Literary analysis of Psalm 42 – When shall I come and see the presence of God?

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water sing photo  Central to Song 42 are the images of water and of sound. Through these images, the singer creates the means of bringing himself into the presence of God Whom he seeks.

         As the song begins, verse 2 declares an analogy between the speaker and a deer, and between God and streams of water:
                                 As a deer yearns for streams of water,
                                                             so I yearn for You, O God.
Both the deer and the singer yearn for what is, for each, sustenance –the deer for the water necessary for its physical survival, the singer for God essential to his spiritual being. Each seeks what is — for it, for him — the source of life. The image of water dominates verse 3, which opens,
                                 My whole being thirsts for God,
                                                              for the living God.
But the singer exposes the fallacy in his analogy — though water is essential to his being, nonetheless God is, unlike the element of water, “living”, is the creator of life itself. The singer can now utter his intent bare of any comparisons:
                                When shall I come and see
                                                               the presence of God?
Unable to look upon God directly, the singer apparently needs the imagery of water, the well-spring of physicality, as his vehicle. Through his words, he can imagine God’s presence. Or, to put it in a way more in keeping with the singer’s own imagery — the face of God, ‘living”, reflected in the water, is at least approachable, at least visible, if only indirectly. The Hebrew word for “water”, “mayim”, can be read backwards, as if the word itself acts as both source and reflection: מ.י.מ. .
         The tears that the singer’s enemies provoke in him in verse 4, with their taunt, “Where is your God?”,  become his “bread”; his tears provide his food, rather than the pure waters he yearns for.  Unable to answer his enemies, unable, that is, to show them the location, the presence, of God (afterall, his own question is when shall he come to see God’s face), he must, instead, choke on his own salt water, on his own aridity. What he can “pour out”, however, are the emotions of, the waters of, his heart: verse 5 recalls his place in the procession that marches to “the house of God”; his outpouring of grief –his salty tears, his overflowing heart– is not stemmed by his recollection. Rather, it is crippling, causing his entire being both to bend and to moan. Only his “hope in God” can rescue him (v. 6). “The living God” of verse 3 becomes “His rescuing presence [face]” in verse 6, a change in imagery emphasizing that to be rescued by God is, indeed, to be given life.
         The singer now turns from his own self to his geographical surroundings. Verse 7 describes the mountains, Hermon and Mizar, while verse 8 juxtaposes them with the depths of the seas. Both mountains and seas “sound” the voice of God; “channels”, “breakers and waves'”, calling out to the singer with such a surge that it threatens to submerge him:
                                  Deep unto deep calls out
                                                               at the sound of Your channels.   
                                                                              all Your breakers and waves have surged
                                                                              over me.
The image seems, within the verse itself, a destructive one –the singer, in danger of drowning; God depicted in utter contrast with the rescuing God of verse 6. The threat, however, is abated, nullified even, by the “song” of verse 9:
                                 By day Adonai ordains His kindness
                                                                 and at night His song is with me —
                                                                               prayer to the God of my life.
Not only does the singer acclaim God’s “kindness”, he also recognizes that the sounds of the two extremities of nature, mountains and seas, are the “song” sung by God –or, more precisely, by God’s created universe — and, for the singer, that song is his “prayer to the God of my life”. Thus he joins those two aspects of God,”rescuing” and “living”, together to proclaim the healing and comfort he has hoped for. It would seem, then, that he has once more taken his place in the procession he recollects in verse 5, once more marching to “the sound of glad song of the celebrant throng” (v. 5).
          The song’s first verse mentions the Korahites, suggesting the song was either composed for them or by them; perhaps to be sung by them. Yet Korah defied the authority of Moses, and was punished for so doing: the ground opened, swallowing him and his followers. Korah is a puzzling presence in the song, but verse 10 may explain what would otherwise be an unwarranted intrusion. Following upon the hopefulness of verse 9, verse 10 opens with the singer’s declaration of “God my Rock”; the epithet, rock, apparently posing the opposite to the abyss implicit in verse 1 with Korah’s name and threatening to the singer in verse 8. The question the singer puts to his Rock, however, shocks by its contrast to the stronghold it addresses, “Why have you forgotten me?” It is as though the singer has himself fallen into his own abyss. As if the singer were actually the Korahite! He is so defeated by the taunts of his foes that “in gloom” he “goes” (v. 10), even the possibility of light obscured.
         Verse 11 offers neither light nor solace. It echoes verse 4, echoes the taunt of his foes, “Where is your God?” And, once again, the singer struggles to answer. Although he has, in fact, already given his answer in his adjectives for God of “living” and “rescuing”. His failure to recognize his own answer expresses itself, instead, in verse 12’s exact repetition of verse 6:  “How bent, my being, how you moan for me!” In both verses, 6 and 12, his moans seemingly drown out the songs in the verse preceding each –the “glad song” of verse 5’s celebrants, God’s night song in verse 9.
         But just as verse 6 ends with the singer’s affirmation of hope, so too does verse 12. The Praisesong closes with a telling variation: verse 6’s “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him for His rescuing presence”  becomes “Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him, His rescuing presence and my God”. His acclamation, then, is his answer, at last explicit and purposeful, to his enemies’ jeers and to his own yearning for God’s presence: he is able, as the song ends, to proclaim, “my God”. To proclaim, to lay claim.
water sing photo



The literary analysis of this Psalm is written by Dr. Victoria Rosenberg. The analysis is a product of the discussions between Rabbi Amram Maccabi and Dr. Rosenberg who weekly study a particular Psalm which inspires the analysis then posted on the website. Victoria Hammerling Rosenberg holds a PhD in English literature and has taught at Dalhousie and Mount St. Vincent universities.

Photo by Nigel_Brown

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