Lessons from Lament Psalms
The Book of Psalms is considered to be a book of praise to God. It is a collection of prayers and songs written by different people. However, a recurring theme in the Psalms is the theme of lament. The Psalmists are honest in expressing their feelings to God. At times they are jubilant and praise God for His many blessings. But they also express the despair and inner turmoil of their heart in the difficult times. Almost one-third of the Book of Psalms could be classified as lament. The lament Psalms are written both from an individual and community point of view. Some examples of individual lament are Psalms 6, 13, 22, 69, and 88 and some examples of communal lament are Psalms 44, 74, 79, 80, and 137.
Both individual and communal lament expresses a lot of powerful emotions. The mood of these Psalms is often melancholic. The Psalmist obviously is in deep anguish over their individual situation or the circumstances faced by them as a community of people. Some of the references accuse God for bringing the trouble and almost throws the blame on Him. God is seen as the one who brought the suffering often as a means of chastisement.
We can also notice that the Psalmists freely use harsh words against their enemies. They pour out their resentments and hope that God would bring justice and punish the wicked that oppress the righteous. The evidence of Retributive Theology is also recurring in the Psalm. The Psalmists struggle to reconcile the fact that the righteous are being oppressed by the wicked and God seems to be silent. Therefore they raise a number of questions as their experiences do not match with their Theology. The communal lament ponders over God’s faithfulness in the past and implores Him to intervene in the present situation.
The lament Psalms close with some words of encouragement or confession of trust (except for Psa 88 which ends on a sober note). The individual laments seem to use more words of hope, confident trust and praise than the communal ones. The Psalmists after expressing their feelings and pouring out their heart to God finally rest upon His promises to deliver them.
This brings us to the question whether it is right for us to express our feelings to God like the Psalmists did. I believe it is totally acceptable for a believer to express their questions, anger, doubts and negative feelings to God. This is the privilege of having a personal relationship with the Lord Almighty. God does not expect us to pretend and hide our feelings or just fake worship in order to please Him. He knows our hearts and He does understand our feelings and sympathizes with us. The Book of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as our High Priest who understands our weaknesses and sympathizes with us (Heb 4:15). When we fail to be honest before God we end up harbouring the resentments instead of pouring our hearts to Him. When we go through difficult situations we can cry out to God in distress knowing that He hears us and identifies with our pain. We don’t have to be stoic when we suffer but like other godly sufferers like David, Job, Jeremiah we can tell God our feelings. We can present our questions to God. These questions are also a form of prayer offered in faith.
While we do have the freedom to express our heart to God we have to be careful that our complaints and grumblings are not a habitual attitude. God certainly doesn’t approve complaining and murmuring which come from a discontent heart as seen in the life of the people of Israel (Ps 106:24-26). There is a difference between honest expression of our feelings in times of distress versus an attitude of complaining which is a result of our worldliness and lack of intimacy with God. Behind the complaints of the lament Psalms we see the faith of the Psalmist in God. We see the confidence being asserted in God as the deliverer. This difference can be illustrated in the book of Job. When Satan desired that Job would curse God and die – he expected Job to renounce his faith as a result of becoming bitter against God. While Job did complain he still kept affirming his faith in God. That is what honest complaints are about – voicing out our feelings and inner frustrations but at the same time maintaining our trust in God. Such complaints are legitimate and God does not condemn us for it.
Our modern praise and worship has missed out on a powerful expression of worship – lament! Our songs are intended to be peppy and a victorious declaration of faith. But it does not give room for honest expression of our feelings. I want to encourage you to write a prayer of individual or communal lament in which you express to God your feelings about either a current or previous experience of suffering. You will soon realize why lament is such a dominant theme in the Psalms. It makes our relationship with God authentic and our worship becomes a genuine experience. I found this to be especially beneficial in the difficult times of my life.
Written by Ashwin Ramani. Ashwin is an associate pastor at the Centre Street Church, Calgary, Canada.