< October 30, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 43

 

An Initial Decision: Psalm 43?  Or Psalm 42/43?

Psalm 43, in its canonical placement, is actually the final third of a longer poem which makes up all of Psalm 42-43.1

When considered together, the unified poem consists of three stanzas of equal length, each of which is followed by an identical refrain: 

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (Psalm 42:3; 42:11; and 43:5)

So, the preacher and worship planner face an initial choice. Will they include all of Psalm 42/43? Or will they select only Psalm 43? If the former, it seems like an obvious move to have the congregation voice the refrain, leaving the majority of the poem for a worship leader to voice. 

If the latter, worship planners may still want to note the power of the closing refrain and to plan some way to set it apart from the remainder of the psalm. (Note that the Revised Common Lectionary, in its choice to include only Psalm 43 and to use 43:3 as a responsorial verse, effectively composes a new poem with a new refrain.) 

Even those preachers who choose to focus only on Psalm 43 will want to have an interpretive grasp of the whole psalm as they prepare to preach on the psalm.

The Situation: Separation from God

This psalm is a song for those moments when one doesn't feel like singing. It is a poem of faith for those cold nights when one doesn't feel the flames of faith flickering too warmly in one's soul. It is a psalm for those times when one feels separate from God.

What person of faith hasn't felt like that?

The poetic "location" of the psalmist is separation from God. The psalmist charts this spiritual location with a broad range of intense metaphors and pleas. The psalmist longs for God as a thirsting "deer longs for flowing streams" of water (42:1). The psalmist expresses separation from "the face of God" (42:2).

The psalmist was likely a Levitical Temple priest (probably a musician), who remembers being in the presence of God, leading the "procession in the house of God" during the "festival" -- the word "festival" (hag) refers to one of the three great celebrations of the Israelite liturgical year: Passover, Weeks (Pentecost), and Booths (42:4). 

But the psalmist is now separated from the Temple -- singing to God from a distance, "from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar." These exact nature of these geographical references is, in the words of Peter Craigie, "difficult to interpret."2 Mount Mizar is unknown, while Mount Hermon lies some distance north of the Jordan River. But in context, it is clear that the psalmist is lamenting being separated from God, Temple, and community: "My soul is cast down within me" (42:6b). And the psalmist is surrounded by enemies who oppress and taunt the psalmist (42:10).

The mocking oppression of the psalmist's enemies is summed up in the haunting taunt: "Where is your God?" In ancient times, the taunt was often spoken by military victors to their defeated captives (see Psalm 79:10; 115:2; 42:3, 10; Micah 7:10; Joel 2:17; cf. also Isaiah 10:9-10). 

In a polytheistic worldview, a conflict between two rival nations might also be imagined as a conflict between their rival gods -- with the result that one nation defeating another nation might be imagined as also meaning one god had defeated another god. 

Even though most modern people -- especially people of faith -- might not imagine the world in such terms any longer, the taunt still can carry the visceral power of a punch in the guts. In 1988, I heard the Apartheid survivor Pastor T. Simon Farisani describe torture he endured at the hands of his oppressors.3 Among other tortures, he described having electrodes attached to his genitals and being shocked, while his torturers laughed, "Where is your God now?" 

The psalmist describes being surrounded by such mocking adversaries "continually" (42:10). 

Not surprisingly, the psalmist asks God, "Why have you forgotten me?" He wonders why a faithful servant who once marched gladly in the procession in the house of God, must now "walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?" (twice: 42:9 and 43:3). He asks, "Why have you cast me off?" (43:2).

Such questions aimed at God are not the sign of a weak faith or an absent faith. Rather, such questions are typical of the tenacious faith of the psalmists. Indeed, such challenges to God should be understood as one of the characteristic marks of true biblical faith.

Such questions hold God accountable for the promises that were made to Israel, and the promise of God's presence that was extended through Jesus Christ -- who promises to be with us always, to the end of the ages. Such questions assert that all is not right in the good world that God made -- and that God's people are looking to God to do something (more) about it.

The Hope: Send Out Your Light and Your Truth

Separated from God, from Temple, and from a life-giving community, the psalm writer's very memories cause pain: "These things I remember, as I pour out my soul" (verse 4); "My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you" (verse 6). But the memories of community and worship also spur the psalmist both to trust and hope in God on the one hand, and to demand God's saving help, on the other hand.

The memories of worship provide the raw material from which the psalmist fashions her or his confession of trust and request for help. Recalling the prayers that are lifted up and the songs that are given voice in worship, the psalmist confesses: "By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life." The psalmist also thrice confesses confidence that "I shall again praise him." Similarly, most likely recalling the lamps used in the worship procession and "the truth" proclaimed in the Temple, the psalmist prays, "O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me."

But perhaps the most important thing to note in the psalm is the thrice-repeated self-admonition of the psalmist: "Hope in God" (42:5; 11; 43:5). The psalmist here is talking to her or his self (or "soul"). With nobody else to offer encouragement, the psalmist encourages her or himself. And the source of that encouragement is neither therapeutic nor personal -- it is theological. It must come from "outside of the self." 


1Whether Psalms 42 and 43 were originally one psalm that was divided into two (similar to Psalm 9-10), or whether Psalm 43 was composed as a later poem to augment or accompany Psalm 42 is not known. The vast majority of commentators treat the two psalms as a unified composition.  See Goldingay, Psalms 42-89 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007); Seybold, Die Psalmen (Tübigen: Mohr, 1996); Psalmed 1-50 (Würzburg: Echter, 1993); and so on.
2Psalms 1-50 (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 326.
3For more on Farisani's story, see Diary from a South African Prison, 5th ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1990).