Learning to Lament — Part 2

This post is the second of three on biblical lament. You can read the first here. Also, if you’re interested in digging deeper into the topic of lament, I recommend checking out Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament by Mark Vroegop.

The Shape of Biblical Lament

While there are many different types of psalms in the Psalter, laments are the most common.  In fact, approximately one-third (nearly fifty) of the psalms are laments.  This may come as a surprise for a collection named tehillim, or “praises”[1]and yet, this aligns with what has already been observed both in the sweep of the biblical narrative as well as the narrative of each person today.  Perhaps, God provided so many laments in the Psalms to correspond to the vast number of lamentable moments in the human experience.  

That being said, it is important to define what a biblical lament psalm is.  Belcher identifies laments as a sub-category of a larger category of “psalms of disorientation” that “deal with seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death…[and] which state the struggles and questions that arise when the wicked prosper and the righteous experience suffering.”[2]  Longman defines lament as “the polar opposite of the hymn on the emotional spectrum” and adds that laments represent “the psalmist’s cry when in great distress he has nowhere to turn but to God.”[3]  Lucas indicates that laments “express the psalmist’s response to God in a situation of need or affliction.”[4]  Finally, Wenham defines a lament psalm as one “in which the writer prays that God will deliver him from some kind of crisis: sometimes his enemies, sometimes defeat in battle, sometimes a life-threatening illness…[where] the psalmist often seems to think that God has deserted him.”[5]  While each lament psalm revolves around some instance of trouble, struggle, or brokenness, nearly all of them move toward confidence in God, hope in God, or praise of God.[6]  In terms of the Psalter as a whole, the overall trajectory is toward praise, as is seen in Psalms 146-150 that close out the collection.[7]  Having defined a lament psalm, there are several other fundamental features.

[1] Wenham, Gordon. The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 43.

[2] Belcher Jr., Richard P. The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from All the Psalms. (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2006), 67.

[3] Longman III, Tremper. How to Read the Psalms. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1988), 26.

[4] Lucas, Ernest C. Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 3.

[5] Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed, 43-44.

[6] The main exception is Psalm 88, which closes without a hopeful resolution.

[7] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 67.

The Structure of Lament

Lament psalms typically contain certain elements that follow a certain pattern.  The elements of a lament psalm are: invocation of God, complaint, petition, call for vengeance, confession of sin, protestation of innocence, a vow to praise, expression of confidence, and exclamation of praise.[1]  Longman condenses this list to seven: invocation, plea to God for help, complaints, confession of sin or an assertion of innocence, curse of enemies (imprecation), confidence in God’s response, and hymn or blessing.[2]  He also mentions that this order is not always strictly followed and that rarely will each of these elements occur in a single lament psalm.  Thus, while there is a standard mood found in lament psalms and a typical structure, there is significant amount of variation in the elements, flow, and occasion for nearly fifty laments found in the Psalter.

[1] Lucas, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature, 3.

[2] Longman III, How to Read the Psalms, 27.

Types of Complaint

Though several of the elements of lament psalms are prominent, the complaint is the most notable since it reveals the occasion for the psalm’s composition and sets the tone for the rest of poem.  Longman notes three different types of complaints found in lament psalms.  First, there is a complaint where “the psalmist may be troubled by his own thoughts and actions.”[1]  This is a complaint dealing with the inner life. Secondly, there is a type where “he may complain about the actions of others against him (the ‘enemies’).” [2] This is a complaint that revolves around outward pressures and relationships with fellow man.  Though there is some scholarly distress about the nature of “the enemies” in lament psalms, particularly in cases when imprecations are utilized, the most helpful view is to embrace the intentional vagueness of the Psalter when it comes to the identity of these foes.  The Psalms were compiled and used for corporate worship and thus were composed in a way to be used in a variety of situations that worshipers might find themselves.  Moreover, it is worth noting that when many laments use the first person “I,” they ought to be read as a representative.[3]  Since the lament psalms were prepared for corporate use, the individual laments may be sung communally. Finally, there is a type of complaint where the psalmist “may be frustrated by God himself.”  This is a divine complaint, which is demonstrated in the book of Job as well. Interestingly, Psalm 42-43, which will be expounded in the final post of this series, contains all three types of these complaints.[4]

[1] Ibid. 26.

[2] Ibid. 26.

[3] Lucas, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature, 4.

[4] For the first type of complaint see Ps. 42:5, 11; Ps. 43:5.  For the second type of complaint see: Ps. 42:3.  For the final type of complaint see: Ps. 42:9.

How Laments Point to Christ

While the lament psalms were written in an original context of distress and though they were also prepared for corporate worship in ancient Israel, they also have application today, particularly in light of Jesus Christ.  Belcher argues throughout The Messiah and the Psalms that each psalm in the Psalter is at the very least indirectly Messianic, in the sense that they find their expression in the person and work of Jesus both in His humiliation and exaltation.  Belcher builds this idea off of Jesus’s comment to His disciples post-resurrection about how “everything written about [Him] in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, emphasis added).  Thus, even the lament psalms point to Christ and find their fullest expression in the light of Christ – either in His person or work, whether in His state of humiliation or exaltation.  Moreover, the only real answers to the complaints found in the laments come from Jesus.  Bonhoeffer captures this reality beautifully when he writes: 

“There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions, as there are none in the New Testament.  The only real answer is Jesus Christ.  But this answer is already sought in the Psalms.  It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and agony on God: ‘We can no longer bear it, take it from us and bear it yourself, you alone can handle suffering.’ That is the goal of all the lamentation Psalms.  They pray concerning the one who took upon himself our diseases and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ.  They proclaim Jesus Christ to be the only help in suffering, for in him God is with us.”[1]

In Christ, the lament psalms find their goal and true answer.  Though relief may be incomplete or lacking, Christ, as the believer’s hope and object of faith, provides God’s answer to every complaint – “for all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).  Jesus fulfilled the lament psalms and even prayed them in His time on earth[2] and the One who experienced grief to the utmost (Isa. 53:3; Matt. 27:25-50; Heb. 4:15).

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1984), 48.

[2] Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed, 46.

1 Comments on “Learning to Lament — Part 2”

  1. Pingback: Learning to Lament — Part 3 | Moment-By-Moment

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