The Lament Psalms

The Bible’s sanction for bringing our rawest feelings to God.

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Among people who do not read the Bible often, there is a misconception that the Book of Psalms is a collection of praise songs and thanksgivings. The reality is different. A large number of them are poems of complaint and sorrow.

Scholars call these songs the lament psalms. In them the psalmist (or the assembly that sings or chants them) cries out in anguish to God. The anguish may well up from a threatening situation in the psalmist’s life, such as a serious illness that looks as if it is going to be fatal (Psalm 38) or a bout of depression (Psalm 88)*.

More often the anguish is a result of cruelty or injustice that the psalmist is experiencing. The injustice may be a betrayal by a psalmist’s best friend (Psalm 55). Or it may be vicious gossip that one’s neighbors are spreading in the community (Psalm 109). Or it may be ambushes or violence that one is suffering in the streets (Psalms 56 and 64).

The source of the anguish may not, however, be personal. It may be national. It may be the exploitation of the poor and marginalized by the powerful classes in society (Psalm 109). Or it may arise from the devastation brought upon the land by foreign invaders (Psalms 74 and 79). Or by a threat to annihilate Israel (Psalm 83).

Though many, the sources of the anguish all stir up a desperate cry to God that often begins with words like these:

How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

            and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

Language of Shocking Violence

What is so disconcerting about these lament psalms is the violent language the psalmist uses in regard to his enemies. He curses his enemies and cries out to God to wreak revenge on those who are attacking and oppressing him.

A good example is Psalm 109. Here the psalmist’s enemies are maligning his reputation in the community. They speak hate. They spread lies. They say to themselves:

Appoint a wicked man against him;

            let an accuser stand on his right.

 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;

            let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;

            may another seize his position.

May his children be orphans,

            and his wife a widow.

May his children wander about and beg;

            may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.

May the creditor seize all that he has;

            may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.

May there be no one to do him a kindness,

            nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. (Psalm 109:7-12)

The psalmist takes up their very words and turn them against them. He asks God to bring the same fate upon them and their families. We are in the realm of something approaching a blood feud.

In Psalm 137, the hatred of the psalmist is turned against the Babylonians who have leveled the city of Jerusalem and killed or exiled its population. The psalmist reaches a climax in his hatred when he wishes that some other invader will come and dash the babies of the Babylonians against the rocks just as the Babylonians did to the Judean babies.

This is strong stuff. Many of us recoil against such bitter prayers. So much so that many churches will ban the lament psalms, especially the cursing psalms, from recitation in their liturgies. Others will exclude them from published editions of the psalms.

There is a danger in this banning, as the writer Kathleen Norris reminds us all in a beautiful essay on the psalms.** These lament psalms bear witness to the fact that life is full of suffering, pains, and injustice. She quotes a Benedictine nun, who once said, “The human experience is full of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.”***

If we are to have an authentic worship life, we cannot ignore the hatred and injustice in the world, especially within our own inner selves. That is the rationale for beginning a worship service with a confession of sin. We come before God with mixed emotions. We are people of light anddarkness. People of love and, yes, hatred. That is our reality.

Retaining Laments in Our Worship

Keeping the lament psalms in our liturgies and in our Bibles does raise the question: How do we deal with these difficult and emotionally complex psalms? How do we integrate them with the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Let me say a few things about how I handle these psalms.

One, the lament psalms give us sanction, I believe, to bring our rawest feelings into our relationship with God. The words of these psalms are strong, but they do reflect our most painful experiences. When we try to suppress these strong feelings from our consciousness, we drive them into our unconsciousness where they can fester and wreak havoc with our lives. This is the very personal experience of military veterans suffering from PTSD.

The first step to healing is to bring our most troubling feelings into the open. And the lament psalms provide a model for doing so.

This does not mean that God–or we–may fully approve of the feelings we are releasing. There may be morally troubling aspects with those feelings. But we cannot deal with feelings that remain buried and hidden from sight.

The lament psalms in fact gives words for expressing feelings we may not yet be able to articulate for ourselves. I’ve been told that after the event of September 11, 2001, many churches who incorporated lament psalms into their liturgies of sorrow and remembrances found those very psalms expressed best what many in the congregation were feeling. The language of the lament psalms remains relevant over and over again.

Prayers of Violence Directed to God

Two, we need to notice that the lament psalms are usually addressed to God. That means they are prayers. That’s very important in my book.

The psalmist is expressing raw feelings, but he is expressing them to God, not directly to his enemies. He may be wanting God to act on his violent requests. But when we bring our violent feelings to God, we may be surprised with God’s response.

God may choose not to act on our requests, for to do so would violate his own character as a loving Father. Instead God may in a sense say to us, “Now that you’ve brought your desires to me, let’s begin to work on them. Let me begin to heal them.” That can happen by God bringing us into a change of perspective that ends up in transforming our desires and feelings.

We see this very action modeled in Psalm 73. The psalmist begins with a lament about how the wicked seem to experience no negative consequences from their evil actions. They seem to prosper and enjoy health and public esteem. How unfair!

Then the psalmist says he walked into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:17). There he underwent a change of perspective. He saw how God had set them in slippery places and how they can be destroyed in a moment.

As a result, he undergoes a dramatic change of attitude.

When my soul was embittered,

            when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant;

            I was like a brute beast toward you.

Nevertheless I am continually with you;

            you hold my right hand. (Psalm 73:21-23)

Our lament prayers may begin the first steps in a purification process that leads to a dramatic reversal in our feelings and attitudes. At the end of the process, we may recognize how foolish we were in all the revenge we begged God for. Prayer can indeed be a transforming power, transforming us rather than our enemies.

Songs of Solidarity

Lastly, it is important too to note that most of the psalms are meant to be sung or chanted in a community of faith. Even when the psalmist speaks in the first person singular, scholars point out that we cannot always be sure if the “I” of the psalm is meant to be just an individual speaking or is a communal “I”. Is the “I” really meant to be the voice of “We”?

That is important to remember when someone complains about the lament psalms that they do not express what he or she is feeling that day. But the psalms are expressing the feelings that other members of our faith community may be feeling or that believers may be feeling somewhere else in the world. By reciting these psalms in our liturgies, we acknowledge our solidarity with believers not only who are rejoicing, but also suffering grievous sorrow and injustice.

They also tend to draw us into an awareness of how we participate not only in suffering with others, but also inflicting suffering on others. Kathleen Norris says this in a striking way.

The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values.****

So do you still want to ban the lament psalms from your worship and Bible study? I for one do not. They prevent my religion from becoming a form of escapist fantasy. They keep me grounded into real life. And it is only there that I can cultivate a wholesome relationship with God and with my neighbor.

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* Psalm 88 is unique among the psalms. A deeply anguished psalmist cries out to God, but he seems to have no expectation that God will come to his rescue. The final line is the most despairing in all the psalms:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.

** “The Paradox of the Psalms,” in Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. New York:Riverhead Books, 1987.

*** Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 97.

**** Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 103.

 

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God the Helicopter Parent

Psalm 39 speaks to those times when we’d like God to just leave us alone.

I like to recite a psalm in my morning prayers. Recently that brought me to Psalm 39. In the past I have tended to read it and move on. It seemed to be just another lament psalm like so many others in the psalter, and not a very memorable one at that.

This particular morning I was reciting it from a translation I acquired a few years ago.* The translator gave the psalm a different cast from other translations I have used.

Lament psalms form a large proportion of the psalter. Most of them bemoan the seeming absence of God from the psalmist’s life or God’s delay in coming to the psalmist’s assistance in his need. The question is: Where is God when I need him?

Psalm 39 is a lament psalm too. But instead of lamenting God’s absence or God’s procrastination, the psalmist seems to be lamenting God’s too overwhelming presence in his life. It’s as if the psalmist is experiencing too much of God. He wants some relief.

Stop tormenting me;

You strike and I grow weak.

You rebuke us for our sin,

eat up our riches like a moth:

we are but a breath. (Psalm 39:11-12)

Now sometimes we can feel this way because we are feeling especially guilty. The searching eye of God seems to be exploring every dark part of our personality and behavior. We squirm.

But additional words in the psalm make me feel as if there is more to the psalmist’s torment:

Stop looking so hard at me,

allow me a little joy

before I am no more. (Psalm 39:14)

Psalm 139 seems to be expressing a similar feeling when it says:

 Where can I hide from you?

How can I escape your presence? (Psalm 139:7)

Both psalms speak to me about those times when we feel God is too much in our face. They talk about those times when we experience God as our divine helicopter parent. God hovers over and around and within us. We’re not sure we like it.

I think this language talks about more than just that uncomfortable feeling when our sense of sin makes us feel so unworthy in God’s presence. God loves us, deeply and profoundly. In his love he wants the very best for us and the very best out of us (as every caring parent wants for his or her child). He wants to see his creative intention for each one of us fulfilled to the fullest. Only that will give us the greatest happiness.

But we are only too happy to settle for second best. We accept mediocrity as the best we can produce because aiming for the very best is going to be just too much hard work or will require us to tackle some truly scary challenges. Life may become very tumultuous and upsetting in the process. We are glad to settle for something a little less demanding.

I’ve come to believe, however, that God likes to challenge our compromises. At least that has been my experience at times. The more he does, the more we may come to feel that we would like God to back off. As the psalmist says, “Allow me a little joy before I am no more.”

But God seems determined not to let us become comfortable with anything less than the very best he has created for us. So he continues to challenge us throughout our spiritual journey.

This is not the only way God relates to us, nor does it express the totality of our Christian experience. But I think it is important to acknowledge that this is one aspect of our spiritual journey. For that reason, there will be times when we, like the psalmist, want to say to God, “Please, just leave me alone.”

John Calvin once described the psalms as providing an anatomy of all parts of the soul.** As we immerse ourselves into the psalms, we find indeed the whole range of our experiences with God reflected in its lyrics. That’s why, I think, believers so love them.

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* The translation of the Psalms I was reading is The Psalter: A faithful and inclusive rendering from the Hebrew into contemporary English, compiled by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Published by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Liturgy Training Publications, 1994. It has not received an imprimatur for use in Roman Catholic services, but I still find it a thought-provoking translation.

** A short summary of Calvin’s view on the psalms can be found in an unfinished article titled “John Calvin and the Wonder of the Psalms,” by the Rev. Angus Stewart of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.