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Ps. 42-43: Entering the Text

Andrew R. Davis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and an MTS from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

 

The most remarkable line in Psalm 42 is its refrain:

Why so downcast, my nepeš,

why disquieted within me?

Have hope in God;

I will yet praise Him

for His saving presence.

 

For one thing the refrain, which occurs in 42:6, 12, and 43:5, provides strong evidence that Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 represent a single poem. Other evidence for their unity is their complementary content. Individual laments typically include four elements:

(1) an invocation of God

(2) a complaint

(3) a petition

(4) a declaration of trust/praise

 

The first two are found in Psalm 42 and the latter two in Psalm 43; together the psalms form a well-rounded lament. Lastly, we can note the lack of a heading to Psalm 43. Altogether this evidence makes a strong case that the two psalms were read, and should still be read, as one poem (see, similarly, Psalms 9 and 10).

The most astounding aspect of the psalms’ refrain is not its structuring effect, however. Rather, it is the unique anthropology it expresses. The Hebrew word nepeš, which I left untranslated above, is best rendered “life.” (One of my pet peeves as a Bible scholar is the rendering of this Hebrew term as “soul,” which follows the Septuagint’s translation of nepeš with the Greek word psychē, which does mean “soul.” But that Greek word and the concept of the soul were not part of the ancient Israelite worldview.) The etymology of nepeš is “throat,” which, as the passageway for life’s vital necessities (air, food, water), came to symbolize life itself. Surprisingly, the speaker of Psalms 42-43 addresses nepeš in the second person as if it were something separate from herself. For the most part the Hebrew Bible offers a monistic view of the human person, i.e., no division into distinct parts. But in a few biblical texts, such as 42:6, 12, and 43:5, we see a somewhat different perspective, as the nepeš seems to operate independently. 

It is unclear how much this address should be taken as anthropological evidence and how much as poetic style. Already Psalms 42-43 features an unusually large number of voices. Of course, we have the speaker’s voice, but we also have the speaker quoting herself (verse 10); we have quotations from her adversaries (verses 4, 11); we have shouts of praise (verse 5); we have the “deep” calling out to the “deep” (verse 8); and we have YHWH commanding his steadfast love (verse 9). This cast of poetic characters creates a vibrant drama and contextualizes the poet’s address to her nepeš, which appears in the psalm (seven times!) as yet another character in this extraordinary lament.

 

Key Hebrew Terms:

 

  • Psalm 42’s heading “maśkîl of the Korahites” marks it as the first of the Korahite psalms (Psalms 42-49, 84-85, 87-88). The Korahites were a guild of singers in the Jerusalem Temple (see 1 Chr 9:19; 2 Chr 20:19).  The word maśkîl means “intelligent” and occurs in the heading of 13 psalms, but it is unclear whether the term refers to the composer of the psalm or its performer.

 

  • “deep” (v 8) translates Heb. tĕhôm, a term with the strong mythological connotations. It refers to the subterranean waters and symbolizes the forces of chaos, which YHWH subdued as a prelude to creation (Genesis 1:2). The word is a cognate for the name of a Mesopotamian deity, Tiamat, whose defeat likewise gave way to creation.

 

Questions for Reflection:

 

  1. Are there particular words, phrases, or images in Psalms 42-43 that you find compelling or curious?
  2. Does the plurality of voices in this psalm resonate with your experiences of lament? What is gained by giving voice to these various characters in the psalmist’s drama?
  3. How do you respond to the end of Psalm 43—the instruction the psalmist gives herself to hope?
  4. How does the contemporary moment—including both the pandemic and the social uprising—affect your reading of this text?

 

Psalms 42 and 43 Text and Translations

Psalm 42

לַמְנַצֵּ֗חַ מַשְׂכִּ֥יל לִבְנֵי־קֹֽרַח׃

כְּאַיָּ֗ל תַּעֲרֹ֥ג עַל־אֲפִֽיקֵי־מָ֑יִם כֵּ֤ן נַפְשִׁ֨י תַעֲרֹ֖ג אֵלֶ֣יךָ אֱלֹהִֽים׃

צָמְאָ֬ה נַפְשִׁ֨י ׀ לֵאלֹהִים֮ לְאֵ֪ל חָ֥י מָתַ֥י אָב֑וֹא וְ֝אֵרָאֶ֗ה פְּנֵ֣י אֱלֹהִֽים׃

הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֬י דִמְעָתִ֣י לֶ֭חֶם יוֹמָ֣ם וָלָ֑יְלָה בֶּאֱמֹ֥ר אֵלַ֥י כָּל־הַ֝יּ֗וֹם אַיֵּ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

אֵ֤לֶּה אֶזְכְּרָ֨ה ׀ וְאֶשְׁפְּכָ֬ה עָלַ֨י ׀ נַפְשִׁ֗י כִּ֤י אֶֽעֱבֹ֨ר ׀ בַּסָּךְ֮ אֶדַּדֵּ֗ם עַד־בֵּ֥ית אֱלֹ֫הִ֥ים בְּקוֹל־רִנָּ֥ה וְתוֹדָ֗ה הָמ֥וֹן חוֹגֵֽג׃

מַה־תִּשְׁתּ֬וֹחֲחִ֨י ׀ נַפְשִׁי֮ וַתֶּהֱמִ֪י עָ֫לָ֥י הוֹחִ֣ילִי לֵֽ֭אלֹהִים כִּי־ע֥וֹד אוֹדֶ֗נּוּ יְשׁוּע֥וֹת פָּנָֽיו׃

אֱ‍ֽלֹהַ֗י עָלַי֮ נַפְשִׁ֪י תִשְׁתּ֫וֹחָ֥ח עַל־כֵּ֗ן אֶ֭זְכָּרְךָ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ יַרְדֵּ֑ן וְ֝חֶרְמוֹנִ֗ים מֵהַ֥ר מִצְעָֽר׃

תְּהֽוֹם־אֶל־תְּה֣וֹם ק֭וֹרֵא לְק֣וֹל צִנּוֹרֶ֑יךָ כָּֽל־מִשְׁבָּרֶ֥יךָ וְ֝גַלֶּ֗יךָ עָלַ֥י עָבָֽרוּ׃

יוֹמָ֤ם ׀ יְצַוֶּ֬ה יְהוָ֨ה ׀ חַסְדּ֗וֹ וּ֭בַלַּיְלָה שירה [שִׁיר֣וֹ] עִמִּ֑י תְּ֝פִלָּ֗ה לְאֵ֣ל חַיָּֽי׃

אוֹמְרָ֤ה ׀ לְאֵ֥ל סַלְעִי֮ לָמָ֪ה שְׁכַ֫חְתָּ֥נִי לָֽמָּה־קֹדֵ֥ר אֵלֵ֗ךְ בְּלַ֣חַץ אוֹיֵֽב׃

בְּרֶ֤צַח ׀ בְּֽעַצְמוֹתַ֗י חֵרְפ֥וּנִי צוֹרְרָ֑י בְּאָמְרָ֥ם אֵלַ֥י כָּל־הַ֝יּ֗וֹם אַיֵּ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

מַה־תִּשְׁתּ֬וֹחֲחִ֨י ׀ נַפְשִׁי֮ וּֽמַה־תֶּהֱמִ֪י עָ֫לָ֥י הוֹחִ֣ילִי לֵֽ֭אלֹהִים כִּי־ע֣וֹד אוֹדֶ֑נּוּ יְשׁוּעֹ֥ת פָּ֝נַ֗י וֵֽאלֹהָֽי׃

 

Psalm 43

שָׁפְטֵ֤נִי אֱלֹהִ֨ים ׀ וְרִ֘יבָ֤ה רִיבִ֗י מִגּ֥וֹי לֹא־חָסִ֑יד מֵ֤אִישׁ־מִרְמָ֖ה וְעַוְלָ֣ה תְפַלְּטֵֽנִי׃

כִּֽי־אַתָּ֤ה ׀ אֱלֹהֵ֣י מָֽעוּזִּי֮ לָמָ֪ה זְנַ֫חְתָּ֥נִי לָֽמָּה־קֹדֵ֥ר אֶתְהַלֵּ֗ךְ בְּלַ֣חַץ אוֹיֵֽב׃

שְׁלַח־אוֹרְךָ֣ וַ֭אֲמִתְּךָ הֵ֣מָּה יַנְח֑וּנִי יְבִיא֥וּנִי אֶל־הַֽר־קָ֝דְשְׁךָ֗ וְאֶל־מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶֽיךָ׃

וְאָב֤וֹאָה ׀ אֶל־מִזְבַּ֬ח אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֶל־אֵל֮ שִׂמְחַ֪ת גִּ֫ילִ֥י וְאוֹדְךָ֥ בְכִנּ֗וֹר אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֱלֹהָֽי׃

מַה־תִּשְׁתּ֬וֹחֲחִ֨י ׀ נַפְשִׁי֮ וּֽמַה־תֶּהֱמִ֪י עָ֫לָ֥י הוֹחִ֣ילִי לֵֽ֭אלֹהִים כִּי־ע֣וֹד אוֹדֶ֑נּוּ יְשׁוּעֹ֥ת פָּ֝נַ֗י וֵֽאלֹהָֽי׃

 

 

 

Psalm 42 New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS)

1 For the leader. A maskil of the Korahites.

2 Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God;

3 my soul thirsts for God, the living God; O when will I come to appear before God!

4 My tears have been my food day and night; I am ever taunted with, “Where is your God?”

5 When I think of this, I pour out my soul: how I walked with the crowd, moved with them, the festive throng, to the House of God with joyous shouts of praise.

6 Why so downcast, my soul, why disquieted within me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him  for His saving presence.

7 O my God, my soul is downcast; therefore I think of You in this land of Jordan and Hermon, in Mount Mizar,

8 where deep calls to deep in the roar of Your cataracts; all Your breakers and billows have swept over me.

9 By day may the LORD vouchsafe His faithful care, so that at night a song to Him may be with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

10 I say to God, my rock, “Why have You forgotten me, why must I walk in gloom, oppressed by my enemy?”

11 Crushing my bones, my foes revile me, taunting me always with, “Where is your God?”

12 Why so downcast, my soul, why disquieted within me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him, my ever-present help, my God.

 

Psalm 43 New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS)

1 Vindicate me, O God, champion my cause against faithless people; rescue me from the treacherous, dishonest man.

2 For You are my God, my stronghold; why have You rejected me? Why must I walk in gloom, oppressed by the enemy?

3 Send forth Your light and Your truth; they will lead me; they will bring me to Your holy mountain, to Your dwelling-place,

4 that I may come to the altar of God, God, my delight, my joy; that I may praise You with the lyre, O God, my God.

5 Why so downcast, my soul, why disquieted within me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him, my ever-present help, my God.

 

Psalm 42 New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah.

1 A deer longs for streams of water.

    God, I long for you in the same way.

2 I am thirsty for God. I am thirsty for the living God.

    When can I go and meet with him?

3 My tears have been my food

    day and night.

All day long people say to me,

    “Where is your God?”

4 When I remember what has happened,

    I tell God all my troubles.

I remember how I used to walk to the house of God.

    The Mighty One guarded my steps.

We shouted with joy and praised God

    as we went along with the joyful crowd.

5 My spirit, why are you so sad?

    Why are you so upset deep down inside me?

Put your hope in God.

    Once again I will have reason to praise him.

    He is my Savior and my God.

6 My spirit is very sad deep down inside me.

    So I will remember you here where the Jordan River begins.

I will remember you here on the Hermon mountains

    and on Mount Mizar.

7 You have sent wave upon wave of trouble over me.

    It roars down on me like a waterfall.

All your waves and breakers have rolled over me.

8 During the day the Lord sends his love to me.

    During the night I sing about him.

    I say a prayer to the God who gives me life.

9 I say to God my Rock,

    “Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I go around in sorrow?

    Why am I treated so badly by my enemies?”

10 My body suffers deadly pain

    as my enemies make fun of me.

All day long they say to me,

    “Where is your God?”

11 My spirit, why are you so sad?

    Why are you so upset deep down inside me?

Put your hope in God.

    Once again I will have reason to praise him.

    He is my Savior and my God.

 

Psalm 43 New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

1 My God, when you hand down your decision, let it be in my favor.

    Stand up for me against an unfaithful nation.

    Save me from those lying and sinful people.

2 You are God, my place of safety.

    Why have you turned your back on me?

Why must I go around in sorrow?

    Why am I beaten down by my enemies?

3 Send me your light and your faithful care.

    Let them lead me.

Let them bring me back to your holy mountain,

    to the place where you live.

4 Then I will go to the altar of God.

    I will go to God. He is my joy and my delight.

God, you are my God.

    I will praise you by playing the lyre.

5 My spirit, why are you so sad?

    Why are you so upset deep down inside me?

Put your hope in God.

    Once again I will have reason to praise him.

    He is my Savior and my God.

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.