Wednesday, April 22, 2009

As The Deer

Psalm 42&43
As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you
You alone are my hearts desire and I long to worship you
You alone are my strength my, my shield
To you alone may my spirit yield
You alone are my hearts desire and I long to worship you.

This is one of my favorite songs. As we sing it I can close my eyes and just be lifted by the beauty of the lyrics, the flow of the melody, and the harmony of the church. If I am singing it alone I miss the harmony of the church, but the song still has the power to lift my spirit.

I think I can enjoy this song so much because I sing it from a heart that is joyful. I live in a place I choose to live. We can afford to visit other places where we have loved ones, like Tennessee, Florida, Wyoming and Montana. Other than a few annoyances here and there, my health is good. My children are all healthy and doing well in their school work, jobs and sports. Cheryl and I enjoy the evenings we have at home alone. My life is good.

So when I sing this beautiful song, As the Deer, I sing it from a heart that is basically at peace, content, and grateful. Everything isn’t quite the way I would like for it to be, but if things continued on like they are until my death, I would die a very happy and satisfied man. This song resonates from a heart at peace.

Suffering Behind the Psalm

But the man who wrote this song was not a man at peace. His life was disturbed and disrupted. He reveals in his opening statement that, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you." (V.1). A deer, or its cousin the elk, is a stately creature. They are as fun to hunt with a camera as with a rifle. My photo albums bulge with pictures of deer or elk in fields, in mountains, in Yellowstone National Park, in people’s front yards. But when a deer is really, really thirsty, it loses some of its stately appearance. When a deer or elk is run by hunters or coyotes, and it craves water, it sweats and pants. It’s tongue hangs out and it gasps for air. It loses it’s attractiveness. But a thirsty deer isn’t trying to look attractive, it is desperate for streams of water to slake it’s thirst.

Something has run the life out of the psalmist. He has lost his composure and his stateliness. He pants for air and water to slake his spiritual thirst. He never tells us exactly what has happened, but he gives some colorful insights.

Physical Pain

"My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me." (42:10). Aching bones is a physical ailment. I’ll never forget walking into this church building one night after the pews had been moved into the hallway. I didn’t know they were there when I walked over to the light switch. The first I learned of it was when my right knee met the corner of one of the pews. As I rolled around on the floor I cried with the psalmist, "My bones suffer mortal agony!" I didn’t say, "As my foes taunt me," but I did add, "As some of the guys would be laughing if they were here to see this!"

The phrase, "My bones suffer mortal agony" can refer to physical ailment, but it can also function as a metaphor for deep-seated emotional pain or distress. Loss, abuse, failure, shame are all experiences and emotions that can cause us to feel agony so deep in our souls it feels like our bones ache and muscles throb. The Psalmist gives some indication of such emotional pain. He fears (42:33), mourns (42:9), feels forgotten and rejected by God (42:9 & 43:2) and he feels oppressed (43:2).

Longing for Home

Some explain the Psalmist’s oppression as being literal bondage in Babylon. In 587 B.C. the Babylonians invaded Palestinian. They destroyed everything of significance in the capital city of Jerusalem. The walls, houses and public buildings were destroyed. The most painful experience was to see the temple demolished, with stones and lumber littering the ground. The center of Israelite spiritual life was gone, leaving Israel without its heart.

As the survivors stood in the heart of the city they could see columns of smoke arising where once there were houses with children running and playing and mother’s baking bread. Today many of those children were lying in the streets, their mothers lying next to them. The laughter was gone. All one could hear now was the weeping of survivors. Was this the mourning of the Psalmist? Then, a bellowing voice announced, "Move!", and thousands of Israelites were marched out of the city toward captivity and slavery in a foreign land.

Perhaps it was in Babylon, hundreds of miles away, where the Psalmist wrote, "My soul is downcast with in me (42:5). He remembers the lines of people crowding the temple for worship. He says, "How I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God." (42:4). This man was not only a faithful worshiper: he led in worship. His heart burst with joy as he worshiped and fellowshipped with his brothers.

But now he is away. Instead of brothers greeting him with "Shalom," enemy soldiers of Babylon taunt him: "Where is your God?" (42:3). He cries out, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?" (42:10). Here, in a land spiritually dry and barren, the Psalmist longs for home.

In 1877 American soldiers defeated the Northern Cheyenne in the Dakota Territory. The government decided to move the Cheyenne to the reservation of their brothers in Fort Reno, OK. The change was devastating to the morale and health of the Indians. Instead of the dry, cool climate they were used to in the Dakotas, the Cheyenne now had to endure the heat and humidity of the southern climate. Instead of getting to hunt the deer and buffalo of back home, they had to live on the scanty rations provided by federal agents. Some Indians became so hungry they killed their own dogs and horses to feed their families.

Little Wolf, a leader of the Cheyenne, wrote,

"A great many have been sick, some have died. I have been sick a great deal of the time since I have been down here - homesick and heartsick and sick in every way. I have been thinking of my native country and the good home I had up there where I was never hungry, but when I wanted anything to eat I could go out and hunt buffalo. It makes me feel sick when I think about that, and I cannot help thinking about that." (Thomas Goodrich, Scalp Dance, p.296).

So great was the pain in Little Wolf’s heart that he and three hundred other Cheyenne men, women and children escaped the reservation, determined to go home.

That may be the longing of the Psalmists heart in this song. "I want to go home. I want to go worship. I want to be with God’s people. I pant for the worship of my God the way a deer pants for water and an Indian longs for home."

Beaten by Life
The Psalmist may have been in physical pain. He may have been subjected to captivity in a hostile, foreign land. Either of these explanations could be true. But there is one more possibility: the psalmist may simply have been beaten down by the traumas of everyday life.

How many of you enjoy reading the news today? Bailouts, Stimulus packages, market drops, job layoffs, suicides, outsourcing of jobs, projected food shortages, bank failures ... somebody stop me!! How much of this kind of depressing news can a people bear? Everyday news sources give us more reason to be sad, angry, depressed and distrustful. I read only so much of it then put my hands up and say, "Enough!" I don’t believe in hiding my head in the sand. I believe that we as Christians more than anyone should be able to face reality and say, "Oh well." Because the reality in the newspapers, even if it is true, is only a temporary reality for us. It is not ultimate. God holds the ultimate reality in his hands, and that includes us! So I read the news to be informed, but I can’t read so much of it that I allow it to form my view of what is real and permanent. Only God has the right to that much influence over our minds.

If we let it, life will beat us down and crowd out any sense of God. That happened to Nicole. Nicole grew up in Romania during the height of communist power. He parents were nurtured by the communist system, so they were atheists. Nicole had little chance to be anything but an atheist. She was married and had a teenage son when she began studying with missionary Charles Jackson. After the second session she said, "Charles, I must tell you that I don’t believe in God, but I want to." (21st CC, p.35)

Nicole spend her years in an atheistic, oppressive system looking for something of substance and value. She married and had a child. That is certainly important, but even our family can not take the place of a relationship with God. They can enhance it, but not replace it. She looked for meaning in a career, becoming a biochemist. But something was missing. Nicole didn’t know it, but she was panting for streams of water.

It doesn’t have to be something as extreme as communist oppression that leaves us feeling devoid of meaning, fearful of life, and despairing of joy. The daily trauma of rejection by friends, fear for our jobs, and discontent in our homes can leave us feeling beaten by life.

Where can we turn when any physical ailments, periods of exile or being beaten by life assail us?

Yet Will I Praise Him
The Psalmist has a thrice repeated phrase, "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God." (42:5, 11; 43:5).

The Psalmist refuses to allow the vicissitudes of life to determine his spiritual outlook. An aching body, distance from his worshiping brothers, or a debilitating personal struggle may weaken him, even overwhelm him at times, but never defeats him. He keeps turning back to God, his source of strength.

He doesn’t wait until the pain is over or the misery is lifted. He doesn’t praise God because his struggle is lessened. He praises God even in the midst of his despair.

He is spiritually dry in a barren land. He is thirsty, ridiculed, disturbed, downcast, forgotten, mournful and oppressed. But he is first of all a believer, and he will never forget the God who ultimately delivers.

The yearning of the Psalmist’s heart pours forth in 43:1: "Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men." Notice his pleas for deliverance: vindicate me, plead my cause, rescue me. This man needs help. And he knows the one place he can turn: to God.

Near the end of the movie Old Yeller a tearful older brother, Travis, stands over the yellow dog’s grave. He is trying to make sense of the death of this precious dog that brought so much joy and help to his family. How can you explain how much love you can feel for a dog? How do you explain the friendship and comradery? How do you make sense out of a dog’s tragic death?

As Travis was mourning his friend his dad walked up behind him. "Your mom told me about Old Yeller. She told me about how strong and brave you were. I’m proud of you son."

"Dad, why did this happen?"

"I don’t know son. All I can tell you is that sometimes life picks you up and slams you down so hard it feels like your insides is busting all apart. All a man can do at a time like that is get up and get back at life." I’ve watched Old Yeller many times, and that scene melts my heart every time. I’ve stood with people over the grave of several Old Yellers. I’ve stood with family members over the graves of young husbands, young wives, and even children. I’ve listened to people pour out their pain about lost love, lost jobs, lost money, lost hope. What do you tell them?

Travis’s dad would tell them, "Get up and get back at life."

The Psalmist would tell them. "Get back to worship. We must be reminded that the grace and mercy of God is the ultimate reality. He holds the victory over every pain we experience right now. You are spiritually dehydrated. The worship of God is your refreshment."

As the deer pants for streams of water,
So my soul pants for you, O God.

Warren Baldwin
March 8, 2009


  1. Warren, this one really hits home for me. I have that longing. Your post brought to mind 3 things: 1. I'm memorizing (in Hebrew---fun!) Ps.103, "...longs...yearns..." My soul faints with longing, and yearns with aching... 2. Habakkuk 3, "Though the fig tree should not blossom...yet I will take joy... 3. Have you ever read Jean Fleming's "The Homesick Heart"? All about our longing, and God's longing for us.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks for your nice comments. I am impressed with your memory work!! I am memorizing some of the "sheep" passages of the OT & NT showing God's continued care of his people.

    I have not read Fleming's book, but thank you for introducing it to me.


  3. Thank you for this wonderful post. I personally know I need to yield to the longong--the heart that pants for God. I'm also adding Fleming's book to my reading list.