To the choirmaster. A maskil of the sons of Korah.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when can I come and appear before God? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying “Where is this God of yours?”
When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, for the help of His presence.
I am deeply depressed; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life.
I will say to God my rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
My adversaries taunt me, as if crushing my bones, while all day long they say to me, “Where is this God of yours?”
Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.
(Translations used: CSB, ESV, KJV, NASB, NLT)
Over the past several months, as I’ve been traveling and teaching at many churches and groups, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with various people about things they were going through personally, and things they were experiencing as a church or smaller fellowship.
There was a wide array of topics, ranging from struggles within marriage, to questions about parenting, to a desire for biblical community. Even the subject of biblical counseling came up at various points—phrased in form of questions, such as “Does the Bible teach on the subject of __________?”
I love having these types of conversations as they provide a platform through which the Bible becomes applicable to real-life situations of today. Truth be told, I wish we had more of these honest dialogues within the church, coupled with a desire to search the Scriptures to find answers for our lives today.
One topic very close to my heart is the puzzling season or state in which you feel like there is some sort of cloud hanging over your head. A time when God feels distant and you feel like he has forgotten about you and that you may never be able to get on track with him again. It’s a condition that most of us will experience at some point in our journey.
If we are not careful, it has the potential to shipwreck our faith. But if seen for what it is, and if understood where it comes from, and if dealt with biblically, it can serve as the most faith-building experience of your life. The truth is: you’re not alone. There are countless of others that have gone through it before you, there are many who are going through it right now, and there will be others who are going to experience the same thing.
So what do you do, when the clouds just won’t lift?
I used different English translations of the Hebrew text to bear in our language, as best as possible, every nuance this Psalm has to offer. But before I answer the question, I want the text to inform us what condition the Psalmist is in. Maybe you can see some parallels to your life and mine, and then discover what he instructs us to do:
In the superscript of the Psalm, we read that this is a “Maskil of the sons of Korah.” The sons of Korah are from the tribe of Levi and, according to Numbers 26 and other places, were specifically tasked with temple music. But notice what had happened to him: his praise and his worship of God—whether personal or corporate—have given way to oppression, revilement, and sorrowful mourning. His countenance, once lifted up toward Jerusalem in jubilant excitement, is now cast down and in desperate need of uplifting. His outward song has been silenced by the inward pouring out of his soul.
Like an animal, he audibly thirsts for the waters of God’s presence and longs for permanent relief from his spiritual drought. The once familiar enjoyment of God’s presence has been replaced with isolation, distance, and abandonment. There is a faint memory of what once was and a fleeting thought of what could, or maybe even should be. He has cried many tears and he has endured the constant dripping of the mockings and the taunts by the enemy for some time as they shout, “Where is this God of yours now?”
The psalmist is distant from God, downcast in spirit, discouraged, dried up spiritually, dejected, desperate for God to intervene. Despondent, he is told that he has been dishonored by God. He is demoralized as he cannot do anything in and of himself to change the situation, he feels like he is helplessly drowning and doubting. He is not merely singing the blues or going through some “funk.” No, he is in abject agony, helpless, and crushed. In one word: he is defeated.
We are given a pretty graphic picture of a man who experienced some of the clouds you and I may be facing today. Maybe you can identify with him—at least some of the way. Now as we try to answer the question, So what do you do, when the clouds just won’t lift?, there are three things from our text that we need to understand.
1. We need to understand that there is a cause (Psalm 42:1,2,4,6).
So what happened? How did he get to this point?
We are not told every detail, but when you know the parts that we are given, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what’s going on. This Psalm is a Maskil. It’s not clear what the word means. That’s why most English translations don’t even translate it. It comes from a Hebrew verb (hebr.: sakal = to be prudent, to act wisely, to have insight, to understand, to show discernment) that could be rendered as making someone wise, or to instruct. When you apply this meaning to this Psalm, you can know that this is a Psalm that has been wisely crafted in order to convey instruction about something.
What’s more, this is a Maskil of the sons of Korah, a group of priests who “praised the Lord God of Israel, with a very loud voice” (2 Chron. 20:19, NASB). They were tasked with singing songs and leading “the choir” in worship. The deeper you dig into this Psalm, the more you realize just how carefully and skillfully this Psalm was comprised.
In Verse 4 we read that the Psalmist “had gone with the multitude, <and had gone> with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holy day.” He is familiar with the temple “the house of God” in Jerusalem, he is familiar with the songs, he is skilled in worship, and he has lead others in praise on many occasions.
In Verse 2, he expresses his desire “to appear before God” again, just as he used to do. This was his job, his practice, and his calling in life. It’s what he was meant to do, it’s what he knew how to do.
But notice what he says in Verses 4 and 6. Twice he says, “I remember.…” It’s no longer part of who he is or what he does. Sure, he wants to, but he can’t. He no longer has access to God’s presence (vv.2,5), the Temple (v.4), the multitude (v.4) or even the city of Jerusalem (v.6). Why? Because he finds himself in “the land of Jordan,” “the peaks of Hermon,” “the mount Mizar.” He is now in enemy territory (vv.3,9,10), cut off from everything he knew. And he must have been there for quite some time for him to get to this point of “remembering” what once was.
It could be that “one phone call” that brings you to your knees; the unexpected news at your doctor’s office, the “pink slip” at your office, the sudden loss of something you cherish—a loved one, an animal, an heirloom, etc., the job transfer that didn’t happen, the promotion that didn’t go through, or the bonus you didn’t get, but desperately needed.
Whatever the cause, we need to understand that there is some sort of discouragement that triggers the formation of the “clouds” and sets in motion a downward-spiraling process.
2. We need to understand that there is a process.
After that initial cause, usually a process is set in motion that will run its course unless you deliberately stop it. And yes, do not underestimate the spiritual dimension of this process. The Psalmist makes reference to his “soul” seven times. This process is affecting him to the core of his being:
- his emotions (“I pour out my soul within me” – v.4; “Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me?” – vv.5,11),
- his physical well-being (“tears have become his food day and night” – v.3),
- and his spiritual outlook (“I will say to God, my rock, ‘why have you forgotten me?’”– 9).
The longer the process continues, the more control it will gain over your life and the more debilitated you will be. Give it enough time and it will be all the more difficult, if not impossible, to regain control.
Let’s keep this spiritual aspect front and center for a moment. When you’re experiencing “these clouds,” doesn’t it feel like you’re being controlled and sucked into what feels like quicksand? Did you notice how it affects you in all these areas I had mentioned before—your emotions, your health, and your spirituality? Did you also notice your diminishing willpower to do something the further down you go in this process?
Interestingly enough, it follows the same pattern: some form of disappointment may be the trigger. It is followed by the onset of discouragement, and a whole host of other things will come right after that, all aimed at pulling you further and further down. The end result is that you doubt God’s goodness, God’s presence, and even God’s care.
Further down the line, this initial doubting will question every aspect of your faith journey, your faith itself, and your belief in God’s existence.
Think about it: if you can get a man who has been tasked with leading the people of God in the proper worship of God to succumb to the continual barrage of the taunts levied against his personal relationship with God, to the point that he is tempted to believe that God has completely forgotten about him, then what does that say about what’s going on behind the scenes and what does that mean for you and I?
It’s hard to miss the parallels between Psalm 42 and Genesis 3. The Psalmist’s opponents taunt him: “Where is this God of yours now?” (vv.3,10). Their words are likened to the “crushing of <his> bones (v.10)”, they are intended to hurt and cause him to wonder if God has forgotten about him. In Genesis 3:1, Satan tries a similar, albeit not quite as violent, strategy with Eve: “Indeed, has God said…?” The end game is the same: to bring about separation from God, to drive you into isolation, and to cause you to doubt. He employs a well-crafted strategy by exploiting your disappointment and by firing it up through discouragement. Once he has gained a little bit of ground, he will employ the next step of his strategy: dejection – a lowness of spirit (note how in our text the Psalmist pours out his soul within; this is not the normal reaction. Instead, one pours out his soul before another person) when you feel tired, emotionally worn out and you’re lacking the strength to even cope with the situation you’re in. You isolate yourself, you withdraw from others, and you distract yourself long enough to dull the pain. For a while this works – or so it seems – but it won’t change anything.
The next stage of the attack is despair. In our text, the Psalmist asks twice “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” (vv.5,11). Despair is that state where you either have lost hope or have abandoned hope. In Verse 7, we read that he “hear<s> the tumult of the raging seas, all your breakers and your waves have gone over me ”. He feels like he is drowning and in his mind, the one who could save him is the one who has allowed the waves to crush over him.
He desperately needs to hear from God … he pants and thirsts for God’s presence (vv.1,5,11) and yet the taunts of his adversaries squelch his hope for relief. Over and over again they say, “Where is your God?. . . Certainly, if He were with you, you wouldn’t be going through this.” His thoughts now race between what he is being fed and what he remembers things used to be like. He is trapped with no way out. All three areas of his life have been affected, eroded, and attacked. The words of his enemies start to sound true, more especially when it seems that God doesn’t hear, doesn’t intervene, and doesn’t help.
Despair leads to desperation. You’ve heard the saying, “desperate people do desperate things.” They have nothing left to lose and their moral compass of what’s right and what’s wrong is disregarded – and so is their regard for potential consequences of their actions. One author has noted,
“Desperation is energized despair which causes a frenzy of activity, often reckless activity with no thought of the consequences. Desperation agitates the soul. It has to move; it cannot be still. Something must be done, but it does not know what.” ~ Kay Arthur [Beloved: From God’s Heart To Yours (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1994), April 3-8]
We need to understand that there is a cause. We need to understand that there is a process: disappointment opens the door to discouragement, dejection, doubt, despair and desperation.
But it doesn’t have to end there.
3. We need to understand that there is a way out.
What’s so beautiful about this Psalm is that, against the backdrop of the pain and dark shadows the clouds may have cast, we see a man who will not allow his spirit to be broken, his hope completely crushed, and his faith utterly shattered. He finds a way out and instructs those who would sing this Psalm to follow his example.
So what do you do, when the clouds just won’t lift?”
- He isn’t afraid to ask the question “why?” Six times throughout this Psalm he asks this question – not in a philosophical sense, not in a self-pittying sense, not in a demanding way, but honestly. Time and time again, he asks this question in order to establish the proper basis for his response. His line of questioning helps him recall his purpose and task. Furthermore, it helps him maintain a proper view of God and his relationship to him. Finally, it enables him to place his hope on the appropriate object and find the answer(s) he is looking for. He wrestles through his situation, his thoughts, his doubts, and his questions. He identifies the cause.
He distinguishes between the voices that shout and the one voice he must tune in to hear.
2. He challenges himself to do what must be done.
- He recalls his purpose (“these things I remember…” – v.4),
- he reaffirms his relationship with God (“…therefore I remember you…” – v.6, “… o my God…” – v.6.11, “… the God of my life…” – v.8, “… God my rock…” – v.9),
- he commands himself to hope (x2) (“Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him…” – vv.5,11)
When you’re in the mire and are tempted to continue “to pour out your soul within” (v.4) then you must audibly command yourself to change your thinking. You can no longer remain passive as these things continue to happen to you. You must take action, you must regain control, and you must do whatever it takes to break the cycle, thwart the attack, and regain the ground that’s been taken from you. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones made the following remarks regarding this point:
“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.” (Spiritual Depression, 20–21)
If we continue pouring out our souls within ourselves, we will never gain ground. Instead, we must challenge ourselves with what must be done.
- He affirms what he knows to be true.
Where do we begin with challenging ourselves? We need to start by reminding ourselves and affirming what is true. You may not be able to control or change the outside factors – in Psalms 42 and 43 we are not told that the adversaries were silenced, that the taunting stopped immediately, that the oppression ended or that the Psalmist physically returned to Jerusalem to resume his duties – but you can change to what degree these outside factors affect you.
The first place to start is to affirm what’s true about God. It’s interesting to note that the Psalmist uses the name Elohim for God – meaning: the supreme one, or the mighty one. It is the very name that’s been used in Genesis 1:1 when God created the heavens and the earth and it’s the very name by which the Psalmist calls upon God throughout this Psalm. He affirms that God created him, that God knows his inward parts, that God has both power and control – not only over his life or the circumstances but that whatever he is going through doesn’t catch him unawares. What’s more, he is referred to as “the living God” (v.1) as opposed to the other gods or cures one might run to first. He affirms that being in the presence of this God will make all the difference (v.22.214.171.124). He calls God his “rock,” to whom he may run, to whom he may cling, and to whom he may direct his questions of “why” (v.9). God is “the help of <his> countenance” (v.11). In verse 8, the Psalmist affirms that God “will command His lovingkindness <his intense covenant loyalty> in the daytime and His song will be with <him> in the night,”God is steadfast, unmovable, powerful, mighty, supreme, living, worthy of praise, worthy of trust, ready to help, and you are secure in your relationship with him.
Affirm what’s true about yourself. In light of affirming what’s true about God, you need to affirm what’s true about yourself and not the other way around. The Psalmist models this beautifully at every turn:
- He acknowledges that there is nothing in and of himself that he can do to change the situation, to change the state of his soul, to blow away the clouds, or to silence the other voices.
- He recognizes that his first and foremost need is to be with God. Above all other needs, that’s what he needs the most.
- Any hope he has and can place is in God alone (vv.5,11). This hope stems from his personal relationship he has with God (vv.3,10 – “…y o u r God”; v.8 – “…God of my life…”; 9 – “…God my rock…”)
Affirm what’s true about your future. As you get a sense of the magnitude of the turmoil he is in, you are also leaving with a sense of expectant hope. He shares in graphic detail what has happened and what is currently happening. But he also confidently shares what he knows will happen in the future:
- “I shall again praise Him” (v.5)
- “The Lord will command His lovingkindness” (v.8)
- “…His song will be with me in the night…” (v.8)
- “I shall yet praise Him…” (v.11)
There is an unshakable confidence that, because of God, the final chapter of his life has not been written yet. He won’t give up. He will not abandon God. He may not understand everything, the situation may look every bit as dismal as it can be, but there is hope. His tears will be turned to joy, his mourning into dancing, and his dirge into praise. His enemies won’t win out over him. His countenance will be lifted.
We asked the question, “what do you do, when the clouds won’t lift?” Psalm 42 has given us a threefold answer: we need to understand that there is a cause; we need to understand that there is a process; and we need to understand that there is a way out. We also started this sermon by looking at the superscript of this Psalm: “a maskil of the sons of Korah.” It’s a Psalm of instruction to make someone wise. What if we were to take the Psalm as an instruction for our own lives?
Maybe that’s what the Apostle Paul had in mind, when he admonishes believers in Ephesians 5:18ff. to speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father…” When the clouds won’t lift, we now have a Psalm by which to admonish one another.