Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42.7-8)
Thirsty and Drowning
Psalm 42 is an arresting study in contradictions. The poet begins by declaring his dire thirst: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” (v1) But God feels too far removed to relieve his parched condition. The psalmist tries to make do with what he can muster out of himself: “My tears have been my food day and night,” he reveals in verse 3, “while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” As we read on, we learn he’s terribly depressed and lonely. Somehow he’s lost his way and doesn’t know how to get back to the refreshing waters of God’s presence. All he thinks of are the good old days when he was a leader of worship. For unknown reasons, he’s now isolated, and though he realizes what needs to be done, he has no strength to do it. He gives himself a pep talk: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (v5-6)
Our hearts ache for this man, because we know exactly what he’s going through. We all reach dry places in life where nothing seems to work and reasons why our joy and confidence escape us can’t be found. Which is why verse 7 takes us by surprise: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” All this time we’ve pictured the psalmist as a man trapped in a desert, only to learn he’s engulfed in water—thirsty and drowning at the same time. He’s flailing against chaotic currents, fighting to keep above foamy caps. His shouts are no match for the falls’ thunder; the depth of their roars dwarfs his little voice. Now we see why he’s thirsty, weak, and confused. Breathing takes precedent over thirst. Staying alive is more important than conserving strength. Needing God’s power to survive while being terrified of it is a conundrum. If we’ve not yet experienced contradictions like this, we may strain to empathize with his crisis. But sooner or later we will, because every believer eventually spends time under the falls.
Until we’ve survived an episode under the falls, we don’t really know how lonely and disorienting it can be. Unlike getting lost in the desert—which typically starts by aimlessly drifting away and then gradually losing direction—being plunged under the falls occurs rapidly. And ironically, it most often happens when we’ve reached a new peak in our faith experience. Oh, how we’ve longed to scale this height! How hard we’ve climbed to get here! Once we rise over the crest, however, we may be stunned to discover the view and atmosphere aren’t all what we anticipated. Problems and people that loomed so large below appear inconsequentially small. Rough passages that drained our energy look pedestrian. Graceful rivers of peace and presence flowing nearby spill over the precipice and converge into a pounding torrent of immeasurable power. Just how high are we? Curiosity lures us to the edge. Vertigo seizes us, our foot slips, and down we go. The plunge takes no time. It’s too quick to realize how badly it bruises us. The real trauma takes place under the falls, where we have time to reflect on the severity of our descent, injuries, and crisis.
“I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng,” the poet remembers in verse 5. Here is a man whom people admire and follow. His love for God and godly things lifts him above the crowd. It propels his ascent to new heights. It also garners an assemblage of enemies eager to watch him fall. Verse 10 reads, “My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” And that’s one of the harsher realities that surface under the falls. When we tumble over the edge, believing friends who travel beside and behind us remain on the mountain. Doubters and detractors are all we find at the foot of the falls. They have no concern for us. Cries for help merely fuel hopes for our destruction. Loneliness and panic overtake us as we search for something stable to cling to. “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?’” the poet writes. (v9)
The overly familiar mighty-are-fallen proverb may lead some to assume pride causes the psalmist’s crisis. Yet there’s not a trace of arrogance in his poem. Despite his descent and confusion, he refuses to lose faith in his Maker, saying, “By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.” (v8) I find this very telling, since he writes from a place swirling with danger, where his songs and prayers can’t be heard. No, he’s not proud. He’s dazed. Psalm 42 gives us a man trying to regain presence of mind. It closes with a reprise of verse 5’s inner dialogue: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (v11)
The ending is a cliffhanger, most unusual for a psalm. Testimonials of this sort tend to stick with the “I-cried-to-God-and-He-saved-me” formula. Although this psalmist doesn’t say God rescues him, the sly insertion of “yet praise” gives every indication his story ends happily. “Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise,” Jeremiah 17.14 says. When we find ourselves under the falls, the first thing to remember is praise precedes healing and salvation. We’ve lost our balance and tumbled over the edge, yet we praise. We’re bruised and buffeted, thirsty and drowning, yet we praise. We’re lonely, confused, and ridiculed, yet we praise. Praise needs no reason, which is why—even under the falls—we have every reason to praise. When praise goes first, salvation and healing are sure to follow.
When we’re plunged under the falls, our crisis ends when praise begins.
Postscript: Praise the Lord
I love this song—have loved it for more than two decades. So, with apologies in advance for the grainy video and fervent delivery, I offer it to you. Hide its message deep inside as a reminder of what to do when you’re under the falls. “Praise the Lord,” sung by Russ Taff.