# 32 Psalms of Lament (# 9) Relationship or religion?

There is no doubt about it, life can be very tough at times, and there are countless reasons why this is so. In my last post we considered briefly Psalm 35 where obviously the difficulties in the author’s life are directly the result of “enemies without cause…those who hate [him] without reason.” (v19). Throughout history this has been true of countless individuals and groups of people. For example, in our day it is true of Christians in Nigeria where Boko Haram have attacked numerous Christian villages and burnt down churches “without cause”, other than their own evil agendas.

Then in Psalm 51 the issue is the enemy within. David is facing up to the truth of his “transgressions…iniquity…sin” (vs 1-2), all revealing his rebellion against God’s ways, and then the consequences of his sin – “the bones you have crushed” (v 8), which, I presume is not literal, but obviously uncomfortable! This then leads to his desperate cry for God’s mercy and forgiveness – “have mercy…cleanse me…wash me…” (vs 1, 7), and eventually his desire for the creation of “a new heart” within him and the restoration of “the joy of [God’s] salvation” (vs 10, 12). I guess, even if you haven’t committed adultery and murder, you have to be pretty unique to never have experienced the same feelings as David over some events in your life that you (and God) considered as “sin” and which made you feel pretty downcast. I certainly have and at those times have appreciated having Psalm 51 to use as a model for my own prayers.

Then there is Psalm 55 which does mention “the enemy” (v3), but the issue seems to be who that “enemy” is and the effect that this is having on the mental and emotional state of the psalmist. Facing opposition of any kind is difficult, but often the greater suffering results from the way we respond to what is happening. The psalmist mentions the fact that his “thoughts trouble” him “and [he] is distraught” (v2). Then, he says that “my heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me” (vs 4-5). All descriptions of someone who is, in the words of Brueggemann, in a state of “disorientation”. And it seems the reason all this is causing him such mental and emotional distress is because of who this “enemy” is. In his own words; “if an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it…But it is you…my companion, my close friend, with whom I enjoyed sweet fellowship…”  (vs 12-14). Words that I guess Jesus could have spoken the day he was betrayed by Judas, one hand-picked by him to be his disciple. Maybe also words that could be expressed by someone who has just discovered that their spouse has been cheating on them! Sadly, all too common in our day and wickedly, so it seems, even encouraged by some as ‘normal’.

And another is Psalm 77.  Here the psalmist doesn’t really spell out what his problem is, in the sense that maybe it was an enemy, maybe his sin, maybe a broken friendship or maybe it was some physical illness or even grief at the loss of a loved one. It could have been almost anything really that was causing him “distress” (v 2). We will never know what it was that was causing him to have sleepless nights (v 2) and to be in such a state that his “soul refused to be comforted…[that caused him to] groan…and [for his] spirit [to] grow faint” (vs 2-3). But one thing we do know is that the hardest part of the whole ordeal was the feeling that God was not present. In fact, it appeared that God had intentionality forsaken him! And now he longed for God’s presence. Listen to his words: “I cried to God for help…I cried out to God to hear me…I sought the Lord…I remembered…” (vs 1-3), but, sadly, so it seems, to no avail. He laments, “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favour again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” (vs 7-9). All pretty distressing possibilities! Ever felt like that? I’m sure there are many of God’s people over the years that could pray this psalm as their own.

But there is also what is called a communal lament. Psalm 80 is typical of such a psalm where the psalmist is not so much lamenting his own sufferings but that of the whole community. Something Matthew Jacoby calls “empathetic grief” which he suggests is “an essential attribute of biblical spirituality”. Consider what the psalmist has to say to God concerning the things that his people are suffering: “O Lord God Almighty, how long will your anger smoulder against the prayers of your people…Your vine [i.e. Israel] is cut down, it is burned with fire…your people perish…Restore us…make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved” (vs 4,16,19).

Jacoby suggests that “The person who wrote this psalm was evidently so comfortable with expressing every kind of feeling to God that he was more than happy for these expressions to be made public and even to become a part of the public expression of the community” Jacoby then says, “the words of [this psalm] express how I often feel, but I cannot conceive of ever praying something like this out loud in a prayer meeting…Is this a sign that we have moved from relationship into religion?” (see references #8)

I wonder when was the last time we echoed the words of Psalm 80 in prayer for our own nation or for other horrendous situations in our world where countless people are suffering due to war, terrorism, corruption, poverty, famine, homelessness, natural disaster or despotic leadership?

When we read the lament psalms, no matter what the cause of their lament is, we note that the faith of the authors is a faith in a God “who is present in, participating in, and attentive to darkness, weakness, and displacement of life…a God ‘of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’” as Isaiah 53 puts it. (see references # 2).

That is why these psalms are so very relevant in our day.

# 31 Introduction to Psalms of Lament (# 8) – “acts of unfaith and failure”?

So, back to “psalms of disorientation”, as Walter Brueggemann calls the lament psalms.

I guess we have to ask the question, despite what Wright and Lloyd-Jones say, do we really need the psalms of lament? I mean aren’t they a bit negative, in some cases downright depressing? Isn’t there enough negative things in the world without cluttering our spiritual lives with such dark poems? How on earth could using these psalms in our personal devotions and communal worship be of any benefit? And don’t we want the world to see what a great thing it is to be a believer in God, a follower of Jesus? Won’t the world judge the use of these psalms by the church (as Brueggemann puts it) as “acts of unfaith and failure”?

Well, according to Brueggemann, the use of these psalms, possibly seen by the world as “acts of unfaith and failure” are, on the contrary, acts “of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith.” He explains, “It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. ” (see references # 2)

Consider these thoughts above in the light of Psalm 35.

Psalm 35

Of David.

Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid. Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me. Say to me, “I am your salvation.”

May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away; may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.

Since they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me, may ruin overtake them by surprise — may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin. Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord  and delight in his salvation. 10 My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you, Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”

11 Ruthless witnesses come forward; they question me on things I know nothing about. 12 They repay me evil for good and leave me like one bereaved. 13 Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, 14 I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother. 15 But when I stumbled, they gathered in glee; assailants gathered against me without my knowledge. They slandered me without ceasing. 16 Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked; they gnashed their teeth at me.

17 How long, Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions. 18 I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among the throngs I will praise you. 19 Do not let those gloat over me  who are my enemies without cause; do not let those who hate me without reason maliciously wink the eye. 20 They do not speak peaceably, but devise false accusations against those who live quietly in the land. 21 They sneer at me and say, “Aha! Aha! With our own eyes we have seen it.”

22 Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent. Do not be far from me, Lord. 23 Awake, and rise to my defense!  Contend for me, my God and Lord. 24 Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God; do not let them gloat over me. 25 Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!” or say, “We have swallowed him up.”

26 May all who gloat over my distress be put to shame and confusion; may all who exalt themselves over me be clothed with shame and disgrace. 27 May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The Lord be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.”

28 My tongue will proclaim your righteousness, your praises all day long.

Basically there are three main characters involved in this poem of deep distress. There is the psalmist, whom we are told is David. Then there is the enemy, who is unnamed. Then there is God. The desperate words spoken about a deteriorating situation of danger all round him are spoken to one Person alone, and that is to David’s God, the “LORD”. This psalm is simply a prayer. It seems that David believed, as Brueggemann puts it, that “all experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart”.

Consider its content: “…O Lord…fight against those who fight against me…May those who seek my life be disgraced…Since they…without cause dug a pit for me…They repay me evil for good…They slandered me without ceasing…O Lord, how long…Rescue…be not silent. Be not far from me…rise to my defense…the Lord be exalted…My tongue will speak of your righteousness and of your praise all day long.”

Certainly words not of “unfaith and failure” but on the contrary, words of “bold faith”. Words we can learn from and be transformed by as we apply them to, and pray them when, own lives are in times of disorientation. And if your life is anything like mine, that seems to be fairly often.

I consider that the answer to my question above, concerning the relevance of these psalms to us today, is that these psalms are indeed extremely important to our lives as believers in David’s God, our Creator and Redeemer. In fact, they are transformational. May the trend away from the frequent use of the Psalms, and particularly the lament psalms, be reversed in our day. If so, there is no doubt, we, individually and as a church, will be richer for it.

Let me just add though that I realize there are many people, and maybe you are one of them if you are reading this, who have not given up on the Psalms. I recently checked on Google for “blogs on the Psalms” and was surprised by just how many there are. And I was very impressed when a friend of mine told me recently that she reads 5 psalms every day. Now there is something to aspire to!

# 30 Psalms of Lament (# 7) – ‘full of power and passion’

So, is it really true that the Psalms and particularly the Lament Psalms have been basically neglected by us, the Christians of the 20th – 21st Century and that this to our detriment? I obviously do not have any such evidence, but it is certainly very interesting that many scholars writing on the Psalms suggest that this is the case.

For example, I recently picked up the book “The Case for the Psalms – Why They Are Essential” by N.T. Wright published in 2013 and he expresses this concern. He suggests that despite the fact that the Psalms have been “the daily lifeblood of Christians and of course the Jewish people, from the earliest time. Yet in many Christian circles today, the Psalms are not used. And in places where they are still used, whether said or sung, they are often reduced to a few verses to be recited as “filler” between other parts of the liturgy or worship services.”

His desire in writing his book is to hopefully “reverse these trends” and speaks of the Psalms as ‘full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope.” He suggests that, “Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul – anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here.”

He then goes on to say that “there is all that and much, much more. That makes it all the more frustrating that the Psalms are so often neglected today or used at best in a perfunctory [indifferent] and shallow way.” (see references # 25)

Another author, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, speaks of the “great value of the Book of Psalms” in his book on Psalm 73, and suggests “that in it we have godly men stating their experience, and giving us an account of things that have happened to them in their spiritual life and warfare…[and what is a key feature is] the remarkable honesty with which these men do not hesitate to tell the truth about themselves…Throughout history the Book of Psalms has, therefore, been a book of great value for God’s people. Again and again it provides them with the kind of comfort and teaching they need, and which they can find nowhere else…Its special value lies in the fact that it helps us by putting its teaching in the form of the recital of experiences. We have exactly the same teaching in the New Testament, only there it is given in a more didactic [instructive, informative] fashion…people that feel that life has dealt cruelly with them have gone – battered and beaten by the waves and billows of life – to the Psalms. They have read the experiences of some of these men, and found that they, too, have been through something very similar. And somehow that fact, in and of itself, helps and strengthens them. They feel that they are not alone, and that what is happening to them is not unusual…The Book of Psalms is of inestimable value in this respect, and we find people turning constantly to it.”   (see references # 26)

If these characteristics of the Psalms that are described by Wright and Lloyd-Jones are true, and I believe they are, then it certainly is a sad fact if we in the church are moving away from keeping them as an integral part of our daily personal and communal devotions and worship.

# 29 Psalms of Lament (# 6) – Psalm 13 (# 3)

“It’s interesting, in the light of Crabb’s comments (quoted in the previous post), that the psalmist here in Psalm 13 doesn’t actually say if and how the Lord answered his lament. There is no statement of the Lord’s deliverance from his troubling thoughts, or from the sorrow in his heart, or even from his enemies. Maybe the Lord did, but we are not told. But what we do know is that the psalmist did come to a place of trust and rest in God, even maybe in the midst of the troubles and the blackness of his situation.

Listen to his words:

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

It seems at first to be an unlikely quick turnaround from what he had to say in the previous verses. From “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” to “I trust in your unfailing love …I will sing the Lord’s praise…”

But something has obviously changed.

Maybe it is as Longman suggests when he says that “The psalms compress time in such a way that what was a long process appears as a sudden insight.” (see references # 1)

Possibly, the psalmist is looking back at that difficult time and remembering his feelings and how he cried out in desperation to God. Then he recognises how God had met him since that time and his lament turns into songs of joy.

But what did God do? Or did God do anything at all other than reveal to the psalmist that no matter what his situation in life, He is good, that he is the God of unfailing love and that he can be trusted , despite how bleak the situation appeared. Maybe the psalmist deliverance came in the form of a new passionate, all consuming, Spirit-directed “fascination with Christ” that caused all his problems to come into perspective.

And so, the psalmist here turns his thoughts away from his troubles back to his God. The only real source of his deliverance and comfort in the time of his distress. Something we desperately need to learn as well.

Broyles comments that “apparent from the confessions of trust and the vows of praise, is that the ultimate goal of the prayer psalm is the praise of God.” (see references # 4)

God is worthy of our praise and he can be trusted, even in the most extreme circumstances. Do you believe that?

But you may ask, how? How can I trust God, you don’t know how tough my life is!

How can we have faith in God when all around us seems dark and hopeless?

Simple, says the psalmist, because of his “unfailing love”. Other translations have “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “steadfast love,” and sometimes “loyalty.” In fact this word is used 125 times in the psalms! For example in Psalm 33 it says,

“The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love…the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love…May your unfailing love rest upon us , O Lord, even as we put our hope in you.” (33:5, 18, 22)

The nearest New Testament equivalent to this Hebrew word, chesed  is the Greek word charis (grace).

And in the NT word we see this amazing grace and “unfailing love” expressed in the coming of Jesus, as John puts it, “who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) The One who came to reconcile people to God through his death and resurrection.

And so through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we know that whatever our sense of abandonment or rejection or despair, God is faithful. And Jesus has been there. He knows what it means to suffer, to feel ‘abandoned’ by his Father (Psalm 22:1). He understands like no one else does! And he invites us to come to him. He says, “Are you tired? Worn out?…Come to me. Get away with me and you will recover your life…” (Matt 11:28 Message)

And so with the psalmist, in the midst of life’s problems we are able to say with an even greater depth of understanding than he could when he wrote it,

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Or to paraphrase it in the light of the NT,

[No matter what comes our way] our Father, we will trust in your unfailing love and your grace as displayed in the coming of Jesus, our hearts rejoice in the salvation that is found in your Son, our Saviour. Therefore we will sing Your praises, for you have been incredibly good to us.

So, whatever your situation is today, the psalms are God’s gift to you. Read the psalms in the light of the NT, pray the psalms, tell God your story openly and honestly, knowing that he hears you. Renew your trust in God, no matter what the situation you find yourself in, live in the light of his mercy, his grace, his loving-kindness, his unfailing love, recognising that he has been good to you. And may God give us something far better than relief from our pain. May he give us a glimpse of Christ.”

As mentioned, all the above (and previous posts 25-29) were part of a time of “worshipful lament” at the college where I am on staff. I concluded the time with a time of reflection  – the participants where challenged to consider things in their lives that were causing or had caused them or others grief. Or think about recent events in the world we live in – at that time it was the tragedy of the Syrian civil war, the tragedy in South Korea when hundreds of school children had been drowned, the injustice in Nigeria where over 100 girls were kidnapped from a school, and the list goes on. I suggested that they then express lament personally or communally through the psalms, through their own written words or images or verbal prayers using butcher’s paper, praying together or praying alone. Which we all then did.

Let me finish this then with a further quote from Paul Bradbury’s book on “How to Lament in a Church of Praise”:

He says, “All too often, those who lead intercession slip into a language that is felt to be appropriate – polite, inoffensive and dispassionate.” He then quotes D Runcorn, who “relates the story of a man praying in the aftermath of 9/11. His cry of ‘Lord, I just don’t know what you’re playing at. What are you doing?’ subverted the atmosphere of the meeting. Runcorn comments, ‘He had not yet learned how Christians usually pray about such things. I hope he never does.’”(Choice, Desire and the Will of God SPCK 2003)

Bradbury continues, “In this sense many of us need to unlearn languages of prayer that have for too long been steeped in politeness, politeness that traces our theology back to a God who must be treated like a benefactor rather than a Father. The testimony of the psalms, and indeed many of the great prayers of the Bible, is that God is one who invites us to speak plainly…The language of prayer is then our true voice, the truest words that we can use to speak of that which we wish to bring to God…the psalms of lament offer us a language that we can borrow and appropriate. They give us the confidence and the authority to speak as the psalmist speaks.”

He suggests that, “different psalms of lament can be used to provide a framework for intercession on particular issues – Psalm 13 to pray around issues of individual pain and suffering, Psalm 64 to pray for communities threatened by terrorism or war, Psalm 74 for the persecuted church, Psalm 80 to pray for the church throughout the world.” (see reference # 21)

# 28 Psalms of Lament (# 5) – Psalm 13 (# 2)

And so, the psalmist who wrote Psalm 13 expresses his heartfelt concerns to God. I don’t know about you, but I have certainly experienced times when the words of this psalm seemed very relevant to me or to a friend’s situation and I asked “How long, O Lord?” I remember once when a few of us spent time with a friend who was experiencing a difficult time and the emotions as expressed by the psalmist in this psalm seemed very appropriate. Our friend was in bondage to an addiction that was keeping him from living a normal life. He desperately wanted to be faithful to God but felt like, no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t break free from this addiction and in tears he and we cried out to God with the words of this psalm.

“How long, O Lord…how long?”

So very relevant, just like it was written for that very person.

Incredible really, considering that this psalm was written maybe 3000 years ago!

These lament psalms testify to the truth that God, then and now, is not only interested in our healing and deliverance but also in our pain. Our God, who is good and in whom we can trust, is moved by the heart-felt cries of his people.

Broyles notes that the lament psalms exhibit a “realistic faith, one that is bluntly honest with the realities of life…[a faith] that takes the promises of God seriously…it realises the gap between God’s promises and human experience, and believes this [discord] should be presented to God for him to resolve…they are based ultimately on promise and not doubt. They acknowledge something is wrong and believe God can put it right…the prayer psalms exhibit faith under the most contrary circumstances.”  (see references # 4)

But then, what does it mean for God to “resolve…put it right” as Broyles says? What did he resolve or put right in the life of Mark Buchanan? In fact, it seems that what he did was enable him to go through his ‘winter’ and come through with a new perspective on life and God, maybe a little better prepared for the next time of difficulty and maybe with a new appreciation of the ‘summer’ seasons of his life.

In his Book called “The Silence of Adam – Becoming Men of Courage in a World of Chaos”, Dr Larry Crabb suggests that we (specifically talking to those of us in Western culture) are “caught up with everything but finding God. It is more beneficial to use Christ than to know him. We use him to make ourselves feel better, to develop a plan for making life work, to keep hoping that we’ll get everything we think we need to be happy. We rarely worship him.”

He then tells the story of “an 84 year old man” who talked to him after a Bible conference and said, “Five years ago my wife died after 51 years of a good marriage. I cannot express the pain that I feel every morning as I drink my coffee at the kitchen table alone. I have begged God to relieve the terrible loneliness I feel. He has not answered my prayer. The ache in my heart has not gone away. But, God has given me something far better than relief of my pain…he has given me a glimpse of Christ. And it’s worth it all. Whenever you preach, make much of Christ!”

Crabb continues:

“How sad that we spend our energy fixing problems, boosting self-esteem, recovering from shame, overcoming anger, and finding ways to be delivered from spiritual bondage. None of these things are wrong in themselves [of course], but they must be the outgrowth of a fascination with Christ. A fascination with Christ changes the way we do everything.”

Larry Crabb, speaking to men, but just as applicable to women, says this:

“[My understanding] of spiritual manhood [womanhood] has more to do with continuing to function in spite of difficulties than with successfully overcoming them. I believe that God’s Spirit is less interested in telling us how to get our lives together and more concerned with stirring – in the middle of our ongoing difficulties – our passion for Christ.

Rather than solving our problems, he more often uses them to unsettle us, to make us less sure of how life works, to provoke us to ask the hard questions we’re terrified to ask, to surface the stubborn doubts and ugly demands that keep us distant from Christ. I don’t believe the Bible provides a plan for making life work as we think it should. I think it offers a reason to keep on going even when life doesn’t work that way.”

Crabb talks about being “more drawn to the mystery of life than its predictability”. Of course, “some parts of life are orderly and manageable [and] where life can be managed, it should be managed well”. But Crabb suggests that “the most important parts of life, those parts that make up what Christianity is all about, seem to me more mysterious than manageable…There are simply no formulas to follow in handling the things that matter most”. He also suggests that “God designed it that way, not to frustrate or discourage, but to call something out of us that he has already put in us, something that is realised when we abandon ourselves to him in the midst of mystery”.

He continues that “spiritual manhood [womanhood] involves the courage to keep on moving – in the middle of overwhelming confusion – towards relationships. But the movement may not always mean success, in the way we define success, not even victory, but moving anyway, the kind of movement that only a passionate, consuming, Spirit-directed fascination with Christ can produce. And that is true victory.”  (see references # 24)

I wonder if Mark Buchanan could identify with Crabb? Remember his words: “I don’t romanticize this time. It was hard and bleak, and I was happy to bid it good riddance. But it taught me something I’ll need again, [that] ‘even the darkness is not dark to [God]’ (Psalm 139:12)”

And what about the psalmist? Would he be able to identify with Crabb’s words? We shall look at this question next.