Downcast but Hoping in God; A Royal Wedding (Psalms 42-45) July 11-15
Like Book I, Book II of Psalms is primarily a collection of Davidic prayers (compare 72:20). However, the book begins with psalms possibly composed by others—Psalms 42-49 by the sons of Korah (i.e., descendants of the Levite leader Korah who rebelled against Moses in Numbers 16) and Psalm 50 by Asaph (one of the musical leaders David appointed). However, it could be that the Hebrew le- before these names means "for" and not "of"—so that perhaps David wrote them for these others to perform (or perhaps David composed the music and these others wrote the lyrics or vice versa).
"'Sons of Korah' refers to the Levitical choir made up of the descendants of Korah appointed by David to serve in the temple liturgy [i.e., rites of public worship]. The Korahites represented the Levitical family of Kohath son of Levi. Their leader in the days of David was Heman...just as Asaph led the choir of the Gershonites and Jeduthun (Ethan) the choir of the Merarites (see 1Ch 6:31-47...). This is the first of a collection of seven psalms ascribed to the 'Sons of Korah' (Ps 42-49); four more occur in Book III (Ps 84-85; 87-88)" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on Psalm 42 title).
It is interesting to observe that "Book II of the Psalter begins with three prayers [Psalms 42-44]...and an attached royal psalm  in perfect balance with the ending of Book II [Psalms 69-71 and 72]" (note on Psalms 42-45). In composition, however, it should be observed, as is widely acknowledged, that Psalms 42 and 43 seem to have originally constituted a single psalm. Note the same basic lengthy refrain throughout (see 42:5, 11; 43:5) at the end of three stanzas of comparable length (five, six and five verses), the repetition of "Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?" (42:9; 43:2), the running theme of longing to appear before God at His tabernacle (42:2, 4; 43:3-4) and, given all this, the absence of a superscription at the beginning of 43. The full psalm was likely divided to fit a particular worship schedule at the tabernacle or temple—and perhaps to achieve the parallel book arrangement mentioned above.
The superscriptions of Psalm 42 (with 43), 44 and 45 all contain the obscure Hebrew designation maskil. As noted on Psalm 32, this term may be derived from a word meaning "wisdom" or "instruction," yet in all psalm title occurrences the NKJV translates this word as "Contemplation." Psalm 42 (with 43) is written from the perspective of a single composer—though "sons of Korah" may denote a group effort in either writing or performing (though it could just mean the psalm came from among them as one out of a collection of their psalms, with different psalms in the collection having been composed by different individuals). For the purposes of commentary, we will assume a single author for each psalm.
The psalmist here, then, who is also a harpist (43:4), is unhappy and troubled. With constant tears (42:3), he expresses an intense yearning for God: "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God" (verse 2). Just as a deer in times of drought searches desperately for water, the psalmist longs to be in the presence of God (verse 1).
It appears that he is prevented from going to God's tabernacle for festival worship as he used to (42:2, 4; 43:3-4). This may be because of enemy oppression, perhaps even capture in war (42:9; 43:2), which would parallel the experience of those in the related psalm that follows, Psalm 44. It could be in 42-43, however, that enemies are not the reason the psalmist can't go to the tabernacle—that they are merely taunting him for whatever it is that is preventing him, such as sickness or disability. He could even have been on the run from someone who wanted to kill him over something he didn't do (compare 43:1). Perhaps he was a fugitive at one of the far northern cities of refuge.
Verses 6-7 of Psalm 42 may indicate that the psalmist is located in northern Israel near the cascading waters of the upper Jordan, where they rush down from Mount Hermon. "Some have suggested that 'Mount Mizar' [otherwise unknown] is an additional reference to 'the heights of Hermon,' calling that high peak the 'little mountain' (literal translation) in comparison with Mount Zion [the spiritual height where the psalmist wishes to be]" (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, note on verse 6). Others, however, believe that "the land of the Jordan" in context here means the whole land of Israel and that the psalmist is writing "from" or "far away from" it.
It seems likely that the "ungodly nation" in 43:1 refers to a people hostile to Israel among whom the psalmist is exiled—perhaps the Syrians to the north before David subdued them. (The later Assyrian and Babylonian captivities would seem to be too late for placement in Book II though that is not impossible—especially as there could have been later rearrangement. In any case, this was probably a popular song during the Babylonian Exile.) Again, foreign captivity would parallel the situation of Psalm 44. On the other hand, "ungodly nation" could at times refer to Israel itself (compare Isaiah 10:6; Amos 9:8), which, if so, in this case would mean the psalmist's own people were persecuting him, as so often happened to God's faithful servants.
Whoever the psalmists enemies are, they taunt him incessantly about his faith, asking, "Where is your God?" (Psalm 42:3, 10). He feels depressed, saying to himself, "My soul is downcast within me" (verse 6), over God's apparent silence and delay in helping him—praying to God, "Why do you cast me off?" (43:2) and "Why have you forgotten me?" (verse 9).
"The psalms have always proved to be a great source of solace and encouragement to God's people throughout the centuries [as] we are able to watch noble souls struggling with themselves. They talk to themselves and to their souls, baring their hearts, analyzing their problems, chiding and encouraging themselves. Sometimes they are elated, at other times depressed, but they are always honest with themselves" (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, 1965, p. 9).
In verse 7, deep calling to deep at the noise of God's waterfalls could refer to the cascading Jordan. Yet it might refer to a thunderstorm of rain pouring down from the deep of the heavens above to flow to the deep of the oceans below, the latter hinted at in the waves at the end of the verse. The imagery of a torrent of water from above, with God's waves crashing over the psalmist, is meant figuratively to signify being overwhelmed by circumstances God has brought or allowed.
Yet the psalmist continues to talk himself through each wave of discouragement: "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" (verse 8).
Rather than giving in to his fears, the psalmist asks himself in the psalm's refrain why he is so downcast when God is his God, strength and help (compare verses 5, 11; 43:5). He stirs himself to continue to trust in and wait on God: "Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance" (42:5)—that is, he knows God will smile on him and encourage him. In the final clause in the other two occurrences of the refrain, the psalmist refers to God as "the help of my countenance and my God" (verse 11; 43:5). A worried, depressed person has a hard time hiding his feelings. When he is unduly introverted, negative emotions show on his face. When he turns away from himself and focuses on God, his face begins to look better. He loses "that drawn, haggard, vexed, troubled, perplexed, introspective appearance, and [he begins] to look composed and calm, balanced and bright" (Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, p. 13).
In the final stanza, Psalm 43, the psalmist addresses God as both Attorney and Judge. To God as Attorney, he says, "Plead my cause against an ungodly nation" (verse 1). To the Judge he says, "Vindicate me, O God" (same verse)—which could here mean either to declare him innocent of false accusations or to prove him right for trusting in God to save him. He prays that God will intervene to enable him to return to Jerusalem and is confident that God will—considering God to be his "exceeding joy" (verses 3-4).
This song can be of great encouragement when difficult circumstances prevent us from attending worship services in fellowship with other believers. We can of course still come before God in the spirit. We should also remember that even if circumstances such as health were to bar us from Sabbath and festival services for the rest of our physical lives, all who remain faithful to God will one day join together in worshiping Him at Jerusalem for all eternity.
Psalm 44, another maskil of the sons of Korah, is written as a community lament and plea. The perspective throughout is normally first-person plural (i.e., we, our, us), yet verses 4, 6 and 15 use first-person singular (I, my and me). It could be that the singular usage is intended to denote the nation collectively—or just to have each person singing the prayerful song identify with it personally. It is also conceivable that these verses were intended to be solo parts. Or they may simply indicate a single author praying collectively throughout the psalm using "we" but sometimes speaking personally using "I"—just as each of us does in our own prayers today. For instance, you as an individual might pray collectively, "Our Father...give us...our daily bread," and yet also ask personally in the same prayer, "Help me to do your will."
The occasion of this psalm is a time of military defeat wherein people have been captured by the enemy (see verses 9-12). It may be one of those taken captive who wrote the song in Psalms 42-43.
Psalm 44 begins with the people rehearsing a portion of Israel's history that their parents taught them (verse 1)—that their ancestors didn't gain the Promised Land because of their own military strength and actions, but because God drove out the nations who lived there and planted the Israelite ancestors there instead (verses 2-3). The psalm further eschews trust in military might and expresses faith that God, as Israel's King and commander, is the One through whom the nation will gain victory against its enemies now and in the future—just as in the past (verses 4-8).
Yet for the moment things look terribly bleak—in the face of military defeat, scattering, shame and enemy taunts (verses 9-16, 19). The song bemoans God having sold His people away for almost nothing (verse 12). Despite this, the people have remained faithful to God and His covenant, mindful that He would know of any idolatry on their part (verses 17-18, 20-21).
Indeed, the song maintains that it is because of the people's refusal to compromise with God's way that they are suffering and in danger among their enemies (verse 22). The statement here about being sheep for the slaughter applied in the greatest sense to the Messiah, who would come as the Lamb of God to be sacrificed, as the prophet Isaiah foretold in similar wording (see Isaiah 53:7). Yet this metaphoric description would also characterize all Christ's followers, His flock, who would be persecuted for their faith. And in fact the apostle Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 in this very regard (see Romans 8:36)—speaking of the fact that we endure this for the sake of the wonderful outcome God has in mind for us.
The people beseech God to awake out of sleep and rise up to help them (verses 23, 26). Since they know He does not actually sleep (see Psalm 121:4), their words here have a sense of pleading with God to focus His awareness on their need and to rouse Himself into action. And where the song spoke before of God having sold His people away (44:12), it ends with a plea for Him to redeem them (verse 26)—to buy them back.
Psalm 45, another maskil of the Korahites, is, according to its superscription, a love song set to the tune of another song. The perspective is first-person singular (see "My" and "I" in verse 1), with the psalmist unusually declaring his excitement over the writing of the psalm. This is evidently a royal wedding song—celebrating a marriage of David or one of his later successors but with a very clear focus on God's marriage to His chosen nation (ultimately the Messiah and His Bride, the Church). The song may have become customary for royal weddings.
In verses 2-9 the psalmist addresses the king. Verses 2-5 portray him as a mighty warrior and majestic, just and godly ruler. As Israel's king ruling at God's appointment, David enjoyed glory, majesty, prosperity, blessings and military victories. Yet David was only a stand-in for Israel's true King, God Himself. And this God who interacted with Israel as its divine King was the One who would later be born into the world as Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:4 and our free booklet Who Is God?). The glories laid out in Psalm 45 were fulfilled in Him when the psalmist wrote: "God has blessed You forever" (verse 2); "O Mighty One" (verse 3); "You are fairer than the sons of men" (verse 2). And they will find complete expression when Jesus takes over David's throne at His return and reigns over all mankind.
In verse 6 we find the direct statement, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever." Since it is clear in context that this is the same person being addressed throughout verses 2-9—the King—some have thought that the psalmist is referring to the human king as God. Others, seeing this as rather problematic, which it certainly is, do not accept the verse as written and assume some missing words must be read into it. The confusion here is cleared up if we realize that the psalmist is throughout these verses primarily addressing the true King, God, in His marriage to Israel—and the physical ruler in only a secondary, representative sense.
Yet many do not like what the next verse then implies. To "God" the King (verse 6), the psalmist says, "Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You..." (verse 7). Thus there are two Persons referred to here as God. In fact, it could even read, "Therefore, God, Your God has anointed you...," making the point even clearer. The New Testament quotes verses 6-7 to prove the divinity of Christ (see Hebrews 1:8-9). That is, God the Father anointed God the Son (Jesus Christ).
Indeed, the title Christ means "Anointed"—equivalent to the Hebrew derivative Messiah. Anointing with oil represented special consecration for service to God—this being symbolic of the application of God's Spirit. David and his successors were all anointed—yet his ultimate successor bore the title of Anointed (Messiah or Christ) in a special way.
Verses 7-8 of Psalm 45 speak of the anointing with fragrant oils making the king glad. That is, he enjoyed the feeling and the smells. Yet this would seem to be symbolic of the Messiah receiving joy through the consecration and application of God's Holy Spirit through various experiences. This also tells us something about the Messiah's personality. Because He was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3), some have the impression that Jesus went through His human life always mournful, dour and gravely serious. Yet here we learn that Jesus was "anointed with the oil of gladness more than [His] companions"—the truth expressed here being that Jesus was actually happier and more joyful than other people. And, of course, why would He not be? For He lived God's law perfectly—the way of true happiness in life—and He understood God's plan and purpose in detail in full faith without worry or fear. The sorrows He experienced from and for others were within this overall context.
In verse 9, "kings' daughters" evidently refers to the queen's attendants (see verse 14) and may signify a representation of other nations at the wedding (just as "daughter of Tyre" in verse 12 does not refer to an actual daughter but a national power). Perhaps verse 9 means that of all the women before Him on earth, the King has chosen the queen, who is dressed in "gold from Ophir" (meaning from Africa, India or the Americas—denoting the finest quality). On a higher level, this would mean that of all the nations on earth, God has chosen Israel. Yet the psalm does not seem to be merely reflecting on the past relationship of God (the preincarnate Christ) and the physical nation of Israel. Rather, the focus appears to be forward-looking to the future marriage of Christ to spiritual Israel, the Church, chosen from among all nations and adorned in the true riches of godly character.
In verses 10-12 the psalmist addresses the bride. He tells her to shift her allegiance from her father's house and people to the king—her Lord. She is even to worship Him, again showing that the King here is divine, as only God is worthy of worship (compare Revelation 19:10; 22:8-9). Those of God's Church are to put our relationship with Jesus Christ above our loyalty to human parents—and we are to forsake entirely all ties with our former spiritual "father," Satan the Devil (compare John 8:44).
The "daughter of Tyre" (Psalm 45:12), besides meaning the city of Tyre at the time of David and his successors, is likely the end-time power bloc of Ezekiel 27, also referred to in Revelation 18 as Babylon. Those who escape its destruction at the end will present a gift or offering in honor of the messianic King and His glorified Bride.
Verses 13-17 of Psalm 45 again address the King. Verses 13-14 speak of the preparation of the queen's bridal attire. Related imagery is found in Revelation 19:7-8: "'For the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.' And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints."
The final two verses (Psalm 45:16-17) speak of children as a product of the king and queen's marriage who will continue as royal leaders in Israel. In the greater picture, the marriage of the Lamb brings sons and daughters into the family of God, resulting in praise of God forever and ever.