Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: Psalm 42

Today I would like to offer the first of two posts dealing with passages in which the Bible speaks directly to the issue of depression in the life of a believer. There are a number of places in the Psalms in particular that deal directly with depression in one form or another, but I will focus my attention on just two of them. In this post I will discuss Psalm 42, and in the next post I will highlight a portion of Psalm 119.

Let's turn our attention now to Psalm 42, in which the Sons of Korah vividly describe a believer's battle with deep depression.
NKJ  Psalm 42:1-3 “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, 'Where is your God?'”
Here the Psalmist describes what would seem to be a continual discouragement or depression, for he speaks of crying day and night. But, as if that wasn't bad enough, while he struggles with depression there are people continually speaking discouraging words to him. They have seen how blue he is, and it has apparently led them to question where God is in his life. The situation seems to be one in which they are essentially saying, “If your God is so great, then why are you so sad?” After all, the Psalmist does thirst for God and seek Him, but he still finds no comfort. And as others see this struggle, they keep on tempting him to question God's love and care for him, for what else could they mean in such a situation when they say, “Where is your God?” Yet, despite these trying circumstances, he doesn't stop thirsting for God.
NKJ  Psalm 42:4 “When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.”
Here the Psalmist recalls his previous experience of joy in the Lord, when he used to join everyone else in the house of God “with the voice of joy and praise” as opposed to crying out in sorrow and discouragement through constant tears. He had even led the people in worship, which makes sense, because the psalm is attributed to the Sons of Korah, who were among those to whom King David had given this task (1 Chron. 6:31-38). But the important thing for us to notice here is that this individual is described as not taking part in corporate worship, although the authors don't say precisely why. Perhaps he was unable to be there due to circumstances beyond his control, although he still longed to go. Or perhaps he was like so many believers today who avoid being with God's people when they are depressed. Either way it is not a good thing, especially since, being apart from fellow believers, the Psalmist is only hearing discouraging words (“Where is your God?” vs. 3) rather than finding comfort and encouragement with God's people. No wonder the author of Hebrews later warned Christians not to avoid gathering together even when they are going through trying times (Heb. 10:32-34; 12:4). Indeed, he thinks that regular gathering for worship and mutual encouragement is even more necessary in such times:
NKJ  Hebrews 10:23-25 “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
At any rate, the Psalmist remembers a time when he felt close to God, and he longs for such a time again, as the next verse indicates:
NKJ  Psalm 42:5 “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh, literally face, commonly occurring in the plural, i.e. פָּנִים, pāniym].” [Note: He repeats this self-talk in vs. 11, except for a significant change, which we will see examine below.]
Notice that, since the Psalmist is not with God's people in order to hear them speak words of encouragement, he preaches to himself! Martyn Lloyd-Jones helpfully expounds upon this same point in his classic book, Spiritual Depression, which is based primarily on this psalm:
Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says,: “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.” (pp. 20-21)
Charles Spurgeon is also very good in applying this text in his classic commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David, which I recommend as great devotional reading. Listen to what he says:
As though he were two men, the Psalmist talks to himself. His faith reasons with his fears, his hope argues with his sorrows. These present troubles, are they to last for ever? The rejoicings of my foes, are they more than empty talk? My absence, from the solemn feasts, is that a perpetual exile? Why this deep depression, this faithless fainting, this chicken-hearted melancholy? As Trapp says, “David chideth David out of the dumps;” and herein he is an example for all desponding ones. To search out the cause of our sorrow is often the best surgery for grief. Self-ignorance is not bliss; in this case it is misery. The mist of ignorance magnifies the causes of our alarm; a clearer view will make monsters dwindle into trifles. (e-Sword)
I would only point out that, while it is true that the Psalmist questions himself as to why he is so downcast, the emphasis is not placed on the reasons or circumstances that have led to his depression so much as it is placed upon not allowing any circumstance or cause for discouragement to overwhelm him when he does, in fact, know God. In other words, the Psalmist seeks to lift himself out of the pit of depression by reminding himself that there really is reason to hope in God, despite what his feelings are telling him.

Notice also that this depressed individual resolves to once again praise the Lord, and he even begins to pray to God and to praise Him in the very next verse (and, of course, the whole Psalm is itself intended for public worship and praise as well). But here it is significant that he says that he will praise God for “the help of His countenance.” This language recalls the blessing the priests were to pronounce over the people as a promise from God:
NKJ  Numbers 6:23-27 “23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying,'This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: 24 “The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 the LORD make His face [פָּנֶה, pāneh] shine upon you, and be gracious to you; 26 the LORD lift up His countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh, literally face] upon you, and give you peace.”' 27 So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
It is noteworthy that the Sons of Korah place this same vocabulary in the mouth of the depressed person in this psalm. I think they intend to picture him as laying hold of these promises of God and preaching them to his own soul. And, even though he does not sense God's presence at the present time – indeed he feels far from God – he nevertheless places his hope in the fact that God will again “lift up His countenance” upon him. He thus places his trust in God and His Word rather than in his own circumstances or feelings, doesn't he? And here we find a key weapon in battling depression, the Word of God! Indeed, this is the very reason why we are spending so much time searching the Word of God in this series of posts!
NKJ  Psalm 42:6 “O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan, and from the heights of Hermon, from the Hill Mizar.”
This verse appears to place this struggling saint in the far northern reaches of Israel, north of the Sea of Galilee, where Mount Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan are located. This may also be why he spoke in verse 4 of remembering having previously gone “to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast,” because now he is said to be far from there. He could still experience fellowship and corporate worship with God's people, but it just isn't the same as when he was able to go to the sanctuary of the Lord in Jerusalem.

But notice also that is he talking to God again, telling Him about how his soul is “cast down” within him. No matter how far away he feels he is from God – or from feeling good – he still clings to his relationship with God. And he persists in prayer, another indispensable weapon for battling depression.
NKJ  Psalm 42:7 “ Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and billows have gone over me.”
I think Thomas Constable has captured well the basic meaning of the metaphorical language in this verse:
The writer viewed his troubles like waves cascading down on him, as if he were standing under a waterfall. He compared the noise of the waves to his troubles that he personified calling to one another to come overwhelm him. (Online Bible Study Notes on the Psalms)
The metaphor that pictures troubles as an overwhelming flood or like the sea raging around a person is common in the Bible (see, e.g., Psa. 32:6; 46:2-3; 69:1-2) and is an apt description of the way depression seems to overwhelm us.
NKJ  Psalm 42:8-9 “The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me – a prayer to the God of my life. 9 I will say to God my Rock, 'Why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?'”
Once again the Psalmist reminds himself that, despite his feelings, God really does love him, and he determines to persist in praise and prayer, singing to God and calling on Him. And he will continue to seek an answer from God.
NKJ  Psalm 42:10 “As with a breaking of my bones, my enemies reproach me, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'”
Following the mention of the oppression from his enemies in verse 9, this poor saint speaks of the effect of their insults as being so painful they are like someone breaking his bones. He especially doesn't like it when they mockingly ask him, “Where is your God?” In fact, this is the second time he has brought it up, having already said in verse 3, “My tears have been my food day and night, while they continually say to me, 'Where is your God?'” So we get the impression that, on top of everything else, this person apparently feels as though he is being a very bad witness for the Lord. Many a modern believer who struggles with depression may feel the same way, as though he is being a bad witness for Christ because he struggles to hang on to the joy Christ has promised for His followers. It is understandable that a believer would feel this way, but it isn't necessarily true that he is being a bad witness at such times, at least not if he continues to trust in the Lord even through such a terrible trial. Indeed, isn't the believer pictured in this very psalm an example of how one may be a good witness for God even in the midst of depression?
NKJ  Psalm 42:11 “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; For I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”
Notice the difference between the Psalmist's self-address earlier in verse 5 and here in verse 11:
In verse 5 he said, “I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh].”

In verse 11 he says, “I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance [פָּנֶה, pāneh] and my God.”
Because he knows God will again lift up His countenance upon him, the Psalmist also knows that his own countenance will be better as well. When God's face again shines upon him, his own face will again shine toward others. Notice that the Psalmist also ends by referring to the Lord as “my God.” He will not turn away from God in his difficulties; he will continue to turn toward Him.

In seeking to further apply this psalm, it is worth observing that the Sons of Korah ask the all important “why” question about depression, and that this question leads them back to God. In fact, they have the main character of the psalm asking “why” at least six times (vs. 5 [2x], 9 [2x], 11 [2x]). And they have him asking himself the crucial question “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” at least twice ( vs. 5 and 11, if you don't take Psalm 43 as belonging with this one and add 43:5).

Ed Welch has written an insightful article entitled Words of Hope for Those Who Struggle With Depression, in which he speaks of the potential importance of asking this question. He warrants significant quotation:
As you think about the meaning of your feelings, you will notice that, rather than leading you to more and more despair, the path leads you to the triune God. More specifically, it will lead you to the question, Will you live for God or will you live for yourself and the things you worship? Sometimes it takes awhile to get to this most critical of questions, but it is always there. Usually, all you have to do is ask yourself the “why” questions of a three-year-old.

“I can’t go on.”
“Why?”
“Because I am so tired and I can’t take the pain any more.”
“Why?”
“Because I feel like I am alone.”
“Why?”
“Because … I don’t believe that God is with me.”
“Why?”
“Because … I don’t trust him. I trust in my interpretation that comes from my feelings.”

“Why” questions should lead you to God. You will get tired of the questions by the time you get to the second one, but keep them coming. At the end of your questions say to Him, “Jesus is my Lord, I confess my unbelief, and I trust You.”

Trust, confession of sin, and following Christ in obedience — sound familiar? These are the staples of the spiritual life. When you get under the surface, these are the things that are important for everyone. You will find that they work.

If these seem superficial, then you are numb to the secrets of the universe and you need to go back to listening. Don’t trust what your emotions are saying on this one. These may be simple, but they are not simplistic. They are the foundations for life itself. They are the primary ways we respond to God. (Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 2000, p. 44)
Yes, the ultimate answer for dealing with depression is to trust the Lord. It really is that simple … and that hard! That is why we cannot do it without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Thank God, then, that His Spirit really is present in each and every believer to give us the faith we need to face any and every trial, even the terrible trial of depression.

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