By Doug Redford
Baseball fans recognize that the number 42 is a very important one in the history of baseball. That was the number Jackie Robinson wore on his uniform. Robinson became the first African-American player for a major league baseball team when he took the field on April 15, 1947, to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s now become the practice every year on April 15 for all the members of the various major league teams to wear the number 42 on the backs of their uniforms in his honor. Whether they are pitchers, catchers, outfielders, infielders, or managers—all are number 42 on that day.
The psalm that appears in the Bible as number 42 is one to which any reader can relate. We could all wear its number on our backs because we have been where the writer of Psalm 42 has been. The journal of his walk with the Lord is one that we could have written, perhaps many times.
Psalm 42 records an individual’s struggle to find God in the midst of a particularly distressing circumstance, though exactly what it is we are not told. Whatever it is has left our author searching for a God who seems to be playing a cruel game of hide and seek and who seems out of reach or out of touch. Some of us can readily sympathize. Earlier psalms remind us that the Lord owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (50:10). But what if we find ourselves on what appears to be Hill #1,001?
Life in the Valley
The psalmist comes to God with an honesty that is characteristic of numerous other psalms. He asks God the question that has been asked so often only God himself knows the number of times it has been raised: “Why?” (42:9). We must remember that God is not at all offended by this question. Some of the most godly individuals in Scripture have dared to ask it, including Moses (Numbers 11:10, 11), David (Psalm 22:1), Job (numerous times), and even Jesus, who voiced from the cross the question David raised in Psalm 22:1.
In addition, the psalmist’s memory becomes a source of frustration for him. In verse 4 he recalls, “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.” It is easy during times of doubt and spiritual dryness to look back and yearn for the “good old days” when life was more pleasant and less riddled with cares. In the psalmist’s case, he remembers being part of a joyful gathering of worshippers. Now those “shouts of joy” are just a memory. And those memories make his present anguish even more difficult to bear.
Life on Higher Ground
There are, however, two sides to this psalm. Eventually, as the psalmist confronts the discouragement of life in the valley, he reaches the point where the sources of spiritual turmoil for him become sources of healing and restoration. The times of “day and night” that had been times of weeping (v. 3) turn to moments for drawing strength from the Lord’s presence: “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life” (v. 8).
The word directs brings to mind God’s way of bringing into our lives the right people and situations just when we need them. Though David is not recorded as the author of this psalm, his friendship with Jonathan illustrates this point. When David was living as a fugitive from jealous King Saul, there was Jonathan: “And Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God” (1 Samuel 23:16). How David must have cherished that time with his dearest friend! What a blessing when friends minister to us in a similar way.
The psalmist also reaches a point when the “Why?” question becomes directed, not at God, but at himself. In fact, twice in Psalm 42 (verse 5 and verse 11) the psalmist asks the same questions of self-examination: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” It is one thing to ask God “Why?” It is another to ask the question of one’s self. And it is to the psalmist’s credit that he is as tough on himself as he is on God.
In asking questions of himself, the psalmist takes another step in the direction of hope. Questions directed toward ourselves can be convicting and eye-opening. Some of these questions may depend on an individual’s situation, but among some to consider may be: To whom can I turn in this situation if not to God? What can I do to keep my focus on him? Are there other Christians with whom I can share my doubts and fears—maybe some who’ve gone through a situation similar to mine? What Scriptures apply to my circumstance?
The psalmist also finds encouragement in the use of memory—the very thing that had caused him so much distress previously in verse 4. In verse 6 his thoughts turn to one of the Lord’s most treasured gifts to his people: the promised land. The description in this verse, “from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar” may indicate that the psalmist is writing from the perspective of someone who has been exiled from the promised land and is recalling certain portions of the land that have special meaning to him. (Mount Hermon is located at the northern boundary of Palestine and is the spot from which the Jordan River flows south. The location of Mount Mizar is not known with certainty.)
One aid in confronting spiritual emptiness is to recall evidences of God’s faithfulness and provision in the past. A person may use a file folder, a scrapbook, or some other means by which answered prayers or fulfilled promises can be stored for just such times as the psalmist is experiencing.
One Small but Important Word
As the psalmist emerges from his valley, he discovers his ultimate hope. Twice he expresses this, in the middle of the psalm (v. 5) and at the conclusion (v. 11): “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” The little word yet is pivotal, but ambiguous as to time. While praise eventually wins out for the psalmist, we are not told exactly when in his personal experience this happens.
Occasionally we hear a testimony of someone who recounts a time when he or his family were in serious need of food or money, prayed to the Lord about the need, and immediately there was a knock at the door from someone who had come to provide the needed item. For many the yet will not come that quickly. Most often it is painfully, agonizingly slow in its arrival; yet may not arrive until eternity. But the yet will come.
Consider the uniform mentioned earlier—the one we all wear with the number 42 on the back. Imagine on the front of that uniform is the word yet. Just as we all can wear the number 42, we can all wear the yet. We’re all on the same team, meant to encourage and help each other to stay the course until the yet comes and praise has the final word.
Doug Redford is a professor at Cincinnati Christian University and a freelance writer from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Scripture and Music
In the 1830s, German composer Felix Mendelssohn composed a choral and orchestral piece based on Psalm 42, setting to music Martin Luther’s German translation of the Scripture.