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As the Deer Pants for Water

Psalm 42 is a Maskil song. We don’t really know what the word “Maskil” means, but many Hebrew scholars believe that it is a musical word used to describe a song, or a piece of poetry as one that fosters insight, or promotes pensive contemplation. It begins with one of the most well known lyrical verses in the bible: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you.” We frequently view that verse in a wistfully positive light, and tend to interpret it as one in which a person lovingly longs for God. But this isn’t the emotion the psalmist is trying to evoke. Instead, he is painting a picture of thirsty desperation. He is drawing your attention to a creature flirting with dehydration from the apparent absence of God’s life giving flow of living water. He wants us to contemplate the absolute vital importance of a continual link to the presence of the most high God, and our utter need for that presence in our lives. We don’t wistfully pant. We pant after exertion and in the midst of physical, tangible need.

The rest of the song is colored by forlorn imagery. The psalmist uses metaphors such as “my tears have been my food.” He struggles with being asked “where is your God?” He painfully nurses wonderful memories of when he was once able to praise God among throngs of people. Some scholars believe this song represents the pain that many felt when they and David were forced out of Jerusalem by his evil son Absalom (2 Samuel 15). The psalmist then writes another famous lyrical verse, often quoted by Christians. He writes deep calls to deep. But that’s as far as many people quote. The rest of the verse describes what seems like waves of tumult, and not a pensive, intellectual connection between the deep needs men have for insight and the deep understanding that can be provided by the author of all mysteries. The rest of the song includes other miseries. The psalmist describes being taunted so persistently about the absence of his God that he feels a mortal agony in his bones. He describes mourning, and oppression, and a feeling of abandonment. But the psalmist does not give in. Like the ancient Job generations before him, he continues to put his hope in God. He continues to praise his God. He continues to see God as the source of his salvation.

Although we have not been kicked out of Jerusalem, those of us who belong to God’s family find ourselves in a similar situation. God’s world is occupied by hordes of evil Absaloms. We have been exiled from that world. We should look at the world that surrounds us and be angered by the sin. We should be desperate for The Most High God to use us to set things right. We should long for his return. We should feel a tangible need to restore righteous order to a fallen world. We pant for the presence of God. And although we cannot see him, and his presence seems painfully absent at times, like Job and the Psalmist, we should never give up on him. We should maintain our faith, and our praise, and our hope for salvation. A deer who pants for water is always seeking it. A man or woman who longs for the presence of God in a world that seems to be without him will seek it with a desperate thirst. And those who seek him will find him, and they will drink and never thirst again (Proverbs 8:17, Matthew 7:7, John 4:13-14).

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