How Long, O Lord? Psalms of Lament

1754097a4078c11f07e42c45f1dc4824If you were to take a look in your hymnal right now, smack in the middle, you would find that there are songs that are associated with Psalms. Part of the reason for this is because, in our tradition at least, for most of our history the songs we have sung have been the psalms set to music. John Calvin wrote of the Psalms that it was important for the people to sing these prayers as their own, so that we, in turn, might be able to pray similar prayers and songs of praise to God on our own.

In other words, singing the Psalms was a way of making God’s Word our own words, so that we might begin to connect our human experiences in the world to the reality of God.

As we have learned already, there are psalms that Praise God enthusiastically, and there are Psalms that express an unwavering trust in God.   But there is one category of Psalms that overshadows them all, one expression of the human condition that finds itself absent from the canon of psalms which we sing.

“By the waters the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept and wept for thee Zion, Please remember me, remember me remember me Zion.”

lament-davidsweeney-224x300Of all of the psalms, the psalms of lament are both the most common, and perhaps the most perplexing. How can prayers of despair and of hopelessness, or even prayers doubting God’s presence in the world, be considered faithful? They seem so dark—and so we tend to skip them and favor the lighter, more joyous Psalms found elsewhere.

But what if the Psalms of lament are necessary? For who hasn’t experienced deep grief in their own lives, or sorrowed over the daily parade of bad news? Who doesn’t cry out to God in a world where schoolchildren and churchgoers are gunned down, where young women are bought and sold into sexual slavery on a daily basis, and strangers blow up mosques and shopping centers with jarring frequency.

Walter Brueggeman observes that the psalms of lament, which he calls the psalms of darkness, are an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate.

That doesn’t mean that lament is formless.  Rather, the psalms of lament tend to follow a very specific structure, one that recognizes that there is a process, or a pathway, out of pain and into the heart of God.  Take a look at Psalm 13, for example:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
    my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Psalm 13 follows a particular pattern, and by exploring that pattern, we can begin to understand how lament can be both incredibly faithful and useful for thinking about the struggles of our daily life:

  • The call: From the very beginning, the psalmist acknowledges God. Nothing in the troubles of life and the experience of the absence of God cancels the privilege of faith to speak directly to God in confidence of being heard.
  • Overview of the problem: In verses 2-3, the psalmist describes what is wrong in a tone of protest. The agenda of distress is threefold: this person has suffered trouble with God (God as absent), with self (pain in the soul), and with others (an enemy “exalted above me”). In the experience of the one who cries out, God does not help; there is no evidence God is present. The three problems are distinct but inseparable. Helplessness causes anxiety and anxiety protests to God. This is not simple trouble. This is real trouble.
  • Petition: In verses 3-4, the psalmist begs God both to “Hear me!” and to “Help me!”  Biblical theologian James Mays observes that “when we sense God hears us, it renews the strength of our hope; when we sense God is working to help us, our trust is revived.” These petitions seek the revival of life. Without the salvation of God there will be death. Life is at STAKE. This is the prayer of one who sincerely believes that the lives of those who belong to God matter to God. And so s/he waits for God to answer.
  • Trust and hope: By verses 5-6, the psalmist has been restored to trust and faith in God’s hesed. The goal of the lament is to move towards the promise and hope found in God. Lament, therefore, is fruitful: it is a crying out not for the sake of crying, but with the expectation that doing so will help us reach our telos in healing and restoration through the power of God. The psalm leads those who read and pray it from protest and petition to praise: it holds all three together as if to teach that they cohere in the unity of prayer. The psalm’s composition is guided by the radical knowledge of faith that cannot separate God from any experience of life and perseveres in construing all, including life’s worst, in terms of a relation to God. Lament puts flesh on the reality we experience, not to hold ourselves in that place of pain, but to move us closer to where God is working out reconciliation.

Lament can be powerful.  Returning to the words of James Mays, “the psalm teaches us how to pray, but it also shows us who we are when we pray. Agony and adoration hung together by a cry for life—that is the truth about us as people of faith. We are simultaneously the anxious, fearful, dying, historical person who cannot find God where we want God to be, and the elect with a second history, a salvation history, a life hid with Christ in God.”

Earlier this week, our own President put words to the lament of our country as he laid the Reverend Clementa Pickney to rest. In speaking of the tragedy that claimed his life, our President reflected that “The darkness we lament seeks to incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion. It seeks to deepen divisions between people and God. But God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.”Charleston Cover

Lament is the prayer of those who will not accept a world in which darkness has the last word. Lament sees the darkness, and will not sweep it under the rug. Lament lifts up our pain, our suffering, our human condition, and refuses to let it be ignored. And Lament demands that God be present there, that God show up as we stumble in the dark, that Grace prevail over it, until we again can join our voices to the song of the faithful, and once again affirm the grace that God has visited upon us.

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