Whenever i even glance at Psalm 42:1, I immediately start to sing (at least in my mind) the chorus popular several years ago. Such a nice song; too bad neither its words nor accompanying music had anything to do with the lament of psalm 42. So instead of the Google pictures of deer at a stream, I rather chose this depressing shot from a cell. Since this twice repeated refrain also ends the next psalm, many believe the two form one message, perhaps were once one psalm. Let’s read them that way.
Typical with many laments the psalmist has a (1) distance problem: his god is nowhere to be found, and an (2) enemy problem: he suffers from their oppression. The writer’s distress likewise manifests in his poem’s cadence: a line of lament is followed by a line of fond remembrance, inner turmoil returns an remembrance, lament is followed by an affirmation of confidence. Up and down this roller-coaster ride reflects the psalmist’s life: the past was solid, worshiping God at the temple, being with God on the heights, experiencing God’s protection day and night. But now fraught with doubt the author can neither manage the current situation nor perceive a way out of his predicament.
The refrain reflects inner turmoil, a conflict between hope and despair. It relays what should be, but what isn’t. It’s as if the psalmist is trying to talk himself into living a better life, but it just doesn’t happen.
What does the psalm(s) say to us through its disquieting refrain? First is a word of caution: life’s struggles do not pass upon turning to God; even one’s relationship with God may not be rosy after sincerely offering the appropriate lament. Hopefully we have seen that the lament psalms offer spiritual victory in spite challenging physical/emotional/ psychological circumstances that remain. Like psalm 88, here the writer clings to the intangible beyond the norm: despair may return; the future may hold no prospect of success; but God always appears on the horizon, at the bottom of the pit, on the edge of fracturing ice–proving again and if necessary again, that he is bigger than life, even if it’s just barely bigger.