September 2: Psalm 42

Burk Parsons
Psalm 42:1-2: "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God."

Over the years I've backpacked though different mountain ranges, and I've also hunted big game, such as elk and deer. Although I've encountered many deer in my journeys, and have killed a few, I've never seen a deer pant for water. However, I have seen many a deer along a creek or riverbank drinking from flowing, cold mountain waters. From what I have observed, deer will typically not drink from muddy water holes, unless they can locate some sort of a naturally formed container wherein fresh rainwater is available. Their first and most basic instinct is to find fresh, moving water. 

While I've never hunted them, sheep likewise are only properly refreshed and nourished when they are able to drink from a fresh water source, according to Phillip Keller in his classic work on the 23rd Psalm: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. One fundamental difference between sheep and deer is that deer are independent animals whereas sheep are almost entirely dependent animals. Sheep require a shepherd to live and thrive. And although many expositors and preachers have wrongly labeled sheep as dumb, they are simply dependent creatures who depend not only on their shepherd but on each other as they band together in the face of predators. The shepherd's role is fundamental to a flock's well being. If left to fend for themselves, sheep, as they journey from one pasture to another, will drink out of any available hole of water along their path. The still water in those muddy potholes often contain parasites, diseases, urine, and manure. It's necessary not only that a shepherd keep his flock from drinking from such muddy water holes but that he lead them along a right path to places where the water is fresh and where it is still enough so that the sheep can gently dip its mouth into the creek and drink freely.

Both sheep and deer will thrive only if they have fresh water, and while they can do without food for a time, fresh water is absolutely essential to their daily life, just as it is to ours. If we're to grasp the force of David's analogy in Psalm 42, it helps if we are able to recall a time in our lives when we have experienced real thirst. For some, they experienced real thirst on the battlefield; for some, it was when they were sick with a stomach virus and unable to consume liquids to adequately quench their thirst. For me, I experienced real thirst while backpacking in the high peaks region of the Adirondack mountain range in upstate New York with three friends--all of us experienced backpackers. While our maps showed multiple water sources, we found none. All we found were potholes along the path wherein muddy water had settled. Having saved a half-liter of water, we consumed every drop the morning after we'd not been able to locate a water source. From the afternoon one day until 1:30 pm the next, we had a half-liter of water between us, besides the early morning dew from sharp pine needles. From dry heaves that some experienced to near exhaustion, each of us experienced what it was to really thirst as we hiked many hard miles to find fresh, flowing water in a cold mountain stream toward the base of the mountain.

Words can barely describe how I felt when I finally reached that source of fresh, flowing water. The simple question that emerges from all this as we consider David's expression in Psalm 42 is this: Do we long for God in the same way we experience real thirst? Do we understand our need for him as we understand our need for fresh water in all of life? Throughout Jesus' ministry, particularly as we see it recorded in John's account, he uses the same Old Testament image of water when speaking of himself and his ministry. We see this in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter four, and we see it in chapter seven when Jesus "cried out: 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink'" (John 7:37).

Our souls demand God, and our thirst cannot be quenched with anything other than God himself. By God's grace, our souls pant for God, and they never stop panting for God. In his Confessions, Augustine prays, "Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that Thou 'resistest the proud,'--yet man, this part of Thy creation, desires to praise Thee. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee."

Before our conversion, our hearts are restless until they rest in God, and after conversion, in order for our hearts to remain at rest, they must find their daily rest in God alone. We never cease finding our hearts' rest in God. In fact, when we find them restless in the mire of our sin, it's only because we have sought to find our rest in other things, idols that we have churned up in our pursuit to find living water to quench our thirst. 

When we other seek other sources for our fulfillment and refreshment, we are like sheep that have gone astray, making our own path, drinking from every muddy pothole of standing water filled with parasites. And while it might quench our thirst for the moment it makes us sick if we continue to drink. Our only hope is in our shepherd who comes to chastise us lovingly, with staff in hand to draw us by our necks from the muddy water that he might lead us on his path of righteousness to the riverbank of fresh, flowing water that he has dammed upstream so that we can drink freely from still, fresh water at our leisure.

It is his pursuit of us, his making us lie down in his pastures, his leading us in his path of righteousness, and his leading us to still waters that in fact restores our souls. And in giving us a taste of himself, he makes us continually willing and able to pant for him just as a deer pants for a water brook. As our shepherd, he comes down from the rock on which he stands, high up, perched on a ledge looking down upon his entire flock, getting dirty as he seeks us and finds us in the muddy rut we have created for ourselves, drinking from self-created, idolatrous mud puddles, which, when we gaze at them against the dark, still ground, we cannot help but see our own reflections.

Calvin writes, "When [David] says that he cried for the living God, we are not to understand it merely in the sense of a burning love and desire towards God: but we ought to remember in what manner it is that, God allures us to himself, and by what means he raises our minds upwards. He does not enjoin us to ascend forthwith into heaven, but, consulting our weakness, he descends to us" (Commentary on the Psalms).