I wrote two earlier pieces (Part I
; Part II
) about the numerous laments psalms. The first described the ways in which we can read them for our encouragement. The second was my personal call for the church to utilize these “sad songs” in her worship. Given my recent reflections on these laments, I thought it best to close my psalmodic triad with this thought…although sad songs say so much, they do not say it all!
The general structure of a psalm of lament is in two parts. There is a “plea” section where the psalmist makes an intimate and heartfelt petition before the Lord where he describes the dire circumstances and agony that he is experiencing. He requires gracious and supernatural intervention, so he makes an impassioned and intense plea for the Lord to engage in his life.
The psalm does not remain in a sorrow-filled cry. There is a sudden and striking transition where the tone and heart of the psalmist takes a radical turn to “praise.” A huge burden has been lifted from the psalmist and his dark and desperate laments have now become uplifting and glorious exaltation.
This movement from plea to praise can also be seen in the overall structure of the book of Psalms. Many have observed that the majority of the psalms of lament are found in the earlier part of the Psalter. After the introductory psalms 1-2, the overall feeling in the initial set of psalms depicts a sense of trouble and distress in the heart of the psalmist (Ps. 3:1-2; 4:1; 5:1-2; 6:2-3).
As dark as the book of Psalms begins, it most definitely does not end this way. The psalter ends with the highest concentration of praise in the entirety of Scripture with the “Hallelujah” Psalms 146-150. Each of these psalms begin (and often end) with the exalted line “Hallelujah,” meaning “Praise Yahweh.” The crescendo of praise climaxes with the apex of praise in Psalm 150 where each poetic line begins with that phrase “Hallelujah.”
For astute students of Scripture, this shift from plea to praise should sound familiar. In Luke 24, as He dialogued with two men leaving the city of Jerusalem on the day of His resurrection, Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v.27). He summarized the Scriptures by saying that it was necessary for the Messiah to “suffer these things and enter into his glory” (verse 26). In other words, the biblical psalter is first and foremost a hymnic expression of the life of Christ. Just as the biblical psalms moves from plea to praise, so it reflects the life of Christ, who also went from suffering to glory. However, for those in union with Christ “to this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Not only has Jesus redeemed us from the penalty of sin and death, but He redeemed us also from the powers of sin and death. By subjecting Himself to the sufferings of our fallen world, He has defined properly the expectations of a life of discipleship. It will be filled with Christ-like sufferings, and we see them captured in the psalms of lament. But, these “sad songs” do not tell the whole story. There is glory that awaits. Just as Christ rose from the dead, so we also will be raised with Christ unto eternal bliss. As we share in that movement, we can “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (1 Pet. 4:13). Joy is no longer measured by success or failure, wealth or poverty, fame or ill repute, or health or sickness. It is gained by knowing the Lord of the psalms.
Jesus is the true singer of the psalms, even the psalms of lament. However, our union with Christ not only identifies Jesus as the true singer of the psalms, but we, His chosen people, also can now sing these psalms of lament. We do not merely sing about
Jesus, nor do we merely sing to
Jesus. By the grace of God, we sing with
Jesus. In our heavenly union with Christ, His songs become our songs. Thus, in Christ we have joined a glorious choir with Jesus as our Choirmaster where we celebrate the biblical psalms that reflect and meditate upon the sorrows that we endure during times of darkness and our ultimate victory in Christ.
The people of God who had been in mourning and lament have been introduced to the Lord and His messiah (Psalm 2:7) throughout the psalms. As we grow in our understanding of the universal rule of the Lord over all creation, so we are slowly led away from our troubles and instead focus our thoughts upon our gracious and loving Sovereign.
What brings about this change is not necessarily a change in our situation or even a resolution to our conflict but rather an adjustment in our perception. As we look into our own plight, we are naturally burdened with doubt, loneliness, and sorrow. However, as we look towards our God Most High, we realize that He is greater than any of the hardships that have troubled us. As the psalms close, we are called to praise the Lord along with “everything that has breathe” (Psalm 150:6) as all creation is joined together to sing a majestic anthem of praise.
Thus the book of Psalms is appropriately named “the Book of Praises” by the Jewish rabbinic tradition. The quantity of laments cannot outweigh the quality of praise when such praise is directed towards our living and loving God.
Dr. Peter Lee
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.