Psalm 42: A Biblical Reflection For a COVID-19 World

At different points in our lives, different Psalms have a way of expressing what is within us. Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known Psalms expressing trust in God even in difficult times:

“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing that I lack.” (Ps 23:1)

Psalm 91, by number, may not be as well-known, but it is often used in funeral liturgies as the lyrics of the song On Eagles Wings:

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shade of the almighty say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust” (Ps 91:1-2).

One that is less well known is Psalm 42. This is one of the Psalms recited for the morning prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. In this unusual time we find ourselves in, Psalm 42 is one many of us can relate to.

All of the Psalms tell a story. The Psalmist composed this prayer to express their complex journey with God; sometimes they are praising God, other times they are lamenting to God, and at times, it is a combination of the two. Psalm 42 is titled “Longing for the Temple.” The Psalmist, at the time, is in exile in Jordan, and is longing for the temple in Jerusalem. During this time, the tabernacle (which was believed to house the very presence of God) was kept only in the temple and proper worship had to be done in Jerusalem. The Psalmist, along with the other Israelites, would travel to Jerusalem to worship God and to be in union with God. Being in exile, however, would force the Psalmist to be away from the temple, unable to fully worship God in the way they were used to, physically with the tabernacle.

We can see that the Psalmist is in grief and despair in the opening words of the Psalm:

“As a deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Ps 42:1-2)

At other times we can sense the chaos that the Psalmist is feeling:

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (Ps 42:7)

In scripture, water can symbolize many different things. We see, in instances like Baptism, water symbolizing purification and cleansing. At other times, water and waves can symbolize chaos or destruction, such as at the beginning of Genesis, in the story of Noah’s Ark, and in this Psalm. The Psalmist feels as if they were surrounded by chaos.

And yet, in the midst of the grief and chaos, they continue to return to the chorus which praises God and places trust in Him: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God.” The Psalmist, regardless of their current situation and what they are experiencing, is choosing to praise God and believes that God is still worthy to be praised.

So how does this Psalm relate to us? Are we not also longing for something? In a way, we could say we seem to be in exile from the normalcy of the life we once knew. We are unable to see people we want to see, unable to go to places we want to go, and even the places we do go seem strange and unfamiliar now. A simple trip to the grocery store seems and looks different than what it would look like before the pandemic. There seems to be a sense of chaos as we await what will happen next in a situation that seems to be ever-changing. The uncertainty can feel like we are being hit with wave after wave of constant chaos. We are extremely fortunate that many parishes are streaming Mass online each week – the Psalmist did not have access to that kind of technology. But we can still relate as we share in the grief and longing to see God’s face that the Psalmist experienced. While we can watch Mass online, we are unable to come physically in contact with the Eucharist – the true presence of God. We can pray, but we are not in our churches – our own “Jerusalem.” And, even if you are able to attend Mass, we can all agree that it is not the same experience as before COVID-19.

We have a legitimate reason to be downcast in our current times; we have experienced so much loss, grief, fear, and separation due to the pandemic. In the midst of all this, however, our Psalmist reminds us that God should still be praised, for our hope is still found in Him. Look around; we can still see the beauty that exists around us – even if it’s hard to find sometimes. We see families getting time to spend together, eating together, playing silly board games, and getting to know each other without having to rush away to the next thing. We see a new appreciation for health care workers, first responders, grocery store employees, teachers, hairstylists, delivery drivers, and fast-food workers. We hear about acts of kindness being done all over the world. We see beautiful pictures of Earth’s beauty now that it has had a chance to breathe for a moment without all the pollution caused by our normal lifestyles. And maybe – just maybe – we have a new appreciation for the gift of the Eucharist and the fellowship we share in worship.

There is a phrase we used often when I helped with youth ministry: “God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good.” Even in the chaotic uncertainty that we find ourselves in at this time, we can remind ourselves that God is good and worthy to be praised at all times. And, though evil and death may be all that we can see right now, God is still with us. He is still sustaining us with His love. So I leave you with this: remember the goodness and providence of God, and trust in Him to help us through this pandemic.

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