Sheep That Conquer, Friday

By James Boice

Theme: Prayer for Deliverance in the Future

From this psalm we learn that although we sometimes may not understand what God is doing in the present, we know how God has helped us in the past, and can therefore confidently come to him in prayer for the future.

Scripture: Psalm 44:1-26

So what is the explanation? Will you be impatient with me if I say that there is no explanation, at least none that is given in this psalm. There is a suggestion of one. I will come to that. But the answer the psalmist finds is not an explanation, however much he might have appreciated one, but rather a practical clinging to God and beseeching God for help in spite of God’s apparent sleep or silence.

Does God seem to be asleep? “Forget whether he really sleeps or not or what he may or may not be sleeping for,” the psalmist seems to be saying. “Pray to him. Get practical and rouse him, if you must, with your prayers.” As the psalmist goes on to say, “Awake, O LORD! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? . . .Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.”

One of the older commentators expressed the psalm’s thought like this: “You helped us in the past. You must help us now. But you are not helping us, even though we have done nothing to prohibit your helping us. So help us.”3 The psalm is as simple as that.

However, I said I would return to the suggestion of an explanation for trouble we find in the psalm. Let me do that now. There are actually two clues or, as we might say, “starters” for further thinking.

First, there is the phrase “for your sake” in verse 22, the verse Paul quotes in Romans. Psalm 44 has no elaboration of this idea, but we cannot miss remembering that it was developed at length by Jesus who spoke of those who would be “persecuted because of righteousness” and “because of me” (Matt. 5:10, 11), and who told his disciples, “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Paul was using the same idea when he quoted Psalm 45:22 in Romans, because it is for God’s sake that the people of God often suffer.

Second, there is the last phrase of the psalm: “your unfailing love” (v. 26). That is a very important ending. Although nothing like it has appeared in the psalm thus far, it means, if it is to be taken at full value, that the love of God is of such quality that even the terrible defeats of the present moment are not without a purpose and will not, even in the worst extremity, sever the believing one from God.

This is exactly how Paul handles the problem of suffering in Romans 8 as well. Early in the chapter he explains that sharing in Christ’s sufferings now means that we will share in his glory later, concluding, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17, 18). Then, at the end of the chapter, after having quoted from Psalm 44, he concludes, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God, that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38, 39).

With a faith like that, those who are accounted only as “sheep to be slaughtered” always will conquer, whatever defeats they may suffer in this life. They will conquer because God is in control of all history, his love is unfailing, and he guarantees the ultimate outcome of everything that happens to us…and the victory.

Study Questions:

  1. Although we do not always understand what God is doing in our lives, what does this psalm encourage us to do?
  2. What two clues do we find that help us to begin to think through why the Lord sometimes acts as he does? How do these help you to mature in your faith?

Application: In the uncertainties and puzzlements of life, pray for your response to become like that of the psalmist’s.

For Further Study: We as Christians can only conquer because of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has already conquered sin and death for us. Download and listen for free to James Boice’s message from Romans 8, “More Than Conquerors.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

3E. W. Hengstenberg, Kommentar ueber die Psalmen, 4 vols. (Berlin: Ludwig Oehmigke, 1849). Cited by H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 345.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Sheep That Conquer, Thursday

By James Boice

Theme: Desperate for an Explanation

From this psalm we learn that although we sometimes may not understand what God is doing in the present, we know how God has helped us in the past, and can therefore confidently come to him in prayer for the future.

Scripture: Psalm 44:1-26

Perhaps God was temporarily looking the other way, and the people’s enemies used that moment to gain the upper hand. What about this explanation for the difference between what is happening to us in the present, as compared with how we have seen God at work in the past? That explanation might work for pagans, who know nothing of the true God. But it can never work for the followers of Jehovah. Jehovah is not indifferent. He is not sleeping, even though that seems to be the case. If he is not sleeping or is not indifferent or is not impotent, then he must be behind what is happening.

Note the repetition of the word “you.” “You have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies. You made us retreat before the enemy….You gave us up to be devoured like sheep….You sold your people for a pittance….You have made us a reproach to our neighbors….You have made us a by-word among the nations….You crushed us” (vv. 9-14, 19). The people’s defeats are no accident. God is behind them, because God is responsible for all things.

This is what makes the problem so puzzling, however. A mere accident is not puzzling. A disaster is only puzzling if God is in control, is favorable to us, but lets it happen anyway. Nevertheless, although it makes the situation puzzling, the realization that God is in control is still both the proper way to approach such problems and the only possible way to find a solution to them. The secularist has nowhere to turn. Not only does he not have an answer, he does not even have a way of finding one.

As for the believer, he may not understand God’s ways, but he knows that the only way to proceed is by recognizing that God is as active in defeats as he is in victories and wait for his explanation.

Perhaps the defeat is not as bad as it appears, and the people are exaggerating. This is the second approach the psalmist is rejecting. It is the Pollyanna approach. It will not do here, because there is no escaping the magnitude of the disaster. The soldiers have been slaughtered like sheep and scattered (v. 11). Even worse, the people have been made a reproach to their neighbors; they have been disgraced and covered with shame (vv. 13-16).

Perhaps the people themselves are at fault, and God has sent defeat as a judgment for their sins. This is the best explanation so far since it takes both the sovereignty of God and the magnitude of the defeat at full value. What is more, the people often had sinned and had been judged for it. Their past history was as much a testimony to that fact as it was to the intervention of God on their behalf. The problem is that, at this point of their history, the people were keeping God’s covenant and following God’s way faithfully. At least that is what the psalmist says: “All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path” (vv. 17, 18). He is arguing that they were obeying God and yet were defeated.

Can this really be? We are conscious of sin in ourselves. Very few Christians would want to claim utter faithfulness in following after God, as the psalmist does. Perhaps the writer is mistaken. Perhaps the explanation of this tragic defeat is to be found in precisely this self-righteousness. That explanation does not work here for two reasons.

First, because of verses 20 and 21. These verses say, “If we had forsaken the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God have discovered it,

since he knows the secrets of the heart?” This does not mean merely, “If we had sinned, God would know about it since God knows everything.” That would lead to the conclusion, “Therefore, we must have sinned, since God is punishing us,” and that is not what the psalm is saying. There would be nothing puzzling under those circumstances. The words “would not God have discovered it” mean “would not God have discovered it to us.” That is, “Wouldn’t God have told us what we have done wrong, if we had done wrong? Therefore, since he has not revealed any particularly outstanding sin to us, our sin cannot be the explanation of why we are suffering these military setbacks.” An example would be the defeat at Ai following the conquest at Jericho, where the cause of the defeat was revealed to be Achan’s disobedience (cf. Joshua 7).

The second reason why we cannot handle the text this way—which also brings it directly into our own experience—is that Paul quotes verse 24 in Romans as a confirming statement that the people of God suffer innocently. The quotation comes in Romans 8 in that powerful affirmation concerning the keeping love of God: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:35–37). Paul and other Christians had served God faithfully, yet they were made to face death all day long.

So, as easy as it would be to say that the people of God suffer defeat because they are being punished for their sins, this is not a fully adequate explanation, at least not in all instances, including Psalm 44 and Romans 8.

Study Questions:

  1. What is the proper way to approach a disaster that affects us? What do we need to remember?
  2. Review the third possible explanation. Why does it not work in the case of the psalmist?

Application: Perhaps you are struggling to understand God’s working in your life in the present, especially considering things he has done for you in the past. What explanations have you considered that need to be dismissed? What truths do you need to remind yourself? What is the Lord teaching you through this puzzling time?


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Sheep That Conquer, Wednesday

By James Boice

Theme: The Puzzling Present

From this psalm we learn that although we sometimes may not understand what God is doing in the present, we know how God has helped us in the past, and can therefore confidently come to him in prayer for the future.

Scripture: Psalm 44:1-26

The immediate past. The second part of this opening section recalls victories in the immediate past, acknowledging, as in the preceding section, that they were achieved not by any strength or virtue of the people, but by God. In this stanza the subject of the sentences becomes singular (“my” and “I”), rather than plural (“we,” “us” and “our”) as in stanza one. This does not mean that we suddenly have another speaker at this point, as if this were a liturgical exchange between a priest and the people, as some scholars like to think. Rather, it is a way of intensifying the poet’s testimony to God’s past acts of deliverance. It is as if he says, “It is not only that you did those things long ago for other people. You have also done them for us, for me. I can testify to such victories.” As the psalmist says: “I do not trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame. In God we make our boast all day long, and we praise your name forever” (vv. 6-8).

Putting this in terms of our own experience, it is as if we were to say, “We have also experienced what those who came before us did. Not to the same degree perhaps, but you have nevertheless worked in our days as you worked in theirs. We give you glory.”

If Psalm 44 had ended with verse 8, it would have been a victory hymn. It is positive, expectant, trusting. However, the psalm does not end here. It goes on to the lament of verses 9 and following, which means that these opening verses, in spite of the positive statements, must have been uttered in a puzzled tone of voice. As we will see in part 2, God had not been helping the people currently, which raised the question: “How come? Why is he not helping us when he has so effectively helped us in the past?”

The second section of the psalm opens with the contrasting words “but now.” we find these words again and again in the Bible, usually comparing our sad condition apart from God’s grace with what we have because of it. A classic example is in Romans 3:21, where Paul passes from his description of the hopeless condition of the human race in its sin to what God has done in providing a way of salvation through Jesus Christ. The text says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known.”

The contrast is exactly the opposite in this psalm. Instead of moving from a sad past to a glorious present, the words move us from a glorious past to a tragic present. Look at the contrast:

Verse 7: “You gave us victory over our enemies.”

Verses 9, 10: “But now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies. You made us retreat before the enemy, and our adversaries have plundered us.”

Is that what the people of God are to expect from the One who has been their champion in past days? This situation is so painful and puzzling in view of the people’s past experience of God that this second section seems to be searching desperately for an explanation.

Study Questions:

  1. What is meant by the change from the plural to the singular concerning the psalmist’s reflection on the immediate past?
  2. What is the contrast beginning in verse 9?

Reflection: How have you seen God’s hand in the more recent past?


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Sheep That Conquer, Tuesday

By James Boice

Theme: God’s Past Acts of Deliverance

From this psalm we learn that although we sometimes may not understand what God is doing in the present, we know how God has helped us in the past, and can therefore confidently come to him in prayer for the future.

Scripture: Psalm 44:1-26

A person would never expect this psalm to be a lament from reading the beginning stanzas. This is because it begins with a remembrance of God’s past acts of deliverance (vv. 1-8), and these by their very nature are both positive and grounds for thanksgiving. At this point we would expect the psalm to be a thanksgiving psalm, a praise psalm, or a psalm of confidence. These remembrances are mature remembrances too, in the sense that the author and his contemporaries know that Israel’s past military victories had not been achieved by their own exceptional might or skill, but by the power of God.

J. J. Stewart Perowne recognizes this in his study:

The psalm opens with a glance at the past history of the nation and the acknowledgment that, from the first, every victory which they had won had been won not by their own strength, but by the immediate hand of God. This was, it might be said, the perpetual lesson of their history. They did not rise upon their Egyptian masters, but God bowed the heart of the monarch and the people by his signs and wonders, till they thrust them out in haste. At the Red Sea they did not turn to fight with the chariots and the horsemen of Pharaoh; they were but to stand still and see the victory of Jehovah. When they came to Canaan, their first exploit was not a feat of arms, for Jericho fell by a miracle. The Roman army by the lake Regillus attributed its victory to the two mysterious horsemen who, on their white horses, led the charge. The Jewish host with a better faith believed that in every battle an invisible Captain led them and knew that, whenever they conquered their enemies, it was because an invisible arm gave them the victory.2

A quick look at this opening section (vv. 1-8) will show that it has two parts, separated into two stanzas in the New International Version.

The distant past. The first part recalls victories of the distant past which the writer’s generation had heard about and rightly understood to have been accomplished by God and as the sole result of his favor. He refers to these as things “our fathers have told us, what you did in their days, in days long ago” (v. 1). What follows makes clear that what is being referred to is the conquest of Canaan by the tribes that came out of Egypt. In those days God drove out the nations that were in the land before them and crushed their enemies. The section concludes: “It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them (v. 3).”

Our equivalent of this memory would be reflections on our own spiritual heritage, on events like the Protestant Reformation, the Wesleyan Revivals or the Great Awakening. Those distant past events are part of what we are, and we acknowledge rightly that they were accomplished by the will and power of God. Our “fathers” told us of those things, and we are thankful for them.

Study Questions:

  1. Why does this psalm not appear at first to be the lament that it is?
  2. What is the first part of the opening stanza, and what event does it refer to?

Application: Following the example of the psalmist, write down items of your own spiritual heritage, and give praise to the Lord for his grace shown to you through them.

2J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 360. Original edition 1878-1879.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

Sheep That Conquer, Monday

By James Boice

Theme: “God Never Sleeps”

From this psalm we learn that although we sometimes may not understand what God is doing in the present, we know how God has helped us in the past, and can therefore confidently come to him in prayer for the future.

Scripture: Psalm 44:1-26

“God never sleeps,” wrote the Scottish commentator Murdoch Campbell in his opening observation on this psalm.1 Maybe not, but he seems to, at least at times. He seems to be sleeping when his people cry out to him in their troubles.

I begin this way because one of the verses of Psalm 44 is an appeal to God to wake up: “Awake, O LORD! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever” (v. 23). It is obviously an intense cry that we must take seriously if we are to understand the psalm. Besides, it is hard to read it without thinking of the time in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ when he and his disciples were crossing the lake of Galilee in a small boat after a hard day’s work, and a furious squall came up while Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples were experienced fishermen, but this was a bad storm and they were afraid of it and felt they were going to drown. So they called to Jesus to wake him up, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Of course, Jesus did care and did wake up. He quieted the storm, leaving them wondering, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him” (Mark 4:35-41). But still Jesus was sleeping for a time. It was out of just such a frightening experience that Psalm 44 was written.

The nation of Israel had experienced a great military defeat, but we do not know when this was. Guesses range from as early as the time of David to the Persian or even to the later Maccabean period. Whenever it was, the author is asking God to hear him and save the people as he did in the past. He cannot understand why God has not yet done so.

Psalm 44 is most easily considered in three parts: 1) the past (vv. 1-8); 2) the present (vv. 9-22); and 3) the future (vv. 23-26). The past concerns God’s former acts of deliverance. The present concerns the painful, puzzling contrast between those past acts and what was happening currently. The future section consists of a prayer for help yet to come.

Study Questions:

  1. From the lesson, how is this psalm outlined?
  2. Did you ever feel as if God were sleeping in regard to a request you were making? How did your knowledge of God and his Word redirect your thoughts?

1Murdoch Campbell, From Grace to Glory: Meditations on the Book of Psalms (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), p. 83.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

An Upward Look by a Downcast Soul, Part 5

By James Boice

Theme: Good Medicine

In this week’s lessons we learn from the psalmist some reasons why the Lord’s people get depressed, and what their spiritual response needs to be.

Scripture: Psalms 42-43

He challenges himself to do what should be done. The second step in the battle against depression follows from the act of addressing oneself in this manner. Indeed, it is a part of it. It is to challenge oneself to do what the spiritual self well knows should be done: “Put your hope in God.” There can be no lasting hope in anything else in this sinful, failing world. There never has been. There never will be. Besides, the believer has put his or her trust in God in past days. He can do so again. It is a mark of simple sanity to do what the psalmist urges should be done.

He reminds himself of a great certainty. To “hope in God” leads to the final step in the crusade against depression—the reminder that “I will yet praise him,” based on the character of the God we trust. This is a great certainty. God has not changed. Therefore, his purposes for me have not changed. He has led me to uplifting victories in times past. He will do so again. Therefore, instead of looking at the past glumly as something I have lost, I will look to it as a foretaste of the many good things yet to come. We can find multiple examples of this in the lives of the Bible’s characters, people like Joseph, Moses, Joshua and David.

Does medicine such as the psalmist prescribes really help? Does it effect a cure? The progress achieved by it is evident throughout the psalm.

Look how the thought flows and the mood rises throughout the two-part composition. In the first stanza the psalmist remembers the former days at the temple and is oppressed by the memory. In stanza two he draws on memory again, but this time it is to remember God and his goodness. In the first stanza he is troubled by the taunts of enemies who say to him, “Where is your God?” In the second stanza he answers that God is “with him” (v. 8). In verse 1, God is absent. In verse 9, God is his “Rock.” By the time we come to Psalm 43:2, God is his “stronghold,” and he is praying confidently that God will guide him back to the place of worship and the joys of former days. The first two stanzas were laments; the third has become a strong, believing prayer.

The same flow of thought is carried through the last stanza, for the action he anticipates from God is: 1) backward to Mount Zion, the “holy mountain” of verse 3; 2) to the temple upon Mount Zion, “the place” where God dwells; 3) to the “altar of God” before the temple (mentioned in v. 4); and finally 4) “to God” himself: “Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight.”

Is there a cure for depression? Yes. But it is not in us. It is in God. The cure is to seek God’s face, so ours will not be downcast, which is what the psalmist does.

Study Questions:

  1. What challenge should be laid before a believer who is depressed?
  2. What is the great certainty the psalmist has? What effect should this truth have on depression?

Reflection: Spend some time reflecting on the truth of God’s character as revealed in the psalm.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

An Upward Look by a Downcast Soul, Part 4

By James Boice

Theme: The Cure

In this week’s lessons we learn from the psalmist some reasons why the Lord’s people get depressed, and what their spiritual response needs to be.

Scripture: Psalms 42-43

Attacks from ungodly, deceitful and wicked persons (43:1). The second of these two psalms brings in another cause of depression. It is attacks by unscrupulous and deceitful enemies. These are probably the same persons who taunted the psalmist earlier, asking, “Where is your God?” But in this section we learn that they had also been attacking him unjustly, since he prays for vindication and a pleading of his cause by God. Most of us can relate to this too, since it is not unusual for those who try to live for God to be unjustly accused, attacked and slandered. Jesus said, “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you…. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:19, 20). It is an unusual person who will not be depressed by malicious and hurtful treatment, at least at times.

And what about those many additional causes of depression that the poet does not even mention? We could add the ones listed by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the book I mentioned at the start of this study: temperament (some people are just more inclined to depression than others), physical conditions (we can be affected by adverse physical health), a down reaction after a great blessing (an example is Elijah after his great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel), the attacks of Satan (one of his strategies is to get us to take our eyes off God), and simple unbelief (probably the most significant cause of all).

Maybe you have some things of your own to add: a great disappointment in life, some personal failure, the burden of getting old. The list is probably endless.

But we have looked at the causes of depression enough. What is the cure for spiritual depression? We are aware of many false cures the world turns to. Some people try to escape the depressing realities of their lives through divorce, excessive entertainment, or frequent vacations. Some pop pills. Some are on habit-forming drugs. There must be millions who echo Mallory of the television program “Family Ties,” who said, “When I get depressed, I go shopping.” They buy a new dress or a Miata. All these “cures” are ineffective. At best they merely lift our spirits for a time.

It is different when we study what the author is teaching us in this important two-part psalm. The psalm tells us how the godly person can win out over depression.

He takes himself in hand. The most important thing to be said about the approach to depression taken by the author of this psalm is that he does not give in to depression or self-pity but rather takes himself in hand and wrestles through it. He reminds himself of what he really knows and finds that “no reasons for being cast down are so strong as those for elation and calm hope.”5

In the volume I referred to at the beginning of this study, Lloyd-Jones makes a great deal of this point, stressing that talking to ourselves is the very essence of wisdom in the matter. It is a case of the mind speaking to the emotions rather than the emotions dictating to the mind. “You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’—what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’—instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way.”6

In a similar vein, J. J. Stewart Perowne speaks of “the struggle between the spirit of faith and the spirit of dejection, between the higher nature and the lower, between the spirit and the flesh.”7

Study Questions:

  1. From Lloyd-Jones’ book on depression, what are some additional causes of it that he mentions?
  2. What should the believer say to himself during bouts of depression? What might the mind say to the emotions?

Application: Do you know someone who is depressed and needs encouragement? How can you use these psalms to minister to them?

5Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 3, The Psalms, Isaiah 1-48 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), part 1, pp. 304.
6D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 21.
7J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 351. Original edition 1878-1879.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

An Upward Look by a Downcast Soul, Part 3

By James Boice

Theme: More Causes of Spiritual Depression

In this week’s lessons we learn from the psalmist some reasons why the Lord’s people get depressed, and what their spiritual response needs to be.

Scripture: Psalms 42-43

Memories of better days (42:4). The psalmist was also troubled by memories of better days. There is a proper use of memory in times when we are depressed, which we will get to. It is a memory of God’s past acts as an encouragement to believe that he will act for us again. But that is not the first use of memory we find in these psalms. What we find here is the writer’s wistful remembrance of the good days when he “…used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng” (42:4).

It is hard for us to feel the extent of this longing for the exuberant joy of Jewish worship by an ancient Israelite. But C. S. Lewis captures a bit of it in his chapter on “The Fair Beauty of the Lord” in Reflections on the Psalms. He calls it an “appetite for God” and argues that it had “all the cheerful spontaneity of a natural, even a physical, desire. It is gay and jocund. They are glad and rejoice (9:2)….Let’s have a song, bring the tambourine, bring the ‘merry harp with the lute,’ we’re going to sing merrily and make a cheerful noise (81:1, 2). Noise, you might well say. Mere music is not enough. Let everyone, even the benighted gentiles, clap their hands. Let us have clashing cymbals, not only well tuned, but loud, and dances too (150:5). Let even the remote islands (all islands were remote, for the Jews were no sailors) share the exultation (97:1).”4

Our services do not have the same exuberance as the temple religion and there are some good reasons for that. Nevertheless, for many Christians some of their very best memories are of worshiping with other believers in church, perhaps at a special holiday season—Christmas or Easter, for example. The absence of these times as well as their remembrance can contribute to depression.

The overwhelming trials of life (42:7). A bit further on in this psalm the writer speaks of the overwhelming trials of his life, referring to them as “waves and breakers” which have swept over him. We do not know what these trials were, though we can imagine that they were the adverse circumstances that had borne him away from Jerusalem. Perhaps he is seated by a mountain stream, watching the tumbling cataracts and currents. Under other circumstances this might be a delightful experience, one likely to draw out thanks to God for creating such beauty. As it is, he sees the waves as cataracts of evil fortune that have broken on his head.

Failure of God to act quickly on our behalf (42:9). Verse 9 is a painful cry to God for having forgotten him. It reminds us of nothing so forcefully as Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matt. 27:46)? though the words of Jesus were actually borrowed from Psalm 22:1. It is not unusual in a state of depression for the person who is depressed to feel forsaken by God.

Study Questions:

  1. What are proper and improper uses of memories of past days?
  2. What is the psalmist referring to when he writes of “waves and breakers” in verse 7?

Application: Reread Psalm 42:9. Have you ever felt that God has forgotten you, and that he is not answering a cry you keep making to him? What does he want you to do in these times? How can these psalms help you?

For Further Study: For more on the theme of Christian suffering, download and listen for free to a message by Mark Talbot called “Breathing Lessons.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

4C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958), pp. 51, 52.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

An Upward Look by a Downcast Soul, Part 2

By James Boice

Theme: Causes of Spiritual Depression

In this week’s lessons we learn from the psalmist some reasons why the Lord’s people get depressed, and what their spiritual response needs to be.

Scripture: Psalms 42-43

These two psalms give at least six reasons for depression, and they indicate the cure. What are the causes of spiritual depression? There are undoubtedly more than these psalms list, but the place to begin is with the causes that are given.

Forced absence from the temple of God, where God was worshiped (42:1, 2). We do not know from the title of this psalm who the particular person was who composed it. He is presumably just one of the Sons of Korah. But whoever he was, we know the chief thing that was bothering him. He was far from Jerusalem and its temple worship on Mount Zion, and he felt himself to be cut off from God. The psalm begins with his panting after God “as a deer pants for streams of water” when he cannot find it.

We do not know exactly where this unknown author was or why he was there, but we can come close to answering the first question. He says he is writing “from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar” (42:6). Mizar means “little hill (or mountain).” We know of no hill by that name. However, “the land of the Jordan” is the region beyond the Jordan to the north and east, where Mount Hermon is. So Mizar was probably a lesser mountain in the Hermon range. This area is pretty far from Jerusalem, and some writers have suggested that if a traveler (or captive, which the author could be) were headed east in the direction of Babylon, this is the last point from which he might glimpse the familiar mountains of his homeland to the south.

So the psalmist is far from home and feels that he is also far from God. He still believes that God is everywhere, and that God is with him. He is praying to God, after all. But his being away from home has gotten him down, and his depressed state has made him feel that God is absent. There is another dimension in this sense of alienation too. The employment of the Sons of Korah was at the temple in the performance of the temple music (cf. Num. 26:11). So the author’s forced absence from Jerusalem was also an absence from his work and therefore from his sense of being useful. It reflected on his whole purpose for living. Perhaps you have felt the force of that in one way or another. I am sure you have if you have ever lost a job or perhaps are stuck in a dead-end job. An early forced retirement will lead to depression like this for some people. So will old age, when a person feels that his or her useful days are done.

The taunts of unbelievers (42:3, 10). In this distant land the psalmist was also surrounded by unbelievers who taunted him with the biting challenge, “Where is your God?” This must have hurt him a lot, because he repeats the line twice in this composition. In ancient times almost no one was a true atheist. The first real atheism came with Greek philosophy. So the taunt did not mean that God did not exist but that God had abandoned the psalmist. It meant, “Where is your God when you need him? Where is your God now?”

That is a cause for deep depression. Where is God indeed? Where is God when I am in a far country, separated from my usual work, taunted by enemies? Why doesn’t God seem to hear my cries? Why doesn’t he intervene to change my circumstances?

Study Questions:

  1. What are the first two reasons for the psalmist’s depression, and what explanations are offered for the context of these psalms?
  2. How might these reasons be evident today?

Reflection: What are some reasons why you have experienced depression? How did the Lord bring you out of it? What did you learn as a result of it?


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.

An Upward Look by a Downcast Soul, Part 1

By James Boice

Monday: An Upward Look by a Downcast Soul, Scene 1

Theme: When Christians Are Depressed

In this week’s lessons we learn from the psalmist some reasons why the Lord’s people get depressed, and what their spiritual response needs to be.

Scripture: Psalms 42-43

It is hard for me to imagine that a book about depression would be very popular, but in 1965 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, published a book entitled Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, which turned out to be one of the most highly valued and widely circulated books he ever wrote.1 Perhaps you have seen it. The only conceivable reason it has been so popular is not that the subject itself is attractive, but that so many people, including Christians, are depressed and looking for solutions.2

We are all depressed at times. We get down in the dumps. We sing the blues. Spiritually we feel that God has forgotten us and that we will never be able to get on track with God again. It is a condition the old mystics accurately labeled “the dark night of the soul.”

It is a puzzling condition too. We wonder why it is happening, above all if we are Christians. We identify with Erma Bombeck who asks in the title of one of her best-selling books, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Why Am I Living in the Pits? Haven’t you often felt that way? I am sure you have. Perhaps you are feeling that way now.

Psalms 42 and 43, which open the second section (Book Two) of the Psalms, are about depression. And I suppose the facts that have made D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book so popular are the same facts that have made these among the best loved and most frequently consulted of the psalms. Since most of us are downcast at some time or another, we turn naturally to a psalm that asks honestly and forthrightly, “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?” And we are encouraged when it answers hopefully, “Put your trust in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (42:5, 11; 43:5). “I will yet praise him”! The words mean that my present downcast mood is not the final act of my life’s drama.

Psalms 42 and 43 need to be taken together for several reasons: 1) in a number of the Hebrew manuscripts the psalms are joined together as one unit; 2) Psalm 43 has no introductory title, while every other psalm in Book Two, except for Psalm 71, does; and 3) the thrice-repeated refrain links the compositions (42:5, 11; 43:5).3 However, the chief reason for taking the psalms together is that both deal with spiritual depression.

Study Questions:

  1. Why do Psalms 42 and 43 need to be treated together?
  2. What are some reasons Christians experience depression?

1D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).
2This seems always to have been the case, accounting for William Bridge’s masterpiece of 1649, A Lifting Up for the Downcast (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), a 287-page study of Psalm 42:11, as well as Sherwood Eliot Wirt’s more recent study, A Thirst for God: Reflections on the Forty-second and Forty-third Psalms (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1970).
3Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, Psalms 1-50 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), p. 325.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.


Think and Act Biblically from James Boice is a devotional of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Think and Act Biblically and the mission of the Alliance.