George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalms 42 and 43

1. One Psalm

What wild imagination was it that broke up these 16 verses into two psalms? That they belong together is easily demonstrated:

a) Psalm 43 is the only psalm in Book 2 without a title.
b) Themes and refrains (42:5,11; 43:5) are virtually the same (see later commentary on the deliberate small variation).

2. Structure

The refrain, in 42:5,11 and 43:5, makes the three sections, all on the same theme, very easy to sort out. Further division or analysis is really unnecessary.

For other psalms with recurring refrains, see 46, 49, 59, 80, and 107.

3. Title

The occurrence of For the Chief Musician at the head of this psalm strongly suggests that the division of the 150 psalms into five books was done a long while after the psalter was assembled, at a time when the meaning of the titles had already been lost; for this commonly-repeated expression is really a subscription to the preceding psalm (Introduction, Chapter 1). Here it is the division into books which has made it into an “orphan”.

For the sons of Korah is an unexpected label which calls for some sort of link with Numbers 16. Evidently when Korah died because of his rebellion, his family did not (contrast Josh. 7:15,24), but rather departed from his tent in the nick of time (Num. 16:26; 26:11). This suggests a deliberate and public disowning of their father’s rebellion.

In later times Korah’s descendants became famous in Israel: Samuel was a Korahite (1 Chron. 6:22-28,33-38: “Shemuel” = Samuel); his grandson was Heman the singer (vv. 31-48). The Korahites were keepers of the temple gates (1 Chron. 9:19; cp. Psa. 84:10) and singers (2 Chron. 20:19). The psalms for the sons of Korah invariably reflect a serious interest in the affairs of God’s temple and formal worship.

The commentary here will show that all the Korah psalms belong to the time of Hezekiah, when estranged brethren of the northern kingdom were encouraged to renew loyalty to the temple in Jerusalem.

One of the leading Levites in Hezekiah’s reformation was another Korah (or Kore) (2 Chron. 31:14) — and it is just possible that it is his name, and that of his sons, that is preserved in the psalm titles.

4. Historical setting

A number of details seem to suggest the time of Absalom’s rebellion (see Par. 6), but the even greater appropriateness to the reign of Hezekiah, plus the fact that all the Korah psalms fit into that period, makes this the important reference of the psalm. It is not unlikely that here, once again, is a psalm of David which was adapted by Hezekiah (under inspiration, it need not be said) to his own special circumstances. This latter emphasis is now developed.

As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks. The figure is that of an eager thirsty animal in time of drought (cp. the figure in Joel 1:20; Jer. 14:1-6) somehow sensing water below ground and yet having no access to it. How fitting to Hezekiah, prevented by his unclean illness from participating in the temple worship of Yahweh. Compare also Psa. 63:1.
With this verse compare Psa. 84:2 and Isa. 55:1.

The living God usually means: The God of the living creatures (the Cherubim): Deut. 5:26; Josh. 3:10; 1 Sam. 17:26; 2 Kings 19:4,16; Hos. 1:10; 2 Cor. 3:3; 6:16; Heb. 3:12; 9:14; 12:22; Rev. 7:2. Compare the prayer of Hezekiah in Isa. 37:16,17.

Appear before God. Literally, behold the faces (Cherubim) of God. The king’s leprosy seemed to forbid him this privilege, for all time, of attending the festivals of the Lord.
My tears. Hezekiah again, in Isa. 38:5.

My meat (food) day and night. No peace offering of fellowship with his God was possible. ‘Instead of eating, I weep.’

Where is thy God? The constant scornful reproach made by Rabshakeh: e.g. Isa. 36:7,15.
Every phrase here is a lovely echo of Hezekiah’s great Passover (2 Chron. 30) and, of course, those which had followed annually.

I pour out my soul, like the blood of the Passover lamb, at the base of the altar (Psa. 22:14). Nevertheless, “I shall yet praise him” (v. 5).

Gone with the multitude: s.w. Isa. 38:15: “to go softly”. “I went in procession” (RV mg.). “I marched in the ranks” (NEB).

Holyday. A reference especially to Passover.
I shall yet praise him. Faith in the promised recovery: 2 Kings 20:8.

The help of his countenance. The high-priestly blessing: Num. 6:26.
Therefore will I remember thee from the land of Jordan and the Hermonites (plural: the great Hermon, with its several mighty peaks). The remote parts of the Land sending their representatives to join in Hezekiah’s Passover.

The hill Mizar is completely unknown today. The name may signify ‘the mount of humiliation’: Samaria, which had been captured and destroyed by the Assyrians at the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign? Even this center of disloyalty was not without its devotees coming to Jerusalem.
Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts. Commentators have indulged in all kinds of “spiritualizing”; but initially the words had, as we might expect, a quite practical meaning. Waterspouts is the same word as the gutter which Joab climbed (2 Sam. 5:8; 1 Chron. 11:6). It was the identical underground pool which became the starting point of Hezekiah’s conduit (2 Chron. 32:30); but “waterspouts” (plural) is used because the conduit was begun simultaneously from both ends — from the Virgin’s Fountain and (1,200 cubits to the southeast) from Siloam. The word deep is used by poetic metonymy for the workmen deep underground. Hezekiah’s inscription, now in Istanbul, has this detail:

“This is the story of the piercing through. While (the stone-cutters were swinging their) axes, each towards his fellow, and while there were yet three cubits to be pierced through (there was heard) the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was a crevice (or cleft, or fissure) on the right... ”

Thus deep calleth unto deep can be taken quite literally. That conduit became, humanly speaking, the lifeline of Jerusalem at the time of the siege by Sennacherib’s host.

All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me. Hezekiah felt himself swamped by adversity: his incurable sickness, the remorseless Assyrian aggression, the futile politics of his statesmen, desertion by his army... the list of troubles was endless (see especially Isa. 8:7,8).
His lovingkindness in the daytime... his song in the night. In the daytime there was the vision of the Glory of the Lord, causing the shadow of the sun-dial to shift backwards (Isa. 38:7,8); here was the token of renewal of life for the king. And in the night of Passover there was a song of deliverance (Isa. 30:29, and entire context there).

The God of my life. How eloquent this phrase now becomes!
God my rock refers to the solid rock (still to be seen in the temple area) which was the core and foundation of the altar of burnt-offering (see Introduction: Chapter 7 and H.A. Whittaker, Bible Studies, pp. 111-116).

The oppression of the enemy. This is very explicit: the Assyrian enemy, of course.
My enemies reproach me... Where is thy God? This was the shouted propaganda campaign by Rabshakeh, on behalf of his royal master, before the walls of Jerusalem; and the letter direct from Sennacherib: 2 Kings 18:17-19:19.
Hope thou in God. This word hope often has the idiomatic meaning: hope of having children (see Psa. 16:9, references). One of Hezekiah’s great griefs was that at this time he had no son. It seemed that the perpetual promise to David would come to nought (132:11,17; Isa. 38:19).

Note here, also, how the help of thy countenance (v. 5) becomes the health of my countenance. (Modernist commentators say that the refrain should be the same in all three places, having been distorted in v. 5. But for more examples of this kind of variation, see 49:12,20; 59:6,14.)
An ungodly nation. Hebrew goi identifies a Gentile nation — the Assyrian invader.

The deceitful and unjust man is Sennacherib, who accepted tribute and signed a treaty, and then pressed his invasion as hard as ever.
Thy light and thy truth. This may be a plea for God to give a clear directive by means of Urim (= lights) and Thummim (= perfection). For a full discussion of this possibility, see Whittaker, Samuel, Saul and David, pp. 305-310. But another possibility is that “light” refers to the Shekinah Glory, God’s sign of the king’s imminent recovery (v. 3b), and “truth” is an allusion to the great Promise to David which Hezekiah hoped to see continued through himself.
Then will I go unto the altar of God: 2 Kings 20:8; Isa. 37:14-20.

Upon the harp: Isa. 38:20: “my songs to the stringed instruments”.

5. Messianic reference

On at least two occasions Jesus specifically quoted the refrain of this psalm (42:5,11; 43:5) concerning himself:

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? The LXX is quoted in Matt. 26:38, in Gethsemane, when his spirits were at their lowest.
My soul is cast down within me. The LXX again, somewhat different in the Greek, is quoted in John 12:27, in the apostle John’s nearest approach to a Gethsemane record (cp. also 13:21).

As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks. “With desire have I desired to eat this Passover [and to drink this cup!] with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15,17,18).
Where is thy God? The Lord’s adversaries were persistent in their demands for a sign from heaven: Matt. 16:1.
Because of the hostility shown him, the time came when Jesus could no longer find satisfaction in worship in the temple along with his people (John 7:1-7).
From the land of Jordan. First he withdrew beyond Jordan, and there he abode (John 10:39,40). But from thence he returned to the vicinity of Jerusalem upon hearing of the illness of Lazarus (John 11:6,7,16).

The Hermonites. The most northern limits of the Land, where Jesus spent considerable time: e.g. Matt. 16:13. But from thence he also returned.

The hill Mizar. Golgotha, the place of his humiliation?
All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me. A “baptism” of suffering (Matt. 20:22; Mark 10:38). Compare the language of Psa. 69:1,2; 124:4.
Why hast thou forgotten me? Compare 22:1.

Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? Others rejoiced at God’s blessings in his ministry, but he faced the prospect of being swamped by evil (Luke 12:50).
The health of my countenance. The help of God’s countenance — the angel of the Lord strengthening him: Luke 22:43 — became the health of his own countenance. This might explain John 18:6: his enemies falling backward before the brightness of his countenance in Gethsemane.
An ungodly nation (goi) can be read as hinting that, by rejecting him, Israel would become a cast-off people — like the Gentiles!

The deceitful and unjust man = Caiaphas.
The ultimate vindication and triumph over the forces of evil: thy light, thy truth... let them lead me... God my exceeding joy... I shall yet praise him... my God.

6. Images of David and Christ: a meditation

His tired eyes had seen more than their share of troubles. Now they stared into the depths of murky Jordan; he saw mirrored there the turmoil of his own life. It had come to this: his own son and an army of his own men in hot pursuit of him. “The sword shall not depart from your house,” Nathan had well said (2 Sam. 12:10). The young men were beside him now. “Arise and go quickly!” Must it always be so quick? He glimpsed the panorama of the years, the scenes tumbling over one another — a shepherd boy in the hills of Judea, a bear and a giant, a jealous king, a beautiful woman, intrigue and murder, a wrathful prophet, sorrow and tears... and now an old man by a dark river. “Then David arose, and all the people that were with him, and they crossed the Jordan” (17:22).

“As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. I am as a hart, timid and fearful, as powerless as he to reach the pure underground streams of thy peace. When shall I return to your house, to behold your face again? Have I gone forth for the last time from ‘the city of the great king’?

“Before thee, O God, my life is poured out as the blood of a sacrifice. Yet I remember still, what painful memories? Dancing with the throng, in joyful procession, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude celebrating your festivals. With what merriment we brought the ark into the city of David (6:12-18)!

“But now my very soul is cast down within me. I go mourning from one brief refuge to another, dogged by deceitful and unjust men. But worst of all, by far the worst, they say of me, ‘Where is his God?’ It is a deadly wound that penetrates my inmost parts. I am the same man; I am that David who slew his tens of thousands, and Yahweh was with him. I stood before that ‘behemoth’ of a Philistine in your Name! I fought your battles; I gathered the materials to build your house! Why have you forgotten me... me of all people? Why have you cast me off?

“But no, I don’t believe it can be. You are the God in whom I have taken refuge at every crisis of my life. You will defend my cause. I walk in darkness without you. O send forth your light and your truth; let them lead me. And I will come again to your holy hill... even to your altar. How false and baseless are my fears. My God, I cast myself upon you alone, waiting for the morning.”

* * * * *

His eyes strained through the darkness. Under the great trees some distance away, his friends were sleeping. It was very late and he was very tired, but it would not be long now; his time was measured in hours. It had finally come to this: there was no man to stand with him. Through the valley and up the hillside there came a procession of lights. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Those had been his own words; now he would live them out. “Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” Quickly it would go now, with no opportunity for quiet retrospect. The scenes rushed by: the child of Nazareth, the young carpenter, then the stirring proclamations, the outstretched hands — “Master, have mercy upon us!” The hands were outstretched again, but this time they held swords and shackles. “Then they seized him, and led him away.”

“As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. I am entrapped by ungodly men; they have encircled me like a pack of wild dogs. O Father, is it possible to see your face in this mad multitude?

“Once I went with the throng into the holy city, riding upon an ass. In joyful procession we went to the house of God, accompanied by loud Hosannahs and festive palm branches. With glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving they cried, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord’ (Matt. 21:9).

“But now my very soul is cast down within me. Tears have been my meat and drink this night. The quietly flowing stream of pure communion with you has become a thundering cataract. I am plunged into its depths; your waves and your billows, as the sea, have gone over me. Now is my soul exceeding sorrowful.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It is the deadliest of wounds, that which my enemies inflict upon me: ‘This is the one that trusted in God! Let us see now if his God will deliver him!’ But I am the same man; I am your Beloved Son. All my life I have sought refuge in you alone. I know you will not leave me to the confusion of my face and the reproach of your Name.”

* * * * *

“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” And he prayed the more earnestly, “O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me.” The Father in heaven heard his prayer, and his last mortal moments were brightened by a divine light. He was the beginning of his Father’s new Creation, accompanied by the divine directive: “Let there be light.”

“May your light and your truth bring me to your holy hill, and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.” The last and greatest trial was faced successfully. Led by God’s light, his Son approached the altar of the Father’s presence and poured out his life-blood. The hill of death, Golgotha, was made forever holy by that blood. God at last had fashioned and perfected His mercy-seat, where He might dwell with man.

“It is finished.” The last words were a cry of triumph. The old creation of God was plunged into darkness, but on the horizon could be seen the dawn of a new day. God’s new creation was just beginning.

7. Postscript

Beneath the verdant, woodland roof,
        A small gazelle,
With stately tread of cloven hoof,
        Paused by the well;
Deep down, unseen, the waters burst
        Across the shaft.
Oh! how it longed to slake its thirst,
        In one sweet draught.

The Psalmist felt like this ofttimes,
        Through toiling days,
In deep descents and upward climbs,
        Along life’s ways;
And in his thoughts he stood beside
        The panting hind.
Like him, to quench the thirst, he tried
        His God to find.

And when I’m weary, when I’m weak,
        I fain would go,
Like them that lovely place to seek,
        Where waters flow;
And take my fill at length within
        The water brooks,
And find eternal strength within
        The Book of Books.

                        N.P. Holt

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