# 24 Introduction to Psalms of Lament (# 1) “How long, O Lord?”

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
Earlier in my introduction to the Psalms (Blog # 6) I quoted Temper Longman who said that there are “roughly seven basic types” of Psalms. He continues, “we need to be flexible as we speak of a Psalm’s genre” but suggests the following types: “the hymn, the lament…” Well, we have looked briefly at the first one (although there is much more to be said of course) and the next one mentioned here is the “lament”. Now these psalms are a fascinating study. I confess to having read most and preached most on these psalms because somehow they are the ones I and many others, I have discovered, can really identify with at particular times in our lives i.e. the difficult times!
But first, concerning types or genre of Psalms, we will turn to another author, Walter Brueggemann, and I will quote below from his very insightful book, ‘The Message of the Psalms’ (see references # 2). His approach is quite different and I have found it very helpful in my studies of the Psalms.
Brueggemann’s discussion of the Psalms “is organised around three quite general themes, [1] poems of orientation, [2] poems of disorientation, and [3] poems of new orientation… [he suggests] that the psalms can be roughly grouped this way, and the flow of human life characteristically is located either in the actual experience of one of these settings or is in movement from one to another.”
It is important to note that the author clarifies the statement above by adding, “But I want to say…that I do not intend [this]…to be a straightjacket. I do not imagine that the scheme is adequate [by itself] to comprehend the Psalms, for we do not have such a ‘master key’. I intend this principle of organization only to help us see things we might not see otherwise.” And, as mentioned, I have found it helpful and I trust you will too.
So, he defines these 3 themes as:
[1] Poems of orientation: “Human life consists in satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude…[articulated through] joy, delight, goodness, coherence and reliability of God, God’s creation, God’s governing law.” We have considered a few of these psalms previously (there are many more) and they are encouraging to read, to memorize, to reflect upon and are quite often the ones we read in church.
[2] Poems of disorientation: “Human life consists in anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death. These evoke rage, resentment, self-pity and hatred…[as seen in the] poems and speech-forms..[known as] the lament…[which have] a recognizable shape that permits the extravagance, hyperbole [exaggeration], and abrasiveness needed for the experience.” Psalm 13,  being an example. These are psalms that we don’t tend to read much in church, to our loss, I think. Later we will look at appropriate ways these amazing and honest prayers can be used in a worship time together.
[3] Poems of new orientation: “Human life consists in turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair. Where there has been only darkness, there is light…These psalms affirm a sovereign God who puts humankind in a new situation…” Psalm 30 is a good example. The psalmist proclaims what the Lord has done for him. He says, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (30:11)
In summary, Brueggemann says, “psalm forms correspond to seasons of human life and brings these seasons to speech. The move of the seasons is transformational and not developmental; that is, the move is never obvious, easy or ‘natural’.”
The author emphasizes that, of course, our lives aren’t static events, but a continuous “movement from one circumstance to another, changing and being changed.” He suggests that “the life of faith expressed in the psalms is focused on the two decisive moves of faith that are always underway, by which we are regularly surprised and which we regularly resist.
One move we make is out of a settled orientation into a season of disorientation…a dismantling of the old, known world and a relinquishment of safe, reliable confidence in God’s good creation …[this] includes a rush of negativities, including rage, resentment, guilt, shame, isolation, despair, hatred and hostility.” And we have all experienced this!
He continues, “It is that move which characterizes much of the psalms in the form of complaint and lament. The lament is a painful, anguished articulation of a move into disarray and dislocation. The lament is a candid, even if unwilling, embrace of a new situation of chaos, now devoid of the coherence that marks God’s good creation. The sphere of disorientation may be quite personal and intimate, or it may be massive and public. Either way, it is experienced as a personal end of the world, or it would not generate such passionate poetry…
The other move…is…from a context of disorientation to a new orientation, surprised by a gift from God…just when we thought all was lost…[there is] a departure from the ‘pit’ of chaos just when we had suspected we would never escape. It is a departure inexplicable to us, to be credited only to the intervention of God…[it] includes a rush of positive responses, including delight , amazement, wonder, awe, gratitude and thanksgiving…The hymnic psalms…are a joyous assertion that God’s rule is known, visible, and effective just when we had lost hope…
In the last analysis, the Psalms have what power they have for us because we know life to be like that.”
If you are interested there is a short (less than 3 minutes) YouTube clip of Walter Brueggemann teaching on the Psalms of Lament as follows:
Need for Lament (Psalms): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxqmtft4WYM