Hey, we’re back to the psalms. Cool. There’s a whole block in the 30s that would be great fun to look at, but they’re all ninety stanzas long, so it’s not really practical here. I might change my format eventually and do them all properly, but for now, we’re jumping ahead to Psalm 43. It appears to have originally been part of one long psalm – it’s the second half of 42. The final stanza is repeated twice in 42 – once as the second half of the second stanza, and once to close the poem. It’s worth noting that shift: these are historically bound poems that’ve changed over time. We’re not reading the ‘pure’ original form.
So even though it might make more sense in the context of 42, read as the final third of three parts, we’re going to take it in isolation here, because that’s the text we’ve got. The first stanza is made up of three sentences split up into two halves. The first sentence calls for God to intervene on behalf of the speaker, while the second and third ask why God has abandoned them. The first sentence also takes up four lines: each set of two lines reflects and reiterates one concern. The first two lines say ‘Defend me from the ungodly’, and the second two ‘deliver me from the deceitful and unjust’. Note that God is asked to intervene on behalf of the speaker’s agenda – rather than the speaker declaring the primacy of God’s plans and submitting to them, the speaker begins with his own cause and invokes God to defend it.
The second and third sentences are also both variations on the same theme. God, my refuge, why have you cast me off; why must I be oppressed by the enemy? The two halves are concerned with the two subjects of the poem: God as defender, and the enemy as oppressor. It’s a microcosm reflecting the world of the speaker: there is the good and righteous speaker, God above, and the enemies outside. All of the elements are present in this stanza.
The second stanza moves away from the enemies. You’ll notice they’re not referenced at all: the world falls away as the speaker focuses on the divine. The speaker feels at a distance from God: light and truth must be sent out to retrieve them. Note that the speaker blames God for casting them off: it is not that they are walking voluntarily in darkness. They have been abandoned to it – and yet they yearn to come home. Are they talking directly to God, or is the poem akin to a message in a bottle, blindly hurled into the waves? Do they know that God is listening, or do they merely hope? Are they certain, or are they afraid? The speaker does not see light or truth: those things have been withdrawn. The second reading seems more likely.
Let’s branch off into theology for a moment, leave the poetry aside. In theological terms it’s silly to say that God’s abandoned you, or that He’s not present. It’s an impossible idea. So what are we to make of the poem? Arguably, it’s just a figure of speech – it’s more expressing how the speaker feels than expressing any theological truth about the nature of God. God didn’t actually cast the speaker out, and God didn’t actually take away light and truth. This is an important point: from this poem, we might argue that it is possible for parts of the Bible to not necessarily describe God or His actions in any realistic way. Did God actually abandon the speaker? No. But the Bible literally says God abandoned the speaker: “Why have you cast me off?” Again: in this moment, the Bible talks about God’s actions as a way of describing how the psalmist is feeling, rather than as a way of describing something that God actually did. That’s important, theologically, because it opens up a whole range of pathways – not all of which are particularly productive, but some of which are necessary.
As I mentioned earlier, the final stanza is a refrain that carries through Psalm 42. It strings the movements of the poem together, taking on slightly new meaning each time as its mood is informed by what’s just come before. Here it’s spoken from a place of confidence, surety in the forthcoming aid. Notice that while the speaker is cast off, they supposedly can’t praise God – we’re told that “I shall again praise Him”, indicating that it’s stopped at the moment, but will start again later. This reading is confirmed by the previous stanza: the speaker asks God to “bring me to your holy hill”. Once that has happened, “then I will go to the altar of God… and… praise you with the harp”. It’s a future tense thing that’s conditional on being brought to the altar, implying that the speaker would not praise God if God did not save him: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him.” It’s spoken with certainty, but you sort of have to wonder – what would happen if God didn’t come through? How would that affect the speaker’s praise? Food for thought.
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust
For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because of the oppression of the enemy?
O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me:
let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him,
my help and my God.