovereign creation, providence and judgement. This puts things in proper perspective.

He says that he “will remember” God (v. 6). As he looks over the Jordan, he perhaps remembers the past victories God gave to the nation as they entered Canaan and how God had rolled away the reproach of their past at Gilgal (Joshua 5). Whatever he remembered, the purpose was to strengthen his faith.

We need to do the same. As the writer to the Hebrews said, we need to “recall our former days” (10:32) and God’s faithfulness in those days.

As he thought about God, his theology reminded him that God is merciful (“lovingkindness,” v. 8), and this truth produced a song in his heart. “God’s lovingkindness, like His light and truth in 43:3, is almost personified as the Psalmist’s guardian angel.”8

But this reflection did something more: It drove him again to prayer. He realised that the Lord was the God of his life, and this sense of dependency drove him to pray. “The psalmist knows that God has given command that this shall always stand by him and help him…. God will give him such assurance that he will be enabled to voice his confidence in God in ‘song’ and make ‘prayer’ to the God of his life.”9

When we are depressed by God, we must go to the one who has caused the depression! This is why he has caused it! There is no greater way for God to be glorified than for us to confess our inability and trust Him to do the otherwise impossible (see Psalm 126, where God accomplished the humanly impossible).

God is covenantally faithful to His people. He is our God and we are His people, and so pray to Him as such. The future is as bright as the promises of God!

The Continuance/Cycle of the Thirst

Finally, we see something of a cycle to the author’s thirst in the closing verses:

I will say to God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a breaking of my bones, my enemies reproach me, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.

(Psalm 42:9–11)

These three verses are probably not the ending to the original psalm, if indeed Psalms 42 and 43 form a unit. As a quick read of Psalm 43 shows, the same theme continues as it ends here. This is significant, as it reminds us that our thirst for the vindication of the glory of God is only assuaged temporarily on this side of the kingdom.

Verse 10 is intense. It literally reads, “with crushing in my bones do mine adversaries approach me.” As Kirkpatrick notes, “They stab him to the heart with their taunts.”10

Jesus said as much in His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6). The implication is that the filling is only temporary before we hunger and thirst again. So it is here.

The “depressed” psalmist has been cured, only to be laid low again. But this is good, because it keeps him humble and honest. It keeps him thirsting and therefore it keeps him in the hunt for God. He will keep talking about God. He will keep talking to God. He will keep thinking about God—even while he is taunted about God.

VanGemeren summarises: “The inner feelings express themselves in questions, despair, and hope in God…. In the loneliness of alienation, his faith was tried and triumphed!”11 When God depresses you, be humble and thirst. Be honest and thirst. Be hopeful and thirst.

The songwriter sings, “I cannot tell how He will win the nations.”12 We may not be able to tell how He will win the nations, but we can confidently say that He will. And we can with equal confidence assert that this will not come about on wings of ease. It will come amidst taunts, traumas and trials. It will come with temptations, tribulations and tears.

There will be times in which God will cause us to be depressed. He will do so in order that we can learn to not be impressed with ourselves but rather to be impressed with Him. Such God-caused, God-centred depression is good for us. It reminds us that salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). And as we are settled in this conviction, we will rejoice as we experience our triune God to be the help of our countenance and our God.

Show 12 footnotes

  1. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 336.
  2. Exploring the Psalms, 2 vols. (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1988), 1:23–324.
  3. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 337.
  4. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:371.
  5. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, 339.
  6. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 339.
  7. Boice, Psalms, 2:367.
  8. A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Psalms (Cambridge: The University Press, n.d.), 231.
  9. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 340.
  10. Kirkpatrick, The Psalms, 232.
  11. Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:333.
  12. William Young Fullerton, “I Cannot Tell.”