Psalm 42: Remembering God’s Goodness

With the words, “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” Book II of the Psalms begins. Many of us also know these words as part of the popular worship song As The Deer, which even now as I’m writing this, is playing in the background, evoking memories of some short-term missions trips I took to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But, as I listen to the lyrics and then compare them to Psalm 42, I have an overwhelming sense of disconnection.

It’s not that I find the song lyrics inadequate – they are a wonderful re-interpretation of Psalm 42:1 – but I don’t think they reflect the full tone of Psalm 42. Notice, if you will, the usage of the word “remember” in both verses 4 and 5. The sons of Korah, the authors of this psalm, are not writing this psalm as a deer who is currently lapping up the waters of God’s goodness, rather they are writing as ones who remember the past days of God’s goodness. Their current state, however, is something altogether different: their soul longs for God (v. 2) and their tears are their food day and night (v.3). This is not a song flowing from a heart currently satisfied with God, but from an empty heart longing once again to be satisfied. But it is not just emptiness and longing this psalm speaks of, there is something much more intense.

I am currently in southern California and this morning went for a walk on the beach. I’ll admit, walking on a sunny beach in November just a few days before Thanksgiving was an odd experience, but, all surreal sensations aside (for a midwesterner), it was relaxing to find a shady spot (of course, I would find the shade) and watch the waves crash onto shore. I also saw people in the ocean on surfboards, birds on the shore looking for nourishment, and footprints of those who had recently passed by. Some of the surfers succeeded, but only for a while before they were eventually caught under the waves; some of the birds succeeded, but they had to continually move so as to avoid being taken by the ocean; and none of the footprints lasted beyond a few minutes before the waves erased their existence. It was then that I was reminded of another powerful image the psalmist gives us in verse 7:

“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”

I saw the ocean pound the shore and sensed that nature’s ways reflect our own human experience. On our good days, life’s difficult circumstances recede, allowing us to relax in a calm and placid moment when we grow, find strength, and even seem productive. We believe we are casting our footprints on the sands of time, but such moments never last long. The inevitable waves of pain, suffering, and confusion soon follow, wiping clear all evidence of happier times, leaving only memories of our past joys and causing us to wonder where God might be. But in those times what we often fail to realize is these waves of pain, suffering, and confusion are brought by the hand of God.

As I watched the cycle of surfers, birds, and disappearing footprints continue for some time I was reminded of a poem I wrote a few years ago while (once again) sitting on a beach in southern California:

Forces driving, unrelenting.
    Horses stamping and progressing.
Sprightly dancers front a’leading,
    Limits reached and now receding.
Dancing backward, ever singing,
    Trampled under hooves a’ fleeing,
Placid moment is preceding
    Endless cycles oft repeating.

While this poem was written with the ebb and flow of the ocean in mind, it also describes God’s hand as he moves through time bringing repeating cycles of pain and joy. And like the surfers and birds, the only thing that really matters is how we respond to these things. We can look at the cycle and fall into despair, or we can cling to hope. Now, I readily admit my natural inclination is to the former, but the psalmist calls us, calls me, to the latter. I think this is why he writes about memory, for it is when we remember God’s past work in our lives – his glory, his grace, and the joyful times in community with his other children – that we find solace. We are not left floundering alone under waves of doubt, but we are given the gift of memory.

The image I, and I would assume others, most often associate with Psalm 42 is that of a deer standing in the midst of stream, but I think a more realistic image is that of a panting deer standing in the middle of a desert looking for water. For we, like such a deer, should anchor our future hope to God’s past goodness while in our present struggle.

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