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(Psalms 42–72)

Psalm 42

Longing for God and His Help in Distress

To the leader. A Maskil of the Korahites.


As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God.


My soul thirsts for God,

for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

the face of God?


My tears have been my food

day and night,

while people say to me continually,

“Where is your God?”



These things I remember,

as I pour out my soul:

how I went with the throng,

and led them in procession to the house of God,

with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,

a multitude keeping festival.


Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help 6and 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 thunder of your cataracts;

all your waves and your billows

have gone over me.

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1. As the hart crieth for the fountains of water, etc The meaning of these two verses simply is, that David preferred to all the enjoyments, riches, pleasures, and honors of this world, the opportunity of access to the sanctuary, that in this way he might cherish and strengthen his faith and piety by the exercises prescribed in the Law. When he says that he cried for the living God, we are not to understand it merely in the sense of a burning love and desire towards God: but we ought to remember in what manner it is that, God allures us to himself, and by what means he raises our minds upwards. He does not enjoin us to ascend forthwith into heaven, but, consulting our weakness, he descends to us. David, then, considering that the way of access was shut against him, cried to God, because he was excluded from the outward service of the sanctuary, which is the sacred bond of intercourse with God. I do not mean to say that the observance of external ceremonies can of itself bring us into favor with God, but they are religious exercises which we cannot bear to want by reason of our infirmity. David, therefore, being excluded from the sanctuary, is no less grieved than if he had been separated from God himself. He did not, it is true, cease in the meantime to direct his prayers towards heaven, and even to the sanctuary itself; but conscious of his own infirmity, he was specially grieved that the way by which the faithful obtained access to God was shut against him. This is an example which may well suffice to put to shame the arrogance of those who without concern can bear to be deprived of those means, 113113     “Qui ne soucient pas beaucoup d’estre privez de ces moyens.” — Fr. or rather, who proudly despise them, as if it were in their power to ascend to heaven in a moment’s flight; nay, as if they surpassed David in zeal and alacrity of mind. We must not, however, imagine that the prophet suffered himself to rest in earthly elements, 114114     “C’est assavoir, es ceremonies externes commandees en la Loy.” — Fr. marg. “That is to say, in the external ceremonies commanded by the Law.” but only that he made use of them as a ladder, by which he might ascend to God, finding that he had not wings with which to fly thither. The similitude which he takes from a hart is designed to express the extreme ardor of his desire. The sense in which some explain this is, that the waters are eagerly sought by the harts, that they may recover from fatigue; but this, perhaps, is too limited. I admit that if the hunter pursue the stag, and the dogs also follow hard after it, when it comes to a river it gathers new strength by plunging into it. But we know also that at certain seasons of the year, harts, with an almost incredible desire, and more intensely than could proceed from mere thirst, seek after water; and although I would not contend for it, yet I think this is referred to by the prophet here.

The second verse illustrates more clearly what I have already said, that David does not simply speak of the presence of God, but of the presence of God in connection with certain symbols; for he sets before himself the tabernacle, the altar, the sacrifices, and other ceremonies by which God had testified that he would be near his people; and that it behoved the faithful, in seeking to approach God, to begin by those things. Not that they should continue attached to them, but that they should, by the help of these signs and outward means, seek to behold the glory of God, which of itself is hidden from the sight. Accordingly, when we see the marks of the divine presence engraven on the word, or on external symbols, we can say with David that there is the face of God, provided we come with pure hearts to seek him in a spiritual manner. But when we imagine God to be present otherwise than he has revealed himself in his word, and the sacred institutions of his worship, or when we form any gross or earthly conception of his heavenly majesty, we are only inventing for ourselves visionary representations, which disfigure the glory of God, and turn his truth into a lie.

3. My tears have been my bread Here the Psalmist mentions another sharp piercing shaft with which the wicked and malevolent grievously wounded his heart. There can be no doubt that Satan made use of such means as these to fan the flame that consumed him with grief. “What,” we may suppose that adversary to say, “wouldst thou have? Seest thou not that God hath cast thee off? For certainly he desires to be worshipped in the tabernacle, to which you have now no opportunity of access, and from which you are as it were banished.” These were violent assaults, and enough to have overturned the faith of this holy man, unless, supported by the power of the Spirit in a more than ordinary degree, he had made a strong and vigorous resistance. It is evident that his feelings had been really and strongly affected. We may be often agitated, and yet not to such an extent as to abstain from eating and drinking; but when a man voluntarily abstains from food, and indulges so much in weeping, that he daily neglects his ordinary meals, and is continually overwhelmed in sorrow, it is obvious that he is troubled in no light degree; but that he is wounded severely, and even to the heart. 115115     “Mais qu’il est naure a bon escient et jusques au bout.” — Fr. Now, David says, that he did not experience greater relief in any thing whatever than from weeping; and, therefore, he gave himself up to it, just in the same manner as men take pleasure and enjoyment in eating; and this he says had been the case every day, and not only for a short time. Let us, therefore, whenever the ungodly triumph over us in our miseries, and spitefully taunt us that God is against us, never forget that it is Satan who moves them to speak in this manner, in order to overthrow our faith; and that, therefore, it is not time for us to take our ease, or to yield to indifference, when a war so dangerous is waged against us. There is still another reason which ought to inspire us with such feelings, and it is this, that the name of God is held up to scorn by the ungodly; for they cannot scoff at our faith without greatly reproaching him. If, then, we are not altogether insensible, we must in such circumstances be affected with the deepest sorrow.

4. When I remember these things This verse is somewhat obscure, on account of the variation of the tenses in the Hebrew. And yet I have no doubt that the true and natural sense is, that David, when he called to remembrance his former condition, experienced so much the greater sadness by comparing it with his present condition. The remembrance, I say, of the past had no small influence in aggravating his misery, from the thought that he, who had formerly acted the part of a leader and standard-bearer in conducting others to the holy assemblies, should now be debarred from access to the temple. We know that those who have been accustomed to suffering from their childhood become insensible to it, and the very continuance of misery produces in us a certain degree of callousness, so that we cease to think of it, or to regard it as anything unusual. It is different with those who have not been so accustomed to it. And, therefore, it is no wonder if David, who had been not one of the common people, but who had lately occupied a chief place among the princes, and had been leader of the foremost ranks among the faithful, should be more grievously disquieted, when he saw himself utterly cast off, and not admitted to a place even among the lowest. Accordingly, I connect the demonstrative pronoun these with the declaration which follows, namely, that he remembered how he had been accustomed to mingle in the company of the godly, and to lead them to the house of God. To pour out the soul is taken metaphorically by some for to give utterance to his grief; others are of opinion, that it signifies to rejoice greatly, or, as we commonly speak, to be melted or dissolved in joy It appears to me that David rather means to say, that his affections were, as it were, melted within him, whether it were from joy or sorrow. As the soul of man sustains him, so long as it keeps its energies collected, so also it sinks within him, and, as it were, vanishes away, when any of the affections, by excessive indulgence, gains the ascendancy. 118118     “Car ainsi que l’ame de l’homme le soustient tandis qu’elle conserve sa vigueur et la tient comme amasse, aussi elle se fond, et par maniere de dire, s’esvanouit quand quelque affection desmesuree vient a y dominer.” — Fr. Accordingly, he is said to pour out his soul, who is so excited, that his affections lose their vigor, and begin to flow out. David’s language implies, that his soul melted and fainted within him by the greatness of his sorrow, when he thought of the condition from which he had fallen. If any would rather understand it of joy, the language will admit of such an illustration as this: Formerly I took such a delight in walking foremost in the ranks of the people, and leading them in procession to the sanctuary, that my heart melted within me for joy, and I was quite transported with it: if, therefore, I should again be restored to the same happy condition, all my feelings would be ravished with the same delight. I have, however, already stated what appeared to me to be the best exposition. We must not suppose that David had been overwhelmed with the sorrow of the world; but, as in his present misery he discerned the wrath of God, he sorrowed after a godly sort, because, by his own fault, he had provoked the displeasure of God against him. And, even without touching this reason of his sorrow, we see the source from which it proceeded. Even when afflicted by so many personal privations, he is nevertheless grieved only for the sanctuary, thereby showing that it would have been less distressing to him to have been deprived of life, than to continue in a state of exile from the presence of God. And, indeed, the way in which we ought to regulate all our affections is this, That, on the one hand, our joy may have respect to the paternal love and favor of God towards us, and that, on the other, the only cause of our grief may arise from feeling that he is angry with us. This is the “godly sorrow” of which Paul speaks, 2 Corinthians 7:10. By the term number, which in the Hebrew is called סך, sach, David, I have no doubt, intended ranks, or companies in procession; for when they went to the tabernacle on the holy days, they went not in confusion or in crowds, but walked in regular order, (Luke 2:44.)

5 O my soul! why art thou cast down? From this it appears that David contended strongly against his sorrow, lest he should yield to temptation: but what we ought chiefly to observe is, that he had experienced a strong and bitter contest before he obtained the victory over it; or we might rather say, that he was not delivered from it after one alarming assault, but was often called upon to enter into new scenes of conflict. It need not excite our wonder that he was so much disquieted and cast down, since he could not discern any sign of the divine favor towards him. But David here represents himself as if he formed two opposing parties. In so far as in the exercise of faith he relied upon the promises of God, being armed with the Spirit of invincible fortitude, he set himself, in opposition to the affections of his flesh, to restrain and subdue them; and, at the same time, he rebuked his own cowardice and imbecility of heart. Moreover, although he carried on war against the devil and the world, yet he does not enter into open and direct conflict with them, but rather regards himself as the enemy against whom he desires chiefly to contend. And doubtless the best way to overcome Satan is, not to go out of ourselves, but to maintain an internal conflict against he desires of our own hearts. It ought, however, to be observed, that David confesses that his soul was cast down within him: for when our infirmities rise up in vast array, and, like the waves of the sea, are ready to overwhelm us, our faith seems to us to fail, and, in consequence we are so overcome by mere fear, that we lack courage, and are afraid to enter into the conflict. Whenever, therefore, such a state of indifference and faint-heartedness shall seize upon us, let us remember, that to govern and subdue the desires of their hearts, and especially to contend against the feelings of distrust which are natural to all, is a conflict to which the godly are not unfrequently called. But here there are two evils specified, which, however apparently different, yet assail our hearts at the same time; the one is discouragement, and the other disquietude When we are quite downcast, we are not free of a feeling of disquietude, which leads us to murmur and complain. The remedy to both of them is here added, hope in God, which alone inspires our minds, in the first place, with confidence in the midst of the greatest troubles; and, secondly, by the exercise of patience, preserves them in peace. In what follows, David very well expresses the power and nature of hope by these words, I shall yet praise him; for it has the effect of elevating our thoughts to the contemplation of the grace of God, when it is hidden from our view. By the term yet, he confesses that for the present, and in so far as the praises of God are concerned, his mouth is stopped, seeing he is oppressed and shut up on all sides. This, however, does not prevent him from extending his hope to some future distant period; and, in order to escape from his present sorrow, and, as it were, get beyond its reach, he promises himself what as yet there was no appearance of obtaining. Nor is this an imaginary expectation produced by a fanciful mind; but, relying upon the promises of God, he not only encourages himself to cherish good hope, but also promises himself certain deliverance. We can only be competent witnesses to our brethren of the grace of God when, in the first place, we have borne testimony to it to our own hearts. What follows, The helps of his countenance, may be differently expounded. Commentators, for the most art, supply the word for: so that, according to this view, David here expresses the matter or cause of thanksgiving — that yet he would give praise or thanks to God for the help of his countenance This interpretation I readily admit. At the same time, the sense will not be inappropriate if we read the terms separately, thus: helps or salvations are from the countenance of God; for as soon as he is pleased to look upon his people he sets them in safety. The countenance of God is taken for the manifestation of his favor. His countenance then appears serene and gracious to us; as, on the contrary, adversity, like the intervening clouds, darkens or obscures its benign aspect.

6. O my God! my soul is cast down within me. If we suppose that this verse requires no supplement, then it will consist of two distinct and separate sentences. Literally it may be read thus: O my God! my soul is cast down within me, therefore will I remember thee, etc. But the greater number of expositors render the word על-כן, al-ken, by forasmuch as, or because, so that it is employed to express the reason of what is contained in the preceding clause. And certainly it would be very appropriate in this sense, That as often as David, from the land of Jordan, in which he now lay hid as an exile, set himself to think of the sanctuary, his sorrow was so much the more increased. If, however, any would rather, as I have already observed, distinguish this verse into two parts, it must be understood as meaning that David thought of God in his exile, not to nourish his grief, but to assuage it. He did not act the part of those who find no relief in their afflictions but in forgetting God; for although wounded by his hand, he, nevertheless, failed not to acknowledge him to be his physician. Accordingly, the import of the whole verse will be this, I am now living in a state of exile, banished from the temple, and seem to be an alien from the household of God; but this will not prevent me from regarding him, and having recourse to him. I am now deprived of the accustomed sacrifices, of which I stand much in need, but he has not taken from me his word. As, however, the first interpretation is the one more generally received, and this also seems to be added by way of exposition, it is better not to depart from it. David then complains that his soul was oppressed with sorrow, because he saw himself cast out of the Church of God. At the same time, there is in these words a tacit contrast; 119119     “C’est a dire, consideration d’autres choses a l’opposite.” — Fr. marg. “That is to say, the consideration of other things quite opposite.” as if he had said, It is not the desire to be restored to my wife, or my house, or any of my possessions, which grieves me so much as the distressing consideration, that I now find myself prevented from taking part in the service of God. We ought to learn from this, that although we are deprived of the helps which God has appointed for the edification of our faith and piety, it is, nevertheless, our duty to be diligent in stirring up our minds, that we may never suffer ourselves to be forgetful of God. But, above all, this is to be observed, that as in the preceding verse we have seen David contending courageously against his own affections, so now we here see by what means he steadfastly maintained his ground. He did this by having recourse to the help of God, and taking refuge in it as in a holy sanctuary. And, assuredly, if meditation upon the promises of God do not lead us to prayer, it will not have sufficient power to sustain and confirm us. Unless God impart strength to us, how shall we be able to subdue the many evil thoughts which constantly arise in our minds? The soul of man serves the purpose, as it were, of a workshop to Satan in which to forge a thousand methods of despair. And, therefore, it is not without reason that David, after a severe conflict with himself, has recourse to prayer, and calls upon God as the witness of his sorrow. By the land of Jordan is to be understood that part of the country which, in respect of Judea, was beyond the river of that name. This appears still more clearly from the word Hermonim or Hermons. Hermon was a mountainous district, which extended to a considerable distance; and because it had several tops, was called in the plural number Hermonim. 120120     Just as we say the Alps and the Appenines. The Hermons formed part of the ridge of the high hills called Antilibanus. The sources of the Jordan are in the vicinity. Davidson reads, “From the land of Jordan, even of the Hermons; the two espressions signifying the same district.” — Sacred Hermeneutics, p. 667.

Perhaps David also has purposely made use of the plural number on account of the fear by which he was forced frequently to change his place of abode, and wander hither and thither. As to the word Mizar, some suppose that it was not the proper name of a mountain, and therefore translate it little, supposing that there is here an indirect comparison of the Hermons with the mountain of Sion, as if David meant to say that Sion, which was comparatively a small hill, was greater in his estimation than the lofty Hermons; but it appears to me that this would be a constrained interpretation.

7. Depth calleth unto depth These words express the grievousness, as well as the number and long continuance, of the miseries which he suffered; as if he had said, I am oppressed not only with one kind of misery, but various kinds of distress return one after another, so that there seems to be neither end nor measure to them. In the first place, 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. In the second part of the verse, he continues the same metaphor, when he says, that all the waves and floods of God have passed over his head By this he means that he had been overwhelmed, and as it were swallowed up by the accumulation of afflictions. It ought, however, to be observed, that he designates the cruelty of Saul, and his other enemies, floods of God, that in all our adversities we may always remember to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God which afflicts us. But it is of importance to go beyond this, and to consider, that if it should please God to rain with violence upon us, as soon as he shall have opened his sluices or waterspouts, there will be no termination to our miseries till he is appeased; for he has in his power means marvellous and unknown for executing his vengeance against us. Thus, when once his anger is kindled against us, there will be not only one depth to swallow us up, but depth will call unto depth. And as the insensibility of men is such, that they do not stand in awe of the threatenings of God, to the degree in which they ought, whenever mention is made of his vengeance, let us recall this verse to our recollection.