Verses 1–5

Holy love to God as the chief good and our felicity is the power of godliness, the very life and soul of religion, without which all external professions and performances are but a shell and carcase: now here we have some of the expressions of that love. Here is,

I. Holy love thirsting, love upon the wing, soaring upwards in holy desires towards the Lord and towards the remembrance of his name (Ps. 42:1, 2): “My soul panteth, thirsteth, for God, for nothing more than God, but still for more and more of him.” Now observe,

1. When it was that David thus expressed his vehement desire towards God. It was, (1.) When he was debarred from his outward opportunities of waiting on God, when he was banished to the land of Jordan, a great way off from the courts of God’s house. Note, Sometimes God teaches us effectually to know the worth of mercies by the want of them, and whets our appetite for the means of grace by cutting us short in those means. We are apt to loathe that manna, when we have plenty of it, which will be very precious to us if ever we come to know the scarcity of it. (2.) When he was deprived, in a great measure, of the inward comfort he used to have in God. He now went mourning, but he went on panting. Note, If God, by his grace, has wrought in us sincere and earnest desires towards him, we may take comfort from these when we want those ravishing delights we have sometimes had in God, because lamenting after God is as sure an evidence that we love him as rejoicing in God. Before the psalmist records his doubts, and fears, and griefs, which had sorely shaken him, he premises this, That he looked upon the living God as his chief good, and had set his heart upon him accordingly, and was resolved to live and die by him; and, casting anchor thus at first, he rides out the storm.

2. What is the object of his desire and what it is he thus thirsts after. (1.) He pants after God, he thirsts for God, not the ordinances themselves, but the God of the ordinances. A gracious soul can take little satisfaction in God’s courts if it do not meet with God himself there: “O that I knew where I might find him! that I might have more of the tokens of his favour, the graces and comforts of his Spirit, and the earnests of his glory.” (2.) He has, herein, an eye to God as the living God, that has life in himself, and is the fountain of life and all happiness to those that are his, the living God, not only in opposition to dead idols, the works of men’s hands, but to all the dying comforts of this world, which perish in the using. Living souls can never take up their rest any where short of a living God. (3.) He longs to come and appear before God,—to make himself known to him, as being conscious to himself of his own sincerity,—to attend on him, as a servant appears before his master, to pay his respects to him and receive his commands,—to give an account to him, as one from whom our judgment proceeds. To appear before God is as much the desire of the upright as it is the dread of the hypocrite. The psalmist knew he could not come into God’s courts without incurring expense, for so was the law, that none should appear before God empty; yet he longs to come, and will not grudge the charges.

3. What is the degree of this desire. It is very importunate; it is his soul that pants, his soul that thirsts, which denotes not only the sincerity, but the strength, of his desire. His longing for the water of the well of Bethlehem was nothing to this. He compares it to the panting of a hart, or deer, which is naturally hot and dry, especially of a hunted buck, after the water-brooks. Thus earnestly does a gracious soul desire communion with God, thus impatient is it in the want of that communion, so impossible does it find it to be satisfied with any thing short of that communion, and so insatiable is it in taking the pleasures of that communion when the opportunity of it returns, still thirsting after the full enjoyment of him in the heavenly kingdom.

II. Holy love mourning for God’s present withdrawings and the want of the benefit of solemn ordinances (Ps. 42:3): “My tears have been my meat day and night during this forced absence from God’s house.” His circumstances were sorrowful, and he accommodated himself to them, received the impressions and returned the signs of sorrow. Even the royal prophet was a weeping prophet when he wanted the comforts of God’s house. His tears were mingled with his meat; nay, they were his meat day and night; he fed, he feasted, upon his own tears, when there was such just cause for them; and it was a satisfaction to him that he found his heart so much affected with a grievance of this nature. Observe, He did not think it enough to shed a tear or two at parting from the sanctuary, to weep a farewell-prayer when he took his leave, but, as long as he continued under a forced absence from that place of his delight, he never looked up, but wept day and night. Note, Those that are deprived of the benefit of public ordinances constantly miss them, and therefore should constantly mourn for the want of them, till they are restored to them again. Two things aggravated his grief:—

1. The reproaches with which his enemies teased him: They continually say unto me, Where is thy God? (1.) Because he was absent from the ark, the token of God’s presence. Judging of the God of Israel by the gods of the heathen, they concluded he had lost his God. Note, Those are mistaken who think that when they have robbed us of our Bibles, and our ministers, and our solemn assemblies, they have robbed us of our God; for, though God has tied us to them when they are to be had, he has not tied himself to them. We know where our God is, and where to find him, when we know not where his ark is, nor where to find that. Wherever we are there is a way open heaven-ward. (2.) Because God did not immediately appear for his deliverance they concluded that he had abandoned him; but herein also they were deceived: it does not follow that the saints have lost their God because they have lost all their other friends. However, by this base reflection on God and his people, they added affliction to the afflicted, and that was what they aimed at. Nothing is more grievous to a gracious soul than that which is intended to shake its hope and confidence in God.

2. The remembrance of his former liberties and enjoyments, Ps. 42:4. Son, remember thy good things, is a great aggravation of evil things, so much do our powers of reflection and anticipation add to the grievance of this present time. David remembered the days of old, and then his soul was poured out in him; he melted away, and the thought almost broke his heart. He poured out his soul within him in sorrow, and then poured out his soul before God in prayer. But what was it that occasioned this painful melting of spirit? It was not the remembrance of the pleasures at court, or the entertainments of his own house, from which he was now banished, that afflicted him, but the remembrance of the free access he had formerly had to God’s house and the pleasure he had in attending the sacred solemnities there. (1.) He went to the house of God, though in his time it was but a tent; nay, if this psalm was penned, as many think it was, at the time of his being persecuted by Saul, the ark was then in a private house, 2 Sam. 6:3. But the meanness, obscurity, and inconveniency of the place did not lessen his esteem of that sacred symbol of the divine presence. David was a courtier, a prince, a man of honour, a man of business, and yet very diligent in attending God’s house and joining in public ordinances, even in the days of Saul, when he and his great men enquired not at it, 1 Chron. 13:3. Whatever others did, David and his house would serve the Lord. (2.) He went with the multitude, and thought it no disparagement to his dignity to be at the head of a crowd in attending upon God. Nay, this added to the pleasure of it, that he was accompanied with a multitude, and therefore it is twice mentioned, as that which he greatly lamented the want of now. The more the better in the service of God; it is the more like heaven, and a sensible help to our comfort in the communion of saints. (3.) He went with the voice of joy and praise, not only with joy and praise in his heart, but with the outward expressions of it, proclaiming his joy and speaking forth the high praises of his God. Note, When we wait upon God in public ordinances we have reason to do it both with cheerfulness and thankfulness, to take to ourselves the comfort and give to God the glory of our liberty of access to him. (4.) He went to keep holy-days, not to keep them in vain mirth and recreation, but in religious exercises. Solemn days are spent most comfortably in solemn assemblies.

III. Holy love hoping (Ps. 42:5): Why art thou cast down, O my soul? His sorrow was upon a very good account, and yet it must not exceed its due limits, nor prevail to depress his spirits; he therefore communes with his own heart, for his relief. “Come, my soul, I have something to say to thee in thy heaviness.” Let us consider, 1. The cause of it. “Thou art cast down, as one stooping and sinking under a burden, Prov. 12:25. Thou art disquieted, in confusion and disorder; now why are thou so?” This may be taken as an enquiring question: “Let the cause of this uneasiness be duly weighed, and see whether it be a just cause.” Our disquietudes would in many cases vanish before a strict scrutiny into the grounds and reasons of them. “Why am I cast down? Isa. there a cause, a real cause? Have not others more cause, that do not make so much ado? Have not we, at the same time, cause to be encouraged?” Or it may be taken as an expostulating question; those that commune much with their own hearts will often have occasion to chide them, as David here. “Why do I thus dishonour God by my melancholy dejections? Why do I discourage others and do so much injury to myself? Can I give a good account of this tumult?” 2. The cure of it: Hope thou in God, for I shall yet praise him. A believing confidence in God is a sovereign antidote against prevailing despondency and disquietude of spirit. And therefore, when we chide ourselves to hope in God; when the soul embraces itself it sinks; if it catch hold on the power and promise of God, it keeps the head above water. Hope in God, (1.) That he shall have glory from us: “I shall yet praise him; I shall experience such a change in my state that I shall not want matter for praise, and such a change in my spirit that I shall not want a heart for praise.” It is the greatest honour and happiness of a man, and the greatest desire and hope of every good man, to be unto God for a name and a praise. What is the crown of heaven’s bliss but this, that there we shall be for ever praising God? And what is our support under our present woes but this, that we shall yet praise God, that they shall not prevent nor abate our endless hallelujahs? (2.) That we shall have comfort in him. We shall praise him for the help of his countenance, for his favour, the support we have by it and the satisfaction we have in it. Those that know how to value and improve the light of God’s countenance will find in that a suitable, seasonable, and sufficient help, in the worst of times, and that which will furnish them with constant matter for praise. David’s believing expectation of this kept him from sinking, nay, it kept him from drooping; his harp was a palliative cure of Saul’s melancholy, but his hope was an effectual cure of his own.