Canticles: Psalm 42—O My Soul

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

Psalm 42, I must admit, is my favorite psalm. Each line overflows with vibrant imagery. There’s real passion in the psalmist’s writing. She thirsts for God. God crashes over her like a wave, like the tons of hydro-pressure from Niagara falls. God sings over her.

My favorite part of the psalm, however, has to be the author’s internal dialogue. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (42:11) It’s good to know that people have been talking to themselves for thousands of years. I’m not alone.

In fact, this stanza is central to Psalm 42. These exact words are repeated three times in Psalm 42 and its companion Psalm 43.

It’s fairly clear that the psalmist has been driven from her community. There’s some indication that she was convicted of a wrongdoing, perhaps falsely accused. This becomes especially evident if Psalm 43 is taken as Part Deux. The psalmist asks God to vindicate her against those who falsely accuse her. “O God, send out your light and your truth; let them lead me to your holy hill.” (43:3)

I often wonder what’s next for young people graduating high school. Many of them will be going to college, often far from home… I wonder if we have enabled them to seek God on their own, or more importantly to search for the ways that God has already sought and found them.

The psalmist loved to worship. She loved to be in God’s house, praising, singing. Perhaps she even wrote music for worship on her stringed instrument. (43:4) But all of this has been taken from her because she has been shunned by her community. So now, she worships God alone. But even God seems distant. She misses the relationships that come with a faith community so much that she has taken to talking to herself.

It’s no secret that human beings thrive through relationships. As this article from the Huffington Post notes, some of the “nones,” (people who claim no particular religious affiliation) have been creating communities that look an awful lot like church, just without the messy God stuff. It seems that, out of pure instinct, we strive to cultivate community.

But that’s where the rubber meets the road for our psalmist. Certainly she longs to be a part of her community again. But it is God that she truly misses. A cynical reading might argue that the psalmist has never really experienced “God,” but only the rush of emotions that come with relationships. God is all in her head, her heart, her guts. The minute her relationships are taken from her, God seems to disappear too.

I wonder sometimes if my trust in God is that fickle. If the things that remind me of God are stripped away, will God be gone, too? My circumstances taunt me, “Where is your God?”

Again and again, I’ve been challenged by this quote from Brother Roger of Taizé: “Your faith does not create God, and your doubts cannot banish [God] to nothingness.

This is a radical claim. It’s not something that can be proven. But it can be trusted.

I often wonder what’s next for young people graduating high school. Many of them will be going to college, often far from home. Many others will stay to work near home, or go to a local community college. Many of them will be leaving their home faith community, putting either physical or spiritual distance between themselves and their church or youth group. I wonder if we have enabled them to seek God on their own, or more importantly to search for the ways that God has already sought and found them.

It may sound strange, but I deeply desire that these young people would one day pray Psalm 42. It’s not that I want them to sense God’s absence. Rather, I want them to long for God so much that they would be devastated if they could not find God. I hope that God is not a matter of indifference for them. I hope that they don’t fall into what Kenda Dean calls “benign whatever-ism.”1

I think one of the ways to cultivate this longing in ourselves and in our young people is to get involved in contemplative prayer. When I allow myself to be truly still and silent, I find, first that I begin to think of all the things that I have to do. But then, after a while, I begin to think of deeper things. I begin to wrestle with the reality of my life. I begin to feel all of the things that I use the busyness of my life to numb. Bo Karen Lee, one of my mentors, describes contemplative prayer as the sudden stop of a lived-in car. All of the trash and clothes and maps and coins and candy begin to fly when a car suddenly stops; we discover how dirty our car really was. I come to the limits of myself and my abilities. I face my own mortality. And when I reach the end of myself, I begin to discern that there is something, someone beyond me.

Then I begin to pray, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (42:11)

Song Recommendations:

The Sing Team, Satisfied in You – Not really for congregational singing, but a fitting song for a meditative time of prayer. This song should lead into a time of silence, not replace it.

Chris Clark, Psalm 42:11 – A slightly more upbeat and playful version. This song heads toward the second half of the conversation with the soul: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.” Comes with a chord chart.

Sandra McCracken, My Help, My God – A wonderfully plaintive version of this psalm. A little difficult for congregational singing, I think. But the melody isn’t out of reach of most vocal ranges and I think, with practice, the congregation could sing this. McCracken provides a chord chart. McCracken also wrote a lovely version of Psalm 43 (Send Out Your Light) that follows on the heels of “My Help, My God.” Again, a chord chart.

Sons of Korah, Psalm 42 – At first, I didn’t like this version. It felt too repetitive. Then I realized that the song felt like a soul that was trapped in a downcast state. The music mimicked the experience of feeling stuck in an emotion. The repetition also gives this version a meditative quality.

Robbie Seay, Psalm 42 – This is an entirely instrumental setting for Psalm 42. I love how the music quickens from the basic strings, to the flowing, lively piano, then plunges back into sorrow. Musically, it plays on the internal dialogue central to this psalm.

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Footnotes:

1. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 37.

 


Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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