About 15 years ago, I went on a kayaking trip with a friend. We camped out in northern Wisconsin and kayaked 21 miles. It was beautiful and peaceful… until we got hit with a storm and the current that was pushing us along suddenly died as we got closer to the lake.
My clothes were soaked, the rain was icy cold, and I had worked my upper body to the point of exhaustion. And I was SO thirsty. It was unlike anything I had experienced before. My entire body was feeling the effects of fatigue, cold, and dehydration. I was shivering uncontrollably, cramping up in ways I had never experienced before, my speech turned to mumbling, and I couldn’t figure out what to do next.
The next thing I remember, I was on the beach of the lake wrapped in a foil blanket with tepid water being brought to my lips by someone I didn’t know. My friend and I had been pulled in by other boaters, and I had experienced some sort of a blackout from hypothermia and dehydration.
I had a whole different picture for what it felt like for my whole being to be thirsty… not just my throat. Add the cold into the mix, and nothing worked. Water was all I wanted… because I knew it was what I needed.
Many of us are familiar with Psalm 42, and it’s very likely that a melody pops into your head when you read the first two verses. But what does it really mean for your soul to pant? Is it poetic or is this really a thing?
In order to tell, we have to unpack what the authors meant by soul and what they meant by pant. The Hebrew word for soul is “nephesh,” and the most important thing to know about it is that, throughout the Bible, it is translated many different ways in our English versions of the Scripture (because it has such a layered meaning). It’s translated soul, body, being, person, throat, creature, life, people… the common denominator of nephesh is that it has nothing to do with a disembodied, essence-like existence (an idea that Greek philosophy has influenced in our perception of the English word soul) and everything to do with your entire physical being and life. In the words of Tim Mackie from the Bible Project, you don’t have a nephesh, you ARE a nephesh.
Ok, so if soul here actually means your entire physical being and life, then what does it mean for that to pant? ‘Pant’ is the Hebrew word ‘arag’ and it occurs three times in the Bible- two times in Psalm 42 and once in Joel 1 right before the ‘rend your heart’ message. If you have ever been around a dog, you’ve likely seen them pant before. That’s NOT the image of what the authors are talking about here. They’re communicating what it looks like to cry out and long for from your gut what you need. It’s a consuming crying out for something. It is completely occupying your focus.
That changes a bit of how we see these first two verses, doesn’t it?
“As the deer pants (is overtaken with deep yearning for and cries out) for streams of water, so my soul (my entire physical existence, being, and life) cries out for you, my God. My existence cries out for God, for the living God.”
This paints a different picture of the reality and the posture of the sentiment being expressed here in just these first two verses. It’s a metaphor for the way we long for the presence of God today- in the light of this day and in the dark of this night. So, the question for us is: what are we thirsty for?
This is a really important question because, friends, we will hope in what we thirst for. I wonder how honest are we willing to be with ourselves and with one another about that?
Are we thirsty for approval? For love? For recognition? For promotion? Beauty? Money or security? A person? A place? If you’re thirsty for something other than God more often than you feel like you are singularly thirsting for Him, then you are a human being. We are not so far removed from Eve and Adam. Yet, Psalm 42 encourages us to continually consider what we are thirsty for, and the way we approach the presence of God in our lives.
If we thirst for what we hope for, then the next logical question is where should hope squarely reside? The writers bring us to the answer to this question throughout this Psalm, but let’s settle in to the end of verse 11: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” With this line at the end of the Psalm, they have brought us right back to the beginning…. Reminding us that we will hope in what we thirst for. In the middle of the darkest moment, the darkest night, resting our hope in God is what will sustain our souls through that night. The dark nights will come, but you will never have to walk through them without the overflowing hope of the presence of the God who loves you.
When I woke up on the beach of the lake with water being brought to my lips, I could feel the deficit in my body. But, as my body began to warm and get replenished, it felt like a miracle was occurring… the shivering, the confusion, the cramping, it all ceased. I had what I needed.
My prayer is that in the presence of God today, your entire being will receive what it is crying out for. I am praying this blessing over you as you head into this weekend- it comes from Psalm 63: May you earnestly seek Him, may you thirst for Him, may your whole being long for Him in a dry and parched land where there is no water. May you see Him in the sanctuary and behold His power and glory. Because His love is better than life, may your lips glorify Him. May you praise Him as long as you live, and may you lift up your hands. May you be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods, and may your mouth never cease to praise Him!