It’s Ash Wednesday — a perfect time to begin in earnest to seek God, especially in the desert times.
We’re going to look at a psalm that I know can really help those of you in pain, those of you who are not sensing the presence of God, or those of you who long to be a comfort to others. It’s Psalm 42 and there are four vivid water pictures in it that can soothe and heal. The first is really a picture of no water — it’s a picture of the psalmist who identifies with a thirsty deer who has come all the way down the mountain, absolutely panting for water, but the river bed is dry!
He longs to sense the presence of God like that dying deer longs for water, but WHERE IS GOD???? Isn’t it comforting that God knows we will feel like this at times and gives us this picture? The psalmist says, in effect, “My only water is my tears, day and night.” (verse 3) That’s where some of you are, right now. God sees you, He understands, and He cares.
My prayer is that you will not give up. When I was preparing to write this chapter, “Deep Calls to Deep” I had an experience that was one of those rare moments when I absolutely knew the God who made the universe was speaking to me, and to you, my friends. Here it is, from The God of All Comfort:
I was at my cabin in Wisconsin, almost three years after Steve’s death. Here, I do not pull my shades at night for I love seeing the sun sink into the waves of Green Bay as I go to sleep. Sometimes I wake just before the dawn—and a very few blessed times I have opened my eyes to see the vague shapes of a doe and her fawn drinking deep draughts from the bay. They come silently, before the world awakens, hoping they are safe.
In the dawn’s dim light, I have tried, unsuccessfully, to photograph them. Even my best photo is simply shadowy shapes, which my dad claimed were just stumps in the water that my fertile imagination desired to be deer.
I have never seen them brave the open water when the sun is up.
Until the day I began researching the word pictures of Psalm 42—beginning with the image of the deer panting for living water. Though I am often suspicious of people who have constant God sightings, I must admit, this was a God sighting.
Sunday, July 22
Two years and nine months after Steve’s death
Thank You, Lord. I am amazed at what You just did for me, for the readers of the book I am planning to write. I want to record it now, lest I forget.
When I saw what a beautiful morning it was, with the lake like rose-colored glass, I decided to have my time with You on the dock. I was immersing myself in Psalm 42. I sang “As the Deer” and “All Who Are Thirsty.” I began reading various translations of verses 1-2 of the psalm, turning the phrases over in my mind, asking You to “quicken” me and help me see, when suddenly, I was startled by a large shape moving on my right, below me, on the beach.
The timing was so uncanny I thought at first I was imagining it. But no. There she was. A graceful doe, and right behind her, her fawn. Gentle steps clicking softly over the rocks, beside the dock, and into the water. Then they stood like statues, except I was so close I could see them breathing.
The doe was alert, her nose quivering. I feared she would smell me, prayed she wouldn’t. All was still, and I was frozen in my deck chair, holding my breath.
I was so aware that this was a gift from You. The overwhelming thought of Your mindfulness of me. Of this book and its readers. I knew there was something You wanted me to see—so I was as alert as the doe. I knew better than to try to get my camera. I stayed motionless, praying I would see, really see—through the living picture to the meaning.
She walked gently, her fawn followed—just barely into the water, ready, if necessary, to bolt. Then—the picture that will forever linger in my memory: she spread her long legs so as to reach the water, her long neck reaching down. Her fawn did the same. They drank and drank. Deep draughts.
A seagull cried and her head came up, ears taut. Then, soft head down again.
I shifted just a bit to see them better. My book, Derek Kidner’s commentary on the psalms, open to Psalm 42, fell from my deck chair. Her head came swiftly up and she bolted, her fawn scrambling after mother over the rocks.
I stood to watch them go—white tails disappearing into the woods. Gone. As if it never happened. Yet it did, and the picture lingers in my memory, this gift from You.
What did I see that I believe God meant for you and for me? I saw a deer so thirsty that she braved the danger of daylight and humans to come. I saw a deer in a position of prostrate piety—the same position that God is pleased to see in us in body, but certainly in heart, as we show how earnest we are to hear from Him.
Suffering is like salt, increasing our thirstiness. In grief, we can recognize that our thirst is for God and press harder into Him, still believing that He is sovereign, caring, and our only hope. Or we can look to quench our thirst through drugs, constant sleep, destructive relationships, or work. We can abuse our bodies through cutting, or overeating or undereating—hoping to make atonement or to gain control of lives out of control. But those “sources of water” are mirages that can neither quench our thirst nor soothe grieving souls.
Only God can do that. And God longs for us to thirst for Him as the deer thirsts for streams of water. The word pictures in the psalms ultimately point us, in a kaleidoscope of ways, to Jesus. But we will not see Him unless we come in prostrate piety, earnestly desiring the Spirit to open our eyes.
Come, like a thirsty deer.
Here’s your homework. I promise you this will minister to you if you come like a thirsty deer.
1. Read Psalm 42 in its entirety as an overview
A. What question does the psalmist keep asking of his soul? What does he tell his soul to do?
B. Find the four water pictures in the psalm. We’ll be looking at them in depth, for each is filled with meaning, but for now, simply find them and identify the verses they are in.
2. I’m hoping that many of you will download and listen to Tim Keller’s sermon on Psalm 42. It’s 2.50 so I realize some of you won’t be able to do it. But it is 2.50 well spent. Paste this into your browser and listen to it and give us your comments.
3. Some of the songs that might minister to you with this are:
As The Deer (but does this post shed new light on that) (Any fresh renditions you know of?)
All Who Are Thirsty (Kutlas and other groups do this beautifully)
Why Are You Downcast? (a group from India: Abney, Swapna… does it with wonderful water sounds)
The Deep Deep Love of Jesus (Many groups, and Amy Shreve’s is beautiful)
Give us your recommendations and thoughts.
4. If you are one who simply is not sensing the presence of God — tell us and we’ll pray for you.
5. If a verse pops out at you from Psalm 42, comment on it.
6. We talked about this psalm yesterday on Midday Connection — and also had a great interview with Elisa Stanford, on her feelings when her first child was born with Down’s Syndrome. If any of you listened and have a comment on that or anything in the interview, would love to hear it. (You can listen to past programs online.)
Praying for each of you!