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Understanding “As The Deer”

Kwong Wai Cheng

About the Songs We Sing

Throughout the Bible, we read about people enjoying God through songs of praise. Indeed, music coupled with meaningful words, goes a long way to soothe our weary hearts, refresh our souls and help us connect with God again. Through this series, I hope to share my findings and reflections about some of the hymns we sing in church. Perhaps it will also help you to enjoy God better, just as it has helped me.

As The Deer

Written by Martin J. Nystrom (1984)

I first heard this song when I was in Junior College. I wasn’t a Christian back then, yet the gentle melody had already captured my heart. The song was taken from Psalm 42.

As the deer pants for streams of water,

so my soul pants for you, my God.

(Psalm 42:1)

The image of a deer panting for cool streams of water is mirrored to our soul’s longing for God. Living in tropical Singapore, I can definitely relate to the deer’s thirst for refreshing water. To quench a thirst is so instinctive, yet too often I have denied my spiritual thirst and deprived my soul of God.

The songwriter, Martin J. Nystrom, was born in 1956 in Seattle. He wrote “As The Deer” originally in 1981, (at the age of 25) when he was still a student. He said the song was a reminder to himself to “always seek first the person of Jesus Christ”. To capture such a heart that pants for God, let’s go back to Psalm 42.

Psalm 42 was a “maskil of the Sons of Korah”. The footnote in the Bible explains “maskil” as probably a literary or musical term. The root word for “maskil” in Hebrew also means “understand” or “ponder”, suggesting that the Psalmist was seeking some answers… But who was “Korah”?

Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites – Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth – became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron… (Numbers16:1-3a)

Korah and his followers were Levites, set apart to minister before God on behalf of the people. They were all respected leaders in the community. However, they resented Moses and Aaron’s leadership, grumbled about the hard life in the desert, being denied an inheritance of fields and vineyards, and they rebelled. Their behaviour angered God, and “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions... And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.” (Numbers16:32-35)

Sadly, the rebellion didn’t just end there. The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:41). This time, God sent a plague among the people. Moses and Aaron tried to make atonement for the people but at the end, another 14,700 people had died from the plague (Numbers 16:49). What a tragedy! When things don't go our way, we often turn against one another, and forget to turn to God.

Despite Korah’s insolence and rebellion, his line did not die out (Numbers 26:11). Yet life as his descendants would be really difficult too, having to bear the burden of starting a rebellion that caused about 15,000 deaths. Perhaps it was precisely because they had been spared while others perished, that these sons of Korah felt a deeper appreciation of God’s mercy and grace.

In Psalm 42, they pondered about the tears they shed (vs. 3), their discouragement (vs. 5, 6, 11), the taunting and oppression from the enemy, and suffering mortal agony (vs. 9-10). The sons of Korah learnt to put their hope and faith in God, to see the true value of being close to God, and to pant all the more for God and His leadership during tough times.

Hence hymn writer, Nystrom, aptly wrote in the chorus this message that God alone can provide everything that our soul needs:

"You alone are my strength, my shield, To You alone may my spirit yield;

You alone are my heart’s desire, And I long to worship Thee."

Don't let what happened to Korah and his followers happen to us. Rise like his sons did, and let God be our heart's sole desire.

Kwong Wai Cheng

Wai Cheng is fascinated with words, especially the Word. Her life has always been revolving around words/Word, in one way or another. And she hopes to always hold fast to the Word, to draw strength and gain wisdom, to do the right things in God's sight.

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