“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; . . .”
Psalm 42: 7
I first heard the line years ago from my wife’s grandmother, who I knew only for a few years as a rather elegant woman with a radiant crown of silver hair. I don’t remember the occasion, but I’ll never forget the comment because it seemed so out of character for a fine old Christian matriarch. “When bad things happen,” she said, eyes almost averted, her head shaking slightly, “they always come in threes.”
I had no clue where she got that idea, nor why she believed it. Grandma Visser, whose people were hearty Calvinists for generations, could not have pointed anywhere in scripture for that idea, as she well could have for most of her foundational beliefs. But this ancient bit of folklore—does it have pagan roots?—never fully left her psyche, even though she probably read the Word of God every day of her life. “Bad things happen in threes.” She wasn’t—isn’t—the only one to say it or believe it. Google it sometime.
Can it be true? I don’t know that anyone could do the research. But it must have seemed a valid perception for generations of human beings caught in the kind of downward spiral that David must have been in when writing Psalm 42. And, as we all must sadly admit, often as not perception creates its own realities.
Is it a silly? Sure. If we expect it to be true, we may be silly. But the sheer age of that odd idea argues for some ageless relevance. Whether or not it’s true isn’t as important perhaps as the fact its sentiment has offered comfort and strength to human sorrowers.
True believers expect something more than they’ve already gone through, some additional misery if they have already got stung twice. By repeating the old line, Grandma was steeling herself for the next sadness, anticipating that three would mean the end of sorrows, at least for a while.
My guess is that the ancient folk wisdom finds a place in the human psyche not because it’s true, but because it’s comforting: it brings order to chaos. Sad to say, there are three, but at least that’s it.
Interesting, I think, that Eugene Peterson uses the word chaos in his version of this verse: “chaos calls to chaos,” he says. And he’s just as right as anyone, I suppose, for it’s impossible to claim biblical inerrancy when it comes to a verse like this. The KJV says “waterspouts” where the NIV says “waterfalls,” wholly different phenomena. The fact is, nobody really knows what specifically is meant by “deep calls to deep.”
And yet everyone who’s faced a march of consecutive sadnesses knows very well. “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions,” Shakespeare says in Hamlet, an even more depressing assessment than Grandma’s.
We really don’t know what David means here, but many readers of Psalm 42 somehow get it. Our lives on occasion feel like Thomas Hardy novels, when things simply seem to get worse and worse and worse, and don’t get better.
There are no vivid pictures embedded in the line “deep calls to deep,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning enough for most of us to find ourselves therein.
We can’t avoid the painful reality of the soul that’s sliced opened to us in Psalm 42: the singer who believes in the Light but sees nothing but darkness around him.
And maybe, thankfully, what’s there is the outline of a third bad thing.