The psalmist laments, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:7). In typically beautiful poetry, Psalm 42 expresses a cry from the heart of God’s people during a time of trouble. What exactly does it mean that “deep calls to deep?”
There is some question as to the setting of Psalm 42. The author seems to have been outside of Jerusalem and unable to return. He mentions how he “used to go to the house of God . . . with shouts of joy” (verse 4), he speaks as if he is east of the Jordan River (verse 6), and he hears the taunting of an enemy (verse 10). Most likely, the setting is this: the sons of Korah—the leaders of tabernacle worship to whom the psalm is attributed—were accompanying King David as he was driven from Jerusalem by his rebellious son Absalom (2 Samuel 15). As David and those faithful to him fled for their lives, they looked back in sadness at their home of Jerusalem. Psalm 42 is a record of their thoughts in that time of exile.
In the verses leading up to the statement that “deep calls to deep,” the songwriter says he has been thirsting for the presence of God like a deer panting for streams of water (Psalm 42:1). The exiles were longing for their Savior in tears while their enemies taunted them. Cut off from Jerusalem, the sons of Korah could only remember what it was like to take part in worship with shouts of joy in the festive processionals. In the reminiscing, the songwriter attempts to encourage himself in the Lord and place his hope in God. The songwriter waffles between confidence that he would soon be able to praise the Lord as he had in the past, and despair over his present affliction.
The language of Psalm 42 is poetic and metaphorical. “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; All Your waves and billows have gone over me” (Psalm 42:7, NKJV). The songwriter portrays his distress figuratively: it’s as if waves and breakers are sweeping over him. Trouble was surging, with one overwhelming swell coming after another. The “deep” trials he faced kept coming, wave-like—deep after deep.
The Hebrew word translated here as “deep” refers to the deepest depths of the sea. The sons of Korah exiled with David had lost all footing, and they felt as if recurring waves of trouble had plunged their souls into a bottomless ocean of sorrow and despair. The prophet Jonah used similar language to describe his predicament after God’s discipline in his life: “You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me” (Jonah 2:3).
There’s another interpretation of the word deep in Psalm 42, viz., that the songwriter is expressing the fact that his soul was in deep need of God. The psalmist calls out from his place of profound need for the unfathomable greatness of God. A deep need calls for a deep remedy.
James Smith and Robert Lee beautifully elaborate on this meaning of deep calls to deep in their multi-volume work Handfuls on Purpose for Christian Workers and Bible Students: “The deep of man’s need calleth unto the deep of God’s fulness; and the deep of God’s fulness calleth unto the deep of man’s need. Between our emptiness and His all-sufficiency there is a great gulf. . . . Deep calleth unto deep. The deep mercy of God needs our emptiness, into which it might pour itself. . . . Nothing can fully meet the depth of our need but the depth of His Almighty fulness” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971. Vol. 8, p. 11.)
We hit upon the meaning of deep calls to deep when we recognize that human needs are great, but the riches of God are greater. Our wisdom is shallow, but His knowledge and judgments are unsearchable (Romans 11:33–34). God’s thoughts are deep (Psalm 92:5). His love is as deep as His immense heart (Ephesians 3:18–19), as He proved when He gave His only begotten Son to die for us (John 3:16). The height, breadth, and depth of God’s resources are without measure. From the depth of his despair, the psalmist found help in the depth of God’s goodness, and he was able to say in conclusion, “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God!” (Psalm 42:11, NLT).