A Song of Desperation

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 42:1-2

Those words were written by a man whose deepest need was not for any thing, but for God. This man was desperate to reconnect with God in worship, and to regain contact with the people of God. More than anything else in the world, this psalmist’s desire was to know God.

DESIRING GOD

Desire for God? I see all kinds of desire in the world. People seem to be in hot pursuit of a lot of things, but who really wants God? There certainly is desire for sex; look at the entertainment media. That’s all they seem to offer. There’s desire for scandalous information, especially bout politicians and celebrities. Vast numbers of folks regularly devour the glossy gossip magazines and tabloids and sit glued to the television entertainment reports – all looking for the latest on the problems of this or that famous person. There is also an enormous desire for fun. Amusement parks, tourist spots, casinos, sporting events, rock concerts – they’re all crammed to the limit with folks who just want to have a good time. Look where all the crowds are going. Sometimes it all seems more than a little desperate to me.

But on a deeper level, many in our society desire nothing more than simple companionship. In a world where institutions grow ever bigger and more impersonal, where we’re bombarded by change and instability, where our jobs are simultaneously becoming both more meaningless and less secure, where families fly apart like fissioning atoms, most people just want someone to hang on to. All around us are lonely men and women who crave nothing more than a companion, someone who will be with them, love them, comfort them, reassure them, tell them they’ll be alright – a lover, a family, a friend.

But what about desire for God? You don’t seem to see a whole lot of that anymore, outside of a few choice souls here and there . . . saints . . . mystics – and maybe the occasional Psalm writer. Even in the midst of what many observers are calling a “spirituality boom,” are people really looking and longing for a relationship with the living God? Or are they just trying to get in touch with their inner selves, or establish cosmic harmony, or jump in on the latest fad?

THE MAN BEHIND THE SONG

It’s different for those who know God in a personal way. If once you have truly tasted what a relationship with the Lord is like, then you realize that’s what you want and need more than anything else. And if somehow you lose that intimacy with God, if something happens to interrupt your fellowship with him, if your closeness with him seems to have gone away, then you long with overpowering intensity to get it back again.

A lot of things can cause you to feel cut off from God. Grief can do it. So can sin and guilt. Physical or emotional illness might make it difficult for you to sense God’s presence, or to feel close to him, or to trust in his care, or even to pray. In the case of the man who wrote this Psalm, it seems to have been isolation that did that. He felt cut off from the God who was the center of his life and the source of his happiness. He felt like he was all alone in a far country and that God was only a distant rumor.

Who was this man? What had happened to him? What was he feeling? The only one of those questions that we can answer with certainty is the last one. This is how he felt: “My spirit is very sad deep down inside me,” he says (v. 6, NIrV). “How deep I am sunk in misery, groaning in my distress” (v. 5, reb). What he felt like was down, depressed, discouraged.

When we sift through the psalm for more information about its author, we discover something interesting. We know pretty much how he was feeling as he was writing because he tells us. But we don’t even know his name, let alone any of the particulars of his life. On the other hand, we also know where he was as he wrote the 42nd Psalm. Listen to this verse from the middle of the psalm:

My spirit is very sad deep down inside me.

So I will remember you here where the Jordan River begins.

I will remember you here on the Hermon mountains and on Mount Mizar.

(v. 6, NIrV)

So this man was writing from northern Israel, on the slopes of Mt. Hermon, near the headwaters of the Jordan River. This was (and still is, I’m told) beautiful and rugged country, a land of cataracts and plunging streams fed by the snow melt in the spring off the mountains of Lebanon. But for the psalmist this place had one major drawback. It was about as far from Jerusalem as you could get and still stay inside the general territory of Israel. Jerusalem was this man’s home. So that means he was living in exile, far from home and family and friends. Worst of all, the psalmist was cut off from the temple in Jerusalem, the house of God, the center of God’s worship. And because of that, it seemed to him like he was cut off from God himself.

SPIRITUALLY OVERWHELMED AND UNDERNOURISHED

So here he is. This man is lonely. He’s discouraged and depressed. He has no friends. It seems like all the people around him are enemies who persecute him and mock his faith in God. And worse than anything else is his feeling that God himself seems to have forgotten about him.

I say to God my Rock,

“Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I go around in sorrow? . . .

. . . my enemies make fun of me.

All day long they say to me, “Where is your God?”

(vv. 9-10)

The psalmist uses two powerful images to paint the picture of his mental state, the landscape of his soul. The first image comes from his physical surroundings. All around him roared the thunder of the streams plunging from the heights down into the valleys to eventually form the Jordan River far below. And to the psalmist, it seemed like all this water was crashing down on his head. “I feel overwhelmed,” he cried. “All your waves and your billows have come over me.”

You have sent wave upon wave of trouble over me.

It roars down on me like a waterfall.

All of your waves and breakers have rolled over me. (v. 7)

Recently I was camping beside a cataract on a beautiful river in northern Ontario, Canada. The water foamed and roared as it tumbled over huge granite boulders. It was magnificent to look at the river, but terrible to think of being caught in it. The most dangerous part of a cataract is the pool just at its base, where the plunging water forms a hydraulic that pushes down anything caught beneath it. In his deep distress the psalmist feels like that’s where he has been trapped, right where the white water holds him down until he can’t breath.

The other image our writer uses to describe his feelings comes in the Psalm’s opening verse: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” Now he’s thinking of a very different kind of river. In Palestine, during the summer, most of the streams dry up completely. And so the psalmist, drawing on an image from this season, says, in effect: “I feel dry, not only overwhelmed from trouble but dry, empty, thirsty, because I can’t find God. As I search for him, as I try to pray, I feel like a deer, desperately thirsty, pawing at the sun-baked bottom of an empty river bed, half-crazed for water.” What the man thirsted for, of course, wasn’t physical water. His longing wasn’t simply for home, or family or friends. It wasn’t even to escape his troubles, or to be rescued from his exile. No. His deepest desire and need was to feel that God was with him once again.

PRAYING YOUR HEART’S DESIRE

So what can you do when you are feeling desperate, or overwhelmed or maybe just spiritually dry? Take a cue from the writer of the 42nd Psalm. Throughout all his problems, the one thing this man continues to do is to pray. He never stops talking to God, even when he feels that God is far away. The psalmist actually prays forth his desire, pouring out his feelings of longing for God, to God.

Sometimes when we are in the most desperate distress we find it hardest to pray. But prayer is not mood dependent. You don’t have to be in the right frame of mind for your prayers to work. You don’t need to feel close to God in order to pray to him. In fact, the most important time to pray is when you don’t feel close to God. Nor do you need special words or correct forms to pray. Just pour out your heart to God. Tell him how you feel – that’s the best kind of praying there is.

In his loneliness and misery, that is exactly what the psalmist does. “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (v. 2). With his whole being, he wanted to feel God with him again. This man knew that what he needed most of all to quench the desperate thirst in his soul wasn’t a vacation, or a pay raise, not a change of scenery, or a new relationship in his life. No. He needed God. God is what he couldn’t live without.

Here’s a good practical test of your spiritual condition: Can you get along from day to day without God? Many try. Some seem to succeed. They don’t appear to miss God a bit. But that can’t happen with those who know God, who love him; not with believers. Once you’ve begun a personal relationship with God you’ll come to understand that, whatever may happen, you need God more than anything else in your life. If you have ever known the Lord, then you know that his presence can lift you out of even the worst depths of discouragement. Conversely, a sense of God’s absence leaves you feeling empty and dissatisfied even in the best times. Your heart’s desire is set on God.

Of course, the fact that God is your deepest desire does not mean that you shouldn’t take delight in other things as well. It’s not that you never want to do anything but pray, or that you can’t enjoy anything but worship. It means that God has become what you might call your “leading taste.” When you sense his presence, you rejoice in it more than anything else. When it feels like he is absent, you seek and wait for him. And you can’t be fully satisfied with anything else until you feel that the Lord is with you again.

To make God your deepest desire also means that you recognize that your pleasure in all the other good things of life – in family and friends, food and drink, laughter, play, work, the beauty of creation – all those pleasures are actually a reflection of the pleasure of knowing God. You accept all those good things as gifts from God, given to you to be enjoyed. You know that even the capacity to enjoy them is his gift to you. So all pleasure is ultimately pleasure in God. Everything you have, you possess in God. Even if you lose all your earthly goods, you still possess everything you really need in God. That’s what it means to desire God above everything.

And it means finally that you understand that all the other desires you have – for meaning or recognition or acceptance or pleasure – are really symptoms of your deeper desire for knowing God. You believe with all your heart that the only way you can be truly and permanently happy is by having an active living relationship with the living Lord.

How can you do that? By putting your hope in Jesus Christ. If you’ll do that, you can have the very same confidence as our psalmist: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”