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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

Psalms 42

Verse 1


‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God.’

Psalms 42:1

Religion in some form or other is inseparable from man. The hunger of the human spirit is raised in prayer and in worship.

I. Mental and moral aspiration.—What does the Psalmist mean by using the language of bodily appetite to describe the needs of the soul? The panting of the thirsty stag for the water brook is indeed a very eloquent description of mental and moral aspiration. The physical frame requires to be sustained by proper sustenance; deprived of meat and drink it must fail and perish. Not all the wisdom of all the sages of history, not all the goodness of the saints can be taken in exchange for the food and drink by which the body’s waste must be restored and the failing lamp of its vitality replenished. The Psalmist affirms that there exists a similarity and congruity between the soul and the sustenance whereby it lives. The non-physical part of our complex nature, our intellect, conscience, affections, must be fed by other than material food—the intellect by truth, the conscience by righteousness, the affections by answering love. These to satisfy must be perfect and harmonious. You can as little stay the hunger of the spirit of man by giving him an abundance of material provender, as you can stay the hunger of his body with libraries and pictures. ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,’ said our Saviour; and no one who knows himself or his fellows will challenge the statement.

II. Materialism inimical to character.—Let me put to you the situation which any thoughtful man may find himself in to-day. He emerges from the peace of home into the great bustling conflict of life in a great city. He must take his place in the running, and earn by his energy and skill the means of life. The reality of the spiritual world, the claims and hopes of his nobler self seem to drop into the background, seem to grow distant, doubtful, dim to see. Probably he falls in with the literature of materialism—often interesting and able, sometimes even brilliant—which is offered on the bookstalls by the missionaries of unbelief for a few pence; he buys and reads and reads again. And when his newfound creed of materialism begins to react, as every creed must react, on his character, I do not say that because he has given up, or thinks he has given up, Christianity he will therefore become selfish and sensual, because I feel very sure that the instincts of self-respect will shape character in the face of an unfavourable creed, and in many cases it is certainly true that the truth of religion is often first realised through unbelief. The man who raises himself to conviction through doubt is morally superior to any man of formal orthodoxy who has had no spiritual conflict at all; but still allowing that Christian morality may, and often does, survive the reality of Christian belief, I maintain with conviction that materialism is properly inimical to character, and whatever influence is exerted it is for the bad. It weakens the sense of responsibility by destroying its basis in fact; it lowers the estimate of goodness by destroying its reality; it definitely stimulates self-indulgence by withdrawing from conscience its authority and reminder of the promise of judgment to come. The materialist who is true to his creed will become more and more the servant of his own appetite and ambition. Christianity rests in the fact that man is the child of God; materialism rests in the denial of that fact.

III. The hunger of the soul.—In a great city where life is urgent and materialism an aggressive creed there is extraordinary risk that the spiritual nature may be overborne, yet even here, I think, it cannot be denied that the hunger of the human spirit makes its presence known. As I observe the immense multitude of a great city, and mark its feverish haste to hear and tell some new thing; as, I say, it follows with an almost fierce curiosity any crime or scandal or tragedy which would give a glimpse into the world where motives take shape, I see the application of the words of the Psalmist: ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God.’ To embrace the creed of materialism is to assassinate humanity, and to give the lie to all that is most worthy in human history. There are instincts in us which are more trustworthy than our reason, for they, unlike reason, are not hoodwinked by sophistry and led astray by prejudice; and those instincts attest the truth of religion. Remember this when you discuss religion or read the books made upon it. Grant if you will that under the name of religion much has been gathered that is neither true nor useful. Strike away if you will the unworthy accumulation and give your homage to the core of truth; I entreat you have no commerce with any men or any movement which despises and denies the very birthright of humanity, and if you feel that you are growing tolerant of the things of unbelief, if you know yourself to be growing impatient of the faith of Christ, then I beseech you to examine your thoughts and look into your life. It may be that the doubts you see in Christianity have their explanation in yourself, and that for you the way of truth is the narrow and stony way of repentance; it may be that for you the wisest way is not the way of argument, but the way of prayer.

—Canon Hensley Henson.


‘Justice has not been done to the brief but significant touches which the Psalmist’s strong, stern pencils throw in which indicate their subtle sympathy with nature. In Psalms 42:7 the writer hints at the sadness which is borne in upon the soul with the sound of distant water among the hills.

Rushing wave to rushing wave is calling,

At the voice of Thy cascades.’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Psalms 42". The Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.