Panting and Thirsting for God

As the hart panteth after the water brooks / so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God / When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

“As the deer pants for the water / so my soul longs after You…”

Many Christians will recognize the above as the beginning of the hymn “As the Deer,” one of the more well known and beloved hymns. It proves to be a hymn of yearning for God, a desire to establish God as primary in life and to serve Him. For its purposes “As the Deer” is a great hymn, well composed, its message matching its tune, and is justly popular.

The Biblical antecedent for “As the Deer” is much more bleak and challenging even if it ends up in a similar place.

The first line of “As the Deer” is taken from Psalm 42:1, attributed to the sons of Korah, and set by the Psalter as the beginning of Book Two of the Psalms. The sons of Korah yearn for God as deer pant for water; they deeply desire the presence of God as one desires food and drink (Psalm 42:1-2; cf. Matthew 5:6).

The sons of Korah have this experience in distress: their food and drink have been their tears, and people all around deride them by asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:3). They pour out their souls when they reflect on how they used to go up to the house of God during the appointed festivals (Psalm 42:4). The sons of Korah pick up the refrain of Psalm 42: they rhetorically ask their souls why they are cast down and in distress, for they do well to hope in God whom they will yet praise (Psalm 42:5).

Yet, for the moment, the sons of Korah speak as if in distress, remembering God as if from on the heights of Hermon and in the depths of the Jordan valley (Psalm 42:6). They feel as if overwhelmed by God, as if His waves have gone over them (Psalm 42:7). They express confidence in YHWH’s hesed, covenant loyalty, and His song is in them, and yet they wonder whether God their Rock has forgotten them while their enemies oppress and reproach them, asking where their God has gone (Psalm 42:8-10). The sons of Korah end with their refrain: why are their souls cast down and disquieted? They ought to hope in God, for they will yet praise Him, the help of their countenance, their God (Psalm 42:11).

For most Christians “As the Deer” is a hymn of encouragement, giving them a voice to express to God their desire to be devoted to Him and serve Him, firmly confident in God’s nearness and love. The sons of Korah give voice to the people of God in a far more dire, and all too realistic, situation: crying out to God in the day of trouble when God feels far away and we are cast down in distress and hopelessness, and even the remembrance of better days increases present sorrow.

And yet even in that day of distress the sons of Korah wish for the people of God to reflect. Why are their souls in distress and cast down? They do well to trust in God’s covenant loyalty; He remains their God; they will yet praise Him in and despite all their difficulties and the taunts of their opponents.

Israel would need such a psalm many times in its history. Those who endured the exile would remember the past glory of Zion bitterly in light of their later experiences in a foreign land under the authority of a pagan nation. Many times during the next few hundred years Israel would endure great pain and distress on account of the nations around them; none of this speaks to the various difficulties and challenges endured by individual Israelites on account of smaller-scale oppression and persecution, illness, other tragedies, and death. And yet, through it all, Israel would be encouraged to trust in God and His covenant loyalty, to be assured that one day they would yet praise God.

Christians to this day will find times during which the sons of Korah will give them voice before God in Psalm 42:1-11. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit times when our souls are in distress within us, disquieted on account of trial or trouble. In days of distress, be it on account of personal trial, oppression or persecution, illness, our sins or those of others, etc., even remembrance of better times among the people of God may cause greater distress and disturbance; we may feel even greater distance from those good times and God and all that is good and right.

In those times when God feels the furthest away we do well to yearn for Him as the deer pants for the water; our soul can only truly thirst for the living God if and when we feel as if it has been some time since we were able to drink deeply from His presence. The sons of Korah give voice to freely ask where God has gone, to wonder if we have been forgotten: these are real feelings, real experiences, and attempting to paper over them with theological niceties will not allow us to endure the day of distress. The sons of Korah give voice to those moments in the dark valley of shadows in which we feel very far away from God; that is a real experience, and presuming that no faithful Christian will endure it is a fool’s errand. Yet the sons of Korah do not allow themselves, or those to whom they give voice, to stay there: whatever reasons the soul may be in distress or disquiet do not negate the love and covenant faithfulness of God. We will yet praise Him; we have reason to hope that our desires in Him shall be satisfied. Yet those desires can only exist when they have yet to receive satisfaction; we must learn to seek God precisely because our current condition is fraught with danger, distress, oppression, and opposition. Yes, we will praise God; He is the light of our countenance; yet while we walk in the shadow of the valley of death, may we pant and thirst for the living God, seeking the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Honoring Love

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine (Song of Solomon 6:3a).

I am my beloved’s; And his desire is toward me (Song of Solomon 7:10).

What are we to make of the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s (cf. Song of Solomon 1:1)?

All of the New Testament books are about Jesus and how to live in His Kingdom. The “history” books of the Old Testament tell us about the Israelites and God’s work among them, the books of prophecy present the messages of God to His people, the Psalms give voice to the one who would honor, praise, and glorify God, and Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes grapple with the realities of life, how to live wisely, and why people should serve the LORD no matter what their circumstances. Well and good; we understand why these books are in the Bible. Yet the Song of Solomon is unlike all of these.

For years many justified the Song of Solomon as Scripture, not on the basis of its literal meaning, but as an allegory: among Jews, as a love song between God and His people Israel, and among Christians, as a love song between Christ and the church. Yet such an interpretation seems quite forced: the lovers are clearly a young man and a young woman, and their descriptions of each other and their desires is the language of youthful, desirous love. While it is true that Israel is often portrayed as God’s wife (cf. Ezekiel 16:1-63, Hosea 1:1-3:5), and the church is portrayed as the Bride of Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33), the metaphorical images describing those relationships are not taken as far as we see portrayed in the Song of Solomon.

The best understanding of the Song of Solomon is to understand it at its surface level: it is a song expressing the love and desire of a young man and a young woman toward each other, giving voice to lovers for each other. Love songs were common in the ancient Near Eastern world: we have many similar songs preserved from Egypt as well. For that matter, love songs have been popular throughout time: expressing love and desire for one of the opposite sex has been a primary theme for musicians and songwriters to this very day.

The presence of the Song of Solomon in Scripture demonstrates that the “secular” and “spiritual” divide which marks much of modern thought does not reflect reality. The God of the Bible remains God in terms of secular interests and matters as much as in spiritual interests and matters.

In the Song of Solomon, God honors the love and desire between the young man and the young woman. When love, desire, and sexuality are discussed in Scripture and among Christians, it is very often in negative terms, prohibiting all sorts of sexual behavior. Many people focus on the negative and have come away with the impression that romantic love and sexuality are intrinsically impure and “dirty,” and cannot imagine that such things can honor or glorify God. Such negativity is a distressing distortion of what God is trying to communicate in the Bible, for all of the sexual prohibitions and guidelines are actually meant to honor and sanctify the proper exercise of romantic love and sexuality in marriage.

So the refrain goes in the Song of Solomon: the woman declares that she belongs to her beloved, and her beloved is hers, and his desire is for her (Song of Solomon 6:3, 7:10). This is the relationship which can honor God: marriage is honorable, and its bed undefiled (Hebrews 13:4). God, in fact, made man so that he would cling to his wife and the two would become one flesh (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:4-6). For generations, the Song of Solomon has given a voice for young men and women to express their love for one another, finding an opportunity to see their own love story in terms of the young man and young woman of the Song.

What makes the Song of Solomon more “interesting” or scandalous for people today is different from what made it distinctive in the past. In modern American culture we tend to take marrying for love for granted; in the ancient world, the decision of who would marry whom was most often left to parents trying to make family mergers that made good social and economic sense (as is done in many parts of the world to this day). Marrying for love did not happen as often; most couples would have to learn to love each other after their commitment and consummation.

The Song of Solomon has always been somewhat scandalous and a stumbling-block for some, but it need not be. God is able to glory in pure love and romance between a young man and a young woman. In fact, it is when “my beloved is mine” and “I am his/hers” that this love and romance can truly blossom. All married couples are called to find enjoyment in each other, for a man to “rejoice in the wife of his youth,” and his wife likewise rejoice in her husband, no matter what the circumstances (cf. Proverbs 5:18-19). Such lasting love honors and glorifies God who is love and who is one in relationship within Himself. Let us then understand the value of the Song of Solomon, and for those of us who are married, share in love and romance with our spouse!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking Sustenance Through Righteousness

“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

No matter how old or young we might be, no matter how rich or poor, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, language, and any other way that people try to divide one another up into various groups, we all understand, to a degree, hunger and thirst. We all have felt the internal groans that accompany the desire for food; we have all experienced the dry mouth that seeks hydration.

Food and drink represent the most primal and basic of needs. Shelter is nice; nevertheless, in many places, one can live without it. All of our other “needs” are not really needs; we can continue living just fine without them, although our quality of life will be hurt. Yet none of us can live long without food or drink.

So what happens when we are bereft of food or drink? Hunger and thirst grow. Before long, all we can imagine is the satisfaction of our hunger and thirst. That hope drives us and sustains us to find a way to satisfy those desires. Soon anything remotely edible is eaten; anything that might have moisture is consumed. Even if some food or drink is found, hunger and thirst might return again soon. It starts all over again. And, if enough time passes without eating or drinking, we would die from starvation or dehydration.

Jesus understands this reality all too well, having previously experienced a long fast and intense hunger (cf. Matthew 4:1-2). Yet His concern, while preaching to His disciples and gathered Jews on the mountain, is not with physical hunger; He speaks blessings upon those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).

There is a reason why Jesus describes the situation as He does. He does not say, “blessed are the righteous.” This is probably partly because there are none who are completely righteous (cf. Romans 3:9-20). The big problem is that the people look to many of the religious authorities for their definitions of righteousness, and Jesus knows quite well that those religious authorities only maintain the pretense of righteousness (cf. Matthew 5:20, 9:11-13, 23:1-1-36). Mere pretense will not do here. Jesus is aiming at something far more deeply felt, far more primal than the exterior.

And that depth is the challenge that this declaration makes for each successive generation. It is always far too easy to circumscribe “righteousness” or over-emphasize aspects of righteousness over other aspects of the idea. People like using this verse to make themselves feel better about their condition, lamenting how people do not seem to want righteousness anymore. They are right; precious few hunger and thirst after righteousness today. But that has always been the case– and this verse was not designed to make people comfortable.

So far Jesus has not blessed people who are normally considered blessed; in fact, the people whom Jesus declares happy are normally reckoned as unhappy. The poor in spirit; those who mourn; those who are meek (Matthew 5:3-5)– these are not found among the elites of society, in aristocracy or positions of authority. When was the last time that a mourner was idolized? Who wanted to exchange a comfortable lifestyle for poverty? Who thinks that meekness is really the way to get ahead in the corporate world? So far Jesus has been turning the world and our understanding of it upside down; this has not suddenly stopped at Matthew 5:6.

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness should not be envisioned as merely being everyone else’s moral censor. Far from it; to hunger and thirst after righteousness is to consider righteousness the most primal need in life. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness believe that if they do not keep avoiding the wrong and doing the right, especially doing the right, they will die, just as quickly (if not quicker) than if they stopped eating and drinking. They are sustained in life by showing love, mercy, and kindness. Those who really hunger and thirst for righteousness do not need to wear that desire as a badge or to use it as a platform; they are too busy seeking to satisfy their desire to do what is right.

Are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness aware of the immorality in society? Most certainly! If they are not seeing it in the lives of those upon whom they have shown mercy and love, they are experiencing the effects of persecution from those who perceive that too much righteousness undermines what they want to do and who they want to be. Remember that Jesus has been declaring blessed and happy those who are not considered such by the world at large; that is no less true of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness as those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are meek. It is a hard road to walk; it is not something which most people would understand as pleasant. And yet such people are driven by their desire to satisfy righteousness, just as all people are driven to satisfy their hunger and thirst.

Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? There is no doubt that we all want to appear righteous. There is even little doubt that most of us want to be on the side of righteousness. The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers all wanted to be seen as righteous and to be on the side of righteousness. No; only those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Do we believe that we will die if we are not abiding within righteousness? Do we seek out opportunities to do what is right– and to avoid what is evil– like we would be willing to seek out food in a famine and water in a drought? Are we driven by righteousness like it is the most basic, primal impulse within us?

This is a challenge as much as a declaration of happiness; if we do not so hunger and thirst for righteousness, we should be. In the truth in Christ there is light and life; in evil there is nothing but darkness and death (John 1:4-5, Romans 6:23). Man does not live by bread alone, Moses says and Jesus affirms, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). Better to hunger for what is right than for food; better to thirst for righteousness than for water, since food and drink perishes, but righteousness will endure forever through God in Christ (Amos 5:24, 2 Peter 3:13).

It is not easy. We are going to be tempted to sin constantly. We will be tempted to put the physical necessities of life above the spiritual. We may experience quite stunning forms of persecution that we might never have imagined (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and He obtained shame, derision, flogging, and a cross for it. Yet He was filled with all power and authority (Philippians 2:5-11); and so we shall be filled with all good things if we yearn for righteousness as well. Let us consider righteousness our most primal need, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Problem of Wealth

And Jesus said unto his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
And when the disciples heard it, they were astonished exceedingly, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
And Jesus looking upon them said to them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26).

One hotly contested aspect of Jesus’ teachings involves His words toward those who are rich in material wealth. Some have taken Jesus’ words and made them a call for a more level playing field. Others take the opposite approach and attempt to minimize these teachings and try to find some way to glorify wealth. Many have the same question as the disciples. Some wonder how just it is for Jesus to come down so harshly on the rich.

Jesus’ words were not designed to overthrow the concept of money or wealth. Nor is it an absolutely true statement that all rich people are going to be condemned (1 Timothy 6:9-10, 17-19). Yet Jesus’ words do strike at the heart of the problems with wealth.

These words are spoken immediately after the “rich young ruler” departs from Jesus sorrowfully. This young man wanted to inherit eternal life and even had great respect for the Law (Matthew 19:16-20). Nevertheless, when asked to give up all his wealth and to follow Jesus, he walked away (Matthew 19:21-22).

What would lead this young man to make such a fateful decision? Jesus perceived that he trusted his wealth more than God. His material wealth kept him from the Kingdom of God.

We must greatly respect Jesus’ statement that it is hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without turning it into an absolute. Wealth casts a strong spell upon people. Wealth provides the illusion of stability and contentment: if we have much stored up, we end up entrusting our future to our wealth and not so much on God. Wealth rarely comes without great effort expended to obtain it, and for those who desire great wealth, what they have is rarely enough (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Covetousness, selfishness, arrogance, and idolatry often mark those who have wealth.

Who do we trust? We have learned the lesson that riches are uncertain (1 Timothy 6:17), but that has not stopped many from continuing to press on after wealth. Yet there is no true stability there. Salvation can never be found in riches, no matter how vast (Matthew 16:26). We must trust in God, the One who is able to accomplish what is impossible for mankind.

How do we know whom we trust? Put yourself in the shoes of that rich young ruler. If Jesus asked you personally to sell all that you have, give to the poor, obtain treasure in Heaven, and follow after Him, would you be willing to do so? Or would you also go away sorrowfully? We all know the answer that we should give, but would that be the answer we would give?

Let us not put our trust in the uncertain material wealth of the world that causes anxiety for so many. Instead, let us trust in the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and obtain the peace that comes from Him (Matthew 6:33-34, Matthew 28:18, Philippians 4:4-7)!

Ethan R. Longhenry