What is the Meaning of “Deep calls to Deep”?

Psalm 42:7 inspires the imagination, but do we actually get the translation right? Do we really understand what this verse means?

I’ll quote the King James here:

Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts:
all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.

Ok, so for an updated-sounding translation, here’s the ESV:

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

Often, people use this verse to describe the nature of prayer–a “calling out” from deep within oneself to deep within God. You can get a sense for it from the songs which quote this verse like “Deep Calls to Deep” by Mary-Kathryn or Matt Redman’s song by the same name. You can get a sense for the Christian preaching inspired by this line from Benny Hinn talking about intimacy with God. There are many other sermons, homilies, songs and inspiring Christian reflections on this phrase. But, do we really get it right? I think not.

The typical interpretation in these Christian reflections tries to associate the phrase to a personal communication between God and the soul. However, I think our Psalmist is actually trying to poetically describe water. Yep, water. Notice the rest of the verse about waterfalls and waves. The phrase “tehom el-tehom qore“. The ever-helpful Blue Letter Bible gives us a dictionary entry on the significant word here, tehom “deep”:



Notice the relevant line: “‘wave calleth unto wave,’ i. e. wave follows wave without intermission.” The word tehom normally is referring to a big body of water like the sea. Here though, the psalmist is talking about moving water, wave after wave, or in the case of a waterfall, crash after crash of the water from above. “Deep calls to deep” describes as best as a poet can the awesome power, repeated crashing and visual impact of wave after wave, not the cry of the heart.

Now of course, this verse does come in the context of a poem about intimacy with God, which describes thirst for God, the joy of his presence and the terror of his loss. It deals with the depths of despair and conflict and the agony of tearful longing for God. But the personal dimension is at the end of this verse rather than the beginning. It says: “your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” The Psalmist feels overwhelmed by the darkness and despair he is experiencing, hitting him with wave after wave. He is mourning and oppressed (v. 9). He seeks hope, but finds taunting. His prayer is to be released from the overwhelming waters of darkness into intimate union with God. So, yes, this Psalm is about intimacy with God, but somehow we have a hard time getting the details right.

12 thoughts on “What is the Meaning of “Deep calls to Deep”?

  1. Salena

    This post is almost a year old but I want to say “THANK YOU!” It saddens me that tradition has passed down such misinterpretation, but to err is human which doesn’t exclude the brethren. Thank you Brother for pointing a flashlight on this small scripture.

  2. Rohan

    Would totally Disagree, As deep calls to deep in the Whole context of this Psalm is intimacy.. His Spirit Calling to your spirit… Deep to deep. Notice the Capital D- of His deep to your deep,, God forms a cavern inside of us, and His water flows through us Crashing through us and cleansing us. The deer pants for water as a person longs to be washed and waves swept over him and the Spirit makes way and cleanse us from the inside out. Amen

  3. marcart

    I agree Rohan, I am ask to sing it in our choir, but it collides with my spirit, in the wrong way.

  4. Alex Vera

    Rohan, i don’t think you understood the exegesis of this article and you made the same mistake I have made in the past. The capital D you refer to is an English language interjection and it is a capital because it follows a period. The original contained no punctuation. The context of verse 7 follows verse 6 where the psalmist is recalling the grandeur and greatness of God using nature to illustrate. The second half of verse 7 speaks of the psalmists sorrow using water as his metaphor. Therefore the first half is bot speaking of God communication to the psalmist. Yet as the author of this article correctly pointed out, this psalm is about intimacy with God and we should not miss that but we should be careful not over spiritualized a verse to get more meaning out of it.
    With love in Christ, Alex

  5. Mark A Kelley

    I would ask what is the context of this section, the bigger chapter and then even ask what is the context of the entire book of Psalms. I believe the laments of the writer/writer’s taken as a whole help give us the meaning. Why would the writer use the example of deep water in the middle of this lament in the middle of a book of laments and stop and insert a section about water, except to use it as some type of example of the whole idea? Just a question.

  6. SteveMan

    My humble thoughts of “Deep calleth unto deep” ….the emphasis of meaning is best understood in the words Deep calleth… and that Deep is calling unto others who are in tune to the Deep. Those who wish to hear from the Deep, and will hear from the Deep are themselves also Deep, and have prepared and opened themselves and their heart to hear and understand things which are deep and intended for the like minded.

  7. Michael

    I perfection and union with G’m thinking of the odmystics, and the journey of the soul seeking union with God. As one attains greater intimacy, there is the calling,I.e. deep unto deep at the roar of the waterfalls, which leads to further purgation and self-annexation. Water cleanses, thus as we pray and habitually seek purification, we attain union with God. Some humble reflections!

  8. D-jay

    Steveman you are very correct… Only deep can call unto deep….. It takes a deep Christian to call deep jesus christ…… Tanks

  9. Gil Mulder

    I believe that those who seek God must be listeners. When we seek and in that process listen… often we will hear or discover. The deep things of God certainly do call to the heart of a man or woman and also the depth of one person can call in relationship to the deep things in another life. If I desire for truth in consequence of relationship with the Creator then I must also quiet myself from all activity from time to time in order to hear the deep calling to deep. I am reminded that deep waters run silent as a place in Clark County Washington where the Lewis River runs thru a narrow gorge where the water is over 150 deep. You can barely hear the murmur of the water as it passes. Fast moving turbulent water as the upper headwaters of the Jordan at Dan, Israel are boisterous and do speak of power in motion, but have nowhere near the potential of slow moving deep water. Fast water can carry one as on a rubber raft or tube…. deep waters invite exploration if you have the equipment and heart to dive under the surface.

  10. steven faucette

    THis passage is a direct quote from Jonah Chapter 2 where Jonah is in the belly of the fish and is definitely in deep despair. He isn’t sure if he will live or die at this juncture. His calling out to God is a cry out for mercy.
    Life can be that way too. We can’t seem to stand up without getting knocked down time after time as if we are being pushed down by the waves of the ocean until we are about to drown. Drown in despair and sorrow and hopelessness.
    I did not read all the comments but I don’t think anyone connected this with the book of Jonah.

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