Psalm 42 and Reflections on the Psalm

Psalm 42


As longs the deer for cooling streams,

My soul longs for you, O God.

My whole being thirsts for God,

For the living God.

When shall I come and see the presence of God?

My tears become my bread day and night

As men taunt me all day long,

“Where is your God?”


These things I remember as I pour out my heart:

when I would step in the procession,

when I would march to the house of God

with shouts of joy and thanksgiving

among the festive crowd.


Why are you so downcast my soul?

Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God;

For yet I will offer praise

For God’s rescue.


My soul is downcast within me;

Therefore I will remember you

From the land of Jordan

From the heights of Mount Hermon and Mount Mizar.



Deep unto deep calls out

In the roar of your waterfalls

All your waves and breakers have swept over me.


By day the Lord ordains kindness

And at night the Lord’s song is with me

A prayer to the God of my life.


I would say to God, my rock,

“Why have you forgotten me?”

Why in gloom do I go, hard pressed by my foe?

With murder in my bones

My enemies revile me

My enemies taunt me all day long,

“Where is your God?”


Why are you so downcast my soul?

Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God;

For yet I will offer praise

For God’s rescue

For my help and my God.



This psalm opens the second book of psalms. Its first line “As longs the deer for cooling streams, so does my soul long for you, Oh God” is one of the most famous lines of all the psalms. Many people know only the first line, and assume that the overall tone of the psalm is comforting and peaceful. If you were to Google this psalm, the images returned always show a deer drinking by a pool of abundant water.

However, I believe that such images misrepresent the deeper messages of the psalm. The psalmist clearly wants to portray not abundance, but lack; deprivation rather than generosity. It becomes clear that the psalmist has lost way and his faith; he has become disconnected from his Source that sustains him. For as a deer needs water for survival, the psalmist cries out for a communion with God that has been lost. Bereft of this communion, the psalmist is reduced to relying on memories of happier times when he marched in joyous procession to the temple to worship. The grief of his situation is palpable; “My tears become my bread” is a striking example of an emotional state made physical in the psalms. As well, the men who taunt him daily with the question ‘Where is your God?” I believe are more examples of an emotional state – one’s own inner doubts and anxieties – made physical and externalized.

The psalm maintains a constant inner monologue: “Why are you so downcast, my soul?” In response to its own questions, the psalm gives reassurances: “Put your hope in God, for yet I will praise you, for my rescue.” Although this psalm speaks to a spiritually ‘dry’ time, this psalm ends with faith in the restorative powers of Divine Order.

In creating this psalm as an image, I was led by one association after another, one image becoming another. But I had no mental image by which to begin. I did want to convey the sense of becoming lost in the woods, of having lost one’s way. I was reminded of the opening lines of Dante:


MIDWAY upon the journey of our life  

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.


Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say

What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,

Which in the very thought renews the fear.


So bitter is it, death is little more;

But of the good to treat, which there I found,

Speak will I of the other things I saw there.


I felt that there was a real kinship between the psalm and the opening of Dante’s Inferno. It is hard for the deer to find the cooling stream, so I thought I would paint a tangled and jungle like forest scene like the one Dante encountered. I began laying out the stream, and realized I wanted to change its direction, and then again, and again. The stream then became a braided stream. I liked that image, but didn’t know how to proceed. I closed my eyes to meditate upon the idea/image of a stream – and when I did, a most amazing thing happened that opened a way for me. When my eyes closed, I saw an afterimage, which I realized to be the capillaries of my eyeball.  Well, here was a stream, a braided stream inside me. I felt then that the images I might be creating were about an inner search rather than an outward journey. The deer in the forest, and Dante’s walk in the woods were metaphors for this going within to reconnect with one’s Source. The psalmist’s internal monologue confirmed this approach for me. I thought then about how the capillaries were bringing sustenance to every cell of my body. In respond to this thought I began adding cell structures around the capillaries. For the anxious psalmist who is desperately seeking God, the answer he seeks is inside of him, and all of us.  We are not chaos, although our feelings may make us believe we are in chaos. No, down to the cellar level we are miracles of creation, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ (Psalm 139) There is a purposefulness built within us, for good orderly direction, for flow in the stream of life. While painting, I settled upon the title “The Inner Life.” This image could be a that of a human, or of a plant, or even a forest, taken down to the cellular level of being.  New associations emerged for me; that of The Inner Light, and The Seed – both Quaker terms for the Divine Source that is planted within us by God. My stream terminates in an image which combines both the Light and the Seed, although I now also see the stream flowing out from the Seed. Finally, one more association emerged as I was reminded of the story in the Gospel of John of the Samaritan women at the well. Jesus asks her for a drink and they begin to talk; Jesus informs the women that he has ‘Living Water’ and that she would never thirst again if she drank from this source.  It has amazed me to discover how many themes of the psalms become enacted as a Gospel story.

While painting the panels I took walks along the wood chip trail at Pendle Hill, gathering images and sounds. As well, I gathered leaves, branches, stones and an occasional animal, a dead garden snake, a cicada, an insect exoskeleton. I was still considering painting or collaging a forest scene onto the panels of “Inner life” when I laid the branches on top of it. Looking at the overlaid branches, I realized that here was psalm 42; to be among the branches, woven into them and tangled among them somehow. The branches were obscuring the stream underneath, and that obfuscation echoed the very doubts and anxieties that the psalmist gave voice to. The art piece then became two co-existing layers, a layer of questions and doubts, and an answer which is beyond words.

I also decided that the words needed to become physical and three dimensional, as the leaves were; small wooden letters were perfect for this. I needed to condense the psalm once again, freely choosing between three different translations. For example, I chose the word ‘bread’ in Robert Alter’s translation as I found it to be so much more concrete than ‘food’ used in the New International Version. I color coded the words so that the verses, arranged in two columns, would be read moving down the panel, rather than across. The two columns at the end of the panels come together into a third color, here is the resolution of the psalm. If the two columns were read across, they would form a complete thought – “for yet I will offer praise” – “a prayer to my God for my rescue.”

Having worked out the words and arrangement of the verses, I still wanted to add collage. I found an art book titled “A Certain Grace” by the photographer Sebastiao Salgado. I feel deeply indebted to him, as an artist and human being. He photographed the drought in Ethiopia in the 1990’s and the gold mine pits of Colombia. The desperation of the circumstances of these people, the sadness and grief in their faces and in their every gesture, their physical suffering, speaks to the spiritual grief expressed by psalmist. So their faces give a human face to the words, framed by the leaves, as they wander in the woods, looking for answers to troubling questions.