The Psalms & Lament

The book of Psalms is not merely a deeply theological collection; it is an example – a handbook – of how we can worship. Filled with myriad examples of sorrow and joy that are all lent toward God.
 
Psalm 95 is an expressive example of how vibrantly full of worship the book is. It is a Psalm with great refrains of doxology. It calls us into worship, and it tells the story of God.
 
 
6 O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!                                               7 For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,                                                                                                                 and the sheep of his hand. (Psalm 95:6-7, NRSV)
 
 
There are many kinds of psalms; you can break them into ‘genres’ or ‘categories.’ It helps to understand each Psalm in a new way when you separate them. Just as music is labeled in order to give the listener an initial awareness. There are Psalms of Thanksgiving and Covenant Psalms. Along with Wisdom Psalms and Torah Psalms. These are common and helpful identifiers when reading the book of Psalms.
 

The Psalms listed above we are quite familiar with, but there are also Psalms of Lament. Lament Psalms take up quite a large portion of the book. It is important to consider all the different genres as we develop our understanding of scripture and worship, but often the laments are overlooked. They have a tendency to make us uncomfortable, but as the Psalmist cries, “How long, O God?” We too can cry out to God in our anguish. A perfect example of a lament Psalm is Psalm 13:

 

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:1-6, NRSV)

 

In Psalm 13, we see despair, fear, and pain—among other things. The genre of lament can be complicated, and it is more complex than this short blog could hope to cover. If you examine the passage above, you’ll find there is a praise at the end. Even though the Psalmist is in deep sorrow, there is a shift to praise in verses 5 and 6. The heart of worship is praise, but we cannot forget that there is pain in this life.
 
It is important to note that lament is not simply an Old Testament concept. Jesus, himself, wept for the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). John does not tell us in his Gospel what Jesus said or anything specific except for the fact that he wept. The lack of description leaves a certain degree of emptiness for the reader. The lack of description depicts the pain. By only saying two words, John creates a genuine, deep sense of mourning and of lament.
 
There may be some who would argue that Jesus discouraged lament. In Luke 8:52, Jesus tells the parents of a dead child not to weep or lament. From the surface, one could come to the conclusion that he was discouraging the practice of lament, but Jesus was about to bring resurrection and hope. He was not attempting to chastise them for crying. Jesus understands lament, but he is in the midst of pain bringing hope. It wasn’t a rebuke against lament, sadness, or the pain they felt. It was encouragement of hope and resurrection.
 
The book of Psalms, as well as the whole Bible, is filled with celebration, praise, wonder, and awe, but it is also filled with lament, sadness, and pain. Authentic worship gives praise to God, and it is free to encompass all parts of life. God is present with us. God celebrates with the community and cries with the community, His followers. This is the blessed assurance we have. God is with us in the joy and the pain. As the book of Psalms shows, God is not uncomfortable with our pain, but is there at work in it.
 

As we continue to walk through what worship is, we are defining worship, and we are continually seeing a broader, fuller view of worship that is formative. By adding lament into a personal spiritual practice, we can connect with God and worship God in new ways as we develop our relationship with the God of love. But how do we start implementing this kind of practice? A good starting point would be to read through the lament Psalms and pray through the experience. It is important to understand that we are not the audience of worship, whether in private or corporate worship. God, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is the audience. God is bigger than us and is with us as we go through life.


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