There are countless psalms in the OT psalter that capture the heartaches and trials of life. These are the psalms of lament. Ever since the eighteenth century, many have noticed that there are so many more of these laments than any other kind of poem. More than praises and thanksgiving psalms. Yet, the benefit from these laments seem so obscure. Nothing could be further from the truth. To quote the words of the modern philosopher Elton John, “sad songs say so much!”
So, what can we learn from these laments? I suggest there are four things.
First, they remind us that we are not alone. Suffering in isolation is a terribly lonely experience that only intensifies our suffering all the more. However, these laments tell us that we are never alone. Not only do we have a merciful God who hears the cries of His people, our God is a “Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4, italics mine). In fact, there are communal laments that were intended to minister to an entire community of believers who struggled with similar issues we struggle with today. Thus, these poems allow believers to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) and to ponder upon their pain within a God-centered context.
Second, these laments remind us that there is nothing unusual or sinful in experiencing sorrow. There is a mentality in the Christian church that says we should not be struggling with pain or distress. Those who do are viewed as a type of spiritual deviant and ridiculed as lacking faith in the Lord. The rationale is that if one truly believes in Jesus, they should only know happiness and joy, even in the worst hardships. Have we learned nothing from Job? These laments correct this faulty line of reasoning and show that to struggle with pain, doubt, or sorrow is not antithetical to a Christian life. As one pastor once put it, these laments permit believers to suffer without the fear of being condemned.
Third, these laments provide a voice for our pain. Often we experience deep anguish that is too intense to describe. The sheer excruciating intensity of our pain is so overwhelming it leaves us in a state of emotional and spiritual “groaning” (Rom. 8:23). We want to share our pain, we need to share our pain, but we are unable to describe our pain. For the silenced sufferer, these psalms of lament provide what they desperately need—a voice to express their agony. Sufferers are finally given a voice and it is directed to the One and Only Person who is their help.
Fourth, these psalms allow us to continue in worship while enduring times of suffering. Because they are commonly used in worship (at least, they should be), these laments are not merely cathartic expressions of misery. They do not vent emotional angst for the sake of relieving pent up, negative emotional energy. They are a collection of elegant and heartfelt prayers that have been scripted for the sufferer and allow us to verbalize these struggles directly to the Lord, to commune with Him on the tragic matters of our lives, and to appeal to Him for deliverance. We are free to enter into a place of worship and to bring our sorrows with us. A pleasant demeanor is not a prerequisite for proper worship. These laments allow us to bring our brokenness to the Lord in prayer as an act of worship while still in our sorrows, and to be reminded of His mercy and grace towards us. Without them we do not have the means to bring our heartbreaking cries to the Lord.
Knowing the impact that a fallen world would have upon His people, the Lord provided these psalms to minister to us during our times of peril. It is a good thing that He did as they comfort us in our private devotional readings as well as in corporate gatherings of the church. They are filled with rich theology and profound images of the Lord, which remind us that a sovereign God is the one who is working for our good. They also capture the wide range of emotions that we experience throughout the course of our lives. Perhaps no other book in the Holy Scriptures better exemplifies what it means to have a “heart for God and a mind for truth” than the Psalms.
To read Part II click here.
Peter Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.