From Joy, Despair, and Hope: Reading Psalms
Psalm 27 is a poem of increasing disintegration: its penultimate thought expresses the felt absence of God even as its ending articulates a faithful expectation and hope. This swing of emotions is imitated in Psalm 42. Like many other psalms, it does not trace a movement in a single direction but rather gives voice to a balancing of emotions; self-doubt and turmoil and expressed alongside faithful declarations, and this turmoil becomes the explicit subject of the psalm. We are party to an inner dialogue in which the poet constantly moves back and forth, enunciating a yearning for God on one hand, and despair as to his condition on the other. Readers understand that we are confronting the inner life of a torn soul. Like Psalm 27, Psalm 42 expresses a central plea to see God, and that unfulfilled wish becomes almost a sickness of the soul.
The setting of Psalm 42 is personal exile; the temple in Jerusalem, the center of religious life, is memory. Exile is not merely a physical condition but is a spiritual crisis. Indeed, homelessness ought never to be understood as simply a failure to find shelter, rather to be without a home is to be unanchored, at sea, lost. Psalm 90 begins, “the Lord is my refuge”: when I feel the presence of God, then I am at home in the universe, but without that I am lost in the world, I am adrift. The loss of the experience of God’s presence is felt as a terrifying emptiness within ourselves. Similarly, exile from the temple is a loss of the ability to sense God’s closeness and therefore an experience of losing one’s center.
1 Of the conductor, A maskil to the Korahites. [a Levitical family]
2 As a stag yearns for a stream suddenly bursting forth, so my soul yearns for You, O God.
3 My soul thirsts for God, the living God, when will I come and appear before God?
4 Night and day, my bread was my tears, for each day people said to me, “Where is your God?”
5 This I recall as I pour out my soul: how I would travel by pavilion, wending my way to God’s house, joining with celebrating crowds singing joyously
6 Why are you bent over, O my soul? [the whole person] Why are you moaning within me? Wait upon God, for I still acknowledge Him. Victories
7 My God, my soul is bent over, as I think of You in the land of Jordan and Hermon, on Mount Mitzar,
8 where deep calls to deep amidst the sound of Your cataracts, and all Your waves and breakers pour over me.
9 By day, may Adonai command His love for me, and in the evening, may He sing lullabies to me—that is my prayer to the God of my being,
10 that would I say to God, my rock. Why have you forgotten me, why must I walk in darkness, oppressed by my enemies?
11 Slaughtering me to the bone, my besiegers ridicule me, as each day, they ask, “Where is your God?”
12 Why are you bent over, O my soul? Why are you moaning within me? Await God for I still acknowledge Him. Victory will go before me and my God.
From the very first we are greeted with an image of intense but unmet desire. An animal searches for water, instinctively knowing that a spring may suddenly appear anywhere, bubbling forth unpredictably. The animals’ thirst drives it on, now searching here, now there. Sometimes it simply stands still, listening for the gurgling sound that will reveal the location of the surging water. At other times it steps slowly, its face to the ground, as if trying to sniff out what it seeks. Unsatisfied, the increasing thirst drives the animal wildly forward. One can watch it on the hilltop, now with its antlers bent down to the ground, now racing onward its antlers plunging forward.
This thirst-driven seeking is a mixture of hope and pain. If I were to translate the animal’s search into human terms, I would say something like this, as hopeful remonstrance tempers moments of desperation: I am conscious of my lack, of my need; and, at the same time, all my experience tells me that my satisfaction is to be found if I but look precisely enough. Keep looking; it is there. You can feel those emotions as you watch the animal gracefully cocking its head from side-to-side at the crest of the hill, now sniffing the ground, now looking from side-to-side, finally fixing its face forward. In the Judean desert, aquifers carry water from the mountains. It may not have rained in the desert, but suddenly a spring bubbles up, rushing water spills down ravines, as the rain that has fallen in the mountains rushes underground, carried down to the sea. No one can anticipate where and when these rushing waters will appear, but life in the desert depends on them. I am thirst-driven, too, says the poet,
so my soul yearns for You, O God.
But my sense of deprivation is worse than that of the animal, for my condition is not merely a physical torment, but my lack is spiritual; it is seen as a condemnation of you, God.
Night and day, my bread was my tears,
for each day people said to me, “Where is your God?”
For the one in exile, the truths known in the soul cannot be communicated to those at hand. There was an experience of home that cannot be captured in this foreign land – the tastes, the smell, even the quality of light was different. When I describe my religious life to the people here, they know nothing of what it was like to be with God, to experience that joy of feeling in God’s presence, being in God’s care. And so the poet expounds on the memory of home.
This I recall as I pour out my soul:
how I would travel by pavilion,
wending my way to God’s house,
joining with celebrating crowds singing joyously and thankfully.
Some of the Hebrew is difficult, and disagreements about the exact translation have continued since ancient times. And yet the sense is unmistakable. There was a time when I felt I could reach God; I remember the rejoicing on a holiday in the temple. The entire congregation felt moved by the moment, we all felt we were seeing God. The author contrasts this remembered time when all was right in the world with a current sense of abandonment: I was a man of wealth then, traveling to Jerusalem in luxury, joining the crowds coming to express their thanks; religious life was filled with joyful singing. Now, though, the author sits on the other side of the Jordan, in the mountains of Lebanon beyond the Galilee. Home can only be dreamed of. Here everything feels oppositional. The poet uses an image that turns standard biblical metaphors on their head: he talks of the water flowing in the mountains, of the noise it makes as it breaks over the rocks. It can be seen as an image of plenty, of the glory of God’s creation, and indeed the poet says that, “deep calls to deep,” thus echoing other biblical references to the way nature celebrates its creator. Yet his experience of these sounds is that they are dangerous: he is caught in the waterfall and is in fear of drowning.
my soul is bent over,
as I think of You,
in the land of Jordan and Hermon,
on Mount Mitzar,
where deep calls to deep
amidst the sound of Your cataracts,
and all your waves and breakers pour over me.
The wished-for water with which the poem began is a threat rather than a blessing. Now, high in the mountains amid the waterfalls, at the source of the region’s flowing water, it rushes with such force that there is no succor, only danger. These are not the still, placid, waters to which the tender shepherd of Psalm 23 leads her flock. Rather these are waters that may drown the sheep. Nature, God’s creation, is an enemy rather than a friend. We know of no mountain named Mitzar, and the name may simply be a play on the Hebrew, tza-ar, meaning “trouble” and “pain.” The poet is in the land of pain, in exile, and in exile even that which was meant for salvation, water, becomes an instrument of destruction, something terrifying, something to be feared.
All the poet has now is the memory of a time when the nearness to God was palpable. Even if God is not present at this moment, there was a time when the presence of God was firmly sensed. I know that. I once experienced it; it can come again. On the other hand, that very knowledge is painful: once I felt the joy of the successful pilgrimage; now I experience only my lack. I can never make peace with this exile, for I know what the good life is. I once experienced it. Memory, that function so central to biblical theology, to Israel’s existence, is a two-edged sword. When feelings of loss overwhelm us, recalling even once-joyous moments can be painful rather than consoling.
But the poet does not dwell on this distress. Instead he loses himself in a world of dream:
By day, may Adonai command His love for me,
and in the evening, may He sing lullabies to me—
that is my prayer to the God of my being,
that would I say to God, my rock.
The wish is for an idealized future. The past is a memory of bringing gifts to God, of the congregation singing, the future is an idealized image of God acting lovingly towards the faithful, of God’s singing lullabies at night so that sleep is easy, untroubled. Instead of Levites singing to God, God will take up song and sing to his creation, the pilgrim.
This is the only time the poem where God is addressed by God’s personal name, Adonai. It is also the only moment in the poem where the direct address to God shifts from lament to plea. The poet specifically describes this moment as one of prayer. Because of these critical differences from the rest of the poem, some scholars have argued that this line is a later interpolation, a pious gloss by an interpreter. I prefer to see it as intrinsic, an integral part of the twisting and turning of mood that takes place in almost every line of the poem. Prayer and complaint, hope and dread, joy and pain, live side-by-side in this poem.
In fact, this momentary, touching image of security, peace, and calm, of God singing to the child at night, is followed by the most violent images: light is gone; murder threatens.
Why have you forgotten me,
why must I walk in darkness,
oppressed by my enemies?
Slaughtering me to the bone,
my besiegers ridicule me,
as each day, they ask, “Where is your God?”
The most piercing attack the enemies perpetrate against the poet is the question. “Where is your God”? I trust in You, I have faith in You, You are a stronghold, the very center of my life, yet You are nowhere to be found. The distress caused by Your absence breaks my bones, makes me feel as if I walk through a world without light, as if my throat is squeezed to choking. God is absent and so the poet declaims: I have no correlate for my faith.
Exile means that I am condemned to hold onto a remembered truth that I find impossible to demonstrate.
The expressed yearning for God has both an inner correlate and an objective manifestation. There is an inner sense of life being bereft, no longer touched by God. The internal abandonment is matched by an outer abandonment: the author also insists that his enemies say, “Where is your God?” Presumably, in addition to the poet’s longing for a personal revelation, there needs to be some outer manifestation as well: God’s appearance would mean that they would see that my life is not empty, that I prosper, that society reflects a divine order in some way – most especially that justice is served, that religious institutions reflect the holiness to which they are committed, so that we all, once again, proceed to the temple joyfully, as one congregation. These latter possibilities are hardly even hinted at in this poem. I presume them on the basis of other biblical and especially psalmic references: here only vague allusions are offered. What is central is the internal yearning, the hope for God’s presence.
Now the poet repeats the refrain that has become the chorus of the psalm with its central line: “Await God, for I still acknowledge Him.” God’s presence is not only a memory, a reality that is past, but there is a life with God in the very act of faithfulness.
Exile will not be forever. And here the poet appeals to the same frame of mind that ended Psalm 27: hope. The Hebrew word used here, ho-hi-li meaning “wait” is synonymous with the word used in Psalm 27, ka-veh, meaning “hope.” Ho—hi-li is similarly used in Genesis to describe Noah’s waiting for the land to dry up. One waits with very precise expectation. Every good thing needs time to unfold. The stag searches for water; what wonderful pleasure when he finds it! At such a moment, perhaps he can hear singing in his ear. Wait and know that a time of deliverance is coming. Your hope is not based on nothing. After all, there once was a time when joy was palpable. Will it not come again?
The line arguing that one remain hopeful, faithful, occurs twice in the poem, but in the last line the phrasing is slightly different from what had appeared earlier. In verse 6, the poet says, “Victories precede Him”; that is, God’s entry into the world will mean that evildoers will finally be overturned. But now, in verse 12, the author says, “Victory will go before me and my God.” God’s appearance will justify me and all I have waited for. Your presence, God, would not only be Your victory, it would be mine.
But this line can also be read independently and thus can imply an even further assertion: my faithfulness already constitutes my victory. My own face reflects the knowledge that hope in God is my salvation, and so its outer visage now is one of victory. I have been faithful, and so I have already won over my enemies. My faithfulness is my victory, God, and Yours.