Poor Job knew only too well the experience of “wearisome nights”, tossing back and forth on his bed, as tormenting anxieties left him sleepless and depressed. The aim of our current series is to explore the theme of “Psalms for the Night Seasons” and for the most part we will limit our exhortational comment to the Psalms themselves. Building from our introductory article, we now wish to consider a number of selected pairs of complementary psalms that highlight typical issues confronting disciples in the “night seasons”.

Depression as a Night Season

Depression was not a stranger to many of God’s faithful. No doubt it was always an unwanted visitor, drawing the curtains of a spiritual “night” across even the daylight hours. Two Psalms are a complementary help in dealing with this problem, so typically part of a disciple’s challenge in dealing with the night seasons:

Psalm 40:2 “He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.”

Psalm 42:5 “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.”

Struggling at the bottom of a “horrible pit” and viewing oneself as a disquieted soul that is “cast down” are two descriptions of the same state—depression. Psalm 69 speaks in a similar figure: “I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me. I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God” (69:2, 3). Many who have experienced depression will be able to identify with these graphic descriptions of being in a depressed state. An old expression has it that “the only difference between a rut and a pit is the depth!” Usually those who find themselves in a “pit” began the decline from a level that at first was not a serious depression. But, if early signs are not heeded, our small “ruts” will slide us into the depths, and a sense of helplessness will set in. We need to ask the critical question early: “Why am I downcast?”

Let’s consider Psalm 40 and 42 in light of the spiritual perspectives that help the Psalmist in the recovery process:

Psalm 40

  • v1 “I waited patiently”
  • v4 “Blessed is the man that maketh the Lord his trust”
  • v5 “Many, O Lord my God, are thy wonderful works which thou has done…”

Psalm 42

  • v5 “Why art thou cast down, o my soul? hope thou in God…”
  • v6 “…therefore I will remember thee from the Land of Jordan”
  • v8 “…in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life”
  • v11 “I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance.”

Self-Examination

In Diseases of the Soul (p5,6), brother Gillett tackles the “Depression” issue and offers a helpful approach from one of the Psalms we have just highlighted above: “Self-interrogation is the first step to recovery. ‘Why are thou cast down, O my soul, and why are thou disquieted within me?’ (Psa 42:5). Probe the fears and challenge the phantoms that haunt the spirit. At short range, spectres are seen through. Fear enslaves—courage liberates. Venture with courage upon the naked word of God.” Putting direct questions to oneself means that we recognize we have a problem and we are taking courage to face it with the Father’s help. True, we can’t always understand our own problems, but we need to probe what we fear and with God’s help, begin a process of recovery.”

From Psalm 40 we have highlighted three points that provide some spiritual ingredients for a recipe intended to help the depressed find some nurture in the night seasons. The Psalmist confronted his trial with “patience” (Psa 40:1)—easier said than done, but this is a critical strategy in order to get a Godly grip on depressed feelings that can easily become misery in a miry pit. James ends his epistle on an exhortation to develop Godly patience: “we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (James 5:11).

Consider the Sufferings of Others

What is clearly needed is to develop the conviction that patient endurance has its reward—true to the Father’s promise. Seeing beyond the present to the “end” of the night and trusting that true happiness will reward those who faithfully endure is a key lesson that we need to learn from Job. His experience is meant to be an anchor for other souls that might be tossed and “cast down” on a bed that becomes like a troubled sea in the night seasons: “When I lie down, I say, When shall I arise, and the night be gone? and I am full of tossings to and fro unto the dawning of the day” (Job 7:4; cp Job 30:17). God’s blessings in Job’s latter end (Job 42:12–17) are therefore examples of what the Psalmist refers to in Psalm 40:5 as His “wonderful works”. Reflecting on how God has responded to others in their sufferings can help us obtain a godly outlook and steer us from the spiritual ‘doldrums’ that cause us to feel isolated and dispirited.

Psalm 42:5, 6 reminds us that we need to “remember” (because we are so prone to forget) and “hope” in God. The focus is away from myself and my sorrows and directed Godward. His “song” directs us to listen to His words while reference to “my prayer” exhorts us to also speak to the One who always has an open ear. This is true fellowship with the Father—cemented by being both receptive to Yahweh’s instruction but also actively communicating with Him and trusting that He does hear and care. Psalm 40:1 also encourages us to learn from God’s response to another sufferer in the past: “He [God] inclined unto me, and heard my cry”. Verse 11 then advances the exhortation to “praise” Him, who is our source of health. The paralysis and pain that accompanied the Psalmist’s depression needed a Divine remedy inviting human activity—“be up and doing”. Most importantly, both the prescription and medication came from the Divine physician, who the Psalmist declares, “is the health of my countenance” (v11).

Depths and Heights

Have we ever experienced the kind of exasperating ups and downs that mark the Psalmist’s confessions in Psalm 42? At some point, we may feel that, despite passing through a period of depression and turbulence, we have finally obtained a grip and steadied the course. But the experience of peace and calm is only fleeting! Shortly after the calm, we again find ourselves being pitched on an agitated sea. This kind of continual slipping back into feelings of depression is of itself a cause of despair. And yet, a careful look at Psalm 42 reveals this very kind of tossing to and fro to also be the experience of the Psalmist. Verses 1–5 show the author apparently finding some success in working through his depression. At the start of verse 6 he is again ‘down in the dumps’ (“O my God, my soul is cast down within me”), but as the verse finishes the Psalmist extols God from the heights of the Promised Land (Hermon and the hill of Mizar). In verse 7, he is again sinking below the waves (“all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me”). In verse 8 he regains the Divine perspective and climbs up onto the rescuing “Rock” (v9)—-but, he is still confessing that he has yet another tormenting question: “Why hast thou forgotten me?”. Notice that three times in this short little Psalm, our fellow disciple asks “Why? Why? Why?” (verse 5, 9,11).

One commentator aptly focuses on this troubled rhythm flowing through Psalm 42 and effectively relates it to its geographic references used to illustrate the ‘ups and downs’ of the Psalmist’s trial:

“… in spite of the psalmist’s reflections and expression of the triumph of hope, the experience of alienation is still there. He is still ‘downcast’ (v 6). Therefore he returns in his memories to the Promised Land, symbolized here by ‘the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon’ (v 6). The upper Jordan Valley, the Hermon Range with its peaks reaching nine thousand feet above sea level, and the unknown Mount Mizar point our attention to the region of the sources of the Jordan River. The psalmist returns to the water imagery with which the psalm began [v1]. But this time the memories of water are overshadowed by a deep sense of despair. The waterfalls with its rocks, breakers, and waves, and its awesome noise of the rushing and falling waters metaphorically portray his condition. Instead of enjoying the ‘living water’ of the ‘living God’… He has no control over his present circumstances and undergoes the present troubles, not knowing where he will end up.”[1]

Enduring to the End

The final verse of Psalm 42 does end on the firm conviction that spiritual “health” finds its source in God alone (v11). This expression of confidence, however, comes at the end of a journey that began with the Psalmist confessing that “tears” were his daily meat (v3). The Psalmist has moved from a diet of daily sorrow and distress to finally being able to taste a meal of fellowship and peace with “the God of patience and consolation” (Rom 15:5). Progress and final victory over the weaknesses that we wrestle with in our “night seasons” takes time and patient endurance. The Father is with us all the way—we need to trust this and use the spiritual resources that He has provided to bring guiding Light into our darkest hours.

Reference

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan Publ