Hippocrates, the 5th century Greek physician, identified four kinds of temperament: the sociable extroverts – the sanguine; the driven leaders – the choleric; the analytical and reflective – the melancholic; and the relaxed and inward looking – the phlegmatic. While medicine today has much more sophisticated models identifying the complexity of personality, certain characteristics may dominate.
Some people have a greater tendency to depression than others. This is just as true for professing Christians. Some of the great ones of the Bible, such as Elijah and Jeremiah, and later Christian leaders, such as the poet William Cowper, or the English preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, suffered with depression at times. It is simply wrong to dismiss a believer who experiences mood swings as having a spiritual problem. In fact, the reality of their faith is seen in the way they persevere despite their mood swings.
Psalms 42 and 43 illustrate this well. The writer(s), had been forcibly taken from his home city of Jerusalem into exile, either at the time of the Babylonian exile or, more likely, when king Jehoash of the northern kingdom of Israel, defeated king Amaziah of the southern kingdom, Judah (2 Kings 14:14).
Far from home, and from the temple in Jerusalem where he led the worship, the writer asks: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me? (42:5, 11; 43:5). He was depressed and disturbed. Any talk of joy and peace would have been empty and false. God seemed remote as we see in his cry: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (42:1-2).
Many of us today know what it is like to move away from the comfort and security of family and friends. A good part of how we respond will depend on our underlying temperament. And this can all combine to affect our spiritual awareness – as was happening in these two psalms.
The Psalm writer points us to the solution. When he says: I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? (42:9), we see that we should admit our feelings to God, even asking him questions. This takes courage. Further, we learn that we need to address our inner self, our soul. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great English preacher wrote: ‘The main trouble in this whole matter of depression is that we allow our Self to talk to us instead of us talking to our Self.’ The psalm-writer’s soul has been depressing him, crushing him, so he stands up and says, ‘Soul, listen! I will speak to you: “Hope in God; I shall again praise him, my help and my God”.’ Don’t let your feelings dominate.
Throughout these two psalms we see the movement from depression, to admission, to self-exhortation, and then to prayer: Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, the writer says; Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me… (43:1, 3).
Confident in God’s grace, he is assured of the day when, again filled with joy, he will sings songs of praise to God. Psalms 42-43 urge us to move beyond believing things about God, to actually sensing the living presence of God, whoever we are, and whatever our situation in life.