The Psalms demonstrate several important practices which are useful to shape our hearts in soul care. Their poetic nature sparks our imagination as we envision transformative biblical truths about ourselves and about our God. Langley explains,
Readers of the Psalms are invited to imagine interpersonal harmony as oil running down Aaron’s beard (133). Prayer is pictured as rising incense (141:2). People can be seen as broken pottery (31:12), withering grass (37:2), wineskins in the smoke (119:83), pillars carved to adorn a palace (144:2), a puff of breath (39:5), and either trees or chaff (1:3–4). Life is sometimes like falling into a pit (9:13), having your heart turned to wax (22:14), or being calmed like a weaned child (131).”1
Some of these biblical images may seem culturally distant, but we should not reduce what the psalmists show to what we merely tell. It is better for us to enter fully into their world instead of seeking to transport them into ours. As Langley adds,
Imaginative appeal is evident in dozens of psalms: God is shepherd (23:1), shield (7:10), stronghold (9:9), rock (18:2), light (27;1), fortress (31:2–3), warrior (35:1–3), dwelling place (90:1), and shade (121:5). Imagery for God’s actions include smashing the teeth of the wicked (3:7), raining fiery coals (11:6), thundering and shooting arrows (18:13–14), pitching a tent for the sun (19:4), anointing the poet’s head (23:5), and breaking the cedars with the sound of his voice (29:5) Imaginative situations include narrow escape (124), gates opening to receive a king (24), God convening his heavenly court (82), and recording the nations in his book of the redeemed (87).2
The Psalms, then, help us to see what God sees. For in the Psalms, we find ourselves. Then, in the Psalms, we discover our God: “One reason we love the Psalms is because they tell us so much about God. The Psalms give us a dialogue with God in which we speak our joys and sorrows to God, and God for his part meets our needs and receives our praise.”3
The Psalms can use emotive language to help our counselees accurately express their internal struggles and desires of the heart. So, even when the prosaic is lacking, the Psalms can introduce symbolic language to express the way we feel. We might ask our counselees, “Does it ever feel like your world is turned upside-down (Ps 46:1–3)? Or like enemies have besieged your city (vv. 4–7)? Or that you must deal with the aftermath of certain carnage in your life (vv. 8–11)?” The Psalms provide the needed language to help “translate” our counselees thoughts and affections into words. We can then offer hope by identifying the nature and extent of the troubles that they face. The Psalms, however, do not only voice man’s problems, but also direct us to find God’s solutions in his Word. “The Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”4
Second, the Psalms declare our God and his Word as the ultimate answer to our problems. We long to know our God better in the Psalms, for “truth and beauty are in the Scriptures, as indeed they must always be, an inseparable unity. Scripture is maligned and misinterpreted when its aesthetic quality is ignored in favor of exclusively expository and didactic interpretation. Is it not equally wrong to handle the Scripture unaesthetically as to handle it untruthfully?”5 Langley adds more praise:
The aesthetic concerns of the Psalms can be seen not only in their exquisite artistry, but in the claims they make for the Word of God and our experience of God. They describe Scripture as “precious” (19:10), “sweet” (119:103), and “flawless silver” (12:6). In keeping it is “great reward” (19:11). Torah is better than gold, and the theme of the psalmist’s song (119:14, 54, 72, 127) God’s Word is beautiful, and so is God’s presence (26:8; 84:1) and strength (21:1). His providence is “pleasant” and “delightful” (16:6). The psalmists long to be filled with the good things of God’s house (65:4), to enjoy fellowship with him (16:11), and “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (27:4). The Hebrew poets invite readers to “delight” in God’s truth (1;2; 119:24) and in the congregation of his people (16:3); to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (34:8); to rejoice in his honor” (149:5) and to worship him “in the splendor of his holiness” (29:2; 96:9). Every exhortation to praise the Lord is an invitation to aesthetic response: we are called upon to admire the One who is supremely admirable. “It is good,” Psalm 92 says, “to praise the LORD and to make music to your name, O Most High.”6
God’s Word must always be our wonderful counselor: “Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.”
Langley, Fair Beauty, 13. Basil of Caesarea made this very claim in the fourth century: “When the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did he do? The delight of melody he mingled with the doctrines, so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians, who, when 12 giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey” (Basil, Homily on Psalm 1).
It will guard our holiness in the face of temptation (vv. 9, 165) and fill us with hope as we face life’s difficulties: “And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for my hope is in your rules” (v. 43, see vv. 81, 114). As the psalmist testified, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (v. 105; see vv. 44–47).
Therefore, “the psalms are given to us as a divine pedagogy for our affections—God’s way of reshaping our desires and perceptions so that they learn to lament in the right things and take joy in the right things.”7
Psalms 42–43 provide a powerful example of preaching the good news to ourselves and will then help us to counsel other hurting souls.
The Problem of Spiritual Depression
Psalms 42 and 43 paint a portrait of spiritual depression as the author depicts his soul in turmoil and intense longing. The historical background is unclear, but the psalmist is isolated, cut off from corporate worship with God’s people, and surrounded by mocking unbelievers. It is a dark and lonely place to be, yet still his hope remains.
This pair of psalms provides a glimpse into a self-counseling session between the psalmist and his own soul. Thus, we see the psalmist functioning as both counselor and counselee. So, as we examine this psalm, we will find helpful principles for both perspectives of a counseling session which addresses spiritual depression.
For the Counselee: Take Hope in God
Three times, the author cries out, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (42:5, 11; 43:5). In this repeated refrain, we discover a biblical process for navigating through the darkness of spiritual depression.
- Reflect – As the psalmist reflects on God, he begins to recognize his spiritual depression for what it His soul is downcast and roiling in turmoil. Yet he realizes he should be in a state of hope, rather than depression. Thus, the psalmist expresses puzzlement over why he’s in such a state (“Why are you cast down, O my soul. . . ?”). To us, the reason seems abundantly clear. He is oppressed and mocked by enemies (42:9–10)—the victim of ungodly, deceitful, and unjust people (43:1). Isn’t it obvious? He’s living in depressing circumstances!
Brian Brock, “Augustine’s Incitement to Lament, from the Enarrationes in Psalmos,” in Evoking Lament: A Theological Discussion, ed. Brian Brock and Eva Harasta (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 183–203.
Yet perhaps the psalmist is confused because he actually knows better. The rest of the refrain displays his theological grounding. He knows that he ought to hope in God despite his circumstances. He knows that God is the true source of his salvation. He even knows by faith that God will deliver him out of this darkness and into the light of joyful praise. Still, there is a disconnect between what he knows and how he feels. The psalmist knows that his depression is irrational in view of God’s character. Yet even in the midst of this, he does not jettison the truth into the stormy sea of his darkened feelings. Rather the psalmist takes hold of the truth in his downcast state as the rock to which his anchor clings. Counselees must cling to the sovereign goodness of God and rejoice in God to endure any and every circumstance.
Rest – Hope in God is the remedy for the psalmist’s inner Yet the nature of true faith requires hope in things unseen (Heb 11:1). The psalmist sees only his terrible circumstances, mockery, and oppression. Yet he trusts in the unseen character of the One who made him: “my salvation and my God.”
Hope forces the downcast soul to look beyond the immediate situation and view the larger picture of God’s redemptive plan. It reminds us that, while God may lead us through valleys of death’s shadow (Ps 23:4), he will not ultimately leave us there. Indeed, he is present with us, even in times of deep darkness.
Then, not only does the psalmist place his hope in God’s character, but also in God’s work. Three times he declares, “I shall again praise him.” He envisions a glorious day, when God will bring him into his courts to joyfully worship anew. He looks forward to the future, which is, once again, unseen. He knows that God remains at work in sanctifying his people (Rom 8:28–30) and that he will not leave his work undone (Phil 1:6).
Remember – The psalmist must repeat these truths to himself over and over Such intentional remembrance is necessary for counselees to live by hope in God’s promises to his children.
For the Counselor: Application Insights
Read Psalms 42–43 again and apply it to your own life. Consider your present struggle and pray these psalms back to God. Suppose your friend struggles with spiritual depression such that their difficult circumstances have assaulted their trust in God. They have noticeably struggled to worship and fellowship with other Christians. How do you minister hope to your friend’s ailing soul?
Reflect – How can you compassionately empathize with the struggles they are facing? How can you gently expose the disconnect between what they know and how they feel?
Rest – How can you direct your friend to the character and work of God? How can they focus their heart on what is unseen instead of everything they see around them?
Remember – What truth does your friend need to remember? What practical ways can help them do this?
For Further Study:
Langley, Ken. “Genre-Sensitive Use of the Psalms in Counseling.” JBC 20:3 (2002), 38–45.
Meyer, Stephen G. “The Psalms and Personal Counseling.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 2 (1974), 26. Moody, Josh. Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.
Parr, Thomas. Joy in Dark Places. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022.
Reissig, Courtney. Teach Me To Feel: Worshiping through the Psalms in Every Season of Life. The Good Book Company, 2020.
Reju, Deepak. “Using Wisdom Literature in the Personal Ministry of the Word.” In Scripture and Counseling, ed. by Bob Kellemen and Jeff Forrey, 337–52.
Robertson, George. Soul Anatomy: Finding Peace, Hope, and Joy in the Psalms. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2020.
Swindoll, Charles R. Living the Psalms: Encouragement for the Daily Grind. Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2012.
Tom Sugimura pastors New Life Church in Woodland Hills, CA. He trains church planters, international pastors, and biblical counselors. He has also authored two books, Hope for New Dads and God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda, are busy raising four rambunctious children.