In 1984, Martin Nystrom penned the famous song, “As the Deer.” He based the lyrics on Psalm 42:1, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” The song was very popular in my growing-up years, and whenever I sang it, I think I always had this picture in my head of a deer drinking water out of a peaceful stream or lake. The song always fostered serene pictures of nature in my head as I sang. I might have thought I was alone in that, but then I did a YouTube search for the song. And just about every video of the song that came up had peaceful pictures of nature and deer quietly drinking water by a lake. The song’s lyrics and tune only help create pictures like that in our minds.
Here’s the deal: I think it’s a fine song. However, if you read the rest of Psalm 42, pictures of deer drinking water by a quiet stream don’t exactly come to mind. The Psalmist portrays deep distress in verse 3 when he says, “My tears have been my food day and night.” He explains that he’s feeling that way because people are constantly mocking him for his faith. In verse 5, he says that his soul is cast down, and in verse 7, the writer describes that he’s overwhelmed and drowning. His enemies are oppressing him, and he wonders why God has forgotten him (verse 9).
The Psalm itself paints quite a different picture, doesn’t it? I was brought to this Psalm recently through personal study around the concept of soul restoration. Another even more famous Psalm says that the Shepherd “restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3). As part of my regular personal prayer time, I’ve been praying that God would restore my soul. It reminded me of the phrase in Psalm 42:5 that says that “my soul is cast down within me.” There are times when our soul is cast down, and frankly, those usually aren’t peaceful times! Instead, they are typically marked by distress, mourning, oppression, and so forth.
When our souls are cast down, when we are overwhelmed, grief-stricken, mocked, or forsaken and alone, where do we find hope? The Psalmist’s answer in Psalm 42 is that our hope is found in God alone. It’s interesting that Luther picked up on the dark backdrop of this Psalm also. He asserted that the deer in this Psalm is a “hunted deer.” On the run. Distressed. Thirsty. Luther writes, “As a deer with anxious and trembling eagerness strains toward a fresh, flowing stream, so I yearn anxiously and tremblingly for God Word…” Psalm 42:2 says that our soul thirsts for God. Verse 5 exhorts us to “hope in God” who is “my salvation.” In verse 8, the Psalmist reminds us of God’s steadfast love that brings praise to our lips, even in the darkness of night. And then the Psalm ends with the same encouragement to hope in God, our salvation.
I think this really hit home for me when comparing Psalm 22 with Psalm 23. They’re both written by David, but they’re very different. David cries out in Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? Why are you so far from saving me?” How can the same guy in the very next Psalm say, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want…He restores my soul…I will fear no evil, for you are with me…I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Jon Bloom writes, “It is a beautiful and merciful providence that these two starkly different psalms are placed right next to each other, authored by the same person…we all experience the occasional agonizing phenomenon of God’s apparent silence. And we all will also experience God’s kind restoration, peace, and protection.” As Christians, we learn that when God seems silent, it’s never because He doesn’t care, or because He’s not working for our good. Sometimes (all the time) His ways are better than ours.
We know that’s true because these two Psalms were personified in Jesus Christ. If you recognized the quote above from Psalm 22, it’s because Jesus uttered those same words on the cross. He took on the curse of our sin and distress and atoned for it on the cross. He experienced what it’s like to be truly forsaken by God, in order to purchase our peace and restoration. That’s why David can sing for joy in Psalm 23. The Good Shepherd laid His life down for the sheep. By first walking through the valley of death, He is able to lead us through it to eternal restoration.
When Martin Luther talked about Psalm 42, it was in the context of confession. We confess our sins to God and to one another. The Bible says that God forgives us, and God has given us one another to speak those precious words of the Gospel to each other also. We forgive, as He has forgiven us. Our souls can easily get cast down in this broken and sinful world, and we feel beaten, tattered, and forsaken. Christ actually was beaten and forsaken, all so that you could find healing and restoration in Him. Praise God for the sure hope we have in Him!
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