It’s interesting how our ideas are affected by association. I started reading Psalm 42-43 (they’re originally thought to have been one psalm) with the song ‘As the deer pants for the water’ in my head, and thinking that the song was based on the psalm.
In fact, once we get past the first verse of both psalm and song we realise that this isn’t the case at all – and the song remains a beautiful one for worship all the same! But it seems to be inspired by the single image of the deer longing for refreshment, as a picture of our need for God’s spirit, rather than by the psalm in its own setting.
For the psalmist is writing of a particular longing – that when it feels as though God has been absent from the picture. He remembers when faith felt alive and real, when he led the people in praise. And he feels forgotten by God, taunted by his enemies and without the joy of salvation which he once knew so well. Yet in the middle of this feeling of God’s absence, he still holds on to the confident hope that he will see God again.
As so often, faith’s hope for the future is based squarely on remembrance of God’s faithfulness in the past. When in the dark times we remember times of joy and confidence in God, then we may be tempted to think that the darkness is the reality and the memory of light is an illusion, wishful thinking. The psalmist holds things the other way round. The memory of the awareness of God’s presence with us is the true reality, and if we are not for the moment experiencing that joy then we are called to hold on to the memory of the past so that we may be confident in our hope for the future.
As I get further into the book of psalms, it strikes me how deeply they reflect on the complicated nature of being human, balancing suffering and comfort, anguish and hope. While I like singing ‘As the deer’ I think it may be a while before I can do so without thinking that the psalm by which it was inspired has a lot more to show us about what it means to long for God than most of our hymns and songs attempt to express.