The Psalms of Lamentation

Warning: this post contains more detail than we were able to go into during our last session.

Before going back to more specific types of hymns among the Psalms, we will check out two other major categories of Psalms. Elements of lament and thanksgiving are often included in other types of psalms, so it is a good idea to get some background on how these function before going back.

The first major type of hymn is usually called the lamentation or lament psalm. According to Dr. Bellinger, Dr. Claus Westermann proposed that “the Psalms move between the two poles of plea and praise, moving toward praise.” Referring to Lament Psalms, he writes, “These psalms are cries for God’s help in the midst of trouble, the most basic human cry. The cries come out of the very depths of human experience.”

He cites Psalm 13 as an ideal example of a lament psalm. They have a typical structure. Understanding this structure can help us better understand what is happening in the psalm. The structure usually has four parts:

    Invocation– This means the prayer is addressed to God. (Example: Ps. 13:1)
    Complaint-Describes the trouble and sometimes the probable outcome. (Example: Ps. 13:2)
    Petition -The actual request for help from God. It is often accompanied by reasons for God to help. (Example: Ps. 13:3-4)
    Conclusion-The hopeful conclusion, often with an expression of confidence that God will hear and answer, or with a promise of praise, or sometimes even with the praise itself. (Example: Ps. 13:5-6)

As with the poetic parallelism, this is not an indication that every lament has every element, or that they always follow in the order mentioned above. They are, however, a good way to help understand what is going on in a lament psalm.

Only once in a while is the crisis identifiable, such as sickness (Ps. 6), false accusation (Ps. 7), malicious gossip (Ps. 31) or persecution (Ps. 55 and 60). Most laments describe the problem in highly figurative or general ways. This is where Dr. Brueggemann’s category of “psalms of disorientation” works well. Things are not right with the worshipper’s world, and only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can fix them. These are prayers that anyone can pray in whatever crisis they find themselves in.

Some few psalms, such as Psalm 51, are about guilt in and repentance from sin. More psalms are about the opposite of guilt – innocence. Dr. Brueggemann turns to Psalms 26 and 137 for a treatment of psalms of innocence.

According to Dr. Bellinger, “Psalm 26 is a prayer for vindication addressed to God. It emphasizes reasons why God should respond, and emphasis that is clear in the introductory plea… a protestation of innocence, probably in the face of some kind of accusation. The worshiper fears being counted among the wicked and so seeks a divine sign of vindication.”

Hope, worship and integrity are central to this psalm. The writer is in a relationship of faithfulness with Yahweh, and seeks the One who can help him clear his name. He goes to God because God cares about integrity. In our modern world, it is refreshing to see someone praying in honesty about his or her own integrity while seeking justice in the divine court.

He cites Psalm 137 as another example of a prayer for vindication, although I think I might wonder about the innocence of the community being taken into Babylonian captivity. Their world has been destroyed in the conquest of their beloved city of Jerusalem. It is also a community lament.

Their first response to the trauma is to remember Jerusalem and its songs of worship. The next response is to call on God to remember the perpetrators of the destruction of Jerusalem, the nations of Babylon and Edom. This is a call for vindication, but a vindication in more forceful and destructive vein. They want the destroyers to pay for their war crimes.

They are seeking justice for the wronged and oppressed of their own people. The example of dashing their little ones against the rock may seem like an extremely distasteful prayer that is contrary to Jesus’ teaching. What they are asking, in an artful and very emotional way, is for God to decide in their favour. They are not out to destroy Babylonian children, though it is likely that the Babylonian army did something just as horrific to their own children. It is an honest prayer of anguish and disorientation. Dr. Bellinger puts it in perspective.

The Psalmists knew long before the advent of modern therapy that for communities and individuals to deal with pain and anguish, the pain and woe mus first come to expression. Psalm 137 cries out from the ruins; a way of life is no more. Perhaps a prime example of such a psalm from and individual is Psalm 109. The speaker suffers under the assault of ‘lying tongues’ and has become ‘an object of scorn.’ The articulation of such pain enables the individual or community to move forward and deal with it. One deals with anguish, anger, and pain by working through it rather than going around it. And take note that these cries are addressed to God. All of this “negative” part of life is included in the honest dialogue of faith. The saints of old did not hold within grudges, anger, or pain, but brought them to expression in prayer.

There are many laments in the Psalms, which seems to suggest that God wanted many examples of lament prayers preserved by His people. The language is rich in honest dialogue with the God who is in a relationship with them. This is a God who has helped them in the past and to whom they lift their anguished cries for help now.

A lesson for us today is that we may want to rediscover this kind of honesty with God in our own prayers. He wants us to speak of the things that really are on our minds and hearts. Even the hard ones. He is not the God of the health and wealth gospel, but rather the God who judges and redeems from slavery to sin and oppression.

Life is not about ease and comfort. Jesus Christ has been here, and He knows better. We are here to drink the cup that he has drank from, and to receive our reward at His return. He promises not to leave or forsake us, however. This means we can safely talk with Him about our problems and complaints.

Notice the prayer of the saints under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11. Note that these are New Testament saints making a scary request. They want vengeance! And God answers in the affirmative(!) – though He informs them there will be a delay. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, wants to know what is really on our hearts.

I learned, as an untrained choir singer, to sing out loudly during practice. I was frequently corrected for being on the wrong note, and was sometimes even embarassed by the correction. What counted, though, was that I became a better singer and that the performance sounded much better.

In prayer I have experienced similar corrections of my own heart in some situations. I have also experienced answers. Sometimes I have received help in trouble, and sometimes even vindication when I was being wrongly accused or improperly treated. Sometimes the correction and the help came together.

It behooves us to really cast our cares on Jesus Christ, because He really, really cares for us.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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