As a dear pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
We associate ‘panting’ and ‘thirsting’ for God with the super-spiritual: the mystic, the prayer-warrior, the saint, the prophet, or the holy man. But in Psalm 42 it is the occupation of the spiritually depressed, the person who feels abandoned by God, the one who is treated with contempt by their compatriots: ‘Where is your God?’ (v3).
In Psalm 42 an individual speaks on behalf of those who recall times of spiritual service and elation (v4); but who now find themselves plunged into inner turmoil, for no apparent reason: ‘Why are you cast down O my soul?’ (v4). Here the psalmist is speaking to himself because he cannot bring himself to address God directly – not yet. His plight is too deep and forlorn. Emotionally he feels as if he has been swept away by fast moving waters (v7). He mourns and feels oppressed because he senses that God has ‘forgotten’ him (v9). His life is a gaping wound (v10).
Even though the psalmist recollects God’s love (v8), and repeatedly challenges himself to ‘hope in God’ (v5, 11), his inner grief and desolation are not alleviated come the end of the psalm. Deliverance is still future. He continues to wrestle with unresolved burdens and deep spiritual darkness which he can barely articulate or make sense of.
It is such an individual, we are told, who ‘thirsts’ and ‘pants’ after God (v1-2). To crave for God is not the preserve of spiritual giants. It is the occupation of those whose lives are falling around their ears and who long for spiritual depth and reality but who are too bludgeoned by life, too overwhelmed by their own inadequacies to even sense or feel God’s presence.
To such people Jesus says: ‘blessed are they who hunger and thirst for what is right: for they shall be satisfied’ (Matt 5:6).