Psalm 42 (1): When?

In Psalm 42, three questions are asked. The first of these is “when?” This question can arise from very different hearts. There is the “when” of murmuring and complaining. It arises out of a heart of unbelief. But there is also an entirely appropriate “when.” It is the “when” of ardent hope and godly desire. We will talk of both in connection with Psalm 42.

“My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?”

Psalm 42:2

The psalmist cries in verse 2, “When shall I come and appear before God?”

The psalmist uses the figure of the panting hart to more fully describe his need. In the hart, we too can find an example of our own lives. The hart must live its life on high alert, ever watchful for the predator. It is weak, without fang or claw, and utterly unable to fight its own battles. Therefore, its life is one of flight, of running from the lion who seeks to devour it.

And so the hart needs water to sustain its life. It needs cool, refreshing water to give it strength to continue to run, day after day. Apart from that water, there is no life. If it cannot quench its thirst by finding a brook, it will be an easy meal for the hungry lion. Like nothing else, water is absolutely necessary for the deer to live.

Water is the most basic necessity for human life. Thirst is one of the most potent desires built into our nature, and there are few more naturally satisfying experiences than to drink refreshing water after a long period of work or exercise in the hot sun. It is also worth noting that dying of thirst is one of the worst ways to die. We need water.

The psalmist likens this thirst for water unto his own desire to see God. Just as the hart pants for the life-giving waters, so does the psalmist thirst after God. It is in our own renewed natures as Christians to also have this thirst for God. All our lives we are hunted by Satan, that roaring lion, who seeks to devour us. All our lives we must flee him and his servants as they seek to destroy us and the spiritual life that is in us. He is far beyond our power to defeat. We desperately look to God, knowing that on our own we are easy prey. We understand that only in the living God can we find life for ourselves.

Do we really have this desire? Imagine for a moment that the hart, rather than seeking out the refreshing water brooks, runs directly toward the lion and into its waiting jaws. This would surely be a strange sight, and even a perversion of nature. It is unheard of in the natural world for the prey to run to the predator.

Yet is this not what man does in his folly? Ungodly man seeks out his own destruction, running eagerly to the waiting lion, every one to be devoured by Satan. The wages of sin is death, and everyone that shuns God in favor of a life of sin is responsible for seeking out his own destruction. How often are we in the midst of the world, running after the same pleasure? Is our thirst for the next beer, or the next Netflix episode, or perhaps our next vacation? If we honestly examine ourselves, we can each find the idol to which we run, neglecting the refreshing water that is ours in Christ. Are you asking when your next drink is?

When God shows us the folly of our sin and causes us to thirst after Himself, the question still stands. When?

“Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.”

Psalm 42:7

The psalmist expresses his continued anguish poetically in verse 7, and it rings true for us because in our weakness we often do doubt. The weight of our sins, and the attacks of our enemies may cause us to doubt that we will make it into the presence of God ever again. Perhaps you have had the opportunity to confront the massive waves of the ocean in all their power. If so, you likely understand that if caught unawares, these waves can cause you to tumble, head-over-heels, completely helpless, down onto the ocean floor. They can crush your head mercilessly into the rough sand below and leave you gasping for breath. Perhaps you’ve never been to the ocean. And if you have, maybe you made sure to avoid the larger waves. But have you experienced the waves and the billows of life, which cause you to tumble breathlessly head-over-heels until you seem to hit new lows? There are no Christians who do not know from experience that this life involves much suffering. And these trials can tempt us to say, not with a proper zeal, but with a doubting heart, “When?”

Perhaps this word has a new meaning for you now. We desired to appear before God in His house like never before, because never before were we barred from that privilege for so long. We thirsted after the public corporate worship in which we are used to partaking every Lord’s Day. We missed worshipping with all our brothers and sisters in Christ. We missed the praying, the singing, and the sermons. We long for the Lord’s Day because it is then that we appear before God and behold Him. Jesus Christ, as the revelation of God, is presented to us in the preaching. It is then that we respond, as the psalmist in verse 4, with the “voice of joy and praise, with the multitude that kept holyday.” But so long were we left to “remember these things,” and to “pour out” our souls.

“When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.”

Psalm 42:4

Yet notice the confession of the psalmist even in his own misery. Acknowledging the sovereignty of God over even these things, he attributes them to God by calling them “thy waves and thy billows” (verse 7). It is this faith that in verse 8 shows us the answer we most desperately need to our question of “When?”.

“Yet the Lord will command his lovingkindness in the day time, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life.”

Psalm 42:8

When? “The Lord will command his lovingkindness in the daytime.” When? “And in the night his song shall be with me.” Day and night, we confess with the psalmist that God is with us. There is no time that we cannot lift up our prayer unto the God of our life without knowing that He is listening. We remember the words of Jesus, that he “will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever” (John 14:16). God dwells with us in the Spirit of Christ and nothing can separate us.

With this we are content, but never satisfied. We long for the Lord’s Day because we understand that going to church is the closest we get to heaven on this side of death. And so ultimately, we thirst after God in that we desire to be with Him in heaven. We look forward to that time when it will not be only one day out of seven, but all eternity. We love to sing praises in the midst of our friends and family at church, and how much greater will it be when we will sing God’s praises with all the multitude of his elect? We long to be rid of these our sinful natures which so often mar communion with our God. Only when we behold our God in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord will we stop asking, “When?” Until then, our confession will be, “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Psalm 17:15).

“Yet athirst for thee I cry,

God of life, O when shall I

Come again to stand before Thee

In Thy Temple and adore Thee.”

Psalter 416:1b

Bruce Feenstra

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