As the deer fails to teach lament, so does the Church

The WELS new hymnal placed "As the deer" as a surrogate for Psalm 42. The following was written to address this unfortunate replacement.

As the deer fails to teach lament, so also the church.

Psalm 42 is classified as an individual psalm of lament[1],[2]. TLH categorizes it as a psalm “Of Prayer; Against the Enemies of the Church”[3] – that is, imprecatory. The psalm itself shares the psalmists’ despair at the seeming victory of the godless and his separation from God’s presence at the temple. What should be we learn from this psalm? We should desire God’s presence, hear His Word in public worship, and receive the salvation He gives in his Word[4]. Luther uses Psalm 42 in his “Brief Exhortation to Confession”[5] as an image of yearning for God’s Word, absolution, and the Sacrament.

“As the deer” says none of those things. It is a pop evangelical song[6] that, other than the paraphrase of verse 1 in stanza 1, fails to capture the depth or intent of its inspired author. How could our hymnal committee make such a silly mistake; unless it isn’t? Have we become so comfortable in this world that we are unable to lament the evil surrounding us and recognize our deep need for confession, absolution, and the Sacrament in the context of corporate worship? Are we unable to recognize faith lamenting in trials yet hoping in God, that this fluff passes for Psalm 42 in our ‘sacrifice of praise’? Perhaps this helps to explain why our synod’s response to COVID was normalizing “online worship”[7] and providing practical advice[8] instead of suggesting lament?

In AC XXIV, Melanchthon states “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved” – something, perhaps, we should reflect on – “save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns which have been added to teach the people.” What exactly does “as the deer” teach? Perhaps this song is fine for personal piety, but it fails to be representative of the psalm we are claiming to sing. If our kids find themselves in jail someday for their faith – like Paul and Silas in Acts 16 – we want them singing the holy and inspired words of God, words that share the full counsel of God, that teach us how to lament and place our hope in God, not pop evangelical fluff that riffs off a single verse and fails to convey the depth of God’s truth.

The song “As the deer” serves neither the purpose of lament nor of imprecation, much less exhortation to confession. As we don’t read a commentary by Luther in the lectionary and call it the Word of the Lord, so we shouldn’t sing pop evangelical song and call it a psalm.

[1] The Lutheran Study Bible, pg 846

[2] Dr. Gregory Schulz provides a crash course in lament:, see also Logia 24-2. “Lament is a modality of human affection directed to God, and anchored in eschatological hope”

[3] The Lutheran Hymnal, pg 166

[4] Paraphrase of commentary in The Lutheran Study Bible, pg 887

[5] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, pg 653. Excerpt: “For those who really desire to be true Christians, to be rid of their sins, and to have a cheerful conscience already possess the true hunger and thirst. They reach for the bread, just as Psalm 42:1 says of a hunted deer, burning in the heat with thirst, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God.” In other words, as a deer with anxious and trembling eagerness strains toward a fresh, flowing stream, so I yearn anxiously and tremblingly for God’s Word, Absolution, the Sacrament, and so forth.”

[6] Note, the song is not found in CW, nor the ELS’ Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, nor the LCMS’ Lutheran Service Book. It is in the ELCA’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship…

[8] “For such a time as this” did not speak of repentance or lament; but attempted explained the physics of viral particles and why parishioners could shop at grocery stores and skip church with a clean conscience.