I used to love Psalm 42. I still do. But now it’s for a slightly different reason. When I was younger, I often quoted the first words of the Psalm as an expression of passion for God. I understood it to be an expression of zeal to know God … an intense longing to be close to God … an expression of fervent worship. “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God” (Psalm 42:1).
Are these the words of a passionate soul, crying out in prayer to be near to God, as I formerly understood them?
Yes, in one sense that still is a correct description of these words. Nevertheless, I was missing something that became instrumental in helping me more fully understand the psalm and incorporate it into my own prayer life.
I don’t think I’m alone in the way I viewed the first verse of this psalm. One of the few praise choruses from the 1980s that still occasionally finds its way into modern worship services shares the same perspective. Sometimes I wonder whether singing this song might have been one of the reasons I interpreted Psalm 42 the way I did. Here is the worship chorus, which some of you will recognize:
As the deer panteth for the water
So my soul longeth after Thee
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship Thee
You alone are my strength, my shield
To You alone may my spirit yield
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship Thee
(Martin J. Nystrom, 1984)
This really is a lovely song. In all its simplicity, it aptly captures the longing, the intense desire, and the “panting” after God found in the psalm. I happily continue to sing this song, since it fittingly expresses longing for God.
But there was still something missing in my understanding of Psalm 42 whenever I quoted the words of the psalm or sang the worship song constructed from its first verse. What was I missing?
I was missing how desperate the Psalmist was when he wrote these words. These were not merely the words of a passionate young man ready to go out and change the world; this was the desperate sob of a brokenhearted man crying out from a place of vulnerability.
If you’ll permit, let me pause to say a word on behalf of Scripture memorization, since spending time memorizing Psalm 42 (and 43 with which it belongs) was the primary reason I noticed that I had misunderstood the emphasis of the psalm. To memorize requires repetition. Before I ever start working line-by-line to memorize a chunk of Scripture, I first read it aloud 50 times. (This approach, by the way, may be the easiest way to memorize a passage.) Since I was reading the psalm as a whole repeatedly, rather than focusing only on verse 1, I became aware that my perspective on the longing of the psalmist was somewhat skewed. That Psalm 42 is the desperate cry of a suffering God-fearer (a lament) — becomes the unavoidable conclusion when you quote lines like the following over, and over, and over:
My tears have been my food day and night,
While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”…
I used to go along with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God…
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?…
O my God, my soul is in despair within me…
All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me…
I will say to God my rock, “Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me,
While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
(Psalm 42:1-11, encouraging parts deleted)
The precise historical setting of the psalm is not obvious  but a few details about the psalmist’s situation emerge from the text itself:
The lamenter is somehow being mocked about God’s seeming inaccessibility.
The lamenter used to have regular access to public worship in a way he does not anymore.
The lamenter is struggling with despair and frequently weeping.
We must not, however, miss another theme running through the psalm. The lamenter has decided to turn his sorrows toward God in prayer rather than give into the despair he is starting to feel. He has decided to trust in God no matter what humiliation he might face — because he still believes that God is trustworthy.
This commitment to pray, trust and lean into the character of God is obvious in portions of the psalm I deleted above:
These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me…
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him
For the help of His presence…
Therefore, I remember You from the land of the Jordan
And the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar…
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…
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.
(Psalm 42:1-11, despairing parts deleted)
Let’s return to our original question. What does the psalmist mean when he prays, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you, oh God”? Out of his despair — not as an expression of youthful strength, but out of his loneliness, desolation and anguish of heart — the psalmist turns toward the God he has known to be full of lovingkindness (v. 8), his rock (v. 9), and his help (vv. 5 and 11), and begs once again to know the manifest presence of God.
The psalmist’s weakness, loneliness, vulnerability, and near-despair is what I didn’t understand when I first came to cherish the first lines of Psalm 42. Now that I have acknowledged the lamenter’s expression of utter need and desperation for God … this psalm means even more to me than it did in the past.
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.
 “The second stanza sharpens the description of the singer’s situation. He is in the land of Jordan and of Hermon, and near the otherwise unknown Mount Mizar; this would probably locate him north of the Sea of Galilee (at the source of the Jordan River)—but at any rate he is far from Jerusalem, where the sanctuary is.” C. John Collins, “Psalms,” ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 1102