Refreshment for the Depressed Soul
Help comes for those who cannot help themselves. When we bottom-out and come to the end of ourselves, that is where hope springs.
The Psalms are generally considered the most beloved pieces of writing in the entire biblical canon. And I think that’s slightly ironic, considering the bulk of the psalter describes some of the most intense moments of human grief ever recorded. Moses, Asaph, David, and the rest, seem to have been compelled to give voice to their sorrow — the result of which is a divinely inspired hymn book from which you and I are able to distill our own moments of turmoil and trouble. Indeed, it doesn’t take long to come across a particular psalm that seems uniquely addressed to your current predicament. The Psalms are beloved precisely because they’re so relatable. They touch on some of the deepest levels of human emotion, expressing what, perhaps, we often feel, even if we’re too ashamed to vocalize it.
Sprinting to the riverbank
The psalmist David, especially, is free in his articulation of his frustrations on a number of occasions, even when that frustration was directed at the Lord himself. When he felt overwhelmed, abandoned, unheard, or hurt, he let God know. He didn’t bottle all of that up and keep it in. Rather, he poured out his soul to God. Psalm 42 is another specimen of just that — of the psalmist giving voice to that which most vexes him and gives him grief. Though not explicitly attributed to David, there are, however, a number of themes mentioned throughout that suggest this song comes from his pen. The taunting of his enemies in verses 3 and 10 is reminiscent of Psalm 3:2, which is a psalm that’s connected to David’s flight from his own kingdom as he flees from the bloodlust of his own son, Absalom. Some have contended that Psalm 42 is another musical balm composed by David during that awful season of life.
We might only imagine how gut-wrenching those days were, as the “man after God’s own heart” watches as his throne and his family go up in smoke. Psalms like this one, however, allow us to put an end to such imaginations and speculations by offering us an opportunity to find solace just as David did — namely, through communion with the God who listens to our cries and complaints. What King David expresses, here, is among the more brutal depictions of the trouble which had befallen him in the entire psalter. Three separate times (or four, if you count Ps. 43:5), he repeats that his soul is “cast down” due to the “turmoil” within and without (Ps. 42:5–6, 11). On the outside, his “adversaries” ridicule him incessantly with the horrifying notion that God has abandoned him. “As with a deadly wound in my bones,” he says, “my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Ps. 42:10). On the inside, the tumult is even more unbearable, as wave after wave of distress and despair flood his soul. “Deep calls to deep,” he cries, “at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me” (Ps. 42:7).
The point is, the quaint image of Bambi lapping up water from a tranquil little brook is inaccurate. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1). This “panting” ought to be understood more like heaving, as the psalmist portrays himself as a parched doe desperate for refreshment. The deer isn’t serenely trotting to the riverbank, but is sprinting to the spring where cool waters flow. David, likewise, is desperate for the cooling, calming refreshment that could only come from the “living God.” But what does that refreshment look like? And how is the psalmist’s heart, soul, and mind refreshed, even as his days are marked by such misery and grief?
The refreshment of God’s people
In response to the sneers of those around him, David calls to mind God’s house. Specifically, he recalls those days when he would proceed with “the multitude” into the very presence of God himself. “These things I remember,” he sings, “as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival” (Ps. 42:4). The kingdom of Israel blossomed mightily under the authority of King David, which is a direct result of his insistence that the worship of Yahweh be front-and-center in the life of every Israelite citizen. In the waning days of King Saul’s reign, Israel was marked by a steep decline in interest in and recognition of God’s words and ways (1 Sam. 28:3–25). David, however, concentrated Israel’s worship on the “living God,” on the One who had so often delivered him out of pits and problems.
The rejuvenation of worshiping Yahweh under David was, to be sure, a consequence of David having experienced Yahweh’s mercy and relief time and time again. He had firsthand knowledge of what it meant to have nothing else to rely on except God's bare word of promise, which, I’m sure, energized David’s worship in all manner of captivating ways. And such is to where his thoughts were drawn in this moment, as he recalls the “glad shouts and songs of praise” that boomed throughout the kingdom. If these words were, indeed, written during those horrific days of Absalom’s insurrection, then David, once again a fugitive of his own throne, has been prevented from going into the house of Lord with the people of Lord. What keeps him going, though, during such harrowing days is the persistent memory of the multitude that worshiped Yahweh with one voice.
When I’m weary and feeling as though I’m trudging through the doldrums of dejection, do I crave the refreshment that comes when God’s people gather?
As dispirited as David might have been, he was uplifted by recalling those scenes in the sanctuary, when he and his people would sing in unison praises to the living God. His sincerest desire was to return to the assembly of God’s people, where he knew his thirsty, despairing soul could find unabating refreshment. And I have to wonder: is that our first thought? When I’m weary and feeling as though I’m trudging through the doldrums of dejection, do I crave the refreshment that comes when God’s people gather? When days of sorrow persist, is God’s house my first recourse or my last resort? When I’m undergoing seasons of severe trial and stress, is the church my first option?
I hasten to say that oftentimes my first inclination is not to run to the church when such grievous days arise. And perhaps you might have to confess the same. And I think that’s owed to how the church has been misrepresented (or how it’s misrepresented itself). There's a connotation some have when it comes to church that it is nothing more than the meeting place you visit to receive your weekly lecture. If that’s true, who’d want to subject themselves to that when the tendrils of despair and depression are tightening their vice-like grip around you? For the psalmist, though, he couldn’t wait to gather with God’s people. Even — or especially — in those dark and dim and difficult days, he saw the presence of the Lord and the company of the saints as his most urgent need. He eagerly anticipated escaping to the “house of the Lord,” where he knew he’d find cover and confidence, and comfort from the storm. And part of that, I’d say, is because of the power that accompanies the gathering of God’s people.
Nowhere else can you experience the awesome power of the “living God” than in the assembly of fellow thirsty souls. “Our assembled local churches,” writes Jonathan Leeman, “represent God’s presence with man — where heaven comes to earth” (47). When we gather, therefore, we’re giving the world and our neighbor a “foretaste of glory divine,” as the hymn says. The church is — or ought to be — a respite for weary sinners, an oasis for parched pilgrims, as R. Scott Clark once put it. It’s the place where thirsty souls are given “cold water” and “good news from a far country” (Prov. 25:25).
The refreshment of God’s company
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,” the psalmist laments, “and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Ps. 42:5). This matter-of-fact insight from the psalmist reveals his depressed condition. As he sees his life crumbling before his very eyes, he is overcome with grief, and, as noted previously, this season of anguish feels like a never-ending wave of sorrow (Ps. 42:7). This, to be sure, is what depression feels like. In fact, a few studies have previously been conducted in hopes of diagnosing Israel’s downtrodden king based on his biblical confessions. Whether or not it is accurate to apply modern medical instincts or insights into these scenarios is up for debate. But nevertheless, David’s depression serves to give every downcast soul ever since a sense of hope.
Depression often feels like a flood, with wave after wave of uncertainty filling every crevice of your being with doubt and grief. It works to color and cloud everything you see, think, and feel until everywhere you look is laced with sorrowful hues. And even if those sorrowful things never come to pass as you might imagine them, that’s all you can think about, that’s all you know. “Depression,” writes Andrew Solomon, “relies heavily on a paralyzing sense of imminence . . . What is happening to you in depression is horrible, but it seems to be very much wrapped up in what is about to happen to you” (28). That deluge of distress forms what amounts to a massive ocean, which isolates you from all you once knew. Indeed, the remoteness and loneliness are what make those days all the more unbearable. And such is what David alludes to in verse 6 when he cries out from the cliffs: “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.”
Mount Mizar, you might know, is a small summit next to Mount Hermon in the range of mountains on the border of modern-day Lebanon, a region that is remote and very far removed from Jerusalem. All of which to say, the psalmist is in a place that feels distant both geographically and spiritually. He is far from home and far from the house of the Lord, which, I’m sure, made the taunts of his “adversaries” seem far more credible (Ps. 42:10). Is God there? Or had he been forgotten? In that lonesome, languishing place, he couldn’t be too sure. But even in that place, the psalmist is refreshed by a remembrance of God’s company. “I remember you,” he recalls, “from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.”
No matter where he traversed, the Lord was with him. No matter how deep the canyon or how treacherous the cliff, the Lord’s “steadfast love” was there. “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (Ps. 42:8). Despite all the torment and turmoil that flooded his soul, even still he trusted in the refreshing presence of his God (Ps. 139:7–12). No matter how low he sank, his God would be there. And the same is true for you. The God of David is the God of today. He is the God who perpetually comes close to those who are downcast. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Ps. 34:18–19).
The refreshment of God’s hope
Three times the psalmist articulates the same refrain, which serves to clue us into his mindset. “Why are you cast down, O my soul,” he declares, “and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation” (Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5). The psalmist is at war with himself, as he wrestles with what he believes versus what he’s experiencing. His present environment is one that’s shrouded in nothing but misery, agony, and grief. What he believes, though, is that there is a God who is over it all, master of it all, and who will see him through it all. Such is why each time he confesses his insecurity, uncertainty, and frailty, he likewise reminds himself to “hope in God.” He had learned — and was, perhaps, still learning — that true hope only blooms in the crater of personal hopelessness.
It is our powerlessness in the face of despair and disappointment that remains the hardest thing to accept. And yet, that is the precise pathway to hope. We who are downcast cannot rescue ourselves from being cast down. That’s not meant to make you feel defeated. Rather, that’s meant to drive you to hope in the only One who can and will, rescue you. When a Coast Guard rescue diver (a.k.a. Aviation Survival Technician, AST) attempts to save someone from drowning, they don’t shout swimming instructions from their helicopter platform. Instead, they plunge into the raging seas alongside the one who’s sinking. And, very often, their rescue strategy requires forcing the person that’s drowning to give up any hope that they can save themselves. Panic is a natural reaction for anyone who’s on the verge of drowning to death. But that panicked thrashing can often be dangerous, both to them and to the rescue diver, leading to failed rescues and fatalities. It is only when the drowning person gives up and gives in to the rescue that’s already underway that the AST can bring them to safety. And the same is true when it comes to the God of our salvation.
It seems absurd to the unbeliever that the admission of hopelessness is the beginning of true hope, but that’s exactly what faith in the gospel is. Help comes for those who cannot help themselves. When we bottom out and come to the end of ourselves, that is where hope springs. Indeed, that is where the God of hope comes to visit us. The gospel is perennially powerful because it doesn’t appeal to some nebulous force or indistinct entity. The gospel is not an invitation to cry out to a faceless, lifeless deity. Rather, it’s the announcement that there is a Person who delights to meet us in our despair, whose grace flows to those who are cast down. And this Person is none other than the God of hope himself, the living God who is our “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3).The refreshment of God’s hope is the promise that there is One upon whom you can fall in all your days of depression, fear, and distress. It is Christ alone, our “brother born for adversity” (Prov. 17:17), who comes alongside the downcast to raise them up again. It is Christ alone who strengthens weary bones and refreshes parched souls with endless draughts of living water (John 4:9–16; 7:37–39; Rev. 7:10–16). Like the psalmist, our faith may falter or waver, but so long as our faith is fastened to the Rock, it will not be entirely snuffed out. “Faith may have a long struggle with fear,” Alexander Maclaren suggests, “but it will have the last word” (53). The One who condescends to our places of languishing is none other than the Word become flesh, who slakes our thirsty souls with his great faithfulness and his mercies that are ever new.