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.