“As a deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, God.”
(Psalm 42:2 [verse 1 in English])
While we typically envision deer to be more of a European and North American species of animal, the Roe Deer and the Fallow deer are common to Israel. And much like dogs, deer do not sweat, but instead kind of pant when they are hot and need to cool down. Hence the imagery. The deer is not just casually thirsty for cool, refreshing water, but if the deer is panting, the deer is hot and will overheat if it does not get water to help cool it down. If we take the analogy to its logical end, we would expect panting to be taking place after some exertion, a run perhaps away from a hunter.
While it is true that sometimes when we dig deeply into a metaphor, we lose the meaning of the metaphor, I don’t think that such is true in this case. We must not only appreciate that the psalmist’s soul longs after God, but we must ask why it longs after God and as to the nature of this longing. Is God something that simply adds some refreshment to an otherwise pleasant afternoon, or is God one to whom we desperately flee, knowing that our only hope of survival is the water that flows from the throne of His grace, lest we be destroyed by those who seek our life in this world. Indeed, as we delve deeper into this psalm, we will realize that much of the language centers around God’s preservation of his own people in the face of great oppression much as a deer spends much of its life being pursued by a hunter.
But what does it mean to really long for something? The Hebrew word, gOrÍo (arog), means to crave for or desire something with every fiber of your being. It is the knowing that if you do not get that which you are striving for, you indeed will perish and wither away. I wonder, sometimes, whether we really think that way about God. Do we really long for him? Do we really crave his Word or are both an afterthought—a convenient solution to the ills of the day or a tradition by which we feel good about ourselves? Beloved, feel the spirit and desire behind these words, understand the necessity by which the psalmist is seeking God’s presence, and know, given that its author is a son of Asaph, that these brothers knew trouble and grief—but they knew the mercy of God as well and clung to it. Will you?
“To the Director: A Maskil of the Sons of Korah.”
(Psalm 42:1 [superscript in English translations])
Psalm 42 begins what we typically refer to as the second book of Psalms. The psalm that precedes this one ends with the great refrain:
“Blessed is Yahweh, the God of Israel—
From eternity unto eternity, Amen and Amen.”
(Psalm 41:14 [verse 13 in English translations])
This refrain shows up in essentially the same form at the end of chapter 72, 89, and 106. Of course the entire psalm 150 carries with it the same kind of language of this refrain. These refrains have traditionally marked the end of one book of Psalms and the beginning of the next book. While book one contains Psalms that have traditionally been attributed to David, this second book also contains a number of psalms by the Sons of Korah as well.
We will discuss these Sons of Korah further when we look at Psalm 49, let it suffice to say that Korah was one of those who rebelled against Moses in Numbers 16, yet God, in his mercy, preserved Korah’s sons and set them to work in the Tabernacle. As we look at these psalms by the Sons of Korah, I think that it is worth remembering that sometimes people are resentful when they receive God’s discipline; yet these Sons of Korah recognize the grace of God in the discipline and what we have in these psalms are great words of praise, salvation, and trust in the Almighty God of Israel. What a wonderful testimony for us!
The term Maskil is probably derived from the Hebrew verb lkc (sakal), which means, “to understand.” Typically, this has been seen either as a liturgical term or a musical tune or beat to which this psalm would be sung. Some scholars have thus understood these Maskils to be memory verses and others have suggested that it is simply a designation for wisdom literature put to music (though there are certainly other wisdom psalms that are not described as Maskils).
However this psalm is to be sung or categorized, it is clear that this psalm contains a model for us in terms of how we approach God and his Word. Jesus said in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are the ones who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” Indeed, this psalm gives us a tremendous picture of what it looks like in our lives when we do hunger and thirst for righteousness. My prayer is that we are not only hungry for the righteousness that comes from God and is expressed in his Word—just as the deer pants for the water, may we indeed long for God and his Word.