God and Grief in
the Psalms of Lament
God and grief come together in the scriptures more frequently than we might think. The Psalms of lament provide and interesting look at this dynamic relationship.
The Psalms of lament, for the most part, carry a specific and common structure. Below is a listing of the main elements seen in many of the laments. Not every lament includes every element and sometimes the order is shifted slightly, but generally the order is as follows:
a. Address to God. The laments typically begin with a personal, relational address to God. God is not some distant stranger. “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) In the forward of Ann Weems' book "Psalms of Lament" Walter Brueggemann says, "It is a trusting utterance set down in the middle of an ongoing friendship of trust and confidence." The very fact that the writer is addressing these feelings to God suggests a level of confidence that God will in fact listen and care enough to do something about the situation. The lamenter is bold enough to believe that the Divine can be persuaded to change history because of this complaint.
b. Complaint. It is in the complaint that we learn what caused the writer’s distress. It is here that the lamenter "tells it like it is." Or in actual fact the "telling it like it is" may be exaggerated. It is a case of the lamenter telling the problem as he sees it—giving God a clear rendition of his side of the story. We often find the questions "why?" and "how long?" directed at God. "O God, why have You cast us off forever? Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture?" (Psalm 74:1) This questioning gives the impression that the lamenter feels that he is on his own in the situation and that what his suffering originated from God directly. But in his book Praise and Lament in the Psalms, Claus Westermann (p.177) says these questioning complaints "never condemn God, for the utterances are never objective statements. They always remain personal address." The lamenter remains in the conversation with God, demonstrating that God and grievances are meant to come together.
c. Affirmation of trust. In spite of the problematic situation, the lamenter expresses confidence in God’s faithfulness. This line usually begins with "but" or "nevertheless" indicating that in spite of all the darkness, pain or problems, the lamenter makes a choice to continue to trust God. "But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation." (Psalm 13:5) The psalmist remembers how God has shown steadfast love in the past or how God has delivered the ancestors and expresses faith that God will again intervene.
d. Petition. The writer then comes to the main point and appeals to God to intervene and deliver. The lamenter uses the demanding language of imperative. "But You, O Lord, do not be far from me; O My Strength, hasten to help me! Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth and from the horns of the wild oxen!" (Psalm 22:19-21) The lamenter has no doubt that God can save, if only He can be persuaded to do so. The plea is as much for justice as it is for mercy. The writer believes that it is within his rights to have the situation changed. (Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, p.54)
e. Additional argument. The writer often seems to feel the need to give God some additional motivation for acting. Sometimes the writer appeals to his own innocence (as seen in Psalm 26:3-8) or alternatively may confess sin and repent (as seen in Psalm 51:3-5). The lamenter may remind God of his faithfulness to former generations. Apparently he feels that his neediness is not enough of a reason for God to act and so gives an appeal that outlines reasons God, himself, would benefit from taking action. This appeal often seems to come very close to undignified bribery. (Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, p.55) But dignity is probably not a main concern for a person in a desperate situation. A description of how God’s enemies are rejoicing might be used to entice God to act. An appeal to the fact that God may not be seen as sovereign if his children go forsaken. It is almost a modern day, "What will people think?"! "Why do the wicked renounce God? He has said in his heart, 'You will not require an account.' But You have seen for You observe trouble and grief, to repay it by Your hand. The helpless commits himself to You; You are the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and evil man; seek out his wickedness until you find none." (Psalm 10:13-15)
f. Curse on the enemies. Although not included in every lament, its presence in some may be the most difficult to reconcile within religious language. Often the lamenter not only feels the need to ask for a change in the situation, but also revenge on the enemy who caused the hurt. This is most striking in Psalm 109. "May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." (Psalm 109:8-9) The Psalm continues with curse after curse.
g. Assurance of being heard. This sudden shift in tone and mood causes some scholars to speculate about a lapse in time between the former section and the ending of the psalm. Some suggest that these words of assurance were actually spoken by a priest, bringing about a changed attitude and preparing the way for the lamenter to be able to give the vow of praise. For the most part the laments end on a positive note. Somehow between the former sections of anguish and this section the lamenter has become convinced that God has indeed heard his cry for help and will indeed act on his behalf. An example is in Psalm 10:17 "You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them and you listen to their cry."
h. Vow of praise. In this section the lamenter makes a vow to continue to praise and thank God and to testify before the community about what God had done. Psalm 22:22 says, "I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."
i. Hymn or blessing. The lamenter moves into full praise and blessing of the One who was formerly accused of not acting on behalf of his people. It was the risky honest speaking to God in the first part of the lament that has paved the way for new possibilities in the relationship. (Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, p. 56) While it might be said that the lamenter’s former view of God was incorrect and he has now come to a correct view, Brueggemann (p.56) says that "if one enters into the poem and takes its movement as seriously reflecting the relationship between the two partners, then one must conclude that it is indeed the complaint which moves Yahweh to act. And each part of the psalm must be taken 'realistically' as reflective of a real moment in this relationship." Any growth in a relational dispute must make room for honest reflection on how both sides truly understand the situation. It is apparently indication that God is very open to hearing our dismal feelings of our dissatisfaction with His dealings in our lives that these Psalms of lament are recorded and were recognized by the Jewish religious community as important for preservation for future generations to read.
This discussion of the Psalms of Lament show that God and grief and anger can come together in a way that brings healing. I invite you to the section below on grief journaling with the laments as a means of bringing your grief to God.
Go from God and Grief to Grief journaling with Laments
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