Text: Psalm 42

As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
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?”

One of the distinctives of our church is a strong emphasis on singing the psalms. We believe that the Biblical psalms were meant to be sung, and so we try to regularly work them into our worship services. Presbyterians and Reformed churches were once known far and wide for this practice, but in our day very few continue to make it a priority. For some of you, this church may be the first church where you have ever experienced regular psalm-singing. For myself, I first sang the psalms when I first attended a CREC church in 2005, and the experience has forever changed my worship and piety.

The psalm for our sermon today is Psalm 42, and I would guess that it’s probably one of the favorite ones that we sing in our hymn books. However, it has also gained significant familiarity in the broader Christian world through the contemporary worship song “As the Deer.” Many of you have probably heard that version. It appears regularly in campus ministries, and I sang it at my time in Reformed University Fellowship at the University of Southern Mississippi. It goes like this, “As the Deer panteth for the waters so my soul longeth after Thee. You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you.”

“As the Deer” is a very popular song, but it has some big weaknesses, and I think it is important for us to notice them. When we compare it over and against the biblical Psalm 42, we can see why singing the psalms as they were originally written is so important. Psalm 42 is about much more than having a passion and love inside of you. It actually tackles a dark subject, spiritual grief and depression, and it holds up the desire for God as the solution to that grief and depression.

Psalm 42 vs. “As the Deer”

When you read the lyrics to “As the Deer,” you will notice that the emotions and religious affections are rather one-sided. This is typical of modern praise and worship music, as the only emotions that get talked about with any regularity are love and joy. Indeed, “As the Deer” is all about the fervent passion of the singer, how much they desire God. Though the language of family and brotherhood is used, the combination of the emphasis on desire and the tune give it a bit of a romantic mood. The lyrics repeatedly say “I long,” “I want,” and “I love you more than anything, so much more than anything.” The whole point is that the human singer has a very deep and intense love, and the lyrics describe that love in detail. This couldn’t be more different from the book of Psalms.

Look at the text of Psalm 42 in the Bible. What is Psalm 42 about? Is it all about David’s love and desire and how that desire is so intense and passionate? No, not at all. Psalm 42 is about David’s struggle with depression and affliction (vs. 2, 5, 6, 11). We see that he has enemies (vs. 10). Because of the opposition coming from his own fears as well as outside enemies, David turns to God for his very sustenance. Those opening lines take on a whole new meaning when read in context. The deer “pants,” not because he is in love, but because he is about to die. The word in Hebrew for “pants” or “longs for” is a word which originally meant “to cry out.” The context clarifies that the crying out is the longing for water, but it also shows us that this is a desperate sort of longing. You might think of a deer who has been running and is at the point of exhaustion. He needs the water or else he will die. This is what David is writing about, and it is what he is going through in his life. He is on the run from enemies and even his own troubled heart, and so he turns to the waters of life which are found in God and the divine worship.

David as His Own Enemy

When we hear those famous opening lines, it is important to notice that David does not only thirst for a feeling or some sort of emotional comfort. No, he wants God’s very presence. As he says, “When shall I come and appear before God?” (vs. 2b). This parallels what David says in Psalm 63:

O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory. (Ps. 63:1-2)

Just like in Psalm 63, Psalm 42 has a problem. David cannot satisfy his thirst because he is separated from God. We do not know the exact reason. It could be because of his sin, though if that were the case we should expect some mention of it and of repentance. It’s more likely that this psalm was written during wartime, when David would have been separated from the tabernacle because he was away from Jerusalem. And this separation from divine worship is deeply troubling to David. Perhaps he has been experiencing defeat, or his friends have been turning against him. When you read through 1st and 2nd Samuel, you see plenty of occasions where David could have felt this way.

Whatever the exact reason, David’s separation from God troubles him to the point of depression. Psalm 42:3 explains it like this:

My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”

The fact that David’s tears have been his “food” shows us the state of his grief. Depressed people often lose their appetite. David is crying too much to focus on basic needs. And the “they” who ask “Where is your God?” are also interesting. It is possible that this refers to those enemies who are mentioned below. But it is also possible that the “they” are David’s tears. This would mean that the question is coming from David himself. He would then be letting us know that his grief and depression is leading him to doubt, even to doubt his God.

Next, David remembers when he used to be able to worship 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. (vs. 4)

Notice that David is thinking about public worship. The “multitude” that kept the “pilgrim feast,” is a reference to a holy assembly and convocation. David is referring to one of the levitical feasts of the tabernacle worship, and he “pours his soul out” because he can no longer go to the tabernacle and partake of the feast.

This should teach us of the importance of the public worship of God. David does not say, “Oh it’s ok. I can worship God anywhere!” It’s true, of course, that you can worship God anywhere. But this doesn’t mean that the official public worship of the church is unimportant or a kind of “take it or leave it” option. No, for David the public worship is the most valuable worship. It’s what he misses. When it is taken away from David, he is driven to mourning.

Some folks will ask, at this point, whether this emphasis on worship hasn’t changed with the transition to the New Covenant. Since the temple and the sacrificial system have been fulfilled in Christ, aren’t we now permitted to worship God however we wish? I had a conversation very similar to this earlier in the week. A very well-intentioned older woman told me that she and her husband prefer to spend their Sunday mornings riding motorcycles on scenic highways. “We decided that we’d rather be thinking about God on the bike than in church thinking about the bike,” she said. That’s a kind of clever line, but is it actually what the Bible teaches? What does the New Testament say about this?

The New Testament certainly does say that animal sacrifices have ceased and that worship is not limited to any specific geographical center. That is true. However, corporate worship is still commanded. See for example, Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” The word used in that phrase “the assembling of ourselves” is literally “the synagoguing of ourselves.” In addition to this, we can point out that a person cannot very easily submit to their elders if they do not attend church. You are also not permitted to celebrate the Lord’s Supper apart from the whole people of God, and so it is clear that the New Testament continues to hold up the corporate worship of the people of God as essential to the life of the Christian. Many things about how we worship have changed, but we are nevertheless still commanded to attend formal worship with the people of God in a regular way.

The Cure

Now, what is the solution to David’s grief? He is separated from worship and he feels separated from God. What does he do about it? Well, he begins to talk to himself. And in the course of talking to himself, he is lead to talk to God. Listen to how he explains it:

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. (Ps. 42:5)

This is important. When we are confronted with depress and soul sickness, we cannot allow our internal state to have the last word. We need to learn to question ourselves and even to argue with ourselves. Never forget 1 John 3:20, “For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.” Your heart doesn’t get the last word.

After wrestling with himself, David then turns to God in prayer. Notice that he repeats a number of the things that he’s just said a bit earlier. He tells God about his soul’s struggle, he talks about his memories, and then he begins to call upon God to do something about all of it.

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. (Ps. 42:6)

David’s “soul is cast down,” and so he remembers God, and this remembrance actually makes God present in a way:

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. (Ps. 42:7-8)

David tells us that he prays, and then goes on to show us the content of his prayer. This gives us a helpful model for prayer in our lives. Though David is appropriately respectful, he doesn’t shrink back from demanding that God take action:

I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” (vs. 9)

Basically David is asking God, “What’s the deal?” Are you still there? Why am I being oppressed by my enemies and driven to mourning? Are you going to do something about this?

David then goes one to explain the nature of his distress:

As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” (vs. 10)

Are these new enemies? Perhaps. But they might simply be a continued reference to his tears, the ones asking the same question up in verse 3.

David’s answer is again the same. He tells himself to remember God and to trust in His salvation:

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. (vs. 11)


There are a number of important things that we can learn from this psalm. The first might seem obvious, but many Christians struggle with it all the same, and so we need to make it often. Believers can struggle with grief and depression. David seems to battle sorrow throughout his whole life, and there are several psalms which illustrate the depths of his grief and anxiety. This fact, as well as other biblical examples, teaches us that depression by itself is not a sin. It is, rather, an affliction. What is a sin is the wrong response to depression. Holding on to it, not accepting comfort, or projecting your anger and hurt onto God are common sins which often come from depression. Resist those kinds of reactions. But depression can also be an opportunity to turn to God, and this is what we see in Psalm 42. David does not deny his feelings, but he redirects them away from himself to God.

The second point that we learn is that we must tell God about our grief and doubt. Like David, we need to take our issues to the Lord, even if our tears mock us and cause us to question things we confess to be religious truth. God already knows, and so you might as well tell Him. Use prayer as a time to confess your sins, your struggles, and your doubts. You should wrestle with God through prayer. Argue. Make demands. God is pleased by our passionate struggle with him through prayer.

Finally, use worship as a means of grace. And I do mean formal public worship, the kind which you perform in church alongside other Christians. David longs for the public worship of God. He is sad when he cannot make it to the tabernacle. Worship is where God has promised to meet His people. So come to worship in order to meet God. Let it be a time where God washes over you and changes you, restoring your soul and quenching your thirst by filling it with His living waters.

Indeed, Jesus says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink” (John 7:37). The church, it is said, is a hospital for sinners, and the Lord’s Day worship is a fountain of living water for those about to die of thirst. Come here, and drink.

Or, as David put it:

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.

Let us pray.

Category Psalms
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