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Desiring God – Psalm 42

Read the Passage: Psalm 42

Yearning for God (42:1–4)

The superscription to this psalm says that it was written by the sons of Korah. This group of men wrote eleven of the psalms (cf. Pss. 42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88), with Psalm 42 being the first of the eleven that appears in the Psalter. Note that seven of the eleven psalms of the sons of Korah appear in Book Two of the Psalter. As with Psalms 44, 45, and 48, this psalm is described as “A Contemplation of the Sons of Korah” or, as some translations render the term, a “Maskil.” Scholars are not in agreement as to what the word “maskil” means, with “contemplation” being a possible rendering. Korah, a descendant of Levi through Kohath, is most well-known for participating in a rebellion against the Lord and Moses in Numbers 16. While God judged Korah for his sin, killing him and many of his family members, some of Korah’s descendants later became gatekeepers and musicians in God’s sanctuary (cf. Num. 26:11; 1 Chron. 9:17–32).

The exact occasion on which this psalm was written is unknown. Many who believe David to be its real author suggest that this psalm was written during David’s flight from Absalom. In any event, it seems clear that the author is writing during a time of persecution and personal suffering, perhaps being cut off from the ability to worship at God’s Tabernacle. Furthermore, this psalm is characterized by the psalmist’s questioning of God, questioning of himself, and illustrative use of the created order. Note that Psalm 43 is viewed by many to be an appendix to, or perhaps even a continuation of, Psalm 42. In the opening verses of this psalm it is clear that while the author missed and desired to be with God’s people in a place of worship, he mostly longed for the sweetness of God’s personal presence. The author was not desirous of mere religion, but of depth and personal fellowship in his walk with God.

Hoping in God (42:5–8)

The author uses a unique literary device in this psalm, as he questions and rebukes himself for his own despondent questioning of God in Ps. 42:2–3. The author seems to express disappointment with himself for his own lack of faith. Note that the pair of rhetorical self-questions recorded in Ps. 42:5, as well as his own self-exhortation, are repeated verbatim in Ps. 42:11 and then are re-stated again in Ps. 43:5. Clearly, the author’s confidence was at war with his uncertainty, his strength at enmity with his exhaustion, and his hope at odds with his sorrow. This tension is one that many believers feel in the midst of trails—that is, we faint when trials come, knowing full well that God has promised relief and has always been faithful to us. While disappointed with himself, the author exhibits a renewed faith with his confident declaration, “For I shall yet praise him” (Ps. 42:5).

The faith the psalmist expresses at the end of Ps. 42:5 blossoms into a prayer in Ps. 42:6–8. This prayer expresses both doubt and hope. There are several geographical references in Ps. 42:6, including the Jordan River, Mt. Hermon, and Mt. Mizar. While the exact location of Mt. Mizar is unknown, the general area being described is most likely a mountainous region in northern Palestine, near where the Jordan River begins. Those who believe David to be the author of this psalm suggest that the geographical region being described is where David fled when being persecuted by Absalom. In any event, note the contrast between the author’s arid, bowed-down setting in Ps. 42:1–5, and his well-watered, lifted-up setting in Ps. 42:6–7. Despite the hope he feels, in Ps. 42:7 the author admits that he still feels overwhelmed with his circumstances.

Questioning of God (42:9–11)

After his conflicted prayer is Ps. 42:6–8, the author seems to waiver in his faith, as in Ps. 42:9–10 he again questions God on account of his oppression and being reproached by his enemies. From Ps. 42:3, 10 it seems that the author is concerned both about his own situation and his enemies’ questioning of God. Of course, there is nothing wrong with questioning, or even testing God (cf. Mal. 3:10), if such questions come from a pure heart that trusts in God even if it does not understand Him. Observe that the author prefaces his questions in this passage by referring to “God my Rock” (Ps. 42:9). In concluding this psalm, the author reiterates his self-examination that he first stated in Ps. 42:5. Here he questions his own despondency and exhorts himself toward faith in God. In reading Psalm 43 after concluding Psalm 42, it is evident that these two psalms belong together.

Application Questions:

  1. Is it ever okay for believers to question God, His plans, and His work in our lives (cf. Isa. 55:8–9; Rom. 9:20; Heb. 4:16)?
  2. How can we explain the tension in this psalm between the author’s desire to be in God’s presence (cf. Ps. 42:1–2) and his questioning of God (cf. Ps. 42:3, 9–10)?
  3. Can you recall a time when you were closer to God than you currently are? Like the psalmist, do you thirst for God and crave His presence?
  4. Like the psalmist, do you regularly engage in introspection, holding up your own thoughts and actions to the light of God’s Word?
  5. What types of suffering cause you most to question God’s love, power, and care for you? Do you trust God even in the midst faltering faith?
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