As Pants the Hart

 Nahum Tate, 1652 -1715.

and Nicholas Brady, 1659-1726

As pants the hart for cooling streams When heated in the chase,

So longs my soul, O God, for thee,   And thy refreshing grace.

Years ago I noticed in print a misquoted Psalm 42:1. In the King James Version the verse reads, "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." Not realizing that hart is an outdated word for deer, the writer had typed, "As the heart panteth after the water...." The editor in me cringed at the mistake; it made the Bible verse redundant at best, at worst, nonsensical. But the more I thought about it, the more tolerant I grew. On some ethereal plane, the skewed connection was understandable; it maybe even worked.The English language provides a tidy play on words. The hart and heart are thirsty.

As staid as it now seems, singing the Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady paraphrase of Psalm 42 was too revolutionary for some British churchmen of the late seventeenth century who held to a long-standing prohibition of congregational singing of any songs but stricdy translated psalms. They disapproved, for instance, of the heated hunter's chase in line 2 that draws out one's imagination; this is a capital-letter thirst.

Poets ancient and modern have recognized the power of the image: "I'm thirsty."


In her poem "The Prayer" Sharon Olds lays out a capital-letter scene. A young girl sits in a veterinarian's waiting room. Behind a closed door, her sick pet gerbils are being "put to sleep." The poem portrays subtle signs of distress; the girl doesn't cry; she doesn't talk about her gerbils, her loss, her first encounter with death; she doesn't name her feelings; she quietly repeats only one phrase: "I'm thirsty I'm thirsty," as if her sun-dried soul were panting, praying, for the water of life.


Psalm 42 itself does not promise the clear, flowing streams that will rehydrate the sin-dried soul. But Jesus picked up on the image when speaking to a woman drawing water from a well at his request: "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10). 


If you knew what God offers, you would ask for a drink. You would gasp, "I'm thirsty. God, my soul pants for you."


Isaiah 44:3 also promises fulfillment for the soul who longs for God. Lucy Bider paraphrases the verse:

I [God] will pour water on him who is thirsty, I will pour floods upon the dry ground.


And then she adds a personal invitation reminiscent of Jesus' in John 4; here's how to ask for the gift of Hving water:


Open your heart for the gift I am bringing, While ye are seeking me, I will be found.


The eternal God offers the refreshing drink. Ask and receive. Take and drink.


Lord, you have promised to quench the thirst of those who turn to you and ask you for living water. I'm thirsty. Fill my cup, please, and I will drink.


From the book "Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns" by Evelyn Brence.