Laments: Psalms from the Past and Present

Psalm 13: Lament Psalms from the Past and Present

The lament psalms are a special genre of psalm that is described as, “the psalmist’s cry when in great distress he has nowhere to turn but to God” (Longman, 26). Within these psalms there is a division of elements that are specific to the lament and describe a type of “coming to grips” for the psalmist. Beginning with a cry to the LORD and complaint but ending with confidence in God and praise the lament is the most human reaction to adversity and has definitely stood the test of time. We see laments throughout the Bible and even in today’s music and media.
Psalm 13 shows the elements within its content as follows:
v1-2: Invocation and complaint
v3-4: Plea for God to help
v5-6: Confidence in God’s response and hymn of praise
Of the seven elements within a lament I see only these five and within the verses of Psalm 13 these five elements are combined and compressed into each other. For instance, in verse one the invocation is only the first four words, “How long, O LORD?”. The rest of the verse is a complaint to God, David accuses God of forgetting him and hiding his face from him.
As we look at other laments, specifically Psalm 3, 4, and 6, we see a mirror of this same pattern for the most part. Firstly, in comparing Psalm 13 to these there is an immediate repetition of a questioning psalmist. Only Psalm 6 of the four psalms does not begin with an exclaiming question, in Psalm 3 and 4 David also asks for answers to his questions as the invocation of the psalm. One major difference I see in each of the psalms is a seemingly random order in which the first six elements of the lament are placed, all end in praise and/or confidence in God’s response.
In Psalm 3 the order appears to be: invocation(v 1), complaint(v 2), confidence in God’s response(v 3-6), plea to God for help(v 7), hymn of praise(v 8). Psalm 4 differs from this order: Invocation( v 1), plea to God for help( v 1), complaint( v 2), confidence in God’s response( v 3), complaint( v 4-6), hymn of praise (v 7-8). Finally we see Psalm 6 as an even more diverse order of elements: invocation and complaint (v 1), plea to God for help (v 2-5), complaint (v 6-7), confidence in God’s response (v 8-9), curse of enemies (v 10). While these seem random in order, aside from the first and the last elements, I believe there is a method to the madness. For one, God does nothing in confusion but everything is in His order.
While each of these psalms has a similar theme, they are all complaints about men fighting or speaking against David. They are all laments which call out to God for help in defense of David. Psalm 3 and 6 request attacks against his enemies by God (3:7b, 6:10) while the other two only asks for protection. One thing I like about my ESV Study Bible is that it titles each chapter of the Bible. These chapters are titled as Save Me, O My God (Psalm 3), Answer Me When I Call (Psalm 4), O LORD, Deliver My Life (Psalm 6), and How Long, O LORD (Psalm 13). There is an obvious pattern of distress in the psalm’s titles, but they always end with a praise hymn to God.
In looking at the way we read and examine the Psalm it is vitally important to recognize this in each lament. While some may think that the lament psalms and even the book of Job doesn’t belong in the Bible due to being written by man in a weakened state and questioning God’s existence and love for his people, I believe these books show the exact opposite. The lament psalms show man at their best, because they are at their worse. With nowhere to turn and being attacked on all sides the only option for defense is through God and his grace and in this way our weakness is his strength. Though there will always be darkness in our lives, due to the infestation of sin in the world, our end is only a bright beginning of our eternity with God.
True laments, while easy to find in the Old Testament, are hard to find in contemporary music. Johnny Cash’s “Spiritual” is one that comes to mind for me. Most modern music can only provide half of the solution though. It’s great at delivering the complaint or the curse, but the plea to God for help and the confidence in God’s response is almost always lacking. And when it comes to praising God in the midst of pain you could go blind trying to find a pop song that echoes those sentiments. The lyrics for “Spiritual” are below:
“Jesus
I don’t wanna die alone
Jesus, oh Jesus
I don’t wanna die alone
My love wasn’t true
Now all I have is you
Jesus oh Jesus
I don’t wanna die alone
Jesus
If you hear my last breath
Don’t leave me here
Left to die a lonely death
I know I have sinned but Lord I’m
Suffering
Jesus, oh Jesus
If you hear my last breath
Jesus
I don’t wanna die alone
Jesus, oh Jesus
I don’t wanna die alone
My love wasn’t true
Now all I have is you
Jesus, oh Jesus
I don’t wanna die alone
Jesus
Jesus
All my troubles
All my pain
Will leave me
Once again
All my troubles
All my pain
It’s gonna leave me once again
All my troubles
All my pain
It’s gonna leave me once again
Gonna leave me
Once again
The lyrics alone in no way do this song justice and I encourage you to search for it on YouTube in order to get the full effect of the song. You can see though, that while many of the elements are there; the invocation, plea for God’s help, confidence in God’s response, and confession of sin, what is lacking is the hymn of praise. As with many modern songs of lament, and I believe a big reason why so many teenagers relate to music so easily, there is much complaining and blaming but very little requesting aid from God or even acknowledging Him.
As I discussed in a previous exercise on psalms in modern music, I believe that God is in everything in this world. He created everything and my theology is that he inhabits a little part of everything and everyone we encounter, after all “if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that [emphasis mine]” (Luke 6:33). God uses everything to complete his plan to reunite us with Him. He used evil empires that attacked both the Israelites and their enemies to guide His people back to him and to correct their wrong paths. Why then can’t he use what we deem as secular music to show us an area we are lacking in or a new way to view his creation. If it makes you feel better, add on your own hymn of praise to the end of a modern lament that touches you but fails to give honor to God.

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