“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God”(Ps. 42:1).
The deer requires a great deal of water, especially in very hot and dry countries. The “panting” spoken of refers to a longing or desire for God, whose presence is momentarily withheld, leading to the spiritual depression of whicch the Psalmist speaks. Such a deer may be in a hot desert place in which there is a momentary abasence of water. Hardly anything, if anything at all, is more tyrannical than an individual’s thirst for water. It is possible that the Psalmist was at this time being persecuted by others, and thus momentarily alienated from the communal worship of God, or it is possible that his experience is purely spiritual and refers to a kind of spiritual desertion to which God has subjected him. Charles Spurgeon said it best:
“As the hart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, 0 God.” As after a long drought the poor fainting hind longs for the streams, or rather as the hunted hart instinctively seeks after the river to lave its smoking flanks and to escape the dogs, even so my weary, persecuted soul pants after the Lord my God. Debarred from public worship, David was heartsick. Ease he did not seek, honour he did not covet, but the enjoyment of communion with God was an urgent need of his soul; he viewed it not merely as the sweetest of all luxuries, but as an absolute necessity, like water to a stag. Like the parched traveller in the wilderness, whose skin bottle is empty, and who finds the wells dry, he must drink or die – he must have his God or faint. His soul, his very self, his deepest life, was insatiable for a sense of the divine presence. As the hart brays so his soul prays. Giro him his God and he is as content as the poor deer which at length slakes its thirst and is perfectly happy; but deny him his Lord, and his heart heaves, his bosom palpitates, his whole frame is convulsed, like one who gasps for breath, or pants with long running. Dear reader, dost thou know what this is, by personally having felt the same? It is a sweet bitterness. The next best thing to living in the light of the Lord’s love is to be unhappy till we have it, and to pant hourly after it – hourly, did I say? thirst is a perpetual appetite, and not to be forgotten, and even thus continual is the heart’s longing after God. When it is as natural for us to long for God as for an animal to thirst, it is well with our souls, however painful our feelings. We may learn from this verse that the eagerness of our desires may be pleaded with God, and the more so, because there are special promises for the importunate and fervent.”
So also Matthew Henry:
“42:1-5 The psalmist looked to the Lord as his chief good, and set his heart upon him accordingly; casting anchor thus at first, he rides out the storm. A gracious soul can take little satisfaction in God’s courts, if it do not meet with God himself there. Living souls never can take up their rest any where short of a living God. To appear before the Lord is the desire of the upright, as it is the dread of the hypocrite. Nothing is more grievous to a gracious soul, than what is intended to shake its confidence in the Lord. It was not the remembrance of the pleasures of his court that afflicted David; but the remembrance of the free access he formerly had to God’s house, and his pleasure in attending there. Those that commune much with their own hearts, will often have to chide them. See the cure of sorrow. When the soul rests on itself, it sinks; if it catches hold on the power and promise of God, the head is kept above the billows. And what is our support under present woes but this, that we shall have comfort in Him. We have great cause to mourn for sin; but being cast down springs from unbelief and a rebellious will; we should therefore strive and pray against it.”
Sometimes the Christian can suffer prolonged spiritual depression as a result of God withholding his comfortable presence. At other times, this depression reflects an underlying biochemical imbalance. Dr. David Murray, in his excellent book Christians Get Depressed Too, cautions against being judgmental towards such Christians:
“I was a pastor for twelve years on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. Sadly, that beautiful area has one of the highest rates of depression in the Western world, and I dealt with many Christians who endured years of mental suffering and spiritual darkness. Although initially, in my youthful zeal, I probed for the underlying “sin” or “issues” because I did not want just to “alleviate symptoms,” I came to realize that I was often (though not always) dealing with people whose problem was not “issues of meaning or relationship.” As I got to know them, I came to see that what they were living for and how they were living was not the problem; they were unquestionably living for and like Christ. In fact, they were among the godliest Christians I have ever met. The Lord was everything to them, and they would not let go of Him despite everything screaming from within and without, “There is no God!” Their problem was a sick brain, often suffering from the effects of long winter months with limited daylight hours.”
Indeed, as in the case of Psalm 88, this Psalm gives no indication that sin is at the root of this depression. This is to be contrasted with the penitential Psalms, such as Psalm 51, in which personal sin is at the root of their sin. It is therefore important to not always assume that sin is at the root of a Christian’s depression. So Dr. David Murray, again:
I would encourage pastors dealing with depressed people to fight strongly against adopting these immediate assumptions about the causes of depression: “It’s sin until proven otherwise”; “There are always issues, underlying issues”; “It’s about what she is living for and how she is living”; or “It’s about the two great commandments.” It may well be. But let’s not begin there and potentially damage some of the precious people of God in their moments of greatest weakness.
Indeed, he has gone on record supporting the drug-treatment model:
“There is much scientific evidence to support the drug-treatment model. Studies have demonstrated that the brains of many depressed patients have a different chemistry and circuitry compared to people with good mental and emotional health. To put it simply, the brain needs chemicals to move our thoughts through. When these chemicals are depleted, as they often are in cases of depression, then the whole process slows down, or even stops, in certain areas.”