Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
This is a verse that has comforted many people, a verse that many turn to in times of grief and despair. As I prepared for this study I contemplated for a long while which version and rendition of the verse I should pick – the more fluently romantic KJV – Why art thou cast down, O my soul? or the Why are you cast down, O my soul of ESV; but eventually I picked NIV, the one I was most familiar with, the rendition that I’ve grown up putting to memory. They are not that different, and equally offers great comfort, and you may have a different version that you remember – it really doesn’t matter. In Psalm 42-43 this verse is repeated three times (Psa 42:5-6, Psa 42:11, Psa 43:5), and the downcast soul of these verses was mentioned an additional four times (depending on your version). It is interesting that while in the NIV these verses are the same, they aren’t all similarly translated in the other versions – which is why it makes studying these verses separately so meaningful. Yet, it cannot be denied that the sense of despair is a constant theme in these two chapters – there is a sense of hopelessness as the Psalmist remembers better days and question where is God as he looks desperately for God in his misery. In this study, we will examine how we can still hope in the Lord and praise him despite having a restless soul.
Why, my soul, are you downcast? – When the Psalmist refers to his soul as cast down, I imagine it means something a long the lines of defeated, discouraged, despairing all meshed together. There is a sense that he is questioning himself for feeling that way – Why am I so sad? – it’s almost like checking himself, stopping himself from indulging further in his despair. Some other versions render soul as heart – soul is perhaps a deeper expression of the emotion of grief. Jesus made a famous statement towards the end of his days on Earth – “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” [Matthew 26:38] Do you have times of immense grief and sorrow that you feel it stems from the bottomost of your heart, coming out right from your very soul? This is immense depression and sorrow we’re talking about.
Why so disturbed within me? – A disturbed soul, a troubled soul, a restless soul. KJV renders this as disquieted, ESV gives a more graphical term – in turmoil. There is no peace. Compare what the weeping Prophet says in Jeremiah 4:19 – Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry. Again the questioning tone, again the suggestion that there is no true reason behind his turmoil. Certainly, his circumstances must have been dire – and in a normal, worldly, secular fashion, worthy of his moaning and his despair. However, for a man of God, for a spiritual person, there is no need for that despair, as the next verse says, we can put our hope in God. God is there. At that point Christ had still not come and hence there’s no gospel yet (the message of redemption, Christ’s blood washing over us), but the idea of the grace given to us through Christ Jesus also gives us a reason to hope and not despair. Indeed, if God is for us, who can be against us [Romans 8:31|Article]?
Put your hope in God – There are many, many verses, especially in the book of Psalm, that speaks about hope, and placing our hope in the Lord. Too many to list, indeed. There are many reasons why we can place our hope in God. Run through all the names of God, and we see so many of his characteristics – each is a major reason for us to depend on him, trust in him, hope in him. When we learn to find our hope in the Lord, we will naturally gain peace to counter the turmoil in our hearts, we will naturally find joy, love, solace, comfort, strength. Which is why the Psalmist is able to make the next statement:
for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God – God is still worthy of praise, even if we cannot feel his presence in the midst of our misery and suffering. The ultimate thing for us to do is to remember the salvation that he grants us, and remember that God is our Lord and saviour. In times of trouble, what did Paul and Silas famously do? About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them [Acts 16:25]. God, our Lord, our Saviour. That says it all.
There is a sense that the Psalmist knows what he should be doing in those bleak times of misery, and yet he is having trouble doing it. He knows he should put his hope in the Lord, but it is increasingly hard for him to do so. It feels almost as if the Psalmist is trying to persuade and convince himself to turn back to God, to not stop putting his hope in God, as we see him questioning the restlessness of his own soul. It is meaningless to be troubled, because God is ultimately in control. He knows that, yet it is difficult for his soul to not stay downcast with the plight that he finds himself in. We see his struggle as in these two chapters, he constantly repeats this verse as a reminder, as a means to check himself and refocus on God instead of his plight or his sorrow.
In times of immense struggle, where our soul is downcast, let us be able to check ourselves as the Psalmist did – as hard as it is, as much as we struggle, even if we have to keep repeating it. Let us learn to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer [Romans 12:12|Article]. Even if our soul is restless, let us learn to hope in him and praise him.