The shape of lament

“Please.”

“Pretty please.”

“Pretty please with a cherry on top.”

When I was a kid, this was the nice way of telling your parents, “I really, really want this” (the not-so-nice alternatives were whining and throwing a tantrum). The more socially adept kids would throw in a big, sweet smile, puppy-dog eyes, and a head tilted to just the right angle. You could almost see the halo pop into existence over their heads.

In moments of lament, the psalmist also makes an insistent request of God for something he wants. But the words are often far less polite.

. . .

Psalms of lament are typically not 100% complaint. Often, at some point, there is an abrupt transition to words of praise and gratitude, as if the psalm had been written in two parts: before God answers the psalmist’s cry and after. In Brueggemann’s words, these psalms move from plea to praise.

The pleas tend to have several elements in common. First, they are personally addressed to God, often using the divine name (which English translations render as “LORD”), but other terms as well. In some cases, multiple names for God are used, which may convey a deeper sense of longing and desperation.

Second, there is the complaint itself, the statement of what’s wrong. It’s often given in general terms, making it difficult to know exactly what situation the poet or songwriter had in mind. The wording may also be exaggerated for effect; such exaggeration is part of the culture. It’s a bit like the difference between politely saying, “I could use your help,” and shouting, “Hey, I’m dying over here!” to get someone’s attention. The psalmist is not shy, and his language is deeply invested with emotion.

Third, there is a request for God to do something about it, often coupled with, fourth, reasons for God to act. Fifth and finally, many laments contain what are known as imprecations, or curses leveled at the psalmist’s enemies. We will deal with some of the so-called “imprecatory” psalms later. Suffice it to say that they are sometimes more than merely impolite: they can be so vengeful in their language that they’re uncomfortable to read.

The praise side of such psalms, if there is one, also has common features. The psalmist thanks God for hearing his plea and acting, praising his name and character, grateful for his mercy, justice, and steadfast love. Sometimes, there is also a stated commitment to fulfilling whatever promises the psalmist made while crying out to God for help, such as praising God before the congregation and telling of his deliverance.

Take Psalm 5 as an example of some of these elements. God is addressed up front as “LORD,” “my King,” and “my God” (vss. 1-2, NRSV). The complaint is vague, but has to do with the psalmist’s enemies, who are characterized as manipulative liars:

For there is no truth in their mouths;
    their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves;
    they flatter with their tongues.
(vs. 9)

The psalmist’s first request is that God would hear his prayer:

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
    give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
    my King and my God,
    for to you I pray.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
    in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
(vss. 1-3)

The psalmist also prays for guidance in God’s way:

Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies;
    make your way straight before me.
(vs. 8)

The psalmist seems to pray this because he fears falling into the “open grave” of his enemies’ lies and flattery. And why should God listen to the psalmist’s plea?

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
    evil will not sojourn with you.
The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
    you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
    the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
(vss. 4-6)

In essence, the psalmist calls upon God to be the righteous judge that he already knows him to be. This in turn becomes the basis for the imprecation:

Make them bear their guilt, O God;
    let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
    for they have rebelled against you
. (vs. 10)

There are no actual words of praise in this psalm; the situation is left open-ended. Nevertheless, the psalmist faithfully believes that God will answer his prayer for protection from his enemies. The psalm thus ends on a high note:

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
    let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
    so that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
    you cover them with favor as with a shield
. (vss. 11-12)

“You bless the righteous.” This, again, is part of the basic vision of Psalm 1. God blesses those who follow his way, and thus the psalmist prays not only for the downfall of his enemies, but to be led by God in the way of righteousness.

Many psalms of lament, like this one, lack resolution. We don’t get a full happy ending; there are no words of praise. Among psalms of that type, Psalm 5 is comparatively tame. Others are raw with desperation.

But we can learn something from the attitude displayed here, where the psalmist, though troubled, still clings in hope to his faith in God. He prays not only to be saved from his enemies, not only for his enemies to get what they deserve, but to be the kind of person that God wants him to be.

And though, as I said, we’ll deal with the vengeful curses of other psalms in later posts, it can and should be said now: if the psalmist could witness the life of Jesus, he’d have a clearer vision of the kind of person he could be. What might change in the psalmist’s heart if he were able to see the One who, as the very embodiment of divine love, took the righteous curse against sin upon himself?

Who knows? But I imagine the tone and content of the lament would be different.