The concept of hope might seem rather hopeless today. Numerous expressions of evil in this world may reinforce hopelessness to many of us. A bad economy, violence, poverty, racism, and mass incarceration (to name a few) seemingly challenge any notions of hope.

Recently, in Washington, DC, diverse ethnic voices from diverse perspectives gathered for a summit on race and justice sponsored by the Atlantic magazine. This summit featured a conversation about hope between a Christian and a non-Christian. The Christian presented an articulate biblical and Christ-centered argument in favor of hope, whereas the non-Christian outright rejected hope as a paradigm by which he lives his life.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and in the U.S., the current racial division in our country, and the despair the holiday season brings to many suffering families strongly challenge Christian ideas of hope. And yet,in the midst of apparent hopelessness, Psalm 42 exhorts us to hope in God.

The Context of Psalm 42

This Psalm offers hope in the context of hopelessness. We don’t know for certain the historical circumstances of the Psalmist. Numerous statements throughout the Psalm suggest the Psalmist suffers at the hands of his enemies (vv. 2-5a). And his enemies mock him and his God (v. 10).

Other verses suggest the Psalmist is distant from his land, the people of God, and the house of God (v. 4). Consequently, his soul is in despair, because physical distance from these things resulted in spiritual distance from God (vv. 1-11).

I want to highlight two truths from Psalm 42 to encourage people during these troubling times to hope in God. First, there is and always will be undeniable suffering in this world (2-5a, 6-10). Second, there is and always will be hope in God for those who have faith in Jesus Christ (5, 11).

Exposition of Psalm 42: Suffering (2-5a, 6-10)

The Psalmist begins by comparing his longing for God to a thirsty deer that longs for water (1-2). Then, he comments on his perpetual grief with the words “My tears have been my food day and night” (3). His grief is further aggravated when he remembers the past, joyful times when he  led God’s people to the house of God for worship (4). He further laments his suffering feels like a wave of despair from God that rushes over him (6-7).

When the Psalmist describes his suffering as God’s “waves and waterfalls” rushing upon him in v. 7, this supports that his suffering comes from God’s sovereign hand, although God uses the Psalmist’s enemies as a means by which he inflicts him with suffering (9-10). In fact, the same term “waves” in v. 7 occurs in at least 2 texts in the OT to refer to God’s judgment of his disobedient people.

In Ps. 88:8, the sons of Korah offer another lament, stating God’s wrath lies heavy upon his people, and that God overwhelms his people with all of his “waves.” In Jon. 2:3, Jonah uses the same term to discuss God’s act of judgment against him when he disobeyed God’s command to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Jonah states “For you cast me into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all of your waves and your billows passed over me.” Thus, as in these two texts, Ps. 42:7 acknowledges God as the one who has brought suffering upon the Psalmist, although he uses his enemies to do so (see also the book of Job, especially Job 42:10).

The Psalmist feels like God has forgotten him, because God uses the Psalmist’s enemies to oppress him (9). The Psalmist describes the oppression of his enemies as taunts that aggravate him as a deadly wound in his bones (10), while his enemies question the faithfulness of his God because he suffers. There is and always will be undeniable grief in this fallen world. But the Gospel does not end with grief. There’s also hope.

Hope in God through Jesus Christ (5, 8-9a, 11)

In the midst of his intense grief, the Psalmist exhorts himself to hope in God. He does it twice in this text with a command (5, 11), and a third time with a statement (v. 8-9a). But what is “hope?”

People often wrongly use this word in casual conversation. We say things like “I hope my team wins.” “I hope we can pay our bills this month.” “I hope my kids become Christians at an early age and grow up to love Jesus.” “I hope I get this job.” “I hope I’m not the only person of color again at this meeting or social function.” Each of these casual statements of hope expresses uncertainty. That is, maybe what we’re hoping will come true or not. But we’re not certain. However, uncertainty is not hope. And uncertainty is certainly not what the Psalmist means when he tells himself to “hope in God” in the midst of despair.

In the bible, hope is always certainty! In fact, hope is confident expectation that God will do for his people what he has promised! In the OT, hope can be defined as confident trust that God will do for Israel, and through Israel for the world exactly what he promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-5; Ex. 32-34). And one showed trust/hope in God by faithful obedience to God’s promises.

In the NT, hope means confident certainty that God has accomplished and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), everything that he has promised to do for Abraham and through Abraham, and for Israel for the world through Jesus Christ. And one shows trust in this hope by means of faithful obedience to Jesus (Gal. 3:1-29; 5:16-26).

But why does the Psalmist urge himself to hope in God as he suffers? I think the answer is because he believes that God is his salvation. He specifically mentions salvation in vv. 5 and 11. He also refers to God’s steadfast lovingkindness in v. 8. The latter is a reference to God’s saving mercy (for example, see Ps. 31:21; 57:3; 59:10; 98:1-3; 103:11-12; 106:1-4; 107:1-2). The Psalm frames God’s lovingkindness (v. 8) within 2 statements about God’s salvation (vv. 5, 11).

Thus, in the midst of his despair, which he acknowledges comes from God’s hand (v. 7), the Psalmist urges himself to hope in God, because God has shown himself to be his savior before, and he believes God will show himself to be his savior again. God is in the salvation business. That’s why David says the following after the Lord delivered him from Saul in 2 Sam. 22:3: “My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence.”

God saved his people from their enemies in the OT. He saves sinners from their sins when we trust in Jesus by faith, and he will save us from his wrath in the day of judgment because of Jesus’ death and resurrection (see Rom. 5:1-11).

Christians express hope in God today by faithful devotion to Jesus Christ, because we believe he died for our sins and God raised him from the dead (1 Cor. 15). Jesus is the one in whom God has fulfilled our hope.

He’s the one to whom Psalm 42 ultimately points, for Jesus is our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). When Christians suffer, our hope remains unshaken because it’s rooted in God’s work of salvation for us through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 5:1-5; Rom. 8:18-39), who conquered sin and death via the cross and resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15).

6 Applications

  1. Suffering is one mark of the Christian life. Jesus tells us because he suffered, we can be certain we too will suffer (Matt. 5-6; 10:1ff; 1 Pet. 2:21ff; 4:12-19). Maybe you’re suffering as a Christian. I urge you to hope in God through Christ. Do not let go of Jesus. Ask Jesus to hold on to you by faith, and to enable you to persevere in your faith until the end.
  1. Christians will not escape suffering in this life, but our suffering will end when Jesus returns (2 Thess. 1:5-12). Therefore, we should rejoice now as we faithfully serve Jesus because we will rejoice when we receive the goal of our faith, namely, the salvation of our souls (1 Pet. 1:3-10; 4:12-19).
  1. God brings suffering into our lives to strengthen our hope, our joy, and to serve as a means by which we will persevere until the end and be saved (Rom. 5:1-5; 1 Pet. 1:3-10).
  1. When you feel hopeless, imitate the Psalmist and confess your hopelessness to God. Then preach to yourself the Gospel of hope. If you feel hopeless today, you will not find hope apart from Jesus. You will only find hope by fleeing to Jesus, because Jesus is our blessed hope (Titus 2:13).
  1. When you suffer and feel hopeless, do not abandon the church. Instead, live in community with God’s people. Sit with them under the preaching of God’s word. Sing with them glorious truths of the gospel of hope, and pray with them and hear them pray and sing the hopeful truths of the gospel. If we do these things, I’m confident the Lord will use his church as means by which he will strengthen our hope and confidence in the Gospel when we suffer and sink into hopelessness.
  1. Many people hope in many things. But eternal hope can only be found in Jesus. If you want a hope that lasts forever, trust in Christ’s cross and resurrection, and follow him today until you die. Hope in God this holiday season and forever!