My quest to understand the psalms of lament began in the midst of a deep period of depression. I had spent a wonderfully rich two months in Ethiopia, recording Christian Somali music for broadcast from Ethiopia over Somalia. During my time there I received numerous “prophetic words” that doors would open for me when I returned to Canada. But within a few short months of my return I was unemployed and living in the basement of a friend’s parent’s house. My familial home had burned down and a friend of mine had committed suicide. These were not the doors I wanted opened.
I was deeply disillusioned with God, completely buried under my grief, and spent most of my days either in a futile job search or sleeping. During this time I was still leading worship at church, and my depression inevitably deepened on the weeks I was to lead worship. At the time, I was unable to pinpoint the reason for this, but when I finally began to come out of my depression, I realized that I felt I could not worship God on Sunday mornings—not as I was. Although many individuals and families in the church supported me in critical ways during this time, I felt wholly excluded when the church gathered for worship. In the midst of my depression, I did not feel I could bring my whole self into a context in which only praise seemed acceptable.
Eventually, as I grew well enough to talk these thoughts over with my pastor and others in the congregation, I began to realize that perhaps the difficulty was not so much with me but with the way I was leading worship. If one of the purposes of the gathered worship of the church is to unify, surely there had to be something wrong with worship services that created feelings of separation from God and God’s people. This conviction grew stronger as I talked with others who had been feeling the same way.
During my depression, the only Scripture passages I had felt able to read were the psalms—specifically the psalms of lament. It seemed right, then, to begin to include in the gathered worship of the church the Scriptures that had made me feel included in God’s story even in the midst of my depression. I was amazed by the response I received. I began to hear from others who felt they had to leave a part of themselves at the door if they were going to be able to worship God. Not only did these individuals now feel included in the worship of the church, they also discovered a new capacity for praise.
The book of Psalms exists today because the people of Israel used these songs, including the songs of lament, in their worship, and they sang them often enough that the psalms were remembered and recorded for future generations.
This songbook of Israel contains more psalms of lament than any other type of psalm. There are so many psalms of lament that they can be broken into subcategories: individual lament, corporate lament, psalms of confession, illness, political complaint, and the like.
Today, however, the psalms of lament are used infrequently by the church. And when we do use them in worship, all too often we skip over the complaint, reading or singing only the expression of trust and praise with which so many of the lament psalms conclude.
It seems strange that the church today would find lament so difficult, when it was such an integral expression of worship for Israel, but perhaps we do not use lament because we do not understand it. We make lament synonymous with grieving, and therefore fail to understand its significance and its use.
Structure of a Lament
Address. A biblical lament cries out to God. This is not an internally focused process of grieving, it is first and foremost a prayer, a conversation. When we further consider the God to whom we cry, this aspect of a lament psalm, brief as it may be (“My God, my God”; Ps. 22) takes on even greater significance. We cry to an omnipotent God, a good and merciful God, a just God, a God who grants us access to himself and invites us into personal relationship with him.
Complaint. A lament honestly and specifically names a situation or circumstance that is painful, wrong, or unjust—in other words, a circumstance that does not align with God’s character and therefore does not make sense within God’s kingdom. The emotional tone of the complaint varies, depending on the type of lament psalm. It may express sorrow, remorse, weariness, anger, disappointment, or doubt.
Request. A lament expects a response or an answer. It expects that God will be able to do something about the situation. Most often the request sounds like a demand: it is the psalmist’s essential heart-rending cry, “God, do something!”
Expression of trust. A lament generally includes an explicit expression of trust, sometimes woven through the complaint and request, and other times concluding the psalm with an almost jarring note of praise. Some expressions of trust are such a startling departure from the rest of the psalm (“I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts—men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth,” Ps. 57:4-5) that they seem to sharply divide the psalm into two parts: lament and praise. But to understand biblical lament properly, we must acknowledge that the expression of trust, with all its praise and joy, is part of a psalm of lament.
Biblical lament, then, is an honest cry to a God who is powerful, good, and just—a cry that this situation is not in alignment with God’s person or purposes. It’s a cry that expects an answer from God, and therefore results in hope, trust, and joy rather than despair.
This understanding of lament makes it much easier for us to apply the psalms of lament to our own lives and to the life of our congregation. Indeed, we begin to see that biblical lament is necessary in a world that does not always operate according to God’s purposes.
The Lord Reigns
In his book In the House of the Lord, Michael Jinkins suggests that the central assertion of the psalms is “the Lord reigns.” If we take this central assertion to be true—and I think it is, both in the time of Israel and today in our own congregations—then the lament psalms should hold a very special place in the Psalter. Through lament, we affirm that God reigns, even in the midst of circumstances that might suggest otherwise. By crying out in our pain to a powerful, merciful, and good God, by asking him to intervene, we proclaim the day of Christ’s coming. We affirm our trust in his ability to transform this world. We proclaim that even death has been answered, even death is lamentable.
At its very heart, a lament is an expression of trust in the character, power, and previous action of God—an expression of trust that looks beyond our current circumstances to what will be and what is—the reality behind the reality.
It is our challenge then, as worship leaders, to take up the cry of lament for our congregations, for our communities, for a world that is not aligned with God’s person and purpose. It is our challenge to continue to cry out to God, to continue to expect an answer, and therefore continue to live in hope, trusting that our good, powerful, and just God does indeed reign.
Lament Versus Dirge
The word lament is most frequently used as a synonym for the practice of grieving. Unfortunately, this means that it seems most appropriate to lament when we are grieving a loss of some kind—a very narrow definition of the word, and therefore a very limited application.
A dirge is a song or poem sung at a funeral, or in response to a significant loss. It mourns a loss that is irrevocable, providing a needed process of grieving and sorrow that affirms the goodness of what has been lost.
A biblical lament is quite different: it generally consists of an address to God, a complaint, a request, and an expression of trust. These structural categories can be broken down further, but for our purposes we will use them as they are. The parts may vary in order, but the vast majority of lament psalms can be identified by these basic building blocks.
In contrast, a dirge may contain a complaint—it may even contain an expression of trust, although I suspect this is rare—but it does not generally contain either an address to God or a request. It’s important to understand this fundamental difference if we want to begin using lament well within the gathered worship of the church.
For Further Reading
- Walter Brueggemann. Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002). This book explores the format of the psalms in an effort to understand their liturgical use in the church today. Brueggemann moves through psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation—noting that psalms of disorientation have become lost to the church as a result of the seduction of wealth and health.
- Marva J. Dawn. I’m Lonely, Lord—How Long? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). While this book does not deal specifically with lament, Dawn’s very personal interaction with the psalms included in this book encourages the reader to explore what it means to praise God from a place of pain.
- Michael Jinkins. In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989). Jinkins provides a full treatment of the types of lament psalms and includes some possibilities for application within the worship of today’s church.
A Prayer of Lament
This example uses Psalm 22 to illustrate each of the elements of a psalm of lament: address, complaint, request, and expression of trust.
“My God, my God” (v. 1).
“Why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. . . . My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (vv. 1-2, 15).
“Lord, do not be far from me. . . . Come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen” (vv. 19-21).
Expression of trust
“Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. . . . Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me feel secure on my mother’s breast. . . . I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. . . . For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (vv. 3-4, 9, 22, 24).