The pandemic of 2020 has brought about some new terminology such as “social distancing”, “shelter-in-place”, and “hunker down.” Additionally, travel restrictions have prevented international travel, causing missionary families to miss graduations, weddings, and funerals. Also, many churches have not been able to meet face to face due to local restrictions on size of gatherings. COVID-19 has brought a lot of turmoil into our lives. Where can we find hope from a distance?
Psalm 42 and 43
Over the past several months my thoughts have often returned to Psalm 42 and 43. The writer of these two psalms (probably composed as one) was experiencing separation from public worship for reasons we do not know. The two psalms are characterized by numerous questions and a refrain repeated in Psalm 42:5, 11 and Psalm 43:5. The two stanzas of Psalm 42 are laments and Psalm 43 turns the lament into prayer. Consequently, these two psalms provide us an example of how to move from despair to hope in God even when our questions remain unanswered. We learn to hope from a distance when God’s deliverance is not yet clearly in view.
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. – Psalm 42:5, 11; Psalm 43:5
This refrain binds the two psalms together. It reflects the psalmist’s feelings of despair and his resolve to put his hope in God. As Martin Lloyd-Jones points out, the psalmist refuses to listen to himself but speaks to himself.1D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures, 20,21. That is, the psalmist does not let the thoughts and feelings of his current situation rule his life.
Remarkably, the hope is not in some action of God, but in God’s presence. The English phrase “my salvation and my God” can be translated as “the victories of my God’s presence” 2Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary: Psalm 1-50, 323. or “for the deliverance that comes from his face.” 3John Goldengay, Psalms Volume 2: Psalms 42-89, 20. Perhaps the psalmist has Aaron’s blessing of God’s face shining on Israel (Numbers 6:24-26) in the back of his mind. Nevertheless, the three stanzas of these two psalms show us how he moves from despair to hope.
Remembering joy in public worship
The first stanza begins by expressing extreme longing for God’s presence (Psalm 42:1,2). In the isolation caused by COVID-19, we too experience a longing for God, particularly in public worship. Likewise, we may have shed tears and had people ask “where is God?” (Psalm 42:3). The psalmist had been a worship leader and reminds himself of the joy of corporate worship (Psalm 42:4). So, an important step in moving from despair to hope is reminding ourselves of the pleasure of praising God for who he is together with other believers. We, like the psalmist, need to remember and hope in God that we will again praise him for the help of his presence.
Remembering God from a distance
The second stanza of Psalm 42 begins with the statement that his despair causes him to remember God (Psalm 42:6). Here he is not just remembering his worship experience but God himself. He is at the headwaters of the Jordon River far from Jerusalem. The waterfalls and rapids provide the imagery of his soul’s turmoil. Interestingly, water imagery portrays his longing for God in Psalm 42:1,2; in verse 3 he weeps tears of water; and now he is drowning in rapids (v.7). Yet in the midst of his turmoil he remembers God’s steadfast love, sings and prays to the God of his life (Psalm 42:8). We may at times feel forgotten by our rock like the psalmist felt (Psalm 42:9). We should not deny those feelings. However, those feelings are not the last word. Like the Psalmist we should remember God’s steadfast love that sustains our hope in God.
Lament turns to prayer
While there is still despair and feelings of rejection in Psalm 43, the psalmist calls upon God in whom he takes refuge (Psalm 43:1,2). Furthermore, he asks that God’s light and truth will lead him into God’s presence (Psalm 43:3). Indeed, God himself is his exceeding joy (Psalm 43:4). If “light” and “truth” refer to God’s word (which I think it does), then in times of despair and confusion we should turn to God’s word. For the Bible teaches us about God’s lovingkindness and leads us into his presence.
Hope from a distance
We do not know when or if our lives will return to a pre-COVID normal. In a similar way, the writer of Psalm 42 and 43 does not tell us how God delivered him form the turmoil. “God just is that deliverance.”4John Goldengay, Psalms Vol. 2:Psalm 42-89, Baker, 2007, 30.
About ten years ago I wrote the following meditation on Psalm 42 and 43:
When my soul thirsts, hope in God
When all I can do is cry, hope in God
When God’s existence is questioned, hope in God
When I remember past joyful worship, hope in God
When I am depressed, hope in God
When life overtakes me like rapids, hope in God
When I feel forgotten, hope in God
When I am deceived, hope in God
Because He is the living God, hope in God
Because He is the God of my life, hope in God
Because of His lovingkindness, hope in God
Because He is my refuge, hope in God
Because He is my exceeding joy, hope in God
Hope in God, HE IS WITH ME, IMMANUEL!
We can glean much more by meditating on Psalm 42-43 during this time of pandemic. I have found it very encouraging over the last several months to revisit them often. Especially meaningful is how the psalmist finds hope in God’s presence through his lovingkindness, light, and truth. May these psalms enable you to hope from a distance.