Psalm 55 is a Psalm of lament as the author, out of desperation and in suffering (v. 4-8), cries out to God for salvation/redemption (v. 16-19) and justice (v. 9-11, 15, 23) after being betrayed by a close friend (v. 13-14, 20-21). I was greatly reminded of the book I started reading a few weeks ago called Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah. Because a certain section of this book relates so well to what we feel when reading such troubling Psalms, I wanted to share some of his thoughts to help clarify why such deep, emotional language was used in prayer and song in God’s Word with such Psalms and why Christians today can be so conflicted over them.
“The Old Testament is composed of many different genres, including poetry. Within the genre of poetry exists many subgenres. Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann situates the Hebrew poetic material into two broad categories: praise and lament… Psalms that express worship for the good things that God has done are categorizes as praise hymns. Laments are prayers of petition arising out of need. But lament is not simply the presentation of a list of complaints, nor merely the expression of sadness over difficult circumstance. Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.
Unfortunately, lament is often missing from the narrative of the American church. In “Journey Through the Psalms”, Denise Hopkins examines the use of lament in the major liturgical denominations in America. The study found that in the “Lutheran Book of Worship”, the “Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer”, the “Catholic Lectionary for Mass”, the “Hymnal of the United Church of Christ” and the “United Methodist Hymnal”,… the majority of Psalms omitted from liturgical use are the laments. In “Hurting with God”, author Glenn Pemberton notes that lament constitutes 40% of the psalms, but only 13% of the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, 19% of the Presbyterian hymnal and 13% of the Baptist hymnal… CCLI’s list of the top 100 worship songs in August of 2012 reveals that only 5 of the songs would qualify as a lament…
The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain… Those who live in celebration “are concerned with questions of proper management and joyous celebration. Instead of deliverance, they seek constancy and sustainability. The well-off do not expect their faith to begin in a cry, but rather, in a song. They do not expect or need intrusion, but they rejoice in stability (and the) durability of a world and social order that have been beneficial to them.”
Lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices… The balance in Scripture between praise and lament is lost in the ethos and worldview of American evangelical Christianity with its dominant language of praise… We must ask what do we lose as a result of this imbalance?”
I know that was a “longer than usual” quote but it should help us think about the many times we see in Scripture the church lamenting and ask why we are so uncomfortable with it. Not only in the church but in the world. I’m shocked to hear so many Christians call people “snowflakes” when they bring up concerns and hurt over issues they’re dealing with and wonder if our pursuit for life, liberty and happiness goes against the Biblical worldview of suffering and ability to empathize with those who are hurting. Today’s Psalm shows us a song that the church would sing crying out for help when his closest friend stabbed him in the back. How many of us would tell to go to your “safe space” or suck it up? Instead, we can respond in prayer and song like the below song and video by Shane and Shane instead of manufacturing celebratory praise when God calls for lament.
In the comments below, share a time when you truly worshiped God in suffering or lamentation instead of celebration.
By: Erik Koliser — West Campus Pastor