I looked up the verb “lament” in a thesaurus, and its synonyms are: mourn, grieve, weep, wail, cry, sob, shed tears, sorrow, commiserate, bewail, deplore, rue, and the slang expression eat one’s heart out. Psalms of lament make up the largest category in the Book of Psalms. It would seem that God’s people—even his “chosen people,” even the people God favors and who are in a committed (covenant) relationship with God—are not always happy. Huh! How is it that the opposite idea has been communicated by so many Christian/Catholic/religious/devout folks? Be honest—have you ever received the message, spoken or not, that a true Christian is not only happy but always joyful and untroubled and certainly not in distress to the point of wailing? Wailers need to pray more; in fact, their faith must be weak, or they would be better at handling the situations they are wailing about.
Well, it’s nice to hear from the ancient wisdom that my tears and wailing and sleepless nights and stomach burn do not put me outside God’s care—or favor. If I am wounded and worried almost to the point that I’ve become obsessed with my situation and paranoid about what others plan to do to me, then I’m in very good company.
Let’s read Psalm 55, one of the Top Ten of the lament psalms, and note what is going on here. Yes, let’s lament, shall we?
To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David.
1 Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
2 Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
[That’s a rather demanding tone! “Listen to me, God—stop disappearing when I need you most! I need an answer, and I need it now!”]
I am distraught 3by the noise of the enemy,
because of the clamour of the wicked.
For they bring trouble upon me,
and in anger they cherish enmity against me.
[They really are out to get me. Their words and actions, and my nonstop thoughts about them, fill my head, my life, with noise.]
4 My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
5 Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
6 And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
7 truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
8 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.’
[I would give anything to get out of here. This situation is intolerable. Please, someone, buy me a plane ticket to a peaceful, sunny, island . . .]
9 Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
10 Day and night they go around it
on its walls,
and iniquity and trouble are within it;
11 ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud
do not depart from its market-place.
[I am so sick of what people are doing in this city—the crime and greed and oppression just do not stop, not even in the middle of the night! My town is full of rottenness, of cheating and great harm. And so much of it happens in broad daylight, and those in power act as if they haven’t done anything wrong.]
12 It is not enemies who taunt me—
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—
I could hide from them.
13 But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend,
14 with whom I kept pleasant company;
we walked in the house of God with the throng.
15 Let death come upon them;
let them go down alive to Sheol;
for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.
[Here’s the real heartbreak. I’ve been betrayed by someone I considered a good friend. There are no words for how this feels. I worshipped with this person, had lunches and long conversations with this person. Some days, God, I wish you would just take away all the people who are causing so much grief to the rest of us. Just take them to hell—there, I said it!]
16 But I call upon God,
and the LORD will save me.
17 Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he will hear my voice.
[(This is one of my favorite verses.) That’s right—I don’t complain just every now and then. I come to you morning, noon, and night, and I complain to God, and I moan and cry and make a scene. Yes, I do that, because God wants me to cry out and call for help. So my noisy, angry prayers may seem sacrilegious to some people, but who else do I cry out to? And why not tell the truth, even if the truth is messy and horrible?]
18 He will redeem me unharmed
from the battle that I wage,
for many are arrayed against me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old,
will hear, and will humble them—
because they do not change,
and do not fear God.
[The real matter: do I humble myself before God? As I cry and complain, I keep in mind that God is God—and I’m not. If I win over all this stuff that is happening to me, it will be thanks to God’s grace and help.]
20 My companion laid hands on a friend
and violated a covenant with me
21 with speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.
[This is what sin looks like: deception, words that tear others apart. Some people do have their hearts set on war and division. They don’t really want to listen to reason or work for reconciliation. They will always be around, causing trouble.]
22 Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
[I cry and lament and complain at least three times a day because this is how I cast my burden upon the Lord.]
23 But you, O God, will cast them down
into the lowest pit;
the bloodthirsty and treacherous
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you.
[Okay, Lord. I leave these people to you. It’s not my right to go after them, to plot vengeance, to smear their reputations or harass their families. Sometimes I feel like doing all those things. But I must put all of it—and all of those who have become my enemies—into your hands.]
I will not “interpret” Wednesday’s psalm of lament, but I hope that today’s commentary will stimulate you to do some interpreting of your own as you read the psalms. They really are about life as it is. And they are prayers to a God who expects our brutal honesty, our bold voices, and our trusting hearts.