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

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 Kingdom Perspective on Difficulties

And [Jesus] lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, “Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh…But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25).

There are many difficult sayings that Jesus spoke. We either just move on to more easily understood passages or read them and we scratch our heads and try to figure them out. Nevertheless, there can be great value in understanding the more difficult sayings of Jesus, especially in difficult days.

Jesus’ pronouncements of blessings and woes in Luke 6:20-26 involve some of those difficult sayings. It is quite tempting to make them parallel with the beatitudes of Matthew 5 and move on. While the underlying message of both is similar, the contexts are different and the meaning is different. We have to come to terms with what Jesus is saying in Luke 6!

On the surface, it seems quite difficult and contradictory. What real virtue is there in being poor, hungry, or mourning? Is it really sinful to be rich, full, or to be laughing? This passage seems to be extremely disturbing!

Yet Jesus Himself provides the clue to understanding what He is saying. Notice the reasoning behind His statements: the poor are blessed because the Kingdom is theirs. The hungry and weeping are blessed because they will be filled and will laugh. Woes come to the rich because they have received their consolation. Those who are full and who laugh will have woe because they will be hungry and will mourn and weep.

We ought not infer from these verses that there is any inherent virtue in poverty, hunger, or mourning, nor that it is bad to be rich, full, or to laugh. Jesus ate and drank, after all (Matthew 11:19). Instead, Jesus is attempting to turn the world of His hearers upside down– He wants them to see value in what is normally considered undesirable, and the detractions in what is usually considered desirable.

As human beings, we naturally prefer wealth, satisfaction, and laughter. They are fun and enjoyable. We would rather not be poor, hungry, or mourning. Those are no fun.

Yet look at it the way Jesus would have us look at it. If we have wealth, what is left for us? If we are currently full, what is going to come next? If we are laughing, what will come next? We are either going to remain at that plateau or we are going to be faced with that which we do not want: hunger and mourning.

But what happens when we are poor, or hungry, or weeping? Sure, the present does not seem too great, but there is nowhere to go but up. We will have the opportunity to have the Kingdom, or to be full, or to laugh again.

Therefore, according to the Kingdom perspective, we need to remember that if or when we receive wealth, we have our consolation. When we are full, we are just going to get hungry again. When we are laughing, all we have to look forward to are days of woe.

But when we are poor, we can be comforted to know that the Kingdom is ours. When we are hungry, we can have faith that we will be filled. When we mourn, despite the tears, we can look forward to days of laughter.

This is a great message for difficult times, especially difficult times like today. There is great economic uncertainty. Thousands have lost their jobs. The present does not seem too hopeful. Yet if we are poor, hungry, or weeping today, we can cherish the blessing of knowing that there will be days of satisfaction and laughter to follow.

Whether rich or poor, full or hungry, laughing or weeping, let us trust in God and put His Kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking God

“And he made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: for,
‘in him we live, and move, and have our being;’
as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring'” (Acts 17:26-28).

Satisfaction does not come automatically to many people.

Sure, life might have been great when we were small children and all our needs were met. But as we grew and gained a bit of a better understanding of our environment, we all sensed that something was not quite right.

We suffered– and continue to suffer– from “dis-ease.” Not illness, per se, but discontent. We are dissatisfied with ourselves. Something is not quite right.

We agonize and search and try to find what is missing so that we may feel whole. We may think the deficiency is within ourselves, and so we seek out self-help materials to better ourselves. Even if we succeed, we still do not find contentment.

Perhaps we need other people, so we go out and develop intimate friendships and relationships. While such make us feel good and loved, we are still lacking something.

We may then turn to money, stuff, entertainment, recreation, or a thousand other pursuits in some attempt to “find ourselves” or “discover inner peace.” Whatever we discover is fleeting. That fundamental discontent remains.

Yet, in the midst of all of this searching, have we ever considered that our discontent is there for a reason?

That, in reality, something is very wrong?

As Paul of Tarsus, the Jew turned Christian, speaks to the Athenians, he does not begin by berating them for their idolatry, despite having the right to do so. Instead, he seeks to find points of commonality, and he finds it in their constant searching. All their “gods” are evidence that they are searching for something and they haven’t quite found it yet. Paul came to tell them that they were right for searching– and yet the object of their search was never far from them.

In fact, it was all around them. They existed within it. Within it they could move and exist. Indeed, Aratus was right– we are all His offspring. Who is He?

He is the One True God, our Creator and Sustainer. He created all men through one man and put it within them to seek after Him. That discontent we experience is the result of our sin having separated us from God, the Author of Life (Isaiah 59:1-2). That discontent can only be satisfied when we turn and are restored in association with God through the blood of Jesus the Christ (1 John 1).

We may not have statues of “gods” lying around, but, on a fundamental level, our challenge is the same. God set it within every soul to seek after Him. Instead of finding Him, however, too many find what God created, and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:19-23). The Romans may have done so quite literally, but we today do so through our worship of money, sex, fame, and a host of other “gods” that advertise some kind of “satisfaction.”

We must turn from all of those “gods” and direct our “spirituality” toward its Source, God the Creator. When we do that, we will not have to go very far. The evidence of God and His blessings are everywhere: the gift of the creation, the gift of physical life, the gift of the enjoyments of life, the gift of fellow believers, and, above all, the gift of association with God and immediate access to Him at all times through Jesus (cf. Genesis 1, 1 John 1, Hebrews 4:16).

We are God’s offspring. In God we live and move and have our being. He is not far. Come home!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hope

For in hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it (Romans 8:24-25).

Hope, in the world, is the antidote to despair.  The word only begins to surface when things no longer go well.  When economic times get rough, people hope that conditions will improve.  When someone becomes ill, people hope that they recover.  Yet, in “normal,” positive day-to-day life, hope does not seem as necessary.

The Christian, however, is to live in hope (Romans 15;13, 1 Corinthians 13:13).  There is not a time in which we are not to await the return of our Lord, the redemption of our bodies, and the opportunity to spend eternity with the Lord (Ephesians 1:18, Colossians 1:5).  It is at that point, as Paul says, that we shall no longer hope, for our hope will have been realized.

But that day has not yet come.  We must never be so comfortable in our lives here that we lose sight of our greater hope.  We cannot allow confidence in the riches of this world to lead us to neglect our hope for riches in Heaven.  We cannot be so satisfied with life here that we no longer hope for a better life in eternity.  If earthly blessings sap our hope for heavenly ones, we of all people are most impoverished.

Many people live almost entirely in hope because they do not have the multitude of blessings that we have.  While we may feel sorry for them now, in the long run perhaps we are to be more pitied, if we lose our heavenly hope in the satisfaction of the present.

As long as we live in a sin-sick and tragic world, let us cling to our hope in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry