Reflecting on the Psalms: Our yearning for God

So often we are tempted to just rattle away the psalms in our group morning or evening prayer. Psalms are meant to be read slowly and meditated on deeply to nourish our prayer life.

Aug 20, 2021

By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam
So often we are tempted to just rattle away the psalms in our group morning or evening prayer. Psalms are meant to be read slowly and meditated on deeply to nourish our prayer life. This is because the psalms are written with various themes and it is only when we can enter into the mind and heart of the psalmist that we benefit spiritually. These psalms came to be recited and sung in cultic settings in the liturgical life of the Israelites.

Athanasius of Alexandria said that the psalms are “a mirror in which you contemplate yourself and the movements of your soul.” This has become the practice of the Church from its beginnings until now so that the psalms give nourishment to a person either in public or private worship. Therefore, it is important for us to understand that psalms of praise are not psalms of lament or supplication, royal psalms are not psalms of creation and salvation, though these themes may at times intermingle with one another.

Psalms of Supplication (1) Psalms 41-42 (42-43) Everyday Prayer Week 2 Mon Morning Prayer page 476 and Week 2 Tue Morning Prayer page 486. Verse numbering may vary.

These two psalms were originally one with the refrain, “Why are you cast down my soul, why groan within me…” being repeated in 42:5, 11 and 43:5. It is an individual lament. The psalm speaks of either a priest or a Levite in exile in the north who is yearning to go down to the south where he could worship God with the community in the Temple in Jerusalem. He compares this longing to the deer yearning for water.

Geographically, the psalmist is at Mt Hermon where the river Jordan has its source. The image of water now leads him to speak of his soul which thirsts for God. However, his suffering and his tribulation deepens as he speaks of the ‘deep’ which is tehom, the chaotic waters at the beginning of creation. He describes it as the ‘roar of waters’ which could lead a suffering person to Sheol (42:7). The psalmist feels he is abandoned by God and he goes through this gnawing pain, “Why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me? (42:5). The word that is translated as ‘soul’ is nephesh, which designates the whole person, body, mind and spirit.

The psalmist can recall the joyful times when he was in the Temple of Jerusalem. He was able to be part of the community in their liturgical services. In fact, he was even at the forefront leading the rejoicing people into the house of God. In his mind he could replay the loud cries of the crowd as they sang their thanksgiving. The “throng was wild with joy” (42:4).

Therefore, the pain of this absence of the Lord’s presence now is unbearable. It is further aggravated by the continuous taunt by the enemies of the psalmist. They torment him by jeering at him day and night, “Where is your God?” When enemies oppress him, he is drawn to feel more intensely this abandonment and rejection by God. His foes do not relent. “With cries that pierce me to the heart, my enemies revile me” (42:10); This pain is like a sword in my bones (Hebrew).

What seems interesting in the psalm are the feelings of dejection and confidence which are placed side by side. The person singing this psalm has not given up. He might experience the sadness that comes from God’s absence, but he is also lifted up by the fact that the Lord will send him his loving kindness (hesed). He can still hope in this God and can sing praise to him. In spite of the enemies’ taunts he can ask God to send his ‘light and his truth’ which will be his guides to lead him to the Temple where he will be able to thank his God (43:3-4).

Christ experienced agony in the garden of Gethsemane when he said, “My soul is very sorrowful.” The cross was something he had to face himself. At Calvary, we can imagine the taunts of those who passed by, the chief priests, scribes and elders. The same question hits all of us who feel the absence of God in our troubles, afflictions and pain. We cry out to God. We desire his presence once more in our lives. We want him to send us his light and his truth so that we may discern his plans for us. Others may mock and ridicule us, but our unshakeable hope rests in God.

Total Comments:0