Psalm 42 begins the second or Exodus book of the Psalms.
A Contemplation of the sons of Korah.
This is the first of eleven psalms by the sons of Korah. The name “Korah” means “Bald.” We learn from Exodus 6 that Korah was the son of Izhar (which means “Shining Oil”) the son of Kohath (which means “Assembly,”) the son of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Israel. It seems likely that some generations might have been cut out of this lineage, since in Hebrew “son” can be used for any descendant, even several generations down the line. This Korah was a rebel against Moses, as we learn from Numbers 16:1-3.
1. Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; 2. and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown. 3. They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”
The rebellion that Korah started was doomed to failure, as we see from Numbers 16:28-33.
28. And Moses said: “By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, for I have not done them of my own will. 29. If these men die naturally like all men, or if they are visited by the common fate of all men, then the LORD has not sent me. 30. But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD.”
31. Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, 32. and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. 33. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly.
This was the terrible end of Korah and all those who rebelled with him. However, before this awesome punishment occurred, Moses gave this warning.
25. Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26. And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men! Touch nothing of theirs, lest you be consumed in all their sins.”
There were many who responded to Moses’ warning, as we see from the next verse.
27. So they got away from around the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, their sons, and their little children.
Notice the very interesting fact that it is said that “Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, with their wives, and their sons, and their little children.” However, it does not say that Korah did the same. Apparently, even though Korah was the instigator of this rebellion, his family did not side with him, as did Dathan and Abiram’s families. It seems that they listened to Moses’ warning, and got away from the tent of Korah. Therefore, when the spectacular punishment fell upon the rebels, the sons of Korah were not swallowed up along with the rest. This is made clear in Numbers 26:11.
11. Nevertheless the children of Korah did not die.
Though the New King James makes it “children” here, the Hebrew word is the plural of ben or “sons,” not children. While Korah and his company died, the sons of Korah did not die, since they heeded the warning of Moses and separated themselves from the rebellion.
At the time of David, we see at least one of the sons of Korah promoted to be a leader over the service of song, a “Chief Musician.” We read of this in I Chronicles 6:31-38.
31. Now these are the men whom David appointed over the service of song in the house of the LORD, after the ark came to rest. 32. They were ministering with music before the dwelling place of the tabernacle of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they served in their office according to their order.
33. And these are the ones who ministered with their sons: Of the sons of the Kohathites were Heman the singer, the son of Joel, the son of Samuel, 34. the son of Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Eliel, the son of Toah, 35. the son of Zuph, the son of Elkanah, the son of Mahath, the son of Amasai, 36. the son of Elkanah, the son of Joel, the son of Azariah, the son of Zephaniah, 37. the son of Tahath, the son of Assir, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, 38. the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, the son of Israel.
So this man Heman, a son of Korah, was promoted by David, under God’s direction, to be one of these singers who was over the service of song in the house of the LORD. The other leaders were named Asaph and Ethan. In I Chronicles 25:6, we learn the names of the three “Chief Musicians” who are often referred to in the Psalms. They Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman. Why Jeduthun replaced Ethan is hard to say (unless these were two names for the same man,) but these were the Chief Musicians. And notice that Heman, a son (or descendant) of Korah, is one of them.
So the sons of Korah were one of three companies given charge over the music in the temple. As such, it makes sense that they would have written psalms. As we noted above, there are eleven associated with them. No doubt Heman was involved with some of these, at least those written at the time of David. However, since the sons of Korah were musicians, some have suggested that these psalms were dedicated to them for singing, not actually written by them. This is also a possibility, and leaves the authorship of these psalms in question.
This first psalm of the sons of Korah is called, in the NKJV, a “Contemplation,” but the Hebrew word Maschil might better be translated “Instruction,” according to the Companion Bible. This is the second instruction psalm we have come upon in the book of Psalms, the first being Psalm 32. This psalm is a cry of the psalmist to God at a time when he is being oppressed by Israel’s enemies.
1. As the deer pants for the water brooks,
The psalm starts out with this poetic picture of a deer, tired and longing for water. The word “brooks” in Hebrew is ‘aphiyq, and indicates a channel, a ravine, or a hollow. We might imagine a deer smelling the water far below in a channel or ravine and longing after it, but finding it very hard to access.
So pants my soul for You, O God.
Compared to this deer panting for the water it can smell but finds hard to reach, so the psalmist compares his own soul panting after Elohim. He longs for Him with a great thirst, but finds Him hard to access, like water far down in a ravine.
2. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
The psalmist states again that his soul thirsts for God. The soul has particularly to do with the emotions and the desires, and this man’s heartfelt desire is for God. Moreover, he desires the living El, a name for God often used in contrast with idols. So many around Israel looked, not to the living God, but to idols made of wood, stone, and precious metals. Yet not so the psalmist. He longs for the living God, and no other god will do.
When shall I come and appear before God?
The psalmist desires to come in and present himself before God. No doubt he is remembering times when he has appeared before God at His temple. Now, he is unable to access the temple, and his heart cries out to do so.
3. My tears have been my food day and night,
The psalmist has had no food day and night but tears. Whether he means this literally, that he has not had access to food for a long time, or whether he means that his tears have been the only sustenance he has had regarding his longing for God, it is hard to say. Certainly, his desire to appear before God has not been fulfilled.
While they continually say to me,
The psalmist is surrounded by enemies who do not acknowledge his God. They offer him no comfort in his grief, but instead only mock him.
“Where is your God?”
His enemies mock him with his sad condition, asking him where the God is Whom he longs after so much in this, his affliction and suffering? If this God he longs for is really so great, why has He not acted to save him?
4. When I remember these things,
In his afflicted condition, the psalmist remembers certain things from his past.
I pour out my soul within me.
The memory of these things is so painful in contrast with his current condition that it causes a fresh outpouring of his emotions every time he recalls them.
For I used to go with the multitude;
The psalmist remembers how many times he had joined the multitude of the people of Israel as they made their pilgrim journey from their homes throughout the land of Israel to the temple of God to celebrate His feasts before Him in the place where He had chosen to put His name.
I went with them to the house of God,
He had gone together with them to the house of God. Whether this was the temple of God in Jerusalem or the tabernacle of God in Shiloh or in Gibeon depends on when this psalm was written. Yet this is the psalmist’s fond memories: of going three times a year to appear before God at His house. How he longs to do this once again! The time has come for it, perhaps, and his soul longs to do it. Yet he is held back from making the journey, and the longing of his heart is not satisfied.
With the voice of joy and praise,
He remembers the joy and praise of the multitude as they went up to appear before God. Happy times those had been!
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.
He repeats who his companions were when he made these journeys: the multitude that went to keep the pilgrim feasts of the God of Israel.
5. Why are you cast down, O my soul?
The psalmist chides himself in his grief. Why are his emotions so cast down?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Why are his emotions making such a clamor within him?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
He reminds himself of his expectation in God. His enemies might claim that God will never help him, but he in his faith should not believe it. Instead, he should count on the fact that he will yet have opportunity for praising God.
For the help of His countenance.
The praise he will offer to God will be for the help of His countenance, when He looks upon his sad condition and acts to help him. Yet the Companion Bible suggests that this should be “my” countenance, in other words, so that, in whatever condition he is, he sees the help of God.
6. O my God, my soul is cast down within me;
He cries again upon God. In spite of his attempts to cheer himself in the fifth verse, still his emotions are cast down within him.
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
Therefore, he tells God, he will remember Him from the land of Jordan. What this means is the land east of the Jordan River, in the lands on the opposite side of the Jordan from the house of God. The territory of Israel on this side of the Jordan was the land of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh. This territory, while it belonged to Israel, did not have the geographical protection of the Jordan River that the rest of Israel had. This river had to be crossed for the rest of Israel to be attacked, and it provided some protection, therefore. However, the lands east of Jordan were much more easily attacked by the Edomites, the Moabites, and the Ammonites, all of which had their lands also on that side of the Jordan. In the times of David, we know these nations oppressed Israel, until David thoroughly defeated them.
It could be that this gives us the author’s location, and that he is suffering oppression in this land as he is writing this psalm. However, Rotherham suggests that the author was not in this land at the time of writing this psalm, but is remembering a time when he was there, just like in verse 4 he remembered a time when he was going in procession to the temple. This could well be the case.
And from the heights of Hermon,
Mount Hermon was on the east side of the Jordan, and up north at the very limits of the land. It had two peaks, which is why he speaks of “heights” plural. If the psalmist was being oppressed here, he probably was being oppressed either by the Ammonites, who had their land to the north-east of Israel, or by the Syrians (Arameans,) whose land was north of Israel.
From the Hill Mizar.
The Hill Mizar was between Mount Hermon and the Jordan River.
7. Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
The psalmist pictures himself as being drowned under the waterfalls that exist in the place he has described. This could be God’s wrath going over him being pictured like waterfalls. Rotherham suggests this was a literal event, and is what the psalmist is remembering. If so, he must have been swimming in these waters at one time, or else had fallen into them, and had gotten somehow caught in a current near these waterfalls and was in danger of drowning.
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
The waves and billows of God’s anger have gone over him, and he is drowning in them. We realize that when Israel fell to their enemies, it was because they had failed to be faithful to their God and His commandments, and so He allowed their enemies to oppress them to punish them for their iniquities. Therefore the psalmist pictures the misery he is in as the waves and billows of God going over him.
In this also we can see a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, as He took upon Himself the waves and billows of God’s wrath. He did it not for His Own sins, but for ours. What a great sacrifice He made on our behalf!
If Rotherham is correct, the psalmist may be describing an event when he actually was drowning, with waves and billows flooding over him.
8. The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
In spite of His anger, the psalmist declares that the LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime. This is the first time he has used the name of the LORD, rather than of God, in this psalm. Up to now, He has been acting as the God Who is the Creator, punishing His creatures. Now, the psalmist considers Him as the LORD, the God Who is in relationship with His people. He will yet command His grace to be with them, and He will yet act to deliver them.
And in the night His song shall be with me—
The LORD’s grace will be with him in the daytime, and His song shall comfort the psalmist at night. The dark hours will hold no terrors for him when he sings the song of his God.
A prayer to the God of my life.
The song he will remember will be a prayer. Many of these psalms are prayers, and portions of this one certainly are prayers. The prayer he makes will be to the God Who gives him life.
9. I will say to God my Rock,
This is what his prayer will be to God. He calls God his Rock. A rock was a firm place, stable, a refuge from foul weather, a fortress from enemy attack. This is what the psalmist considers his God to be.
If Rotherham was right about the drowning incident above, this could be his salvation from drowning: he had been washed by the very flood that was carrying him away to a rock, where he suddenly found himself. His feet were now firmly planted, whereas moments before he thought he was lost. So he praised God his Rock. If this is the case, we can certainly see why the psalmist would remember such an incident, when God appeared to catch him away from death, when he was faced with the oppression of his enemies.
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why have you forgotten me, the psalmist asks God? By forgotten, he means that He has not saved him, but has left him helpless before the oppression of his enemies.
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
Why has God left him to go through his days mourning because of the way his enemies are oppressing him? He wants God to go into action and save him from the distress he is in because of these enemies.
10. As with a breaking of my bones,
The psalmist describes the mocking of his enemies like a breaking of his bones.
My enemies reproach me,
The enemies who are surrounding and oppressing him reproach him, and he can only compare the damage their words are causing to a breaking of his bones. Their words stab to the very deepest part of him and break it apart, as he suffers under their mockery of his trust in God.
While they say to me all day long,
They reproach him all day long. We get the feeling that he is enslaved, and thus is surrounded by these enemies constantly.
“Where is your God?”
This is the reproach that hurts him so deeply. They ask where his God is in all this? They imply that since God has not delivered them from the oppression they are suffering under, that He must not be there, or else must not be able to deliver them. This should sound familiar to us, for God’s failure to act in the light of unfair and unjust circumstances in this world is still a cause for those who mock him to bring reproach against those who believe. They fail to understand the circumstances and the reasons why God fails to act at times. This is particularly true in the dispensation of grace, when God will only act graciously or not at all. Thus this psalmist feels the sting of his enemies’ contempt.
11. Why are you cast down, O my soul?
This verse is nearly a repeat of verse 5. We are reminded that these psalms are poems, and that they were also probably set to music originally. Thus, this might be what we would call a “chorus.”
Once again, the psalmist asks his soul, that is, his emotions, why it is cast down?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Why is his soul so disquieted by what is happening to him?
Hope in God;
He urges his soul toward what could yet give him reason for expectation: his God.
For I shall yet praise Him,
When he thinks of God, his confidence returns that he will yet be delivered, and have cause therefore to praise Him.
The help of my countenance and my God.
Only this One is the true help of his countenance, that is, his God. He knows that God is his only hope in his oppression, and he looks to Him as his only hope.
The question arises: what incident is being described here? Who are the enemies who are oppressing him, and when did this take place? Who might this psalmist be who wrote these things? If this is all taking place east of the Jordan, it is hard to say when the oppression might have been. The oppression of Assyria of the lands east of the Jordan in the latter days of Israel was well-deserved by the rebellious people, and so would not seem to fit. It would make more sense if this was in the days of David, and they were being oppressed by the Ammonites, for we know Nahash moved against Israel in the days of Saul. If this is so, the author must remain some unknown person from that side of the river. Perhaps it actually was one of the sons of Korah. Just because they were musicians in charge of singing the songs does not mean that they could not also compose some of them.
Yet if this was not actually east of the Jordan, but the psalmist was just remembering a time he was saved from drowning on that side of the river, as Rotherham suggests, this might well be in the times of Hezekiah, and he might be the author of this psalm. If so, the enemies surrounding him would be the Assyrians who were surrounding and besieging the city of Jerusalem. We have their mocking words against God recorded in Kings, Chronicles, and Isaiah, and they probably continues their mockery day by day as they taunted the starving people within the city. If this is the case, Hezekiah’s illness from which he suffered could be the reason why he could not enter God’s temple at feast time, because of the uncleanness it caused him. His mention of God as the “health of his countenance” could be a reference to this illness. Moreover, the pilgrims could not come up to the feast because Jerusalem was surrounded by an army, so they too were cut off from His temple. Hezekiah then might have written this psalm, perhaps while in his distress, perhaps after his deliverance in remembrance of it, and dedicated it to the sons of Korah to be used in the temple worship.
Either way, we can take the lessons of the psalm. God is the one we should look to when we are oppressed, and when we are surrounded by those who mock our faith. This may be a hard thing to go through, but God is ever with those who look to Him in their troubles. Let us all remember this.