Written by David Lamb
Monday, 08 October 2012 00:00
In the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), “God” speaks as a floating head in the clouds to King Arthur and his entourage telling them to stop groveling because it reminds him of “those miserable psalms” that are “so depressing.”
Fortunately, the real God isn’t turned off by any psalms, not even the psalms of lament (their official title isn’t “those miserable psalms”). Laments are actually the most common type of psalm (over 40%). God inspired their inclusion into the canon, and their primary feature is complaint, so God must really like it when we complain.
You may ask, didn’t Israel get in trouble for complaining in the wilderness? Great question. Israel’s complaints in the wilderness were completely different from a lament. They were more like gossip. The psalmist takes his complaints directly to God, which actually honors God by taking the relationship seriously. While laments seem to come from a lack of faith, as we will see, they ironically lead to trust and praise.
This is my second in a series of blogs on the Psalms. You will find my first blog here).
One of my favorite laments is Psalm 13. I will look at it in three parts.
The Lament (verses 1-2)
1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How longwill you hide your face from me?
2How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
The psalmist begins with a question, “How long?” He repeats forms of the “how long” question four times, then asks another even more severe question, “Will you forget me forever?” The Psalmist feels utterly abandoned by God. If I felt abandoned by God, I would ask “Why is this happening to me?” but that’s not the psalmist’s question. The psalmist isn’t interested in reasons, but in duration: “When will my abandonment end?” It is similar to a child in the car repeatedly asking, “Are we there yet?” When will the driving / abandonment cease? When you’re in the midst of pain, it feels like it’s been going on forever.
No answer to these questions is given in the psalm. But even in these two verses that seem, in the words of Monty Python’s God, so miserably depressing, there is hope. If God has forgotten, abandoned and isolated the psalmist so completely, why is he still talking to God? The psalmist knows that even though it doesn’t feel like God is there, he is. So, he should keep the conversation going with God.
The Request(verses 3-4)
3Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him,"
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
The conversation continues and, although there is more complaining (death is coming, enemies are rejoicing), the tone shifts into a request. The psalmist wants a response. This isn’t a polite prayer with lots of “O, please, God” at the beginning and end of each request. It is more intense, more desperate. The psalmist makes demands (“consider and answer me”). God still feels distant, but he is moving closer. God is apparently taking requests now and the psalmist speaks of God as “my God.”
The Praise (verses 5-6)
5But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Is the psalmist bi-polar? The author of verses 5-6 seems different from the author who wrote verses 1-4? The psalmist was complaining, now he is singing. The psalmist was hidden from God, now he trusts in God’s love. Enemies were rejoicing because of the psalmist’s wretchedness, now the psalmist is rejoicing because of God’s bountifulness.
I don’t actually think the psalmist is bi-polar. Part of what allowed the psalmist to come to a point of singing, rejoicing and trusting is the questioning, complaining and lamenting that came earlier. While feeling abandoned, the psalmist didn’t give up, but kept talking to God and asking questions. The questions led to requests, which finally led to praise and trust. When we are feeling like the psalmist here, it is tempting to think we are supposed to skip straight to praise, but that’s not the model of the psalms. Often, praise comes after pain and petition.
How can we use lament psalms like this to further God’s mission? As we missionally engage the people around us with the gospel we need to remember there are a lot of people in pain, who feel abandoned by God, just like the author of Psalm 13. Personally, I’ve been complaining to God about my vocal cords that have been damaged for several months. (I’m not supposed to talk unless absolutely necessary.) I wonder, “How long will this go on?” I’m not sure, but I know that it’s good news that God’s word includes people speaking honestly to God about serious pain. God can handle our complaints.
How can we encourage people to lament like the psalmist in our churches and ministries?
David Lamb is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biblical. He’s the husband of Shannon, father of Nathan and Noah, and the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?He blogs regularly at http://davidtlamb.com/. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/david-lamb.