Psalms of Lament
By Marjorie George
A few years ago, I attended the funeral of a six-year-old boy. It was outrageous; six-year-olds ought not to die. The mother clung to the child’s teddy bear throughout the service; the father was dazed. They were not a particularly churched family, and neither were most of the congregation – twenty- and thirty-year-old couples who had their own six-year-olds.
At the sermon, the preacher climbed into the pulpit and looked into the questioning eyes of the congregation. “I have no answers,” he said. “I cannot tell you why this child died. I feel your grief, I know you want answers. I do not know why. But I know this; we are gathered here today as a community of love and support, and God is in our midst.”
Such is the two-part cry of the psalmist’s lament: “Why have you deserted me, God?” Along with “I know you have not deserted me.”
What is more pitiful than the complaints of the psalmist in Psalm 88? He cries day and night, his death is imminent, he has no strength, he is like one who is dead. The psalmist is not above pointing out to God that “If I am dead, that’s one less voice praising you, you know” (vs 11). “Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave?” he asks, for the Hebrews had no belief in a forever-life beyond death.
The lament psalms reminds us that like ourselves, the Hebrews were an already/not yet people. “The people of God find themselves again and again in the interim between God’s promise and the fulfillment of the promise,” says Bernhard Anderson in Out of the Depths: the Psalms Speak for Us Today. “That interim is the time when faith is put to the test, for there are no unambiguous proofs that God has spoken and that God is in control of the human situation” (p 55).
We, too, are an interim people. The New Testament proclaims that God’s kingdom is revealed through Jesus Christ and that His promises to Israel are fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Even so, says Anderson, “Christians also find themselves living in the interim between the inauguration of God’s Kingdom and its final realization, between the first break of dawn and the full light of day” (p 55).
Perhaps it is because we have seen that “first break of dawn” that we dare to hope, for a faint ray of optimism is the mark of the lament psalms. In the midst of being “poor and in misery” (Psalm 86:1), the psalmist calls upon the Lord, puts his trust in God, lifts up his soul to God, and declares God’s great love (86:2-13), vowing that “In the time of my trouble I will call upon you, for you will answer me” (86:7).
Christ on the cross becomes the plaintiff of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet with his dying words, he puts it all back on God: “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” which is also, by the way, taken from another psalm (31:5).
From the psalmists we learn that it is OK to yell at God. Scream and kick and stomp your feet; many injustices in this world are too horrible for anything less. God cries, too, no doubt, when he sees his children in grief and pain and sorrow.
And then, with the psalmists, consider that God does not leave us alone in our misery. Like Peter, we are forced to say, “Where else would we go, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
1. The website Explorefaith (www.explorefaith.com) offers Landscapes of Grief, 28 daily reflections selected from the psalms that speak of grief. Read them at http://www.explorefaith.com/lifeissues/sorrow_and_grief/landscapes_of_grief/index.php
2. Read through several psalms, especially some of the first 89 psalms, and note where they bring a complaint before God. Note also the confidence they express in God’s ability to redeem the situation. Highlight these psalms so you can return to them when you feel particularly overwhelmed by your life.
Notes on the Psalms
Although the lament psalms are found throughout the Psalter, they are clustered in the first two-thirds of the book, largely in Psalms 1-89. There are both community concerns (military crisis, drought, famine, scourge) and individual grievances (sickness, impending death, enemies, alienation), all incorporating the idea that the calamity can be overcome if God wills to intervene. Perhaps the very fact that the psalms speak in generalities and not specifics – we never really know who the faceless enemies of the psalmists are – makes them relevant to us today. They portray situations that are typical of everyone who struggles with the injustices of life, and they invite us to insert our own names and disappointments as we call to God for relief.