The heading of the psalm reminds us of what we saw last week. “To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the sons of Korah.”
The sons of Korah were a group of priests who were charged with the ministry of singing. Second Chronicles 20:19 describes them in action: “The Korahites, stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.”
So the heading implies that this psalm was probably used in public worship and was sung. That’s one part of what we said last week. The psalms are songs. They are poems. They are written to awaken and express and shape the emotional life of God’s people. Poetry and singing exist because God made us with emotions, not just thoughts. Our emotions are massively important.
The second thing to notice in the heading is that the psalm is called a Maskil. It’s not clear what the word means. That’s why most versions don’t translate it. It comes from a Hebrew verb that means to make someone wise, or to instruct. So when applied to psalms, it may mean a song that instructs, or a song that is wisely crafted. That reminds us of the other thing we emphasized last week: The psalms intend to instruct. “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the instruction of the Lord, and on his instruction he meditates day and night.”
“Poetry and singing exist because God made us with emotions, not just thoughts.”
So “To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah” underlines both points from last time: the psalms are instruction, and the psalms are songs. And Jesus taught that they were inspired by God. They intend to shape what the mind thinks, and they intend to shape what the heart feels. When we immerse ourselves in them, we are “thinking and feeling with God.” That’s what I am praying this series will help us to do.
The way I would like to take us into Psalm 42 is to give an overview, and then show six things that this godly man does in his spiritual depression — six things that I think are meant to shape how we deal with our own seasons of darkness.
Here’s the overview. Externally his circumstances are oppressing. Verse 3 says that his enemies “say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” And verse 10 says the same thing, only it describes the effect as a deadly wound: “As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” And the taunt “Where is your God?” implies that something else has gone wrong too, or they wouldn’t be saying, “Where is your God?” It looks to them like he has been abandoned.
The internal emotional condition of the psalmist is depressed and full of turmoil. In verses 5 and 11, he describes himself as “cast down” and “in turmoil.” In verse 3 he says, “My tears have been my food day and night.” So he is discouraged to the point of crying day and night. In verse 7 he says that it feels like drowning: “All your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”
In all of this, he is fighting for hope. Verse 5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Verse 11: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” He is not surrendering to the emotions of discouragement. He is fighting back.
I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times in the last twenty-eight years at Bethlehem I have fought back the heaviness of discouragement with these very words: “Hope in God, John. Hope in God. You will again praise him. This miserable emotion will pass. This season will pass. Don’t be downcast. Look to Jesus. The light will dawn.” It was so central to our way of thinking and talking in the early eighties that we put a huge “Hope in God” sign on the outside wall of the old sanctuary and became known around the neighborhood as the “Hope in God” church.
His external circumstances are oppressing. His internal emotional condition is depressed and full of turmoil. But he is fighting for hope. And the really remarkable thing is that at the end of the psalm, he is still fighting but not yet where he wants to be. The last words of the psalm — and the last words of the next psalm — are “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” He leaves us still fighting for the joyful experience of hope and freedom from turmoil. He is not yet praising the way he wants to.
Is it a happy ending? Like almost everything else in this life, it’s mixed. His faith really is amazing, and his fight is valiant. But he is not where he wants to be in hope and peace and praise.
So I assume this psalm is in the Bible by God’s design and that if we listen carefully, if we watch this psalmist struggle, if we meditate on this instruction day and night, our thoughts about God and life, on the one hand, and our emotions, on the other hand, will be shaped by God. And we will become like a tree that bears fruit and whose leaves don’t wither when the drought of oppression and discouragement and turmoil comes.