Commentary on Psalm 43
Most interpreters today treat Psalms 42 and 43 as one psalm because a number of Hebrew manuscripts present the psalms together in one text and because the psalms share vocabulary and themes.1
The refrain in the two psalms (Psalms 42:5, 11; 43:5) is the clearest sign of their unity. The practice of separating the psalms may well have begun with the Greek translation and reflect a distinction between prayers of complaint and of petition. This treatment will consider Psalm 43 in the context of the full text, Psalm 42-43.
The text is a prayer in three parts moving from complaint to petition and ending in hope. The speaker is in crisis and engages in a dialogue with the self in the refrain as a way of articulating the significance of the crisis and of moving forward. The crisis may be sickness or it may be exile from the temple as the life-giving place of worship, of encounter with the living God. The psalm uses poetic imagery in ways that make the language adaptable for a variety of settings in life.
The psalm’s setting in life is complemented by the literary setting in the book of Psalms. The psalm begins Book II of the Psalter; its superscription indicates that the text begins a collection (Psalms 42-49) of Korahite psalms. Korah was the Levitical leader of a guild of psalmists (1 Chronicles 9:19; 2 Chronicles 20:19). Korahite psalms often exhibit a community emphasis and a community lament follows this opening psalm of Book II.
The emphasis of the psalm’s placement here seems to be exile from the temple and brings to mind the ancient Israelite community’s experience of exile and the longing for return to Zion or the temple as the defining place of worship. So it may be that a representative of the community voices the prayer of Psalm 42-43 in the crisis of exile.
The text’s opening stanza (Psalm 42:1-5) begins with the striking image of the deer thirsting for water when there is none. Just as water is necessary for life, so also is the divine presence. The speaker remembers powerful worship services of communion with God and yearns again for that life-giving reality. Tears rather than the nourishing divine presence mark life in the current crisis. The second stanza (Psalm 42:6-11) again remembers God, but in the context of the waves of the current crisis overwhelming the speaker. With verse 9, the text begins the transition to petition, the emphasis of the third stanza (Psalm 43).
The third stanza (Psalm 43) petitions God to act as a defense attorney in the face of dominating enemies who are bullying the petitioner. The call is for justice. The enemies appear to be those who see the crisis at hand and find the root cause in the life of the speaker. So while the enemies have not caused the crisis, they certainly have made it worse with their mocking of the one who is praying.
The contrast is with God who is the one who provides refuge. God’s light and truth (verse 3), in contrast to the darkness the enemies bring, prepare for arrival at the temple and encounter with the light of the divine presence found in the special sacred place of worship. This light elicits praise from the speaker, praise accompanied by the harp. The praise recounts God’s deliverance from the crisis at hand. The final word is not the chaos of the crisis but a word of hope and trust. The text concludes with petition to the God who comes to save, the God of hope affirmed in the final occurrence of the refrain (Psalm 43:5).
The concluding refrain continues the dialogue with the self, identified with the Hebrew term often translated “soul” (Psalms 42:1, 2, 5, 6, 11; 43:5). The etymology of the term has to do with the neck or breath or desire. Most commonly the term has to do with the person or self and so is at times translated with the pronoun “I” or “me.” Genesis 2:7 pronounces the man to be a living “soul,” a person or being.
People today often speak of having a soul, but the Hebrew Scriptures view a person as a soul — a living, breathing self with various dimensions (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). The Older Testament — and Psalm 42-43 — views the person in a holistic way. Some today speak of dividing up persons into mind, body, and soul or speak of the immortality of the soul possessed by a person, a soul that returns to immortality at death. Leaders of the church have at various times suggested that the task of the church is to save “souls” and ignore other dimensions of life. These views are not in line with the holistic view of life found in the Bible and in particular in the Older Testament.
Psalm 42-43 portrays the person at prayer in the midst of simultaneous despair and hope, not unlike the experience of Jesus during the crucifixion (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46). In the midst of the despair of the crisis, there is still God’s persistent love and trustworthiness. In this psalm, much of the hope is tied to liturgical realities.
The liturgical experience speaks to the self in the midst of the experience of exile and divine absence and that interaction makes it possible to move from exile to dialogue with God who is present in worship. The psalm concludes with a hope found in God who must quench the thirst of the one praying. The experience of exile, whether geographical or spiritual, yields to hope.
Many today experience seasons of crisis, and our culture suggests that we depend upon ourselves for help rather than upon God. The result is isolation and fear. The psalm’s journey toward hope rests in divine initiative. “The poet yearns to be surrounded by the believing and worshiping community: to participate in the worship services of the Temple and to celebrate with the people the presence of God in their midst.
This is not the kind of private piety or spiritual individualism that is often manifest in churches today.”2 God’s help in the context of the worshiping community brings full living. This honest text suggests that both despair and hope come in life and that both can lead one forward. The psalm moves beyond a private mourning to hope found in the worshiping community God has created. The psalm is an important word of good news in our culture of anxiety, isolation, and despair. The New Testament also speaks of thirst for God (Matthew 5:6) and of God as the one who quenches such thirst (John 4:14; 6:35; Revelation 21:6).
Psalm 42-43 was used on the Easter Sunday on which Augustine was baptized. The text’s water imagery and the divine quenching of thirst fit the occasion. Life is dependent upon God just as life is dependent upon water. Augustine said, “The thought of (God) stirs (the human being) so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you make us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”3
- Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 2, 2014.
- Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2000) 66-67.
- J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, et al (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996) 853-854.