The Lament Psalms

Given that we usually think of the psalms as songs of praise, it may be startling to some just how much ‘negative’ content is found in the psalms. Indeed, it may surprise many believers to learn – especially those who are into things like the positive confession movement – just how much of the Psalter is filled with complaints, anxiety, despair and protest.

This class of psalms – which is the largest type in all the psalms – is known as the lament. Exact numbers vary, but there may be as many as 65 or 67 lament psalms, depending on who is doing the counting. Also known as psalms of complaint, or protest, these are found throughout the Psalter. Indeed, they are found throughout the Bible. An entire book of lament has been written – known, not surprisingly, as the Book of Lamentations.

The lament psalms are cries of despair, anger, protest and doubt. They feature regularly in the psalms, and are not something the biblical writers or God himself were ashamed to put into Holy Scripture. They may be an embarrassment to some Christians, but they are a normal part of Israel’s praise and worship – which is what the psalms were all about.

It is interesting that the lament or complaint psalm dominates the 150 Psalms. Most of these are individual laments, such as Ps. 3, 22, 57, 139; but there are also corporate laments, such as Ps. 12, 44, 74, 80. Let’s consider just a few of these psalms.

Psalm 6:5-7 is quite interesting in this regard: “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.”

While some commentators plead ignorance as to the exact cause of the suffering described here, others seem quite confident in calling this a psalm of sickness. Whatever the cause, the suffering described is acute and the outlook is bleak. Although the psalm ends on a more optimistic note, there is no denying the venting of negative emotion and sentiment.

As D.A. Carson says, “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but to a faith so robust it wrestles with God”.

Psalm 13:1-2 also comes to mind: “For the director of music. A psalm of David. 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?”

Like so many other psalms of lament, this one begins in desolation but ends in delight (to use Derek Kidner’s words). But while optimism can be found in the end, pessimism and despair are allowed to be aired forcefully and unashamedly. As Michael Wilcock notes, “There is no denying the gloomy view of humanity which we find in these early psalms.”

Or what about Psalm 88, called “the blackest of all the laments in the Psalter” (as Allender and Longman put it in Cry of the Soul)? “For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves” (Ps 88:3-7).

As Walter Brueggemann says, “Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith”. The misery being described by Heman in this psalm may well be that of leprosy. Whatever the affliction, as E. Calvin Beisner notes, he “never considers that his sufferings might be the result of chance. He is convinced that they come from God.” And he is more than willing to have it out with God over the matter. There is no ‘possibility thinking’ here.

Heman’s psalm has nothing to do with modern notions of positive confession and self-esteem. Says Beisner, “For people tired of faking it when times get tough, Heman’s psalm, dark and dismal as it is, should be a breath of fresh air! It positively reeks with honest misery! He makes no excuses for God. He hides none of his complaints. When he feels abandoned, he says so.”

Or as Marvin Tate comments, “With other laments, Ps 88 stands as a witness to the intent of the Psalms to speak to all of life, to remind us that life does not always have happy endings. Long trails of suffering and loss traverse the landscape of human existence, even for the devoted people of God. There are cold, wintry nights of the soul, when bleakness fills every horizon, and darkness seems nearly complete.”

Another Psalm that could be examined is Psalm 34. Just two verses can here be considered: “The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all” (vv. 18, 19 KJV). Being broken-hearted and ‘crushed in spirit’ (NIV) does not exactly sound like a ringing positive confession. But it is people of this description that the Lord is near to.

Moreover, it is a characteristic of the righteous to have many afflictions, not to be affliction-free. As Peter Craigie notes, “the striking feature of these verses is provided by the contexts within which the divine aid may be experienced. The righteous may be ‘broken-hearted’ and ‘spiritually crushed’; they may have many afflictions (v 20). God’s presence is experienced within these crisis situations; there is no divine guarantee that the righteous will escape the crises and trials of mortal existence.”

Or consider this gloomy thought from a psalm of Moses: “The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). It sounds like something out of Ecclesiastes.

The truth is, human emotion of all types gets a good run in the psalms. There is no simple positive confession here. As Allender and Longman rightly state, “The Psalms are permeated with despair. When we read on in them, we notice that the psalmists consistently return to the Lord with joy and confidence. This might give us the impression that the psalmists’ cry is simply a brief episode, setting up the praise at the end. But this is a misunderstanding, because what appears to us to be a quick transition from crying to rejoicing is actually the culmination of a long struggle.”

Not only do the lament psalms allow for negative emotion, they allow for full expression as well. Negative confession, in other words, is in full swing here. Walter Brueggemann makes this quite clear in his important work, The Message of the Psalms, in which he devotes considerable space to the laments. He is worth quoting at length:

“The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is 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. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

Rather than being an embarrassment to Christians, these psalms are to be seen as fully representing Christian spirituality. As John Goldingay remarks, “The psalms of pain and protest shock Christians who are not used to this way of talking to God. Yet they have an explicit place in the NT. Jesus uses the phraseology of Pss. 6 and/or 42 in Gethsemane, and on the cross utters the extraordinary cry that opens Ps. 22 (Mark 14:34; 15:34). Nor does Jesus pray these prayers so that we might not have to do so, for a lament such as Ps. 44 appears on the lips of Paul (Rom. 8:36). In the NT, believers grieve and protest. To refuse to do so is often to refuse to face our pains and our losses.”

Philip Johnston offers a closing thought on these psalms: “In summary, distress is ubiquitous in the psalms, affecting individuals and communities. It is portrayed in a profusion of human and natural images, in vivid, evocative, stereotypical language, and is attributed as much to God as to human enemies, or the psalmists themselves. But distress is always recounted in an appeal to Yahweh, and the sufferer nearly always moves on to some expression of hope. Both the occasional acceptance of unmitigated lament and the frequent progression beyond it are defining characteristics of psalmic prayer, and potent aspects for those who wish to appropriate them today.”

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