Sad Songs Say So Much, Pt. 2

I wrote a piece earlier on the benefits that we can gain from the “sad songs” in the biblical psalter.  Given the enormous positive response I received, I thought it fitting to write a “part two.”  Sad songs say so much…more still!

The psalms of praise are wonderful.  In light of the torrents of suffering we endure in a sin infested world, we have to fight to maintain a hope that can only be found in the Sovereign Lord.  Psalms of praise help us do that.

However, Walter Brueggemann comments that while it is definitely admirable that the church strives to sustain hope in a fallen world, he is certain that this is not the reason why these “sad songs” are overlooked.  In a most compelling statement, he says,

“It is a curious fact that the church has by in large continued to sing songs of orientation [psalms of praise] in a world increasingly experienced as disorientated….It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guarded by faith, and much more a frightened dumb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life.  The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture.  Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament.”[1]

No one desires to be in pain; no one wants to be reminded of their sufferings.  I would take this as an axiomatic truth.  Even Jesus requested that the “cup” of the cross pass before Him, if that were at all possible (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42).  Brueggemann’s comment above is an insightful observation on the human psyche.  By primarily using psalms of praise, we give the impression that this is the way life should be and thus encourage people to avoid/deny the horrors and hardships found within it.  The bulk of our lives are not filled with marvelous events that lift up our souls.  The stark reality is that there are times of discouragement and suffering when we struggle with dissonance and incoherence.  Perhaps that is a reason why there are so many psalms of lament—they capture an emotional state that all people know so well regardless of who they are, where they are, or even when they are (though these psalms were written millennia ago, they still capture the misery of life in our contemporary world).  Therefore, these experiences of pain are not ones that we wish to remember.  We attempt to avoid them by avoiding these laments.

Think about it.  When was the last time your church used a lament in its worship?  When are they preached?  Consider the contemporary praise songs or the traditional hymns that are so popular in the worship of the modern church.  I cannot think of one that captures the brokenness that is such a hallmark trait of our lives.  Rarely do songs lead God's people to meditate on their sorrows, a state that is undoubtedly prevalent in the hearts of people as they enter into any given public worship setting.  If you look for them, you will find none.  Yet, that is precisely what we often need—to be led into worship while still in our laments where we can lift our cries to the Lord, who hears and answers them.

While the desire to avoid dark times is understandable, it seems that the inclusion of such “sad songs” are intended to do the opposite—to remind us of what we want to forget and to help us face what we do not want to confront.  The psalmists who recorded their laments did not do so with a complaining heart, like Israel in the wilderness.  Rather, these are desperate and prayerful cries to the Lord appealing to His sovereign mercy and strength.  Only by embracing these heartaches and lifting them to the Lord can we begin to understand them, possibly appreciate them, and ultimately give thanks for them.  Thus to embrace and sing these laments is a bold act of faith and trust in the Lord because He is indeed greater than even the most intense and excruciating painful experiences (Jer. 32:17, 27).

To read Part III click here.

Peter Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 51-52.

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