Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God. Psalm 42.5.
This little verse is a kind of refrain. It is found not just at verse 5 of Psalm 42 but also at verse 11 and again at verse 5 of the following Psalm. And I am writing about it this morning because it was what I found going round and round in my head as I walked into the kitchen a few hours ago to make my morning cup of tea. (To be honest, the words going round in my head were actually ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me?’ because that was the way I had once memorised this little refrain à la KJV over half a century ago.)
But why were those words in my head? Well, the fact is that, on waking today, I did feel cast down, depressed and weary. My mood mirrored that of the Psalmist. I was, I realised, even wishing I had never booked the holiday that my wife and I are about to go on in a few days time. But why? Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me?
Sometimes there are very good reasons for being depressed. The Psalmist himself, of course, had plenty. He was in exile from his beloved Jerusalem, he was being taunted by his captors, and he could no longer participate in the temple worship which had been his life and his joy. But sometimes there is no obvious reason for our being cast down. Sometimes our souls are disquieted within us and we don’t know why. They just are. But when they are – whether we know the reason or not – what are we to do about it?
Three times the Psalmist asks this question (42.5; 42.11 and 43.5) and each time his answer is the same. It is quite simple. Just put your hope in God, he tells himself.
The Hebrew verb yachal – translated here as “hope” – has the root meaning of “to wait” … but not in any negative sense. It is to wait patiently and with expectation. You may be at the bus stop getting colder and wetter by the minute but you know the bus is definitely on its way because you’ve had a text message from your friend who is on it! That’s the kind of waiting that the Psalmist is encouraging himself to engage in here. It’s an expectant looking forward for what is definitely going to come about. A far cry, perhaps, from our English idea of ‘hope’ which often seems to be little more than wishful thinking.
So what is it that the Psalmist is telling his soul is already on its way and will definitely arrive? It is a time when he will once again be full of praise and thanksgiving because of … Well, here we need to abandon the NIV’s “my Saviour and my God” and go back to the Hebrew which is yeshu’ot panayw. The first of these two words is another form of the word I was writing about on Saturday when I described how Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms and said that his eyes had now seen God’s ‘salvation’ – his yesha’. Here it is yeshu’ah. So, a time of joyous praise is on its way because God’s salvation or deliverance is on it’s way. And what form will that deliverance take? The second word is paniym which literally means “face” but is used throughout the Old Testament as a euphemism for the presence of God himself. So the deliverance that is on its way is the presence of God himself … What the Psalmist can look forward to with a “sure and certain hope” is, in fact, nothing less than the saving, liberating, transforming, putting-everything-right, presence of God himself.
And so, of course, can I. And so can you. Except that, like old Simeon, we too now know that the yeshu’ah of God is, in fact, the Yeshu’ah of God – Jesus. That is what the name Jesus is in Hebrew. He is the one who awaits us in everything that this day holds and in everything that every day holds to the end of time. It is in looking to him that I am lifted up once more and my soul is stilled and my peace returns.
“Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God–
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.”