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

God, Our Refuge and Strength

[For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah; set to Alamoth. A Song.] God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

What do we expect from God?

If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we have expectations regarding who God is and what He will do for us. Sure, we should recognize that we do not “deserve” anything from God; our existence and all that we have is already a gift of His which we could never deserve and which we could never repay. We also should recognize that God has gone above and beyond by giving of His Son so that we could receive the forgiveness of our sins which we could never do on our own (cf. Romans 3:20-28, 5:6-11). Nevertheless, just as children have expectations from their parents even though, by all rights, their parents do not “owe” them anything, so we, as the children of God, have expectations of God (cf. Romans 8:16-17). Those expectations say much about our understanding of who God is and who we are and what we ultimately seek in life.

The sons of Korah lived in difficult times and shared in the distress of Israel in the days of the exile. They questioned God on many occasions, but always in faith (cf. Psalm 44:1-26). Throughout Psalm 46:1-11 they demonstrate how they view God and what they can expect from Him.

God is present, and God is their refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1, 5, 7, 10-11). Since God is with them, they will not fear, even though they may experience great distress and difficulty (Psalm 46:2-3). God is present in the midst of His holy place, and it will not be disturbed (Psalm 46:4-5). The nations might rage; there might be war on the earth; but God will overcome it all and through His voice can melt the earth (Psalm 46:6-9). They could know that He, YHWH, is God, and thus they could be still, for He will be exalted among the nations and on the earth (Psalm 46:10). YHWH was with them and served as their refuge (Psalm 46:11).

For generations many have taken comfort in the message of Psalm 46:1-11, and we can certainly understand why: it eloquently expresses God’s sovereignty over the earth and His presence among His people. The message remains quite compelling in terms of our expectations of God.

Many expect God to act like a magician, to wave a mighty wand and make everything better. Others expect God to work as the ultimate 911 service: to come and save the day in times of distress. Some expect God to provide them with a comfortable existence. Still others seek after safety and look to God to preserve their present way of life.

These are not the types of expectations we see set forth in Psalm 46:1-11, and for good reason: these are not realistic expectations. They are rather self-serving, perhaps even to the detriment of others, and entirely confuses the reality of who God is and our standing before Him. He is mighty and holy; we are weak and sinful. He is the Creator; we are the creation. It is for Him to get glory for His name; it is for us to trust in and acknowledge Him.

We do well to make our expectations of God align with what He provides, for He is willing to give us something that is more powerful and valuable than our feeble expectations: His presence. YHWH of Hosts desires to be “with us” (cf. Psalm 46:7). In His presence we can obtain His strength which can allow us to overcome any difficulty in our lives (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21). We can take refuge in His presence, but we must never confuse refuge in His presence with refuge in the world. We have every reason to trust in God and have confidence in whatever we place in His hands (cf. Matthew 6:19-33). But this does not mean that we will find safety on earth: quite the contrary! The nations still rage; turbulence sweeps over the land; disaster and calamity are very real threats. We may have to suffer through them. This does not mean that God is unfaithful, for even in the midst of such trial we can entrust ourselves to Him and draw strength and comfort from His presence.

YHWH, Lord of Hosts, is the Creator, and is a mighty God, but He is not a magician, nor is He the ultimate “Get out of problems free” card. To become a follower of God in Christ does not mean that all of your problems go away and you can rest and relax in a good, long, prosperous, safe existence. If anything, to become a follower of God in Christ is to sign up for humiliation, degradation, persecution, and a host of other challenges (cf. Matthew 10:16-42). Let none be deceived: Christians will experience and suffer the same challenges as everyone else, and perhaps even more so. Christians get sick and die. Christians suffer the loss of children, spouses, parents, friends, and others. Christians get robbed and suffer violence. Christians suffer the effects of disasters, both natural and artificial. Christians are subject to the same forces of decay and corruption as the rest of the creation (cf. Romans 8:18-25).

Yet the difference is that God is with those who call upon His name and follow His Son Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:20). God is their strength and refuge. God will ultimately obtain the victory over death and these forces of corruption and decay in the resurrection and Christians will obtain glory which cannot be expressed in words (Romans 8:17-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Therefore, Christians can find nourishment and strength in the hope of their faith (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9).

Will God live up to our expectations? It all depends on what we expect from God. We do well to consider the Scriptures, particularly Psalm 46:1-11, and consider whether our expectations conform to His truth or not. God may not fix all of our problems the way we want them to be fixed, but He will be present with us as we go through our challenges and can strengthen us to overcome them. We may not find the safety and security we seek in the world but we can always find God to be trustworthy and a refuge in the day of distress. We may not get everything we have ever wanted, but if we maintain our trust in God in Christ, we may find that what He gives us in His presence and strength far exceeds anything for which we could ever hope. Let us find strength and sustenance in God’s presence and find our refuge in God in Christ for all eternity!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Raw Psalm

Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? Arise, cast us not off for ever.
Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression? (Psalm 44:22-24).

The Psalms are well-known for their expressions of emotion. They have been valued for generations for how they can help the believer in God express his or her feelings and to be more devoted to God.

Yet where there is emotion there is volatility, and some of the most raw and strongly worded messages in Scripture come from the Psalms. Psalm 44 exemplifies this.

The sons of Korah have deep and abiding faith in YHWH the God of Israel and His great power (Psalm 44:17-18). They are struck, however, by the seeming disconnect: they have heard the great work of God for their ancestors, and how He gave them the land and independence because He favored them (Psalm 44:1-8). And yet the fathers were idolatrous! After the return after the second exile, Israel is, if nothing else, not idolatrous, and yet they remain under the hand of foreign powers, are scattered abroad, and suffer derision (Psalm 44:9-21). They feel as if they are perpetually killed for God, and in their distress they ask God to awake from sleep, wanting to know why He hides His face from them and does not assist them (Psalm 44:22-26).

When one considers the history of Israel one can sympathize with the sons of Korah. On a human level it did not make sense– Israel had cast off idols and yet remained under the hand of idolaters. Their sinful fathers gained better advantage than they did. Very few of us would be so bold as to ask God to wake up, believing that the lack of action means that God has fallen asleep, but the sons of Korah make this shocking statement in full faith and confidence in God. They know that He can redeem them, but wonder and are distressed at why He does not do so.

Nevertheless we should not believe that God was asleep or that He had somehow missed the affliction and oppression of Israel. He instead had His own plan and His own purpose that He was accomplishing, preparing Israel for her Messiah and a Kingdom that would be greater than any earthly kingdom (cf. Ephesians 3:11, Daniel 2:36-44). Had God redeemed Israel in the days of the sons of Korah, as the sons of Korah were expecting, there would have been no impulse to hope for the true redemption of Israel that God was bringing forth (cf. Luke 2:38).

There are many times in our lives that we can relate to the sons of Korah in Psalm 44. There are many times in life when, even though we have a strong and abiding faith in God, we fear that God has fallen asleep. We wonder how it could be that He loves us and yet has seemingly forgotten our affliction and oppression. We want God to address our difficulties and pain right now in the way we believe they should be addressed.

As then, so now– that feeling is understandable and one with which we easily sympathize. But God is not asleep today. He has not forgotten our affliction and our oppression.

In Romans 8:36, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22, indicating that we in the new covenant are “killed all the day long” and “accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” But consider what Paul says in Romans 8:31-35 and 37-39. He powerfully affirms that God is for us and is willing to give us all things. He demonstrates without a doubt that if we are in Him there is no condemnation and there is no external factor that can separate us from His love.

There are times in life when we will be sorely tried. We will feel as if we are being constantly led to slaughter. It will be quite easy to wonder where God is at that time, but let us not be deceived– He is there. He is watching. He will make sure that it will all work out for good. He has not forgotten nor will forget. His love will sustain you. Let us therefore trust in God, even when, according to our perspective, He does not seem to be there!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s Chosen People

Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men: and they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, called to the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them,
“Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:1-3).

With these actions and words Korah begins his rebellion. The motives of his rebellion are far from pure, and he may just be interested in a power grab. The logic of his argument, however, is a problem that Israel must deal with perpetually.

Israel certainly understood the message that they were God’s chosen people. Korah saw that God’s presence dwelt in the midst of Israel, and to him that meant that the people must be holy. If the people are holy, who are Moses and Aaron to condemn them?

This idea does not go away. Almost a thousand years later, the people of Judah do not pay sufficient attention to the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. Instead, they trust in the fact that the Temple of God is in Jerusalem, and since God is in the Temple, the city and the Temple will not be harmed by Babylon (Jeremiah 7:4). After all, God struck the Assyrians when they drew near. Would He not again do so with Babylon?

In the days of John the Baptist and Jesus the Jews trusted in their lineage. They were children of Abraham– that was what mattered. They had never been enslaved to anyone (John 8:33)!

All of these made a similar mistake. Indeed, God chose Israel from among all the nations. Yes, God made a covenant with Abraham, and his offspring were the beneficiaries. Yes, God chose to dwell in the midst of Israel. But that was never enough. For God to continue to bless Israel, they had to be faithful. They had to obey His commands. They had to serve Him properly.

Yet they constantly sinned and rebelled. The earth swallowed Korah for his sin. The Babylonians came and ransacked Jerusalem and the Temple because of the sin of the people. Judgment again came upon Jerusalem 40 years after the death of Jesus.

We now live under the new covenant of Jesus Christ, through whom we have been reconciled to God if we have obeyed Him (Ephesians 2:1-18). Yet, just as in the days of old, it is not sufficient just to wear the name of “Christian.” We cannot expect that God will give us an easier time or that He will look aside as we commit sin just because we believe in Jesus. We cannot expect God to bless whatever we want or do just because we think we are part of Him.

Instead, we also must be obedient servants. We must do His will, not our own (Galatians 2:20, Romans 12:1-2). Do we think that somehow we will escape the same condemnation as Israel of old if we profess to be of God but do not obey His will?

“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?’
And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity'” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Ethan R. Longhenry