In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to explore the galaxy. A golden record called The Sounds of Earth was attached to each of the twin spacecrafts – a message from earth to anyone out there in the universe who might be listening. It contained both music and the sound of a human heartbeat. Over thirty years later, Annie Druyan, who served as the creative director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project, reflected on what she chose to include in The Sounds of Earth: “The first thing I found myself thinking of was a piece by Beethoven from Opus 130, something called the Cavatina Movement … When I [first] heard this piece of music … I thought … Beethoven, how can I ever repay you? What can I ever do for you that would be commensurate with what you’ve just given me? And so, as soon as [my colleague] said, “[This message is] going to last a thousand million years,” I thought of … this great, beautiful, sad piece of music, on which Beethoven had written in the margin … the word sehnsucht, which is German for “longing.” Part of what we wanted to capture in the Voyager message was this great longing we feel.” So in the end, NASA chose a great song of human longing and launched it into space. It’s as if NASA’s scientists were saying to the rest of the universe: “This is who and what we are as human beings: creatures of longing.” And hidden in that basic “introduction to who we are” there are implicit questions for possible extraterrestrials: Do you feel this too? Are we the only ones? Are we crazy?
Longing, and therefore seeking, is as much a part of the human experience as breathing. We long for and seek acceptance, belonging, and love – is there someone out there who will love me for me? Is there someone out there who will allow me to pour my love into them? We long for and seek security and a legacy – am I safe? Are my loved ones safe? What can I do to make them, and me, safer? How do I want to be remembered when I’m gone? Will I even be remembered by anyone? We long for and seek significance – why am I here? What is the purpose of MY life? How can I really make a difference in my community? We all long for something. We are all seeking something. And we find things. We find people. We find success. We accomplish things. We get stuff done. We get things. I was thinking about this the other day. I have enough Ohio State clothes and hats to never have to wear anything else. I have shirts and sweatshirts and jackets and coats and hats coming out the wazoo. Now let’s be fair. Hats are an everyday wearable necessity for us bald guys. And I have pens and paper and lamps and bobble heads. But every time I go down there, I see another shirt or another hat and think, “Man I’d like to have that one.” Becky says “you already have an Ohio State polo shirt.” Yeah, but it’s last year’s shirt. Have you seen this year’s? We can actually do all Ohio State loads of laundry. And yet … we keep seeking, because we keep longing. The words of that song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” ring true. It’s the cry of the human heart. I’ve found a lot of things, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
The psalmist in Psalm 42 knows the feeling very well. So turn in your Bibles or your Bible app to Psalm 42. Now, before I read this, there is something we need to understand. Psalm 42 and 43 are actually one Psalm, and we’re going to be looking at the two of them together that way as Psalm 42 today. I have twelve commentaries on the Psalms, and every one of them treat this as a single Psalm. And when we read it, you’ll see why. For starters, Psalm 43 doesn’t have an introductory line like most of the Psalms do. And it actually continues the thought process of Psalm 42. But the big reason is that it actually repeats the refrain, the chorus, from Psalm 42 word for word. It appears twice in Psalm 42 and once in Psalm 43. In fact, with the refrain the 16 verses of Psalm 42 and 43 are actually divided into three relatively equal sections, and the thoughts build on one another. The were separated at some point along the way, and we really don’t know why, but in terms of content, they’re one Psalm. READ TEXT.
The psalmist knows longing, he knows the search, but he also knows what, or rather who, will ultimately fill the void in his heart, and that is the presence of God in his life. One of the early church leaders, St. Augustine, said “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” He knew what he was talking about. Before following Jesus, he had gone on a desperate search for meaning and fulfillment, trying to find something, anything, to fill the void he sensed in his life. Food, drink, and women, what one writer has called his lust for “excessive pleasures.” False religions. Philosophy. Things and activities to distract his mind and heart. By some people’s standards, he lived an amazing life. But he felt empty. In desperation he gave his life to Christ, and ten years later, as he was writing what would become one of the most influential and original works in all of literature, his “Confessions,” he thought back to his old life, and the life he had been living in Christ for the past ten years, and exclaimed “Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is your power, and your wisdom is infinite.” His soul had finally found its rest … in God. “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.”
And our Psalmist knows that. He’s experienced that. But he’s lost it. It is no longer a part of his experience. Look at Vv. 1-5. It’s likely that this Psalm was written by one of Israel’s worship leaders during the exile. Down in V. 6 he describes his location. He is far from home, far from Jerusalem, far from the temple where he led others in worship. But he FEELS even farther from God. He and his people are in exile. It’s tempting to think that all of the Israelites who went into exile were godless human beings, but that isn’t true. There were many who feared and worshipped God who went into exile with all the rest. And this is one of them. He longs for a connection to God that he once had, and can’t seem to find anymore. And he compares himself to a deer desperately seeking water in a drought. The land of Israel was known for two seasons – a rainy season and a dry season. For about half the year, the sun baked the land and all but the biggest of rivers ran dry. It’s a land much more suited to camels than deer, but deer do live there, and during the hot, dry season they suffer. Look at the words he uses to describe his soul – panting, thirsting, and hunger (my tears have been my food …). Air, water, and food. The three basics that every human body needs to survive. Without them, the human body dies. The human body can go for three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without oxygen. They are essential for life. But just as the body needs these things to survive physically, so our hearts and souls need the presence of God to live and thrive as well, and when we try to fill them with something else, anything else, we are depriving our souls of the very thing they need to live. And even a small taste of God leaves us wanting more.
Author Frederica Mathewes-Green addresses people who hunger for God’s presence but rarely feel it – at least not in dramatic ways. She writes: “My hunch is that you are already sensing something of God’s presence, or you wouldn’t care. Picture yourself walking around a shopping mall, looking at people and the window displays. Suddenly, you get a whiff of cinnamon. You weren’t even hungry, but now you really crave a cinnamon roll. This craving isn’t something you made up. There you were, minding your own business, when some drifting molecules of sugar, butter, and spice collided with a susceptible patch inside your nose. You had a real encounter with cinnamon – not a mental delusion, not an emotional projection, but the real thing. And what was the effect? You want more, now. And if you hunger to know the presence of God, it’s because … you have already begun to scent [God’s] compelling delight.” The psalmist knows the goodness of God, the grace of God, the light of God and he’s starved for it now. And so his soul pants. Sometimes we become restless because the taste we’ve had of God’s goodness and grace isn’t enough. We want more. The presence of God in our lives is every bit as essential for life as food, air, and water.
And in his dry and depleted state, the problems he is facing seem overwhelming. Look at vv. 6-11. He isn’t WHERE he wants to be, where he thinks he should be. And the people around him are asking the question he’s probably asking himself – “Where is your God?” In their mouths it’s a taunt. In his heart, it’s a genuine wonder. Where have you gone God? Why won’t you answer me? I long for your presence, I want to draw near to you, but I can’t seem to find the way. And you are silent. Is he starting to believe their taunts? No. How do we know? Because he’s still talking to God. We’re confronted with a paradox – a God who is near enough to talk to, but far enough away that we feel deserted. Why is that? Does it mean sin is separating us from God. No. In Christ, on the cross, God has dealt with that. Does it mean that we aren’t living in the will of God in some way. Not necessarily. The laments often contain within them a confession of sin. Do you think this person hasn’t desperately searched his heart, joined David in his prayer “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:23-24). But there is no confession here. Just … distance. In his experience anyway.
I think C.S. Lewis gives us some good insight into this when, in his book “The Screwtape Letters,” he says, in the voice of a senior demon tempter crewtape instructing his demon apprentice Wormwood: “Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Even in his restlessness, feeling abandoned, longing for his heart to be filled once again, the Psalmist can pray. Our experience of God’s absence, which is not an absence at all, does not paralyze prayer. Tim Keller, in his book “Prayer,” writes “Prayer is one of the most common phenomena of human life. Even deliberately nonreligious people pray at times. Studies have shown that in secularized countries, prayer continues to be practiced not only by those who have no religious preference but even by many of those who do not believe in God. One 2004 study found that nearly 30 percent of atheists admitted they prayed “sometimes,” and another found that 17 percent of nonbelievers in God pray regularly. The frequency of prayer increases with age, even among those who do not return to church or identify with any institutional faith. Italian scholar Giuseppe Giordan summarized: “In virtually all studies of the sociology of religious behavior it is clearly apparent that a very high percentage of people declare they pray every day—and many say even many times a day.” Does this mean that everyone prays? No, it does not. Many atheists are rightly offended by the saying “There are no atheists in foxholes.” There are many people who do not pray even in times of extreme danger. Still, though prayer … is a global [reality], inhabiting all cultures and involving the overwhelming majority of people at some point in their lives. Efforts to find cultures, even very remote and isolated ones, without some form of religion and prayer have failed. There has always been some form of attempt to “communicate between human and divine realms.” There seems to be a human instinct for prayer. Swiss theologian Karl Barth calls it our “incurable God-sickness.”[i] “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
Now you really notice the connection between Psalm 42 and 43, the flow, because he simply continues his prayer. Look at 43:1-5). Sometimes we are restless because our small taste of God leaves us wanting more. Sometimes we are restless, discontent, searching, because our focus on our problems has taken our focus away from God’s promises; makes us think we have been abandoned when we have not. And sometimes we are restless because our salvation is not yet complete. You see, in Christ, we live in between times. We live between Christ’s first coming and his second, in the time that theologians call the now and the not yet. In Christ the kingdom of God has come now, in our lives, in our hearts and souls and minds and bodies, but is has not yet come in its fullness. We still look forward to a greater glory, when the fullness of the Kingdom of God comes, a time that St. John was privileged to catch a glimpse of. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev. 21:3-5).
So what is our response? When our hearts are restless? When we’re discontent. When we’re seeking and searching? Look at 43:5. This is the third time the refrain, the chorus, appears in this Psalm, and the words are the same, but there’s a different feel to it, isn’t there? The first two times, given the context, his focus seems to be more on the restlessness in his soul, in his thirst for God. But now, his focus is more on God and less on himself. It just sounds different. He isn’t feeling it now. But he knows that “I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” What’s the turning point? We see it back in V. 8 of Psalm 42. Throughout the Psalm, in fact, throughout this whole section of Psalms, what we call Book 2 of the Psalms, the primary reference to God is Elohim, the mighty God. The creator God. But in V. 8, the Psalmist, uncharacteristically for him and for this section of Psalms, uses a different word. It’s translated as “the LORD” and its in all caps, and I told you what that means, right? It means that the covenant name of God, Yahweh, appears in the text. The God who has made and keeps a relationship with his people, the God who draws near to you. The God who makes and keeps promises. And through the Psalm, the psalmist’s view of God has shifted, from simply God to “Yahweh,” “my God,” “the living God,” “the God of my life,” “my rock,” and “the God in whom I take refuge.” His circumstance hasn’t changed. He is still restless. He still longs for the presence of God. But his heart has changed.
In her book “A New Kind of Normal,” Carol Kent offers this encouragement to the restless heart. “When despair tries to take me under…I choose life. When I wonder what God could possibly be thinking…I choose trust. When I desperately want relief from unrelenting reality…I choose perseverance. When I feel oppressed by my disappointment and sorrow…I choose gratitude. When I want to keep my feelings to myself…I choose vulnerability. When nothing goes according to my plan…I choose relinquishment. When I want to point the finger…I choose forgiveness. When I want to give up…I choose purposeful action.”[ii] “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” Let us pray.
[i] Tim Keller, Prayer (Penguin Group, 2014), page 36
[ii] Carol Kent, A New Kind of Normal (Thomas Nelson, 2007),