Bible Blog 2143

Today I begin another project of translation and comment: the second book of psalms which begins with Psalm 42. I have previously completed book 1,that is, Psalms 1-41.


Just as the deer gasps for the watercourse

my soul cries for you my God;

my soul thirsts for God, the lifegiving God.

When shall I enter and see the face of God?

For me, tears have been my bread day and night

as all the time they ask me, “Where is your God?”

As I pour out my soul I remember this:

how I went in procession with the crowd

into God’s House with the voice of joy and thanksgiving

a dancing company.

Why are you beaten down, my soul?

Why are you clamouring inside me?

Put your trust in God,

For I will once more praise him

Rescuer of my honour, and my God.

My soul is beaten down inside me

so I bring you to mind from the land of Jordan

from Hermon and the Small Hill.

Deep cries out to deep

with the voice of your whirlpools;

all your breakers and your billows 

have swept over me.

The Lord appoints his lovingkindess in the daytime

and at night a song is with me

an entreaty to the God of my life.

To God my rock I say,

”Why have you neglected me?

Why do I wear mourning 

under the enemy’s oppression?

Shattering my bones my adversaries taunt me

by asking all the time,

”Where is your God?”

Why are you beaten down, my soul?

Why are you clamouring inside me?

Put your trust in God

for I will once more praise him

rescuer of my honour, and my God.


Breakers and billows

This eloquent complaint is a complex structure with a repeated refrain which admits  pain but encourages trust in God. The problem is an old one: what is the point of God if you are abandoned to the violence of evil people – indeed it is the same question raised by Pslam 22 which two of the gospels put on Jesus’ lips on the cross, “Why have you abandoned me?” Here the bitterness of that question os balanced  a) by memories of joyful worship in the temple,  and b) by trust in God’s chesed, his pledged love for his people.

The deer is probably a roebuck but I have left it as a deer. I cannot see where some translations get “hind” (female deer) because the word in this Psalm is masculine. The verb is not abstract like “longs” but concrete like “pants” or “gasps” or “cries” which in turn makes vivid the emotion of the psalmist’s soul. This desire for God is visceral. I have translated the Hebrew chai as “life-giving” rather than the usual “living” because the Psalmist intends a similarity to the water sought by the deer.

As in many Psalms the language of “seeing the face” of God is not mystical but rooted in the worship of the Temple through which God reveals himself. The presence of God experienced communally in the Temple and in the Torah is the primary fact of faith in Israel. The psalmist is both comforted and challenged by the memory of happy worship. We are meant to understand that the psalmist has no immediate access to “seeing God’s face” as he is at a distance from Jerusalem, and he is suffering, not only from an unnamed misfortune, but also from those who reasonably ask where his God has got to. Is his God, like many others, effective only on his own patch?

The refrain summons the psalmist’s soul to answer for its depression. It is not just down but heaten down, it is not merely disquieted, but agitating perhaps even whimpering like a hurt animal. The psalmist orders his soul to keep faith with his God, for he has no doubt that he will again praise God in his Temple.

The situation of the psalmist is made clearer: he/she is not in Judah, but north and east, near Jordan. We are given no reason for this “exile”. Then follows a powerful evocation of trouble using the cosmic imagery of the book of Genesis. The deep, “tehom” is the chaos upon which God’s creative spirit moved in the beginning. Here, although there is no mention of God’s spirit, somehow the breakers and billows, while they sweep over the psalmist, also arouse trust. This checks with my own pastoral experience as a minister of the church, that many parishioners have told me how, in the midst of the worst that could happen, they found strength.

Here the psalmist finds that although he cannot yet go to the Temple God has made 24 hour provision for his people wherever they are. God’s “chesed”, the lovingkindness promised to his people in the covenant, also puts a song of confidence in the believer’s heart, that it is worthwhile making a complaint to God. Indeed this very psalm may be that complaint.

The scorn of the adversaries is depicted as devastating, it is like the deliberate fracturing of bones. But trust in God again is expressed in the stubborn refrain, which questions the believer’s clamouring soul rather than God. The psalmist above all urges himself to hold on: one day he will again praise God in the Temple.


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