This psalm is attributed to the sons of Korah, probably meaning the descendants of the Levite who rebelled against the divinely granted authority of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 16:1-3; 26:10, 11) The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads pro victoria (“for victory”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of the Hebrew expression. The meaning of “maskil” is likewise uncertain. Conjectural interpretations include “contemplative poem” and “memory passage.” In the Septuagint, the corresponding expression is synesis, signifying “intelligence,” “understanding,” or “insight.”
During the hot summers in the land known to he psalmist, many streams dry up and water becomes scarce. A hind or deer must find water and even expose itself to potential danger from beasts of prey when satisfying its thirst. Like a hind longing for streams (“fountains,” LXX) of water as it searches for water in a time of drought, the psalmist’s “soul” or he himself longed for God, evidently yearning for his help in providing all that he desperately needed.
His “soul” or he himself thirsted for God, for the “living God” (unlike the lifeless deities other peoples revered). This thirst was impelled by an intense desire and need to “come” and then “see the face of God.” Apparently he yearned to be able to go to the sanctuary and then, among fellow worshipers, to be in God’s presence.
The psalmist appears to have been in exile, deprived of opportunities to go to the sanctuary. This filled him with sadness to such an extent that he spoke of his tears as being his food day and night. In the land of his exile, men would taunt him daily with the words, “Where is your God?” As he found himself in a sad plight, their mockery called into question his God’s ability to help him.
It seems that the psalmist recalled better times in his native land, and he “poured out” his soul within him or bared all his emotions and intense feelings. He remembered how he used to “pass on” with the throng of worshipers, going with them to the house of God and hearing shouts of joy and thanksgiving from the multitude observing a festival. The Septuagint represents the psalmist as saying, “I will pass through in the place of the wonderful tabernacle, to the house of God, with the voice of rejoicing and thanksgiving, the sound of those keeping a festival.” (For this verse [4(5)], see the Notes section.)
Possibly these thoughts about the joyous past filled him with grief over his loss. He asked himself why his “soul” or he himself was downcast and why, within himself, he was stirred up, disquieted, or deeply troubled. Apparently he endeavored to calm himself with the words, “Wait for God, for I shall again praise him.” In the Masoretic Text, the concluding two words of this verse (5) are “salvation” and “his face” (“face” with a masculine suffix). Translators commonly omit “his face” and use “my savior” (GNT, Second Edition, NAB, NIV), “my help” (NRSV), or “my salvation.” (ESV) Other renderings include “the salvation of His countenance” (Margolis), “for His saving presence” (Tanakh), “for the help of His presence” (NASB), “for the salvation of His presence” (J. P. Green). The basic sense of the Hebrew may be that the psalmist looked to God as the source of salvation or deliverance. The Septuagint rendering is, “the salvation of my face [is] my God,” with the words “my face” possibly meaning the psalmist himself. In a number of translations, “my God” is linked to “my savior” with a supplied “and.” When saying “my God,” the psalmist revealed his relationship to YHWH to be personal and then again made expression about being downcast.
Apparently the psalmist had been exiled to the land bordering the Jordan River and in the vicinity of lofty Mount Hermon, which rises to an elevation of over 9,200 feet. The location of Mizar is unknown. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew term is rendered “little mountain.” Perhaps Mizar was the name of a hill in the area of the psalmist’s exile. There he remembered God, recalling the joyous times among fellow worshipers at the sanctuary in Jerusalem.
As the snows of Hermon melted, waterfalls would form. The Hebrew word tsinór may mean “waterfall” or “cataract” (LXX). At the sound or roar of waterfalls, “deep” (“abyss, LXX) called to “deep” (“abyss, LXX). This may be descriptive of the roar produced when waterfalls poured into the headwaters of the Jordan. Seemingly, the scene suggested to the psalmist that he was overwhelmed with distress as by flood. Because this had occurred by divine permission, he said of God, “all your breakers and waves have passed over me.”
Still, he did not lose his trust in his God. YHWH’s commanding his abiding loyalty, steadfast love, compassionate concern, or “mercy” (LXX) would denote that he displays his merciful care, providing aid and guidance. At night, probably in view of having experienced YHWH’s loving care, “his song” (the one for which the Most High had given the occasion) would be with the psalmist. This song would be a prayer to the God of his life, the God to whom he owed his life and all that made it possible for him to continue living.
Although the psalmist looked to God as his “rock,” a dependable place of security and refuge, he felt abandoned on account of his distressing circumstances. Deeply pained, he asked, “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I walk about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” Hateful treatment proved to be a heavy burden for him.
Those showing their enmity manifested an intensely malicious spirit. The Hebrew may be understood to mean that their reproaching was comparable to the shattering of his bones. “Crushing my bones, my foes revile me, taunting me always with, ‘Where is your God?’” (Tanakh) “It shatters my bones, when my adversaries reproach me. They say to me daily: ‘Where is your God?’” (NAB)
The concluding verse basically repeats the words of verse 5(6). “Why, O my soul, are you downcast, and why are you stirred up within me? Wait for God, for I shall again praise him, [the] salvation of my face [or, my salvation] and my God.” Although his external circumstances were extremely distressing, the psalmist confidently looked to the time when God would effect his deliverance. He would then thank or acknowledge his God as the source of his salvation.
The name YHWH appears only once in this psalm. Regarding this name, see Psalm 1.
A measure of uncertainty exists about how the Hebrew text of verse 4(5) is to be understood. It has been variously rendered. “When I think of this, I pour out my soul: how I walked with the crowd, moved with them, the festive throng, to the House of God, with joyous shouts of praise.” (Tanakh) “Those times I recall as I pour out my soul, When I went in procession with the crowd, I went with them to the house of God, amid loud cries of thanksgiving, with the multitude keeping festival.” (NAB) “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.” (NIV) “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.” (NRSV)
Psalm 43 appears to be a continuation of this psalm, with both compositions concluding with the same expression. In The New American Bible, the two psalms are combined.