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Have you ever felt abandoned by God? For the Christian, there is perhaps no worse experience. Like a four-year-old girl suddenly lost from her parents in the hustle and bustle of a crowded mall, you feel separated, alone, forgotten. In some of the Psalms, not only does the psalmist feel lost in the crowd, but he fears God hasn’t even begun to look for him (Ps. 13:1–4).

Psalms 42 and 43 paint just such a picture. Although in our English Bibles they form two separate songs, most scholars believe they originally belonged together. The same questions pepper both laments: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (Pss. 42:5, 11; 43:5) and “Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” (Pss. 42:9; 43:2). Of the two, only the first has a title, and Psalm 43 rather nicely concludes the flow of thought from its predecessor. 

The psalmist’s pain is sharp, and his point is clear: he feels forsaken, and he wants to know why. When we go through such seasons (and we will), how should we respond? There are a number of lessons to learn.

First, it’s right to lament God’s seeming absence. The healthy soul remains acutely sensitive to the nearness of God. When God seems to withdraw, we notice. When God seems distant, laissez-faire contentment is not a virtue; God wants us to bring our honest petitions to Him and has given us a template to use when we do. 

The psalmist describes his dereliction from three perspectives. First, he laments the experiential distance of God (Ps. 42:1–2). Thirsty, he groans for the Lord (Ps. 42:1–5). His soul feels shattered like a bone (Ps. 42:10). Next, there is a visible component to this dereliction—he doesn’t just feel abandoned; he looks like a God-forsaken derelict as well. Listen as hostile voices harangue him with the scornful question, “Where is your God?” These words must have stung—he repeats them (Ps. 42:3, 10). It’s as if his enemies are saying: “We all know you have been abandoned. Face up to it!” In response he weeps long and hard (Ps. 42:3). Third, he describes a geographical component to his sense of separation (Ps. 42:6). Remember that in the Old Testament, Jerusalem was the gravitational center of the promised land. Those who lived within its walls dwelt in the suburbs of glory. For our psalm singer, however, trapped way up north in the badlands near Mount Hermon, he was about as far as far could be from the Holy City and the “tabernacled” presence of God therein.

God has given us such laments because He knows we will need them. We can all expect times when we will feel cut off from God in every conceivable way. We will feel tempted to conclude, “All these things are against me.” This psalm reminds us that such fears are not abnormal. Our souls are not malfunctioning; others have trodden this way before. We are not alone. Even though the psalmist feels forsaken, the Holy Spirit hasn’t left him. After all, He is the One inspiring the words of this song. Never fear, therefore—God is always much closer than He feels.

The second lesson from the darkness: when we feel abandoned, we are to reach through those feelings for deeper, surer truths. In the end, it’s not what you feel but what you know that counts. 

Watch as the psalmist reaches by faith for the inescapable providence of God: “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” (Ps. 42:7, emphasis mine). He feels as if he is at the place where the waves break and thunder rolls in toward the shore. One of my childhood friends had this experience vacationing in Hawaii. Although he was one of the strongest competitive swimmers in Ireland, his stroke was no match for the surf zone. I will never forget hearing him describe the sense of helplessness as wave after wave crashed down on him, pushing him repeatedly down into the depths. Each time he fought his way to the surface, he had less and less air in his lungs and more and more water in his belly, but there was always the next wave. The last time, only his hands breached the surface, and were it not for the strong hand of an alert lifeguard, who knows what would have happened? But for the psalmist here, as he sinks into the depths, no divine hand is anywhere in sight. At this moment, when most would despair, faith reaches through the confusion, through the waves, and lays hold of their owner. Did you notice that detail? Did you notice to whom these waves belong? They belong to God. The psalmist calls them “your breakers.” There is comfort here for the child of God. We are not the plaything of fate or of random circumstance. He holds even the strongest of waves firmly (and kindly) in His hand (Ps. 66:10–12). “Every joy or trial cometh from above.” “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

God’s love is no weak sentiment. It is strong, vigorous, and authoritative

Watch also as the psalmist reaches for the unfailing love of God: “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (Ps. 42:8). God’s love is no weak sentiment. It is strong, vigorous, and authoritative. It has the power to get things done and set things right. The God who made the universe with a command, who cleansed the leper with a command, who stilled the storm with a command, who raised Lazarus with a command, is the very God who sends His love into your life with a command. The Hebrew word for love here is hesed. It carries the idea of God’s stubborn, covenanted determination to be kind to His people no matter what we have done, no matter what we deserve, and no matter what it costs Him. In Christ, this commitment drove God to pay the ultimate price on your behalf. Through His own human hands—the hands of the incarnate God-man—God’s love provides the atonement His justice demands (Heb. 10:5–7).

Finally, watch the psalmist reach through the dereliction and hear God’s song of praise. “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (Ps. 42:8). What does he mean by “his song is with me?” There are at least two options. It could refer to the psalms that God has given us to sing. But it might also refer to the songs God sings with us. So that just as we have a divine prayer partner on earth (Rom. 8:26–27), we also have a divine song partner who sings praise with us and over us (Zeph. 3:17; Heb. 2:11–12). John Piper muses over the sounds of such singing:

I hear the booming of Niagara Falls mingled with the trickle of a mossy mountain stream. I hear the blast of Mt. St. Helens mingled with a kitten’s purr. I hear the power of an East Coast hurricane and the barely audible puff of a night snow in the woods. And I hear the unimaginable roar of the sun, 865,000 miles thick, 1,300,000 times bigger than the earth, and nothing but fire, 1,000,000 degrees Centigrade on the cooler surface of the corona. But I hear this unimaginable roar mingled with the tender, warm crackling of logs in the living room on a cozy winter’s night.”1

Isn’t it amazing to think of King Jesus mixing His voice with ours when we sing? It’s why our praise sounds so beautiful in God’s ears.

The final lesson from the darkness: Look forward to God’s blessing in the future. As we cross over from Psalm 42 to Psalm 43, the psalmist grows in confidence. He seems instinctively to know that God will not forget him forever. Like someone expecting a search and rescue party2, He looks for God to send out His light (His presence) and His Truth (His Word) to bring him home—home to the city, home to the altar, home to God (Ps. 43:3–4). Note how the altar stands front and center at the conclusion of this homeward pilgrimage. Even for sinners, there is a way back to God’s holy presence because there, in the temple, stands the altar (Ps. 43:3–4). Fresh with bleeding wounds, the animals laid on its flames speak of blood-bought mercy: “Somehow, someday, Someone big enough and good enough will die in my place and for my sins to bring me home to God.” These feelings of God’s distance won’t last forever. 

Although the dereliction never completely departs, by the end of the psalm, hope does seem to be dawning in the psalmist’s soul. Compare: “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His face,” (Ps. 42:5, author’s translation) with “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my face and my God” (Ps. 42:11, author’s translation). Do you see? In Psalm 42:5, he speaks about the face of God in potential terms, but by verse 11 his language has become more personal. The face of God is no longer just an available help; it has become one he seems to be sensing. Even if he can only say these words by faith, the personal pronouns make all the difference. He has sung himself toward hope. It’s the lesson Cowper tried to teach us all those years ago: “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings.” It’s a lesson few of us can learn, however, until we are trained for a while in the school of darkness.

 

  1. John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah, 1991; repr. 2000), 187. ↩︎
  2. This illustration is taken from Alec Motyer’s commentary on Psalm 43 in the New Bible Commentary. ↩︎

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