Music has the power to move you. Sometimes it moves you physically; you can’t help but tap your toes or get up and dance. Sometimes it moves you emotionally, perhaps to joy or tears. And sometimes it does both. If you’ve ever seen the Whoopi Goldberg movie, Sister Act 2, this is what happens to me at the movie’s triumphant climax. The ragtag youth choir belts out an eclectic rendition of Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee (with a beautifully soulful intro by Lauryn Hill) that makes me want to cry and dance at the same time.
I wish I could go back in time and hear how the Psalms were originally performed. I don’t know that I would be able to bridge the oceans of culture that lie between me and that time and place. I don’t know that I would be able to savor the Psalms the same way the original hearers did, since my mind and ears are unaccustomed to their language and rhythms. But I suspect I would still be able to pick out the universal language of emotion in their faces and bodies. I could be moved by their movement and weep at their tears.
Psalms 42 and 43, I think, would be a good place to start the cultural experiment.
. . .
Psalm 42, as we’ve seen, begins with a striking image of lament: a deer dying of thirst. Combined with imagery drawn from the prophet Joel, the psalm’s opening verses convey a scene of bleak barrenness. But for what does the psalmist yearn?
As in many laments, the psalmist complains of being persecuted by enemies. Twice the psalmist laments to God, “Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” (Ps 42:9; 43:2, NRSV). The psalmist beseeches God to vindicate him against deceitful, ungodly, and unjust people (43:1).
Their taunting is hard for the psalmist to bear. Any person or community that declares there is only one true God who must be obeyed and worshiped invites opposition. That’s still true today. It also invites mockery, when things go poorly for the people of that supposedly mighty God. When their faith is shaken, their enemies pounce. Thus the psalmist also complains twice that his enemies are always sneering at him, saying, “Where is your God?” (Ps 42:3,10).
That question, I imagine, would sting the most if the psalmist were wondering the same thing.
The psalms themselves suggest this is so. “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” the psalmist wonders (42:2), perhaps feeling cut off from the temple, where he expects to meet God’s presence. “Why have you forgotten me?” (42:9), he complains. “Why have you cast me off?” (43:2). The wording of this latter complaint suggests that the psalmist feels discarded like smelly bit of trash.
One might say that the psalmist is experiencing a kind of spiritual depression: “My soul is cast down within me” (42:5). This is a way of expressing despair. The psalmist is dying of thirst, longing for the presence of a seemingly absent God.
. . .
Perhaps you know that desperate feeling, that thirst, that longing. The psalm gives you permission to voice it. Indeed, it carves out a space in shared worship for a community to voice it together: “Why have you forgotten me, God? Why have you cast me off?”
But then comes another question, one that the psalmist puts to himself three times: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (42:5,11; 43:5).
As we’ll see, his counsel to himself lets us know that it’s possible to hope even in the midst of despair.