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Psalm 42 came to life in new ways for many saints when Covid-19 initially hit. Restrictions kept millions of people from the physical, public assembly of God’s people week after week. Our souls said: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (v. 2).
The hearts of saints were cast down as they remembered God from their homes. Those homes felt so much like “the land of Jordan and of Hermon, and from Mount Mizar” (v. 6)—remote, isolated places in Israel. Saints remembered the times they had joined the crowds in worship; now they wondered to God, “Why have you forgotten me?” (v. 9). In God’s mercy, many people were able to return to public worship after a few months.
Perhaps the episode enabled more people to taste the despair that many Christians face regularly. Psalm 42 expresses the longing of a soul for righteous things that have not been satisfied yet in this life or are absent for now. All of us struggle with unrealized desires, some of which deeply burden the soul. Perhaps the most difficult are those in which there is no evident sin standing between us and our desire. Physically ill and disabled bodies ache as the soul groans: “Why? How long?” Single people say, “I thought I’d be married by now.” Couples cry out, “When will God give us children?” The unemployed ask, “Why won’t You give me work, Lord, to support my family?” Why doesn’t God seem to provide the good gifts He promises? Why do enemies always seem to taunt?
Psalm 42 directs us to talk to ourselves about our circumstances, distress, pain, and even despair. In so doing, it connects us with the heart of our Savior who confessed during His passion, “Now is my soul troubled” (John 12:27). Jesus suffered agony and despair in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, but not for His own sin. No, it was for our sake and for the glory of the Father that He was willing to suffer to the point of saying on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). He was willing, for the joy set before Him, to endure the cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:2). Consequently, He is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
In our own moments of despair, it is right for us to diagnose the cause of our plight. We ought to focus our thoughts and ask the question asked by the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps. 42:5). If our own sin is the source, then we must set about the work of repentance. But if the reason we are downtrodden in spirit is not primarily due to our own sin, then we can take comfort because we share fellowship with Jesus in our suffering. We are already blessed since He promised, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
But God has more for us. Psalm 42 teaches us to preach hope to ourselves, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (vv. 5–6). Hope in the living God is God’s own medicine for our souls in times of despair.
How does hope differ from faith? William Gurnall wrote, “Faith tells the soul what Christ has done for it and so comforts it; hope revives the soul with the news of what Christ will do for it.” Hope always keeps our eyes looking forward. It always reminds us that, for Christians, our best days are yet to come in Jesus Christ. The same joy set before Jesus in His suffering is set before the people of God in our travails today.
This hope must be “in God.” He is the transcendent, personal God who promises never to leave us or forsake us. Though we languish in the wilderness for a season with tears for our food day and night, the Lord remains unchanged. He assures us that for those who love God, He is working all things “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). To grow stronger in anticipating future blessings, we should look back on our prior experiences of God’s grace to stir up our hearts with the confidence that the Lord will again show such favor. We will again praise Him because He is our salvation, and He is not merely God, but as the psalmist declared, He is “my God” (Ps. 42:6). He has helped us before, and He will again.
We have been guaranteed a future and an inheritance that outshines all discouragement and despair we may experience in the present. Because our hope is based not on probabilities but on divine certainty, we find Gurnall’s axiom also true: “Hope never affords more joy than in affliction.” The Lord may not reduce our pain in the moment, but He does maximize our joy with a vision of our promised inheritance. Hope delights in God without demanding that He fulfill His promises on our timetable.
When we are downcast, God is building patience in us. “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:24–25). Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed that “hope is both the parent and child of patience.” As we hope in God while downtrodden, we grow in patience, which gives birth to greater hope. Hope is an investment that bears a sort of compounding interest that raises the soul in enduring joy. So, if you are asking, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” then preach to yourself, “Hope now in God.”