“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”: a meditation on Psalm 42:5

The following reflection on Psalm 42:5 comes from the handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation

42:5: Notice the psalmist is now talking to his soul, not God. And one thing he is telling it, as in v. 4, is to remember those times in your past in which you experienced the fullness of God’s presence. If God seems absent at this moment, it is only temporary.

I’m unimpressed with well-intentioned social media memes that urge us to “move on” from the past, to get over it (as if our therapy bills don’t prove how difficult that is!), to look to the future alone. “You can’t change the past,” they tell us.

Respectfully, I disagree: While we play a role in shaping the future—by all means—the future is largely outside of our control. (Think of tourists in Paris right now who are changing their itineraries because of yesterday’s out-of-control events! A building that stood for almost a thousand years and survived two world wars, among other things!)

So, no… it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that the past is practically the only thing we can change! Not the events themselves, obviously, but our interpretation of them. We can grab hold of the promises of God’s Word, which assure us that nothing happens to us, his children through faith in his Son, except that which he causes or allows for good reasons, and always in the best interest of our souls (Rom. 8:28; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7)—given the freedom he grants us to disobey him and make mistakes.

We may experience a healthy kind of regret and shame over events in our past, which are fruits of true repentance, but we don’t stop at regret and shame: We go one step further. We tell ourselves (and pray) something like this: “Gracious Lord, if it took that mistake, that failure, that setback, that heartbreak, that disappointment, that suffering, that sin, to bring me to this place of greater love for you, greater trust in you, greater dependence on you, then I thank you for these events in the past![1] They have made me into this person that I am today—and the person I am becoming in the future.

“If anything had happened differently, I would be someone else. But you want me to be the person I am today—not because I’m perfect right now but because I’m one day closer to becoming that person you are making me into! After all, you did not create me once, when I was born, or even twice, when I was born-again through faith in your Son.

“Rather, you are ‘creating’ me through everything that happens to me—good, bad, or indifferent.

“So I will be grateful. Indeed, along with the apostle Paul, I will give thanks, not in spite of everything, but for everything (Eph. 5:20)—because everything that happens to me has been sifted through your redemptive, providential hand.”

“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”

That’s an excellent question!

1. Please note: I’m not for a moment implying that we should “go on sinning so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). Rather, I’m saying that God “factors in” our sinful choices and uses their often harmful consequences for our good. Consider the younger son in the parable of Luke 15: Would he have been better off had he never left home, squandered his father’s wealth, and brought himself to utter ruin? Of course not! He was saved through the experience! Apart from it—had he stayed home—he would have remained as lost as his older brother—even if he were outwardly obedient to his father.

2 thoughts on ““Why are you cast down, O my soul?”: a meditation on Psalm 42:5”

  1. This is very good and thought-provoking. Especially your footnote about the prodigal son. I think I might qualify the point just a bit from my perspective. That is, God is making us to be the (predestined) particular person he had in mind for us to be from time immemorial. But, who that person is nonetheless takes into account the (free choice) sinful bent of our particular hearts. So, in fact, though God is working in and through everything we do and are to accomplish his purposes for us, the outcome might otherwise have been different had we been less “sinful.”

    Consider this analogy. A skillful wood carver carefully uses the wood at hand to make a treasure out of it. But, the extent to which he can do so depends on the extent to which part of that wood may be “rotten” or not. He has to “carve off” the rotten part and then work with what is left.

    So, my particular story (which God wanted to tell through me) is different from Daniel’s not simply because of the different story God had in mind, but also because the (foreseen) sinful bent of my heart was ‘worse” than Daniel’s. I am still glad with the story God is choosing to tell through me nonetheless, and he is being far more merciful in that regard than what I truly “deserve” (as it true for everyone).

    1. I agree! We don’t “help God out” by sinning, but God, foreknowing our sin, will always work the best possible outcome from it, even if that means letting us suffer consequences that he otherwise wouldn’t want us to suffer. And of course I must always qualify this: This providential “working for good” literally only applies to those of us who have become “sons” (and daughters) of God through faith in the Son. I hear progressive preachers fail to qualify Romans 8:28 (and the Bible’s many other promises of providence), and it drives me crazy.

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