Have you ever experienced any of the following?
How did you respond? Were you:
Most of us, if not all, know such circumstances of life and their reactions.
Take heart. You are not alone. These are some of the experiences and responses embedded in the lament psalms.
Lament is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.”
Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann helpfully breaks the Psalms into three general groups:
Lament psalms belong to seasons of disorientation, in which we experience and express pain, sorrow, and confusion— whether as individuals or communities. About one-third of the 150 Psalms are categorized as “lament psalms.”
Here is a sample of the psalmists’ cries of disorientation:
Betrayal by a close friend:
If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship as we walked with the throng at the house of God. (Psalm 55:12-14 NIV)
Slandered, words being twisted:
My slanderers pursue me all day long; many are attacking me in their pride. ... All day long they twist my words; they are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life. (56:2, 5-6)
Overwhelmed by anguish and fear:
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. (55:4-5)
Discouragement, even depression:
Why are you downcast [discouraged (NLT), depressed (NET)], O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? (42:5, 11; 43:5)
Burdened with regret and guilt:
My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body. I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart. (38:4-8)
Reading Psalm 88, one hears a lament of utter hopelessness.
How are we to read and understand lament psalms?
I acknowledge Mark Vroegop’s Dark Clouds, Deep Mercies: Discovering the Grace of Lament, and others, for this helpful analysis of lament psalms. Generally, these psalms have four stages.
Here are those four stages illustrated by Psalm 13.
The movement of turning to God appears at the opening of a lament psalm. It is evident in Psalm 13:1 as we read:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
Despite this mention of the LORD, there seems to be a note of accusation. Yet, the psalmist is not complaining to his alter ego or a wall—he is addressing the LORD (i.e., Yahweh).
We should also note two more specific references to God in this psalm:
We will return to these in a moment.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we address our prayers—in this case, our complaints—to our God. This act honors God as we seek to express our pain, comprehend His purposes, and seek His answer.
Our God wants to hear us, for he cares intimately for his children as the best of fathers.
This second stage often includes questions such as “Why?” and “How?” Here we express our deep pain and emotions with honesty.
In Psalm 13:1-2 we have the fourfold repetition, “How long?”.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
These questions are comprehensive. The first two are directed toward God’s apparent indifference, even absence; the third toward the psalmist’s internal wrestling; and the fourth toward the triumph of the psalmist’s enemy.
Mark Futato writes,
The complaint is not a rebellious complaining … The complaint is simply the psalmist spelling out with great emotion the struggles being experienced.
Our bold request has a least two elements:
In Psalm 13:3-4, the Psalmist asks:
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
There are three imperatives in this request:
Bold requests, indeed.
This step trusts God and his faithfulness, love, and power.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me. (13:5-6)
Despite the disorientation of life with its pain, suffering, and confusion, the psalmist chooses to trust God.
Here are at least three blessings that flow from attending to the lament psalms.
1. Growing in your relationship with God. This is evidenced by the psalmist’s movement from accusing God (How long, O LORD?), to personalizing the relationship (the LORD, my God), to praising God for his actions and worshiping Him for who He is.
It is crucial to remember that God in flesh—our Lord Jesus Christ—experienced pain, suffering, and grief. For instance, a close friend betrayed him. He was slandered, and his words were twisted. He was forsaken and alienated, crying out with a loud voice,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
— escalating David’s lament psalm to its most profound and ultimate significance (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). God is not untouched by our pain and suffering.
Through these dark seasons of disorientation, we can mature in our relationship with our God.
2-3. I combine the next two blessings of growing, developing, or maturing in your understanding of God’s purposes and yourself.
The cause of our lament opens us to see who we truly are. That cause of our lament has disoriented us from the oriented stable life that we had known— such is the dynamic of growing and maturing. As we move toward reorientation, we are no longer the same— somehow, we are more than we were, and that’s a good thing.
Notice the psalmist’s references to God. At first, there is the address: “O LORD” with a note of accusation. In verse 3, it becomes “O LORD, my God”— claiming relationship and all that goes with it. Finally, in verses 5-6, we hear,
I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
One chapter of life is closing as a new one opens. So the psalmist moves from pain-filled disorientation to hope-filled reorientation with its enlarged understanding of God’s great purposes.
Here is a partial list of personal lament psalms:
3- 7, 10, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 31, 32, 38, 39, 42, 43, 51, 54-57, 59, 61, 64, 70, 71, 77, 86, 102, 120, 130, and 141-143.
I encourage you to read and meditate on some of these psalms. Identify the cause for the lament and the dynamic of the four stages. It is hoped that this exercise will equip you for a future encounter with disorientation.
FORWARD TO the next post in this series
BACK TO Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Image credit: Kate Creech (https://www.katecreechcounseling.com) and The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology (theseattleschool.edu).
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