As the deer

When musicians record an album, they and their producers have an important decision to make: which cut goes first? Of course, they want listeners to hear every cut, but know that people won’t sit all the way through the collection if they’re not wowed from the start. That’s why often, the best song comes first. That kind of a lead-in, with a few strong pieces scattered through the middle and a solid finish, will make for a popular album.

When putting together a collection of songs or poems, it matters how you begin. We saw this a few months ago when we began our journey through the Psalms. Psalm 1, for all its brevity, sets the tone for the entire psalter by setting out a worldview in which (a) there’s a right and a wrong path to follow in life, (b) God’s instruction helps you know the right path, and (c) following the right path is the way of blessedness.

The Psalter as a whole is broken into five books (a 5 CD set?) – some scholars believe that this was an intentional attempt to mirror the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Psalm 1, of course, begins Book 1; Psalm 42 begins Book 2. Whoever put the Psalter together must have seen something special in Psalm 42 to put it right up front at the beginning of the second book.

But what? There’s no way to know for sure. For my own part, however, I find Psalm 42 – and its companion, Psalm 43 – to be an excellent example of the interplay of lament and hope in the life of faith. These psalms teach believers an important lesson: hope doesn’t squelch lament. Quite the contrary. It is in voicing our lament and longing that we stretch our souls toward hope.

. . .

Try this experiment. Using whatever English translation you prefer, read Psalm 42 and 43 together, as if they were one psalm. Do you notice any break in continuity? Does it feel like reading two psalms or one? I’m guessing you’d say one. In fact, if you weren’t already familiar with these psalms, and I read them aloud to you, together, you’d think I had only read one psalm.

Scholars generally take them to be one psalm, for several reasons. First and foremost, they are considered one psalm in the Hebrew, though they are not numbered that way in our English texts. Second, Psalms 42 to 49 all have headings that attribute them to the Sons of Korah – except Psalm 43, which strangely has no heading at all. Third, Psalm 42 has a refrain that is used twice, and that same refrain is found again at the end of Psalm 43, as if Psalm 43 were just another stanza of Psalm 42. Finally, the themes and language are quite similar. In this and the next few posts, therefore, I will treat them as one psalm.

. . .

Psalm 42 begins with the line that inspired the contemporary worship song As the Deer: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (vs. 1, NRSV). The image is of a deer panting from thirst. The verb that is twice translated here as “longs” appears only three times in the Old Testament; the third occurrence is found in the book of Joel: “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up” (Joel 1:20).

Either Joel had read the psalm, or the psalmist had read Joel, for “longs” and “flowing streams” from Psalm 42 are essentially the same Hebrew words translated as “cry” and “watercourses” in Joel 1. If Joel came first, then the psalmist is probably assuming the prophet’s background imagery: the land has been laid waste; crops and pastures have been devastated by locusts; every stream bed is bone dry.

This is the psalmist’s chosen imagery to describe his own longing: an animal dying of thirst in a desolate land where there isn’t a drop to drink.

Do you know that kind of desperate longing?

We’ll look at the rest of the psalmist’s lament in coming posts. For now, remember this: even in the midst of such devastation, hope is still possible.