December 7, 2010

Psalm 42-3 - Why So Downcast, My Soul?

TEXT (Hebrew text at end)

Psalm 42
1. For the leader. A maskil.1 Of the Korahites.

2. As a deer that cries out2 for watercourses, my soul cries out2 for You, O God.
3. My soul thirsts for God, the living Deity; O when will I come to appear in God’s presence!
4. My tears have been my bread day and night; I am daily addressed, “Where is your God?”
5. These things I remember, and I pour out my soul within me: how 3-I passed with the procession, moved with them,-3 the celebrant throng, to the House of God with the sound of joy and thanksgiving.
6. Why so downcast, O my soul, so stirred within4 me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him 5-for His saving presence.

7. O my God,-5 my soul is downcast within me; therefore I remember You from the land of Jordan and Hermon,6 from Mount Mizar.
8. Deep calls to deep when your cataracts sound―all Your breakers and waves have passed 7-over me.-7
9. By day may the LORD command His faithful care, that at night His song be with me, a prayer to the Deity of my life.
10. I declare to the Deity, my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why must I walk in gloom, pressed by the enemy?”
11. 8-Like murder in-8 my bones, my adversaries revile me, as they daily address me, “Where is your God?”
12. Why so downcast, O my soul, so stirred within4 me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him, my saving presence, my God.

Psalm 43
1. Be my justice, O God, plead my plea against faithless people; from the treacherous, wicked man, rescue me.
2. For You are my God, my stronghold. Why have you abandoned me? Why must I walk about in gloom, pressed by the enemy?
3. Send forth Your Light and Your Truth. It is they who will lead me; they will bring me to Your holy mountain, to Your dwelling.
4. Thus I may come to the altar of God, the Deity who is my joyous delight; that I may praise You with the lyre, O God, my God.
5. Why so downcast, my soul, so stirred within4 me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise Him, my saving presence, my God.

1. Meaning of the Hebrew uncertain.
2. Alternatively, “yearns.”
3. Meaning of Hebrew uncertain.
4. “Within” in these verses can also be understood as “for.”
5. Many translations emend, following some ancient versions and manuscripts, and connect the first word in v. 7 with the end of v. 6: “my saving presence, my God,” thus creating a parallel to v. 12 and Ps. 43:5.
6. Literally, “Hermons,” which may refer to peaks. Elsewhere in the Bible, it appears in the singular.
7. Same Hebrew term, ‘alai, as “within me” in 42: 5, 6 , 7, 12 and 43:5.
8. Reading kiretsach for biretsach, with manuscripts and versions.

Far from the Temple, God’s devotee yearns. From the opening of Psalm 42-43, the reader is overwhelmed by the speaker’s anguish, a message communicated through powerful images that alternate with repeated phrases. So stark are the images and the situation that the poem is easily read both literally and metaphorically, the physical distance possibly (also) reflecting a spiritual one.

It is here that we first encounter psalms associated with the Korahites (42–49, 84–85, 87–88), one of the groups of Levitical singers. Writing on Psalm 46, Meltzer notes that the Korahite psalms are “marked with outstanding originality in terms of their content and of their articulation, and have particularly clear structures.”
I comment briefly on the unity of Psalm 42-43, and then proceed to discuss the compelling imagery and the emergent meaning, in the order of its sections. (When a term or phrase is repeated, I comment only at its last appearance.)

A Single Psalm

The present division of the Book of Psalms is uncertain. The Talmud at one point refers to 147 psalms. (We count 150 today.) The unity of what we now call Psalms 42 and 43 is widely acknowledged, reflecting phrase repetition and development; a recurring refrain (42:6, 12; 43:5); the lack of a title line for Psalm 43; and an internal logic and coherency. Further, as Bar Yosef points out, the first two sections (42:1–6, 7–12) deal, in order, with (a) suffering and the Temple, and (b) suffering and enemies, while the third section (43:1–5) continues with renewed emphasis on both: enemies and the Temple. For centuries commentators have sensed this unity: “These two psalms are about one subject and unified concerns” (Kimche, early thirteenth century). I relate this way to the psalm here. (I divide the verses according to the divisions created by the refrain.)

Psalm 42:1–6 - Longing

An acute longing dominates the opening.

“As a deer that cries out for watercourses” (verse 2): The term “cries out” might mean either the sound a deer makes, or a stretching out of the neck, and is often translated “yearning.” In either case, the metaphor is graphic and powerful. In the Israeli desert, the only water available is that flowing through these watercourses (arroyos, wadis), and the reference to these, rather than to the water itself, hints at great distance, with a compelling natural craving. The metaphor is intensified in verse 4 with the appearance of tears, a tragically inappropriate alternative to water. (Note that the speaker forces this salty substitute into the category of “bread” as opposed to drink.)

“Soul” (nefesh, verses 2, 3, 5, 6): This term, often not translated (lest one read into the text the much later bifurcation of life into the negative body and positive soul, a duality alien to the Bible), meaning approximately “life force,” is central to this psalm, and requires literal translation. Through this usage the poet establishes the early dialogic nature of the opening, a tearing internal conversation (“an inner debate within the poet’s psyche” – M. Cohen). He battles with himself (the essence of the recurrent refrain), and is thus able to convey his lack of control of his own reactions. In turn, his soul desires, is overwhelmed by what should be positive recollections, and is distraught. Primarily, it yearns in pain. In a beautiful pun, the soul (the Hebrew word also can mean “neck/throat”) is the locus of longing for God/water.

The poet’s use of “presence” (verse 3 and all the recurrent refrains) effectively emphasizes both the distance and the longing.

Psalm 41:7–12 - The Problem Is the Enemy―but also God!

The second section of the psalm is sharply distinguished from the first, primarily through its emphasis on the enemy and in its ambivalent references to God, Who is not only the object of longing but also the cause of the separation.

The speaker's first plea to his soul, in verse 6, has evidently failed, for his soul is downcast despite his entreaties (as the very first words reveal), and “downcast” frames the second section (42:7, 12). Previously, he responded to his being far away by “remembering” the wonderful moments in the Temple (verse 5); but when he considers his distress, he remembers God (verse 7)! There is a highly accusatory tone. God has forgotten him (verse 10).

Ironically, the waters that threaten to drown him are God’s. The speaker thirsted for water, and now when he has it in abundance, it turns out to be not salvational water but threatening waves, directly attributable to God. (These waters might be the upper Jordan River or perhaps be a reference to different water, the primordial deep.) Indeed, the same word that referred to his soul “within him” (‘alai, verses 5, 6, and 7) now refers to God’s waters sweeping “over him” (verse 8), possibly emphasizing that this is a feeling within.
His desperation is further underscored by an unclear, surprising and yet powerful metaphor, “like a murder in my bones” (verse 11). Whatever the implication, it is attributed to his adversaries, not mentioned before, who now gain prominence. The taunt that was “heard” (passive) in the first section (verse 3) is now ascribed to his enemies (verse 11). Indeed, so oppressive is the situation that at this point the refrain seems almost absurd. Of course his soul is distressed!

The second section, however, does include a first indication of a positive contention. Verse 9 speaks of prayer, mercy, and a close relationship to God. The mode is imperfect (spanning present and future). The translation above takes this as a hope for the future, but some commentators read it as an even stronger expression of optimism, translating into the present tense (“By day the LORD ordains His kindness and by night his song is with me…” – Alter). Either is possible, and it is regrettable that English does not allow us to maintain what might well be an intentional ambiguity. In either case, the phrase “the living Deity” (El chai, verse 3) is now slightly, but meaningfully, altered to “the Deity of my life” (El chaiai). The "nights" and "days" of tears in verse 4 become moments of grace and praise in verse 9. Whether the prayer is a “song to Him” or “His song” (as translated above―a more ambiguous phrase, but somehow implying even greater proximity), it is a term of connection. Even if one reads the verse primarily as one of hope and prayer, there is a new, slight opening.

Nevertheless, the speaker immediately goes on to ask God why he has forgotten him. In sum, the recurring refrain might not be totally absurd, but it is still reflects a torn soul.

43:1–5 Prayer and Hope as Solution

The third section, Psalm 43, carefully echoes two concerns of the first two sections. The order is chiastic, first recalling the second section and then the first.

The opening of the final prayer section calls for a just judgment against enemies (who were introduced in the second section), whose bad character seems more important than the speaker’s righteousness (not mentioned). The tone of accusation against God does not disappear. On the contrary, comparing verse 43:2 with 42:10, the speaker seems to raise the stakes: God is supposed to be not only “rock,” but now “stronghold”; and on the other hand, he has not only “forgotten,” but has even “abandoned”; the speaker not only “walks,” but “walks about” (indicating agitation?) in gloom. (We once again witness the living complexity of Psalms, where devotion and resentment can be mixed, where request can follow accusation.)

There is, however, in the immediately following prayer, a resolution. If the speaker has walked in “gloom” in two previous verses, the request is now for light. In a striking metaphor of personification, the speaker requests two escorts to lead him to the Temple―God’s Light and Truth.

At this point, in fact, the psalm echoes the early longing for appearing in God’s presence from the first section. Previously the speaker had wondered when he might “come” (verse 3); now he asks these escorts to “bring” (same root as “come”) him, that he might “come” there. The third refrain, which follows this prayer, resounds with hope. The very act of prayer seems to bring a resolution of sorts. This change, in turn, opens the reader to reviewing certain literary and structural aspects of the psalm as a whole.

Looking Back at the Psalm as a Whole

Psalm 42-43 is dominated by questions. Twelve interrogatives are used: nine times “why,” twice “where,” and once “when.” The speaker’s internal tension stands out. Enhancing that tension is a possible double entendre or alternative meaning of “why” in the refrain. The Hebrew (mah) might also be seen as an exclamation, “how.” (How downcast, my soul, how stirred within me!) The pressure is palpable.
So, too, is the affirmation. “God” in various forms (including Deity") is used twenty-one times, with many more references by dint of pronouns. The original dialogue seemed internal (and it does not disappear) but at its side, the dialogue with God grows. Direct address to the Deity takes up one line in the first section, two in the second (plus a cited quote), and all four lines of the third section (until the refrain). Further, one usage (El – the short form of God’s name, here translated “Deity” to distinguish it from the longer form) appears four times, the uses reflecting a progressive growth in intimacy: “the living Deity” (42:3); “Deity of my life” (42:9); “Deity, my Rock” (42:10); and “the Deity who is my joyous delight” (43:4).

This corresponds to the wonderful development of the refrain, which moves progressively in its three appearances from comfort in the face of longing, to desperate encouragement in the face of being overwhelmed, and finally to hopefulness in the shadow of prayer. Whether there are slight differences in the three refrains (see note 6 in the translation) or not, essentially the same words evolve as they change context―a marked achievement.

Seeing the psalm as a unit also focuses on its near-center, 42:9. What was a note of optimism or a hope when first read returns as the focus of the poem, enhanced as one can now note that this was the only use of LORD, God’s name, and the only mention of His prime attribute, “faithful care” (chesed – others translate “kindness” or “steadfast love”). So beautifully does it reflect the hope of the psalm that one wonders if the psalm itself is the “prayer” mentioned at the end of the verse.

The final refrain includes the seventh repetition of “my soul” (seven being the prime significant number of biblical repetition). There the psalm ends, where it began, the speaker in dialogue with himself, struggling to recall an idyllic time and to retain the faith that it will return. It is no wonder that this psalm has resonated with so many across millennia.

* * * * * * * * *
Additional Notes

1. The centrality of the Jerusalem Temple suffuses and surrounds this text. In light of 42:5 and 43:3, 4, it is clear that the refrain points to the Temple, the references to “thanksgiving” being limited to these verses and the refrain. Psalm 42-43 creates a massive concentration on Jerusalem out of memory and future hope, and thus inadvertently makes itself an available model for later Jewish history.

2. I again pause to reflect on the nature of the Book of Psalms as a whole. Psalm 42-43 seems particularly inappropriate for a hymnal for the Jerusalem Temple. It does befit a collection of stimulating religious poetry for other circumstances.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at



פרק מב
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ מַשְׂכִּיל לִבְנֵי קֹרַח:
(ב) כְּאַיָּל תַּעֲרֹג עַל אֲפִיקֵי מָיִם כֵּן נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרֹג אֵלֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים:
(ג) צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי לֵאלֹהִים לְאֵל חָי מָתַי אָבוֹא וְאֵרָאֶה פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים:
(ד) הָיְתָה לִּי דִמְעָתִי לֶחֶם יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה בֶּאֱמֹר אֵלַי כָּל הַיּוֹם אַיֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:
(ה) אֵלֶּה אֶזְכְּרָה וְאֶשְׁפְּכָה עָלַי נַפְשִׁי כִּי אֶעֱבֹר בַּסָּךְ אֶדַּדֵּם עַד בֵּית אֱלֹהִים בְּקוֹל רִנָּה וְתוֹדָה הָמוֹן חוֹגֵג:
(ו) מַה תִּשְׁתּוֹחֲחִי נַפְשִׁי וַתֶּהֱמִי עָלָי הוֹחִלִי לֵאלֹהִים כִּי עוֹד אוֹדֶנּוּ יְשׁוּעוֹת פָּנָיו:
(ז) אֶלֹהַי עָלַי נַפְשִׁי תִשְׁתּוֹחָח עַל כֵּן אֶזְכָּרְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ יַרְדֵּן וְחֶרְמוֹנִים מֵהַר מִצְעָר:
(ח) תְּהוֹם אֶל תְּהוֹם קוֹרֵא לְקוֹל צִנּוֹרֶיךָ כָּל מִשְׁבָּרֶיךָ וְגַלֶּיךָ עָלַי עָבָרוּ:
(ט) יוֹמָם יְצַוֶּה יְהֹוָה חַסְדּוֹ וּבַלַּיְלָה שִׁירֹה עִמִּי תְּפִלָּה לְאֵל חַיָּי:
(י) אוֹמְרָה לְאֵל סַלְעִי לָמָה שְׁכַחְתָּנִי לָמָּה קֹדֵר אֵלֵךְ בְּלַחַץ אוֹיֵב:
(יא) בְּרֶצַח בְּעַצְמוֹתַי חֵרְפוּנִי צוֹרְרָי בְּאָמְרָם אֵלַי כָּל הַיּוֹם אַיֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:
(יב) מַה תִּשְׁתּוֹחֲחִי נַפְשִׁי וּמַה תֶּהֱמִי עָלָי הוֹחִילִי לֵאלֹהִים כִּי עוֹד אוֹדֶנּוּ יְשׁוּעֹת פָּנַי וֵאלֹהָי:
פרק מג
(א) שָׁפְטֵנִי אֱלֹהִים וְרִיבָה רִיבִי מִגּוֹי לֹא חָסִיד מֵאִישׁ מִרְמָה וְעַוְלָה תְפַלְּטֵנִי:
(ב) כִּי אַתָּה אֱלֹהֵי מָעוּזִּי לָמָה זְנַחְתָּנִי לָמָּה קֹדֵר אֶתְהַלֵּךְ בְּלַחַץ אוֹיֵב:
(ג) שְׁלַח אוֹרְךָ וַאֲמִתְּךָ הֵמָּה יַנְחוּנִי יְבִיאוּנִי אֶל הַר קָדְשְׁךָ וְאֶל מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ:
(ד) וְאָבוֹאָה אֶל מִזְבַּח אֱלֹהִים אֶל אֵל שִׂמְחַת גִּילִי וְאוֹדְךָ בְכִנּוֹר אֱלֹהִים אֱלֹהָי:
(ה) מַה תִּשְׁתּוֹחֲחִי נַפְשִׁי וּמַה תֶּהֱמִי עָלָי הוֹחִילִי לֵאלֹהִים כִּי עוֹד אוֹדֶנּוּ יְשׁוּעֹת פָּנַי וֵאלֹהָי:


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