The Plight and Prayer of Psalm 42


Psalm 42 (ESV)
1 As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear
before God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation
6 and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

Key Observation

Putting our hope in the living God is foundational for the life of faith.

Understanding the Word

Book II of the Psalter opens with a psalm rich in meaning. It captures the essence of the faith that we will discover in Psalms 42–89. It begins with the image of a thirsty deer longing for cool waters of a pristine stream. The psalmist likened this to his soul’s desire for a fresh encounter with God. Psalms 42 and 43 highlight a conversation between the psalmist and his soul.

The psalmist referred to “soul” throughout the prayer (vv. 1, 2, 4–6, and 11). It is important to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word nephesh that is translated “soul.” Too often we equate soul with the spiritual part of ourselves that is separate from our physical body. This is a misunderstanding of the biblical concept. When the psalmist talked about soul, he was talking about the whole of himself as a living, breathing person. When the psalmist said, “My soul thirsts for God” (42:2), he was saying that all aspects of his being (mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional) are desperate for God. His words expressed a desire to connect fully with God. He felt separated from God and longed for a time to be in God’s presence.

The psalmist was desperate for God because of taunts from unnamed enemies (v. 3) and because of memories of worship (v. 4). The psalmist recalled moments at the temple when God’s people celebrated the protective care of the Lord. In other words, the psalmist longed for the communal worship of God and the feelings of security that God provides. The absence of this caused the psalmist’s grief and trouble.

In verse 5, we find the chorus that recurs three times within Psalm 42 (vv. 5 and 11) and Psalm 43 (v. 5)—“Why are you cast down, O my soul?” In response to his distress, the psalmist questioned his despair and encouraged himself to place hope in God. This will be a key reminder for God’s people. There will be difficult times personally and communally. But there remains one source of hope: the living God. In the Old Testament, God’s people remembered the God of the exodus; in the New Testament, God’s people focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The psalmist built on his hope in the Lord by anticipating future opportunities to praise God for his salvation. A consistent theme in the Psalter is the ability for God’s people to praise God even in the midst of difficult circumstance.

Verses 6–10 provide more details about the psalmist’s plight and prayer. He was geographically far from Jerusalem (v. 6). The mighty roar of the headwaters of the Jordan River reminded the psalmist of his smallness and frailty in the world (v. 7). In response, he confessed his knowledge of God’s ongoing love as well as his recognition that God is the source and grounding of his life (v. 8). On the basis of this relationship, the psalmist cried out to God to act on his behalf against his foes (vv. 9–10). Psalm 42:11 ends the prayer with the same refrain as in verse 5.

1. What do you desire most in the world? How is this desire similar to or different from the psalmist’s longing for God?

2. What is your most meaningful worship experience? How did it shape you?

Are you interested in studying and living with the Psalms in a deeper way? In Part II of his OneBook Daily-Weekly journey through the Psalms, Dr. Brian Russell introduces readers to Books II and III of the Psalms (Psalm 42-89). Through eight weeks of workbook and video teaching, participants will have an even stronger grasp of how these wisdom books can help inspire a moment-by-moment walk with God through the world. Get the study in our store here.


The Psalms were the worship and prayer book for the people of God. So why don’t we sing and pray the Psalms in the modern church? These new resources—A Metrical Psalter and A Meditative Journey Through the Psalms—seek to realign us to the richness of the ancient Psalter. Get the combo set at a discount price in our store here.


Dr. Brian Russell is Dean of the School of Urban Ministries and Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also a consultant and speaker on the missional interpretation of Scripture and creating a missional ethos in communities of faith.