Psalms 42 & 43
Psalms 42 and 43:
Hope in the Midst of Trial
Judges through Poets
Dr. John D. Currid
June 25, 2007
Table of Contents
Table of Contents..........................................................................................ii
Introduction and Thesis....................................................................................1
Interpretation and Meaning.................................................................................6
Application and Conclusion................................................................................13
*Unless otherwise noted, all Biblical quotations from the New King James Version of the Bible
Psalms 42 and 43:
Hope in the Midst of Trial
Psalms 42 and 43, written in ancient Hebrew poetry, are a beautiful song of desire for God, distress in circumstances, praise for faithfulness and hope in the future. To understand the depth of significance of these Psalms, this paper will focus on certain elements of Hebrew poetry, defining what a strophic structure is, as well as looking at different forms of parallelism and figurative language. From this discussion will flow a stanza-by-stanza interpretation of these Psalms, looking at the meaning of each thought from the title to the conclusion. This paper will then end with a challenge of application to our lives through these Psalms.
Hebrews 1:1-2a says "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son..." (Italics mine) One of the ways God has revealed His Word to mankind is through poetry. But in reading and interpreting the book of Psalms, it is immediately clear that the poetry represented is not the same style or genre that we are accustomed to reading in the 21st century. Indeed, as one reads and interprets Psalm 42 and 43 it is crucial to understand the depth and background of Hebrew poetry. The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible puts it this way,
The internal qualities of Hebrew poetry are in part influenced by the age, social conditions, and environment in which the writers lived. Although the OT is of divine authorship, it also comes within the scope of literature, and should be appreciated as such. Though the Holy Spirit inspired the message of the Hebrew writers, their individual writing styles remain clearly evident. Using simple and vivid diction, figures of speech, and literary devices, each poet expressed a wealth of religious thought, experience, and emotion; simile, metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, personification, irony, and wordplay all variously enhanced each writer's pattern of thinking. Hebrew poetry is the expression of the poet's human spirit, and it is the literature of revelation-the Word of God to humankind. (1731)
As will be discussed further in this paper, the author of Psalms 42 and 43 was not only influenced by the ancient Hebrew age, environment, and social conditions, but they played a very practical role in his description of being far removed from God. Even so, these Psalms are a vivid picture of the human spirit that transcends time through the living Word of God. The Handbook to Bible Study says,
If we look closely we can often see what happens to the poet in the course of a Psalm. We are not saying that he dashes off his words in a charged emotional state. All good poetry is carefully crafted, and biblical poetry is no exception. Its writers were clearly aware of different forms of literature and of how to use poetic elements. Doubtless many Psalms, if not all, are the result of much careful work. Certainly the acrostic Psalms are (these are Psalms where lines or sections begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet). This does not mean they are any less the product of the inspiring Holy Spirit. But the writer may reveal what occurs in his experience, as if the poem were an account of his progress. (Preface)
Psalms 42 and 43 are no exception. The author uses multiple poetic elements to craft this account. In order to see the depth of the meaning of these Psalms, one must look at how they were written and what kinds of styles were used in their construction. There are three main poetic elements that will be discussed. The first of these elements is strophe or stanza.
In poetry, a stanza is a unit within a larger poem (the term means "room" in Italian). In modern poetry, the term is often equivalent with strophe; in popular vocal music, a stanza is typically referred to as a "verse". In a more general sense, the strophe is a pair of stanzas of alternating form on which the structure of a given poem is based. The ancients called a combination of verse-periods a system, and gave the name strophe to such a system only when it was repeated once or more in unmodified form. (Wikepedia) This style of writing is found all throughout the Psalms. In Psalms 42 and 43 this is exactly what in seen in verses 42:5, 11 and 43:5. Each of these verses read, "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." All three of these verses conclude a stanza, thus dividing Psalm 42 into two stanzas, Psalm 42:1-5 and 6-11, and making all five verses of Psalm 43 into one stanza. The use of stropic structure is not the primary characteristic of Hebrew poetry. However, it is clearly a tool that the author of Psalms 42 and 43 used to remind the reader not only of the state of his soul, but also of the hope that remains in God.
The most common trait attributed to the psalter is repitition usually called parallelism. Parallelism refers to the corresponence which occurs between the phrases of a poetic line. Bishop Robert Lowth coined the phrase parallelism in 1753 and identified three main types of parallelism called synonymous, antithetic and synthetic. Synonymous parallelism is the most frequently used and best known. According to most interpreters, it is the repetition of the same thought in two different phrases using two different yet closely related sets of words. (Longman III 99-105) The writer of Psalms 42 and 43 uses this type in his stanzas when he says, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me."
"Antithetic parallelism is when the words are contrasted in the two or more lines, being opposed in sense the one to the other." (Bullinger 351) Lowth however says it is actually that the lines are describing the same thought while using different terms. Proverbs uses this kind of parallelism often and in Psalm 42:8 there is an example as well. It reads, "The Lord will command His loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me."
Lastly, synthetic parallelism labels those lines in which the second phrase completes or supplements the first. We see the Psalmist use this element in 43:3 when he writes, "O send out Your light and Your truth! Let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your tabernacle." To interpret the parallels used in scripture it becomes easiest to break the poem up into lines or units. In some instances one line could contain two or three or more poetic phrases. To help define and easily read the lines or phrases, mark each one with an A, B, C, etc. As an example, the break down for Psalm 43:1 would look like this:
A Vindicate me, O God
B and plead my cause against an ungodly nation
A Oh deliver me
B from the deceitful and unjust man
In this verse we see how the author has paralleled 'vindicate me' and 'deliver me' in line A, and in line B he parallels 'ungodly nation' with 'deceitful and unjust man.' This is an invaluable tool in interpretation. If the first half of a verse or passage is unclear, then matching the verse or passage to the second half can shed some light on the meaning.
Although parallelism is the major structure of Hebrew poetry, another key component is imagery or figurative language. Wikepedia describes imagery as,
Any words that create a picture in your head. Using figures of speech, similes or metaphors can create such images. While words in figurative expressions connote additional layers of meaning, literal expressions denote what they mean according to common or dictionary usage. When the human ear or eye receives the message, the mind must interpret the data to convert it into meaning.
To sum up, an image compares two things that are similar in some ways but dissimilar in other ways. The dissimilarity is what surprises a person and causes him or her to take notice. Then, the person is able to search for the similarity and apply it to his or her life and surroundings.
As an example, here are a couple uses of imagery or figurative language using similes, metaphors and figures of speech. A simile is a comparison that is made explicit by the presence of like or as. This is seen in Psalm 42:1 where it says, "as the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for you, O God." The comparison in this verse is made between my soul and that of a thirsty deer longing for water using the word as.
A metaphor, on the other hand, is a comparison that is implicit without using the mention of like or as. If Psalm 42:1 were a metaphor it would say, "the thirsty deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you, O God."
The last example is figure of speech. Simply stated, a figure of speech is a word or phase that departs from straightforward literal language. In Psalm 42:3 it is clear that the writer is using figurative language as he describes his tears being food to him and then mocking him, asking 'where are you God?' Common sense says that tears don't actually talk and yet it's obvious that the writer was compelled to use this kind of language to describe both his state of mind and his state of emotion. It is more than just one or the other. Yes, it is a mind thing, but he wants the reader to feel with a mental picture what he was going through and how he desired to seek after God, no matter what.
Interpretation and Meaning
Upon having a foundation of understanding of the basic construction of Hebrew poetry, it is then possible to study the Psalm for the correct interpretation and meaning. The best starting place is with the authorship of the Psalm, a topic that divides scholars into two camps and which will be brought up throughout the rest of this paper. In addition, the title of these two Psalms, the purpose of these Psalms and the importance of the chorus or refrain will all be taken into consideration. It is also important to note the modern separation between the two Psalms and the possibility that they were originally written as one. These discussions set the tone for a clear stanza-by-stanza interpretation of Psalms 42 and 43.
Even though King David's name is not directly mentioned in these Psalms, most commentaries and footnotes attribute them to him. Those that attribute these Psalms to David say that it was composed during his exile from his son Absalom, as discussed in II Samuel 15. In John Calvin's commentary on the Psalms he states, "even though the name David is not expressly mentioned in the Psalm, many conjuncture that the son's of Korah are the authors." (127) This is not at all probable. Calvin's conclusion is that David wouldn't have needed the sons of Korah's help in constructing these Psalms but that they used their name to preserve the Psalms. Calvin also states that there are many other Psalms that are attributed to David without mentioning his name. The name we are given in these Psalms is the sons of Korah. This title is not the only one attributed to the sons of Korah, it is also seen in Psalms 44-49 and 84-88. In the lineage in I Chronicles it says that David appointed the sons of Korah over the service of the house of the Lord (I Chronicles 6:31-33; 9:19). The Korahites were known as the temple singers and also acted as gatekeepers and bakers of sacrificial cakes (I Chronicles 9:31). They are also mentioned as singers during the celebration of Jehoshaphat's victory over Ammon and Moab (II Chronicles 20:19).
In the title of this Psalm is the name Miskil or Maschil. Different than that of a composer of a Psalm, Miskil was a type of Psalm and because it is written in that particular style, it is put in a different class of Hebrew poetry. This name appears thirteen times in the Psalms (32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89 and 142), but not all of the Miskil Psalms have the same author. The King James Version of the Bible translates this name to mean 'contemplation or skillful', while in Harper's Bible Dictionary it says, "some versions totally leave the word un-translated while others put in a root meaning of the word." (612) Another possible definition is this,
The term is probably derived from the verb sakal, "to have insight or comprehension," but there is no agreement among commentators. By looking at the Psalms themselves, their didactic nature and the structure of stanzas and refrains, musicologists conclude the term represents a song of praise, possibly sung by a soloist with participation by the choir. (Elwell & Beitzel 1506)
After the title, the author explains his reasoning for writing this hymn. The author has such a desire for God and His presence that the only way he can think to describe it to his readers is through a simile of a thirsty deer longing for a drink of water in a time of drought. He compares this image to his soul longing or thirsting after God as being his utmost desire. Because of his great thirst for God he wants this desire to be fulfilled and quenched.
In the second line of the poem, Psalm 42:2, he heightens his statement about God. He doesn't want to thirst for just any god but the one and only Living God. This shows how the author knew that what he was writing was not just a song to be sung at the temple but an encouragement to all those desiring the same thing. If one goes after a false god, one who is not living, he or she will continually find themselves thirsty, always longing and never being quenched. Christ said in Matthew 22:32 that our "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." And the living God through Christ will quench that thirst if one is able to believe that Christ is the sustainer of life. The promise comes straight from God's Word where in Matthew 5:6 it says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
In the next line of the poem one can begin to see the anguish that the author is in as he asks, "when shall I come and appear before God?" If God's presence were his greatest desire, then not having it or being far from it would be like tasting hell. Commentators arguing for Davidic authorship often use this verse in their arguments. If David constructed the Psalm during the time of his exile from Absalom he would have asked this question, as he was not in Jerusalem. And if he was not in Jerusalem that means he was not near the temple, where God's presence dwelt.
Whether it was David or the sons of Korah who wrote these Psalms, both seem to have a very intimate relationship with God. So much so that in the next line, distress begins to come out full and strong as the author says, "my tears have been my food day and night." Because he is missing the presence of God, he turns to weeping. He listens to his flesh attack his spirit, as he hears his tears asking him "where is your God?" This attack on his spirit shows how quick Satan will move to confuse the believer and put doubts into his mind, especially about God being a living God. The author reminds himself of the time he used to have with the people when they would go together to the temple to worship and have feasts. His heart breaks as he remembers the good old days that seem now so far away. Some commentaries use this section of the Psalm to provide clear evidence of Davidic authorship because these would have been things David did on a regular basis. However, one could also use this section to make a case for the sons of Korah, as they would have participated in the same things.
The chorus of this Psalm is next and it seems to be the key line to this song. This refrain occurs three times in these Psalms, in 42:5, 11 and 43:5. In this refrain the author asks a rhetorical question about his soul being discouraged, but although he is heavily weighed down he reminds himself to hope yet in God. His great hope is that he will one day be back into the place of worship with his people, experiencing that which he had once before. The author wants to reassure and encourage his readers or singers to also hope in God, despite the circumstances of life. Matthew Henry's commentary puts it this way,
That we shall have comfort in Him. We shall praise Him for the help of His countenance, for His favor, the support we have by it and the satisfaction we have in it. Those that know how to value and improve the light of God's countenance will find in that a suitable, seasonable, and sufficient help, in the worst of times, and that which will furnish them with constant matter for praise. (Ps 42:6)
In the first stanza, Psalm 42:1-5, it seems that the author is focused on the lost past, and in the second stanza, Psalm 42:6-11; he is focused on his troubled present. The author again states the turmoil of his soul being far from God, so much so that this time he uses actual physical locations. There are no more metaphors to describe his thirsty soul. Instead, he describes the distance he feels from God by saying that he remembers God from Hermon and Mount Mizar. Hermon is often mentioned as the northern extremity of the territory conquered by Joshua and Moses. Mizar is said to be to be a small hill in northern Palestine. If the author was actually in these places, then he was saying, 'this is as far as it gets for me to be away from the temple of God's presence and still be in my own country.'
If David did write this Psalm, then he was using Mizar and Hermon merely as a contrast to show how far from the temple he was. It is understood from the Bible that he was never actually as far north as Mizar or Hermon. At the end of II Samuel 17 as David fled from Absalom, it says that he ended up in Mahanaim, which was the furthest place David got to before Absalom was killed. Hermon is somewhere about 90 miles further north of Mahanaim. In essence, you either have to conclude that that the author of the Psalm was actually in these places or he was only using them as a reference point to show that even though he was so far from God, he still remembered Him.
In this stanza, the author is more distressed and at the lowest point he has been thus far. He speaks figuratively of being consumed by waterfalls and broken down by waves. How deep was his distress? John Calvin explains it this way, "by the term depth, he shows that the temptations by which he was assailed were such, that they might well be compared to gulfs in the sea; then he complains of their long continuance, which he describes by the very appropriate figure, that his temptations cry out from a distance, and call to one another." (139) It is interesting that the translators of The Message used chaos to chaos instead of deep to deep, as chaos denotes disarray, pandemonium, and turmoil. Truly, it is the utterance of a soul in distress.
But... The word is not actually in the text and yet these Psalms can't be read without the reader noticing an abrupt one hundred and eighty turn in the authors' countenance. The author reminds the reader of the great comfort and confidence they can have in God through the midst of trials and hard times as he reminds himself of God's omnipresence. Psalm 42:8 says, "The Lord will command His loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me- a prayer to the God of my life." Though the reader may not feel like God is there, by day or night, thick or thin, the living God is there.
In Psalms 42:9-10, the author goes on to offer a prayer to his rock solid God, wondering why he, a devoted follower is forgotten. And why does his mourning continue because of his enemies? He here complains to God of his sorrowful state but does not complain of God diminishing His character. Another case for Davidic authorship is found in this line. It would make sense for David to question God in this way because he was a man that truly loved his country and sought that God would rule over it. He was being persecuted and felt as though he was not being used as the instrument of God that he longed to be. Not only that, but he was viewed by most in Jerusalem as an enemy to the country that he loved, and that would have ripped him very deeply, even to the bone. That is exactly where the author moves to by saying how deeply wounded he is because of his enemies. So deep the pain, it is as if a sword was being thrust though him, breaking all his bones. He then repeats and intensifies his question from verse three. This time, instead of his tears asking him, now it is his enemies saying, "where is your God?" A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament says this regarding several authors of Psalms,
Confronted by such hostile and seemingly invincible enemies, the righteous presented their just cause to God. To emphasize the seriousness of their situation and the urgency of their request they described the physical and emotional effects of the enemy's attack in graphic and at times exaggerated fashion (6:2-3, 6-7; 22:14-15; 31:9-13; 42:10; 55:4-5; 109:24; 143:4). To make it clear that they were worthy recipients of God's justice, they referred to themselves as weak, helpless, and oppressed. (279)
The next line of Psalm 42, verse eleven, is the refrain, which is the same as verse five. This repetition shows us that that the author had not so easily overcome his temptations in one encounter, as to render it unnecessary for him to enter into the same conflict. Calvin states "that by this example, therefore we are admonished that although Satan by his assaults often subjects us to a renewal of the same trouble, we ought not to loose our courage or allow ourselves to be cast down." (137)
In looking at the content of the last stanza, one must first address why these two Psalms are separated from each other in our modern translations. The only difference in the three stanzas is that the first two, Psalm 42:1-5 and 6-11, have twelve lines whereas the third, Psalm 43, has thirteen lines. The basic assumption is that the translators took this to mean that the third stanza was to be separate because it had an extra line. The main evidence to support the argument that these two Psalms are one is the refrain that occurs in each stanza. In addition, there is no title to Psalm 43, leaving a very smooth transition for the reader from one Psalm to the next and allowing him or her to easily believe that they were meant to be one. It should also be noted that Psalms 42 and 43 are not the only Psalms where one poem is broken up to make two. Psalms nine and ten seem to be one Psalm as together they constitute a single Hebrew alphabetic acrostic. In the Septuagint and even earlier Hebrew texts these Psalms were written as one. It is uncertain why these Psalms have been separated into two, but in any case, they should be read as one, for that is how they were written.
In this last stanza, Psalm 43, the author finishes his poem looking forward to his expected future. He first petitions his cause and asks for God to defend him from the ungodly and deceitful men surrounding him. Then, in verse two, he parallels verse nine from Psalm 42, with a slight variation. In both sections, he calls on God's attributes toward his situation. In Psalm 42, he says how God is his rock, a firm place to be standing on in the midst of trial. In Psalm 43, he says how God is his strength, the strength he needs in the midst of trial. Then, in Psalm 42 he asks why he is forgotten, but heightens that in the parallel line of Psalm 43 when he says God rejects him or casts him off. He finishes both lines with the same question, "why do I go mourning because of the oppression of my enemy?"
In verse three, one can see how the author is looking forward to his return to God's presence. Psalm 42 is filled with despair, but now he looks toward God and not his circumstances as he asks for God's light and truth to lead him back to His holy hill in Jerusalem. The author then declares his promise of what he will do as he returns to the altar. For God is his greatest joy and it is the author's greatest pleasure to praise Him. He finishes his poem with the repeating refrain. After reading the third stanza one can understand the authors hope of again pursuing God in His special place, even though at the present his circumstances make it very hard for him to be reminded of His glory.
Application and Conclusion
In Eugene Peterson's Eat this Book he gives a very good challenge to Christians as he says, "An interest in souls divorced from an interest in scripture leaves us without a text that shapes these souls. In the same way, an interest in scripture divorced from an interest in souls leaves us without any material for the text to work on." (17) In light of this quote, I have been challenged in my over all purpose as I read through God's word. The question then becomes, how do Psalms 42 and 43 shape or affect someone's soul, my soul to be precise? Seeing the author's deep desire to be in God's presence and how he was missing it, so much so that the only way he could explain his agony was through figurative language, challenges us in our relationship with God. It challenges us in a way of experience where if we feel away from God, do we actually find ourselves in despair or do we go about our day trying to get out of the wrought ourselves? The main thing I think the author is giving us though is the thought that 'you know what, right now I am as low as it has ever been in my life. But no matter the circumstances I am facing right now, I am going to hope in God and praise Him because He is my salvation and He is my God.'
I have gone through some tough times already in my life and to be honest, most of them were before I was a Christian, when I had no hope. I know there will be tough times ahead as well. The cool thing is that passages like this one are a reminder of the great God in whom we can have great hope in when times are rough. What better comfort to the soul is there than this? And just like this author has done for us, so we too can do for other souls. That is the purpose of this Psalm.
In conclusion, this paper has given me a better understanding and example of Hebrew poetry, including strophic structure, parallelism, and figures of speech, even though there is still much more for me to learn about Hebrew poetry and how to read it as the author intended it to be read. It has left me with a deeper appreciation for Psalms 42 and 43 as the interpretation of these Psalms goes much further than mere words on a page. It is human spirit crying out, it is God's revelation to us, His people, and it is the comfort and encouragement we all need as we seek after God like the thirsty deer seeks for refreshing water.
*Achtemeier, P. J. Harper's Bible Dictionary. (1st ed.). San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
*Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. London; New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1898.
*Calvin, John. Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Volume II. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003.
Carson, D. A. New Bible Commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994
Dillard, Raymond B. and Tremper Longman III. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
*Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
*Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1991.
Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and explanatory commentary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc, 1997.
*Karleen, P. S. The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 2002.
*Longman III, Tremper. How to Read the Psalms. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
Merriam-Webster, I. Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary. Includes index. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc, 2003.
*Peterson, Eugene. Eat This Book. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.
Peterson, Eugene. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.
Richards, L. O. The Bible Readers' Companion (electronic ed.). Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995 (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version).
*The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1988.
*Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia; Strophe. This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strophe
*Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia; Imagery. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imagery
*Zuck, R. B. A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (electronic ed.). Chicago: Moody Press, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996.
*Indicates actual quotation in the paper