Do you know what it is to feel cut off from God? Do you know what it is to thirst for fellowship but to not feel it? The writer of Psalm 42 knew. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (v. 1).
We don’t know who wrote this psalm or the circumstances that led to its writing. We know that the psalmist felt separated by God and that God appears to have orchestrated this sense of separation (vv. 2–4). The writer longed for restored fellowship, in the house of God, with the people of God. The writer was providentially hindered from temple worship and longed for the restoration of this worship. He longed to “lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival” (v. 4). He was unable to and he keenly felt this absence. His “soul” was “cast down” and he felt absolute turmoil (v. 5).
The writer was driven to tears as he recalled former days when fellowship with God and his people in the temple was regular. But God had removed his blessing and his own presence was the only cure that was sufficient to quench the thirst. The writer’s soul longed for God (v. 1).
Sometimes, God providentially allows us to feel a sense of separation. His purpose is to create this very desire in us. Christians across the world have felt this during the pandemic. As churches have been providentially hindered from gathering, God’s people have felt a sense of longing. Live-streaming may leave us more privileged than previous generations, but it is a hollow substitute and the longing for fellowship in the context of gathered worship is a reality.
The writer knew this sense of separation and the depression that it caused. But he also knew where to turn for help.
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. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
Ultimately, the cure for the psalmist’s longing lay in the very thing—or the very person—for whom he so longed: “the God of my life.” The Hebrew phrase is El Hayyay. In his time of providential drought, the only one who could quench his thirst was the very one who had caused it. When life felt directionless, he needed to look for direction to El Hayyay, the God of his life.
God alone could quench his thirst. His “prayer to the God of [his] life” reveals three strategies he chose to follow to combat his feelings of despair.
First, he knew that he needed to talk to himself. “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” (vv. 5–6). He knew what he felt, but he also knew that what he felt was not reflective of the truth. Therefore, as much as he feltabandoned by God, he committed to speaking truth to himself. If things seemed hopeless, he would remind himself that his hope lay in the God of his life.
The psalmist refused to accept his current situation as his final situation. He knew that a better day was coming because the God from whom he felt separated was the God of his life—El Hayyay. He believed Jeremiah’s prophecies of Jerusalem’s restoration. He no doubt understood something, even if vaguely, about final restoration under Messiah. This encouraged him.
If you feel alienated from God during times of providential drought, take yourself in hand. Remind yourself about the promises of God. This pandemic will not prevail against the church. Talk truth to yourself.
Second, the writer spoke to God: “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar” (v. 6). If talking truth to yourself in times of spiritual drought does not result in talking to God, it may not prove as helpful as you would like. When talking to yourself leads to talking to God, you are well on your way to recovery.
The reference to “Mount Mizar” may suggest that the writer was writing in the context of the Babylonian captivity. A traveller (or captive) heading from the Promised Land to Babylon would catch his final glimpse of his homeland from Mount Mizar. As the writer realised that he would soon lose sight of the Promised Land with its temple, his sense of alienation deepened. Far from home, he felt far from God.
When he felt far from God, he was honest about it. He did not slander God by griping to others but poured out his heart transparently to God in prayer. His transparency paved the way to healing. He knew that his sense of spiritual vitality could only be restored by “the God of [his] life”—El Hayyah—and so he spoke to God in prayer. He felt God’s chastening hand overwhelm him like waves on the seashore (v. 7) but did not allow that to destroy him. Instead, he opened the way to healing through prayer.
When we are overwhelmed, the last thing we feel like doing is praying. But that is exactly what we need. The thirst that is caused by the break in our fellowship can only be quenched by the God of our life. Pray!
Third, having spoken truth to himself, and having spoken transparently to God, the author began to do some serious and sanctified thinking: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (vv. 7–8).
Now in a better frame of mind, he began thinking about God’s sovereign actions in creation, providence, and judgement. Slowly, he began embracing a right perspective. As he remembered God’s faithfulness in the past, his faith was strengthened.
In times of drought, we need to “recall the former days” (Hebrews 10:32) of God’s faithfulness. Reflection on God’s faithfulness will encourage our hearts and drive us to further prayer. After all, if the God of our life was faithful in the past, we can count of his faithfulness in the future.
As we enter another week, we are perhaps left wondering why God’s providence has left is in this time of drought, separated from corporate fellowship and worship with the people of God. We must remember, even in a time like that, that the God of the Bible is still the God of our life—El Hayyay—and learn to trust him even when we don’t understand what he is doing. He is our God. We are his people. However dry the current season, the future is as bright as the promises of God.