By Gordon Franz
Have you ever been deeply in love with someone when all of a sudden an external force shattered the relationship? Perhaps it was the death of the spouse or a divorce. Or perhaps your boyfriend or girlfriend unexpectedly and unceremoniously “dumped” you for someone else. Remember the pain you felt? The questions that went through your mind, “How did this happen? Lord why?” Do you remember the struggles that you had with your attitudes toward the Lord and other people? The love you still had for the other person? These are human emotions and attitudes we experience throughout life.
The psalmist, a Levite and one of the sons of Korah, went through a similar experience. At one point in his life he led pilgrims up to Jerusalem for the three feasts of the Lord (Lev. 23; Deut. 16:16) and he served as a doorkeeper in the house of his God (Ps. 84:10). He loved going to the House of the Lord in order to worship Him. Yet in 701 BC, tragedy struck. The psalmist, rather than leading pilgrims to Jerusalem, was being led into captivity by the Assyrians and marched off to a foreign land. This trilogy of psalms expresses the inner most feelings and attitudes of the psalmist as he went through this traumatic experience.
The year 701 BC was a mixture of tragedy and blessing for the Kingdom of Judah. It was a year that saw the mighty Assyrian army, led by King Sennacherib, march against Judah and destroy most of King Hezekiah’s kingdom. In his annals he boasts that he destroyed 46 strong walled cities of Judah as well as the small cities that surrounded them (Luckenbill 1989:II:120). On the other hand, there was a miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the part of the Assyrian army that had encircled the city. The Angel of the Lord intervened and destroyed 185,000 Assyrians soldiers at night (2 Kings 18:17-19:36; 2 Chron. 32:9-21; Isa. 36:2-37:36).
The historical books, Kings and Chronicles, in the Bible are silent as to what happened after the destruction of the cities of Judah. The prophet Micah, a contemporary of King Hezekiah, hinted that some were taken captive and resettled in Babylon according to Assyrian resettlement policy (4:10). Sennacherib himself boasts that he took an exaggerated number of 200,150 Judeans captive, “great and small, male and female”, the daughters of King Hezekiah, his harem and male and female musicians (Luckenbill 1989:II: 120, 121). A wall relief was found in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh depicting the siege and fall of Lachish (2 Kings 19:8; 2 Chron. 32:9; Isa. 37:8). This relief showed Judeans being taken captive from that city along with their personal possessions (Ussishkin 1982: 108-113). Another wall relief from his palace showed some Judeans building his palace in Nineveh. Another wall relief, its provenience unknown, but most likely came from Sennacherib’s palace, depicts three Judean musicians playing their harps being marched off by an Assyrian soldier. They appear to be in a mountainous region, possibly in the region of Lebanon. It is clear, there was a Judean captivity in the year 701 BC.
The inspired Scriptures preserve a trilogy of psalms (Ps. 42/3. 44. 45) that relate to this event by one who went through it.
Overview of the Psalms of the Sons of Korah
The theme of these three psalms is the lessons to be learned from suffering while in captivity. The next three psalms (45-48) describe the joy of salvation by those who were in Jerusalem when the Lord delivered the city from the Assyrians. Psalm 49 stands alone in this section, but reflects an incident that happened earlier in the reign of King Hezekiah. In the “fourteenth year” (713/12 BC) he bribed Crown Prince Sennacherib to leave Judah (2 Kings 20:12-19; 2 Chron. 32:24-31; Isa. 39). The principle lesson from this psalm is not to trust in material possessions for salvation.
There are at least three more companion psalms written by the sons of Korah. Psalm 82 compliments Psalm 42/3 and describes the return of the psalmist from captivity to the House of the Lord that he loved. Psalm 85 is the companion psalm for Psalm 44. It expresses the praise and worship of that answered prayer for salvation. Psalm 87 is the companion psalm for Psalms 46-48. This psalm ascribes praise to Zion (Jerusalem).
Literary Structure and Theme of Psalm 42/3
In the English Bible this psalm is divided into two separate psalms. Originally it was one psalm. The evidence for that is twofold: First, some ancient manuscripts have it as one psalm. Second, internal evidence points in this direction. The psalm is divided into three stanzas, each ending with a common refrain (42:5, 11; 43:5). Each stanza has a progressive time sequence: past, present and future. The absence of a title in Ps. 43 seems to suggest it was once part of Ps. 42.
The theme of this psalm is the desire of the psalmist for the House of the Lord; in spite of external circumstances that hinder him from going there, he relies solely upon the Lord to return him to the place that he loved.
Exposition of Psalm 42/43
The Past Experience of Worship. 42:1-5.
The psalmist was taken from his home, probably Beth Shemesh (Josh. 21:15), at the beginning of the Assyrian campaign against Judah during the late spring of 701 BC. As he is being carried away captive, he realized he might never see the House of the Lord in Jerusalem again. He is going into captivity and the Assyrian army was threatening the capital, Jerusalem. He did not what the future would hold. The Lord and His House had been the desire of his heart all his life (2 Kings 8:22-30). Thus he used the analogy of a deer panting after scare water in the dry wilderness of Judah to express his deep yearning and desire for the Lord and His House. As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (42:1,2).
This was an emotional experience for him because he had many unanswered questions. He wept because the place he loved was inaccessible to him. Apparently he declared to his captors his faith in the Lord God of Israel as the only true God, and not the Assyrian deity, Ashur. The Assyrians, not wanting to be mocked, taunted him, “Where is you God?” In Assyrian theology, the side that won the battle had the stronger God. They thought Ashur was stronger than Yahweh because they had conquered a number of Judean cities. The psalmist let his theology slip for a few minutes and raised the question in his mind: How could his God be real if he was in captivity and the kingdom was on the verge of defeat? My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, “Where is your God?” (43:3).
To combat his fears and doubts, he recalled the pleasant times he had leading the pilgrims up to Jerusalem. If his home were in Beth Shemesh, he would lead the throngs, as he played his harp, up into the Hill Country of Judah. There were two possible roads up to Jerusalem from his hometown. One road went up via Nahal Kesalon and Kiriath-Jearim (Dorsey 1991:186-188, Route J5). This is the road the Ark of the Covenant was taken up into the Hill Country after it was returned by the Philistines (I Sam. 6:20-7:2). The second road went up via some ridges going through the upper reaches of the Sorek Valley to Bethlehem. At Husan, they would turn and go through the Valley of Rephaim into Jerusalem (Dorsey 1991:189, Route J8). Along the way, they would admire the lovely vineyards situated on the hillsides (Isa. 5:1,2). If they approached the city from the south, the fertile Valley of Rephaim, with its rich agriculture of wheat, barley grapes and olives would come into view (Isa. 17:4-6). Guarding the southern approach to Jerusalem was the administrative center of “MMST” (today Ramat Rachel) where King Hezekiah had recently completed a beautiful palace complex. Then they went on to Jerusalem to visit the historic sites there as well as the House of the Lord. Ah, such pleasant memories of the sweet time of fellowship with the Lord’s people as they went on pilgrimage. As he remembered these things, the psalmist poured out his heart to the Lord. When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast (42:4).
All Judean males, 20 years old and older, were required to go up to Jerusalem three times a year to worship the Lord (Ex. 23:14-19; 34:23; Deut. 16:16). The first feast was Passach (Passover), the second was Shavuot (Pentecost), and the last was Succoth (Tabernacles).
This stanza ends with the refrain, Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance (42:5). Throughout his ordeal there was a “still small voice” encouraging him not to be in despair; for somehow, someway, the Lord would answer his prayer and bring him back to Jerusalem. He had to be patient and wait on (i.e. hope in) the Lord.
The Present Exclusion from Worship. 42:6-11.
As the psalmist was marched toward Assyria, he realized each stop took him further and further away from the place he longed for and loved. When he reached the northern part of Israel, near the city of Dan, he was in turmoil. His soul was depressed, yet he struggled to keep his mind on the Lord. O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan, and from the heights of Hermon, from Hill Mizar (42:6). As he was forced to leave the Land of Israel he saw the springs and streams of the Jordan River (“the land of the Jordan”), the three peaks of Mt. Hermon, and another mountain, Mt. Mizar. George Adam Smith, a Bible geographer has observed, “Hermon (not Hermonites) must refer to the triple peaks of Hermon. … The standpoint of the Psalmist is fixed in the corner between Hermon and Jordan, where Banias stands. To the two localities the Hill Mis’ar, is placed in apposition. It may mean, as it stands, Hill of Littleness. But it may also be a proper name; and it is remarkable that in the neighborhood there should be two or three names with the same kindred radicals: (1) Za’ura; (2) Wady Za’arah, above Banias; (3) Khurbet Mezara. I suggest these may be reminiscent of a hill in this district, called Mis’ar” (1931:476, footnote 1).
His life was in turmoil. Calamity filled his soul like the waters tumbling down the waterfalls of the Jordan River. Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me (42:7). His soul was tossed between depression and contemplation of the Lord, between questioning God and trusting Him. Is it wrong to question God? No, but it is wrong to doubt His goodness and love.
Yet the Lord reassured him of His loving kindness in the daytime. The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me – a prayer to the God of my life (42:8). The Hebrew word for loving kindness is hesed and can be translated a number of ways. Usually it is translated mercy, loving kindness, goodness or lovingly loyal. One way the Lord could remind the psalmist was by a flock of storks flying overhead as they migrated south for the winter through the Jordan Rift Valley. The Hebrew word of stork is chasidah. The Hebrews noted a quality characteristic in the stork of “devoted maternal and filial affection” toward its young (Tristram 1873:244). The LORD was the same way. He was lovingly loyal to His people based on His covenant that He made with Abraham.
In the night, he would sing the songs that he learned in the House of the Lord. Many of the psalms, especially the Davidic ones, have as their theme the loving kindness or mercy of the Lord (Ps. 63:3; 101:1; 106:1; 107:1; 115:1; 117:1; 118: 18.104.22.168.29; 136). These songs, Scripture put to music, reminded him of the promises of God, so that he could pray in faith that God would comfort and deliver him.
The Assyrians intensified their taunting, and the psalmist was emotionally crushed. This led him to question the Lord, “Have you forgotten 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 with the breaking of my bones, my enemies reproach me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” (42:9,10). Verse 10 might hint as physical torture by the Assyrians, they were masters at it. Yet through it all, that “still small voice” came back to remind him not to despair, but to wait upon God because one day he would praise the Lord. Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God (42:11).
Over 700 years later, the Lord Jesus Christ was in the same area, i.e. Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:13). It was at this point in His ministry that He began to plainly tell His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of sinful men, be killed and be raised again the third day (Matt. 16:21 // Mark 8:31 // Luke 9:22). This psalm must have gone through His mind as He contemplated the striking contrast between Himself and the psalmist. The psalmist was taken into captivity because of the nations sinfulness, yet the loving kindness of the Lord sustained him during the time he was hindered from going to Jerusalem for the feasts of the Lord. On the other hand, because of humankind’s sinfulness, the loving kindness of the Lord compelled the Lord Jesus to go to Jerusalem to be the Passover Lamb (Luke 9:44,45,51; I Cor. 5:7).
The Lord Jesus takes one phrase from the refrain of this psalm (42:5,11; 43:5) and applies it to Himself. While He is in Gethsemane He said, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful” (Matt. 26:38 // Mark 14:34; Archer and Chirichigno 1983: 69,71).
The Future Expectation to Worship. 43:1-5.
The Assyrians had continually taunted the psalmist as to where his God was. The psalmist, in desperation, turns to the Lord and pleads with Him to vindicate, and plead his cause against the Assyrians, and to deliver him from the clutches of Sennacherib. Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; Oh deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man! (43:1).
The psalmist acknowledges that God is his strength but wants some tough questions answered; such as, “Why did you do this to me Lord?” and “Why am I going through this? What is the purpose?” For you are the god of my strength; Why do you cast me off? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? (43:2).
The psalm ends with the psalmist praying to the Lord to send His light and truth to lead him back to the Temple in Jerusalem and the place that he loved. Oh, send out Your light and Your truth! Let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to your tabernacle (43:3). The light and truth could refer to one of two things. The first possibility is the Word of God. The Scriptures have been called light (Ps. 119:105) and truth (Ps. 119: 43,142,160). The second possibility is the Son of God. As we will see in Psalm 45, the King of Israel is a preincarnate appearance, called a Christophany, of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, the Lord Jesus says He is the Light of the World (John 8:12) and the Truth (John 14:6).
The psalmist makes a vow and promises the Lord that when he returns to Jerusalem he will offer a sacrifice and praise the Lord is song, thanking Him for the salvation that He accomplished and the answer to his prayer. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and on the harp I will praise You, O God, my God (43:4).
The refrain repeats itself again. This reinforces and encourages the psalmist through this crisis situation. Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God (43:5).
Facts often seem to contradict faith. The psalmist questioned the Lord, “God, if you are real, why are you allowing this to happen to me?” The Lord’s loving kindness and the Word of God encouraged him to “walk by faith and not by sight” (II Cor. 5:7). He fully believed that God had a purpose for this ordeal and that one day He would answer his prayer for deliverance. As we will see later, the answer is seen in Psalm 84. Yet until that happens he must keep in mind that “God’s grace does not lead where His grace does not sustain.”
As the psalmist went through this ordeal, his love for the Lord and His House deepened. Someone once said, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Sometimes we do not realize how much we love something or someone until it is taken away from us. We should not take the things of the Lord for granted.
Finally, realizing that God was in control of his life, the psalmist began the psalm by “panting” (desiring the Lord and His House); but ends by “praising” when God heard and answered his prayer for deliverance.
Archer, G., and Chirichigno, G.
1983 Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey. Chicago: Moody.
1991 The roads and Highways of Ancient Israel. Baltimore: John Hopkins University.
1989 Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylon. London: Histories and Mysteries of Man.
1873 The Natural history of the Bible. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
1931 The Historical Geography of the Holy Land. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
1982 The Conquest of Lachish by Sennacherib. Tel Aviv: Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University.