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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Psalms 42

Verse 1




With these psalms we have the beginning of Book II of the Psalter. "This book includes Psalms 42-72, a total of 31, only eighteen of which are attributed to David. Book I which we have just concluded ascribes all 41 of them to David."[1]

We accept the proposition that Psalms 42 and Psalms 43 are actually one Psalm for the following reasons: (1) Psalms 42 has no title whatever in the Psalter; (2) the sentiment is exactly the same throughout both; (3) the whole composition consists of three stanzas, each ending in a kind of refrain in almost identical language in Psalms 42:5; 42:11; and 43:5; (4) Psalms 42:9 and Psalms 43:2 are virtually identical; and (5) as Ash observed:

"The general consensus is that they are actually a single psalm; the meter, thought, language and problems are the same. We do not know for sure why they were divided."[2]

In the study of these psalms we are somewhat embarrassed to find ourselves in disagreement with the interpretation advocated by the vast majority of the scholars whose works are available to us. Nevertheless, integrity demands that we interpret them as they appear to us, confessing at the same time that, of course, we might be wrong.

Many are sure that this is a psalm written by David, as usually explained, during his exile to some land beyond the Jordan river, during which time the tabernacle services were being conducted. Psalms 42:6 is understood to teach that David's place of exile was somewhere east of the Jordan headwaters in the vicinity of Mount Hermon. All of this is alleged to point to a time during the rebellion of Absalom when David was an `exile.'

The big objection that we have to this is that, according to the Old Testament, the rebellion of Absalom was a brief affair; and, that although David did indeed leave Jerusalem for a short while, there is nothing in the text to suggest any period when the king found it "impossible" to return to Jerusalem.

There is no superscription assignment of the psalm to David. Upon what grounds, then, are the scholars so sure that David wrote it? Maybe they all have such excellent noses that, like Spurgeon, they can smell it! Spurgeon wrote that, "It is so Davidic that it smells of the Son of Jesse."[3] We must confess that, although it could be due to the defective nature of our olfactory equipment, there is no detectable odor of David in either of these psalms.

Another reason for placing these psalms in the times of David was cited by Dummelow, who pointed out that, "The Psalms belong to a time when the Temple worship was in full activity."[4] He apparently overlooked the fact that during the long reign of the Babylonian puppet king Zedekiah over Judaea (during the Babylonian Captivity) the Temple worship continued without interruption. Therefore, the psalms could have been written, as we believe, during that captivity.

Also, Psalms 42:6 is often understood to give the `residence' of the psalmist in Trans-Jordan near Mount Hermon. And we admit that it is true that, "Most people who read Psalms 42:6 would understand it to mean that he was living in Northern Palestine near the source of the Jordan."[5] We do not believe that the verse says that; and, as Baigent admitted, "The Psalmist could have been one of the Jewish exiles in Babylonia."[6]

(Regarding Psalms 42:6, see our comment below.)

Then, what are the positive reasons why we understand the psalms to be identified with the times of the captivity of Israel either in Assyria or in Babylon?

(1) The superscription has, "Praising God in Trouble and Exile." The only "exile" of which we have any knowledge is that of Israel, (a) first in the person of the Northern Israel who were made captives by Assyria, and (b) again, from the beginning of the reign of the puppet king Zedekiah until the "seventy years" of the Babylonian captivity were fulfilled for Judah. In our view, during any of this period from 722 B.C. (The fall of Samaria) till Cyrus authorized the end of the Captivity in Babylon, could have been the time when some devoted psalmist composed these remarkable psalms.

(2) The psalmist states in Psalms 43:1 that "an ungodly nation" is against him. It appears to us that neither David, nor any other Jew would thus have designated the Israel of God in a prayer. Yes, Jeremiah, and others, sternly denounced the wickedness of whole generations of Jews, but not "the nation" as ungodly. This means that whoever wrote the psalms was in the midst of an "ungodly nation" when he did so; and Babylon or Assyria will fit that designation better than any other people.

(3) Psalms 42:6, as we read it, says that, "I remember thee from the land of Jordan, and the Hermons from the hill Mizar."

"From the land of Jordan" (Psalms 42:6). This may be understood as saying that he remembered God from the times when he lived in the land of Jordan (The Holy Land), and not that he was at the time that he wrote living there. The last clause here denies that he was then living in Palestine.

"The Hermons from the hill of Mizar" (Psalms 42:6). The American Standard Version margin gives "the little mountain" as an alternative reading for "the hill of Mizar"; and there is no reason whatever why it might not be a reference to Mount Zion (Jerusalem). Yes, this Mount Mizar is listed by all the scholars as "unknown," "unidentifiable," etc.; the expression "from the hill of Mizar" simply means that Mount Hermon could be seen from the top of Mizar; and that meaning certainly does not rule out Jerusalem as the place indicated. All of the suppositions of many writers that it might have been in the vicinity of Hermon, or one of the lesser peaks in that region, would make the passage meaningless. It would not have been worth any mention whatever that a man could remember seeing Hermon from one of the foothills; but if he remembered seeing it from Jerusalem, that would have been worthy of inclusion in the psalm.

(4) One other reason for our assignment of these psalms to the period of Israel's captivity is the reasonableness of Clarke's comment.

"This is the first of the Psalms assigned unto the sons of Korah; and it is probable that they were composed by descendants of Korah during the Babylonian Captivity, or by some eminent person among those descendants, and that they were used by the Israelites during their long captivity, as a means of their consolation. Indeed most of these Psalms are of the consoling kind; and the sentiments expressed appear to belong to that period of Jewish history, and to no other."[7]
Psalms 42:1-4

"As the hart panteth after the water brooks,

So panteth my soul after thee, O God.

My soul thirsteth for God, the living God:

When shall I come and appear before God?

My tears have been my food day and night,

While they say continually unto me, Where is thy God?

These things I remember, and pour out my soul within me,

How I went with the throng, and led them to the house of God,

With the voice of my joy and praise, a multitude keeping holyday."

"As the hart panteth after the water brooks" (Psalms 42:1). This metaphor compares the heart-hunger of the psalmist to the physical pangs of a deer suffering from acute thirst, running from place to place seeking water in the dry season.

"My soul thirsteth for God, the living God" (Psalms 42:2). One of the features of the Second Book of Psalms is the use of the word [~'Elohiym] for God, whereas in Book One, it was Jehovah that was used most frequently. Delitzsch tells us that "In Book I, Jehovah is used 272 times, and [~'Elohiym] is used only 16 times; whereas, in Book II, [~'Elohiym] is used 164 times, and Jehovah is used only 30 times."[8]

There is no thirst like that of the soul for the knowledge of God. Only the knowledge and assurance of God and the maintenance of our human relationship with Him can save an intelligent soul from insanity. God is our Life; he is the Light of the world; he is the fountain of living waters; He is our All in All; as Augustine said it, "Our souls, O God, were made for Thee; and never shall they rest until they rest in Thee." These words are engraved upon the tomb of William Rockefeller in Tarrytown Cemetery, New York.

This morning (Easter Sunday, 1991) many religious leaders in Houston agree that many thousands of the rebellious youngsters of the 1960's are these days turning to God in an effort to experience some reason for their existence and to find some reality and purpose in their lives.

" tears ... my food day and night ... they say, Where is thy God?" (Psalms 42:3). These words seem much more appropriate as the tearful expression of Babylonian captives than the walls of the king of Israel. One can hardly imagine the friends who accompanied David when he fled before Absalom as taunting him with such words as, "Where is thy God?" Furthermore, on that alleged `exile,' David was accompanied by and surrounded by friends; and his enemies had no access whatever to him during that time. This was not the case with the captives who continually received the taunts of their Assyrian or Babylonian captors.

"These things I remember ... I led them to the house of God" (Psalms 42:4). The words here seem to imply the passage of a considerable amount of time; and, as we pointed out, there was no such time featured in the so-called `exile' of David.

Moreover, the leading of the multitude to the Temple worship was not usually done by the king, but by the priests or Levites. "We do not therefore in the least doubt that Psalms 43 is the poem of a Korahite Levite who found himself in exile beyond the Jordan."[9] (Delitzsch believed the place of exile was merely in Trans-Jordan and that the psalmist was at the time an attendant on King David in flight before Absalom; but we disagree with that).

These first four verses register a complaint of tears, separation from God, inability to worship in the Temple, and the taunting remarks of oppressors, and as Matthew Henry said, "These are aggravated by the remembrance of former enjoyments."[10]

Verse 5

"Why art thou cast down, O my soul?

And why art thou disquieted within me?

Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him

For the help of his countenance."

This verse, as Henry noted, finds, "Faith silencing the complaint with the assurance of good times at last."[11]

"Hope thou in God" (Psalms 42:5b), etc. These last two lines are repeated almost verbatim in Psalms 42:11 and in Psalms 43:5, concluding each of the three stanzas which comprise these two psalms.

McCaw has understood the meaning of these three `refrains' as, (1) "Being Faith's rebuke to dejection in Psalms 42:5, (2) Faith's exhortation in bewilderment in Psalms 42:11, and (3) Faith's triumphant declaration of certainty in Psalms 43:5."[12]

Verse 6

"O My God, my soul is cast down within me:

Therefore do I remember thee from the land of the Jordan,

And the Hermons from the hill Mizar.

Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterfalls:

All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.

Yet Jehovah will command his lovingkindness in the daytime;

And in the night his song shall be with me

Even a prayer unto the God of my life."

(See the chapter introduction for a discussion of Psalms 42:6.)

"All thy waves and thy billows have gone over me" (Psalms 42:7). The psalmist here remembers the experience of Jonah, making the same determination that God will yet bless him, just as he blessed Jonah. The passage recalled here is:

"All thy waves and thy billows passed over me ... the waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the deep was round about me. Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple" (Jonah 2:3-5).

It is easy to see that the psalmist here was appealing to God, that just as he had blessed Jonah, so might the same blessings come to the psalmist.

"Jehovah will command his lovingkindness in the daytime; and in the night his song shall be with me" (Psalms 42:8). The future tenses here, "will command," and "shall be with me" are changed to the present tense in the RSV which reads, "By day the Lord commands his stedfast love; and at night his song is with me." "Owing to the flexibility of the meaning of Hebrew tenses, it may be legitimately translated either way."[13]

If we translate the passage as present (RSV) it means that the psalmist is at the present time receiving comfort and consolation from his confessed sense of God's overruling; and, if we translate it future as in ASV, then the psalmist is "stating his assurance that God will enable him to triumph in the midst of storms."[14]

Verse 9

"I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me?

Why go I mourning before the oppression of the enemy?

As with a sword in my bones, mine adversaries reproach me,

While they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?"

Again we find it difficult indeed to suppose that such words as these could belong to anyone other than some sufferer in the kind of sorrow and oppression that belonged to captive Israelites.

These verses outline the psalmist's intention to go on with his praying, telling God of his oppression, and the arrogant taunts of his captors, and asking God why he is still suffering as if God has forgotten him.

Verse 11

"Why art thou cast down, O my soul?

And why art thou disquieted within me?

Hope thou in God;

For I shall yet praise him

Who is the help of my countenance, and my God."

We have already commented upon the meaning of this verse in the three locations where it appears in these psalms, giving the particular meaning in each case. See under Psalms 42:5, above.

The evidence of the influence of the words of Jonah in this passage is overwhelming.

"I shall yet praise him (God)" (Psalms 42:10). Jonah prayed, "I am cast out from before thine eyes, yet I will look again toward thy holy temple." (Jonah 2:4). And again, he prayed, "The earth with its bars closed upon me forever, yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit ... and my prayer came in unto thee" (2:6-7). Note the recurrence of the word "yet" and its position here in Psalms 42:10.

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 42". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.