For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 42 and its interpreters. The Psalmist longs for God, as a deer pants for water. But, instead, the Psalmist drinks tears, as his enemies derisively ask him where his God is. The Psalmist remembers the days of the festival processions to the house of God, and he probably desires to experience that again. But he feels as if he is drowned by waves and billows. The Psalmist vacillates between despair and faith in God’s love.
Psalm 42 may pertain to the exile, for that was when some Jews were cut off from the sanctuary of God. But verse 6 (in the KJV) is enigmatic, for it says that the Psalmist remembers God from the land of Jordan, and from the land of the Hermonites, and from the hill Mitzar. But the Jews were not exiled to these areas. So what does this verse mean?
One view is that the Psalmist is remembering the pilgrimages that were made from those areas, for Hermon appears to be regarded as a northern border of Israel in Joshua 11:17, and parts of Israel were in the Transjordan. Similarly, the fourth century Christian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia affirmed that the Psalmist in exile was remembering his beloved land of Israel, even the little mountain (Mitzar). Another view is that the Korahites who were responsible for Psalm 42 were from the North. A third approach is to interpret Psalm 42:6 in reference to Israel’s history, such as Sinai and the crossing of the Jordan. The medieval Midrash on the Psalms contains the idea that Hermon is Sinai because the Hebrew word cherem (which is like Hermon, in Hebrew) means “doom”, and Sinai was the mountain of doom. There is also a view that David was remembering God from the locations mentioned in Psalm 42:6, as he was fleeing from Absalom. Then there is a metaphorical interpretation. Erhard Gerstenberger states that “Separation from Yahweh and his temple is expressed by employing the imagery of the wild regions of the northern mountains (v. 7)”, and that the “same use appeared earlier in the Epic of Gilgamesh…” The idea may be that the Psalmist will remember God, no matter how far away he is from the sanctuary. And Augustine employed an allegorical approach, in that he treated the places of v 6 as a symbol of humility and baptism.
A difference of opinion that I encountered in my reading concerned whether or not the Psalmist’s remembrance of God caused his internal turmoil. Keil-Delitzsch make clear that the Psalmist’s experience of chaos led to his remembrance of God, rather than being the result of that remembrance. But Peter Craigie says that the Psalmist’s remembrance of God is making things worse, for the Psalmist becomes even more discouraged as he thinks back to the good old days when he experienced God’s goodness and enjoyed worship, for that illustrated to him how horrible his present situation was. I agree with Keil-Delitzsch and Craigie, for the Psalmist is probably thinking back to the good old days on account of the afflictions he is enduring, for he desires the days when he felt God’s presence and did not have to deal with those afflictions. And yet, remembering the good old days reminds him that those days are in the past, not the present. The Psalmist can think about the past, but that does not make his present circumstances better. At the same time, perhaps his recollection of the past led him to put his faith in God’s power and goodness, and that would account for the times in Psalm 42 when the Psalmist trusts in God, or at least tries to do so.