Psalm 13:1-6 (NRSV)
A well-known verse in Ecclesiastes tells us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:4)
The trouble is, most churches today can celebrate well, but aren’t very good at lamenting, at least in their worship services. Life does have a sad, melancholic, painful dimension, but it is often ignored and even denied in church.
The songs that are most frequently sung point to that.
Keith Getty, in an online article entitled “Why songs of lament are important to cultivating spiritual depth”, says: “Unfortunately, our lyrics often soar so high that someone who is drowning on the ocean floor of their personal despair can’t reach them.” 1
Carl Trueman, in his book “The Wages of Spin”, has a chapter entitled “What can miserable Christians sing?” He writes there: “A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals… By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church.” 2
He goes on to say that by doing so, the church has “generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity” 2.
If you think that is a little harsh or exaggerated, try and find a few songs of lament in published hymn books. I tried this week, and there are very few, and even fewer that are regularly sung.
By contrast. The ancient Jewish hymn book, the book of Psalms in our Bibles, has many songs of lament.
There are several other types of Psalms, such as wisdom psalms, pilgrimage psalms, history psalms, royal psalms about kingship, thanksgiving psalms focusing on God’s works, and praise psalms which focus on God’s nature.
But the psalms of lament is the largest category – around a third of the 150 psalms. Some say up to 60 are lament psalms or contain substantial laments.
Some of them are personal, like the one I’ve chosen for today, and some are community laments. Belinda will focus on them next Sunday.
We don’t want to be the kind of church that Trueman describes. That’s why are current theme is on lament, and why we are turning to some of the psalms of lament.
With all that has happened this year in our world, in our country, and in your lives, lament seems an appropriate topic and activity. We’ve all been deeply affected in one way or another, whether directly or indirectly. Lament may arise from what has happened to you personally, but injustice, inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, natural disasters and a host of other issues compellingly invite lament.
Brueggemann – Orientation, Disorientation, Re-orientation
The renowned OT scholar Walter Brueggemann has lectured and written extensively on the Psalms. Belinda and I are using some of his material for our sermons, and a couple of groups during the week are using related material. He classifies the Psalms into 3 main categories – psalms of orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation or new orientation. He suggests human life is made up of seasons or times of orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation. 3
- The season of orientation is one of satisfaction and wellbeing that evokes gratitude for the constancy of blessing.
The psalms of orientation correspond to this, articulating the joy, delight, good, coherence and reliability of God, God’s creation, and God’s governing law.
- The seasons of disorientation are characterised by anguish, hurt, alienation, suffering and even death. They evoke emotions of rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred.
Psalms of disorientation correspond to this season, expressing painful disarray.
- The season of re-orientation is when joy breaks through despair, light dispels darkness, and there is a sense of being overwhelmed with new gifts and blessings from God.
The psalms of re-orientation speak about newness and affirm a sovereign God who brings about the new situation.
I wish all of you were currently in a season of orientation or re-orientation, but I know some of you are in that season of disorientation. That’s why we are considering this topic today and looking at a psalm of lament. I’ve chosen Psalm 13, because it’s short, yet has most of the characteristics of lament psalms.
Westermann – Plea and Praise
Claus Westermann, a German scholar and Pastor from the last century, did some ground-breaking work on the lament psalms around the middle of the century. While acknowledging that the laments vary in form, he identified a general pattern consisting of 2 parts – plea and praise.
Under plea, there is usually an address to God, a complaint, a petition asking God to act, and the reasons for God to act. Then there is a surprising development to praise, which includes assurance of being heard, payment of vows, and doxology and praise. Let’s look at those elements in Psalm 13. It is a personal psalm of lament in which something is terribly wrong in the life of the speaker, and in the speaker’s life with God.
The psalm starts straight in with a barrage of rhetorical questions addressed to Yahweh.
In v1, the complaint is God’s absence. “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
In v2 the complaint is pain, sorrow and the ascendency of enemies, all of which derives from God’s absence. “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
There is no humble, reverential address in these opening verses. The situation is urgent and the speaker is laying the blame squarely on Yahweh.
The petition comes in v3. It comes in the form of 3 imperatives – consider me; answer me; give light.
The speaker makes it clear that the situation is beyond him Yahweh needs to act.
The rationale or motivation is at the end of v3 & in v4. To paraphrase, This is what is at stake God. Act now or 3 things — I will die; my enemies will prevail; my foes will rejoice.
The plea part of the psalm is over. It has been raw, honest. Now what?
Brueggemann in his commentary on this psalm, says:
“Then the psalmist waits. It is a long wait after verse 4, a wait in the darkness of death, a wait in disorientation, a waiting ‘until hell freezes over.’ There must be such a wait, perhaps a long wait, because there is no other court of appeal. One must simply wait here until there is a response. Then – we do not know how long the wait was – things are changed. When the psalmist speaks again, he is on the way to a new orientation.” 4
Look now at v5 & v6. There are 3 statements of trust here – I have trusted; my heart shall rejoice; I will sing.
They are matched by 3 references to Yahweh. The psalmist is clear about where his help comes from.
I have trusted… in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice… in your salvation; I will sing… to the LORD.
The psalm ends with the reason “Because he has dealt bountifully with me”.
As Brueggemann says, “the speaker ends with a sense of disorientation overcome, released to a new, grateful, trustful communion”. 4
Let me make one other observation before we move on from this psalm.
There are 3 occurrences of the name Yahweh (translated “LORD”) in this psalm.
In v1, Yahweh is named, but attacked in the process.
In v3, Yahweh is named in a more intimate way in the process of an appeal for help.
In v6, Yahweh has now become the focus of praise.
This development highlights the dramatic movement from disorientation to orientation.
On Monday night, I watched a movie on SBS that I have been thinking about all week in connection with lament and this psalm. It was a courtroom drama based on the true story of Lyndal, a youg woman who had been sexually abused by a boarding house master at Toowoomba Prep School when she was 12. The movie deals with the civil court case 10 years later against the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane that knew of the perpetrator’s suspect behaviour but denied Lyndal’s abuse.
The movie was titled “Don’t Tell”. That’s the warning the abuser had given his victim. It’s also what many others told her, arguing that her case wouldn’t stand. But she was so angry and distraught at what had happened to her and the ongoing harm to her life that she was determined to speak up and have her complaint heard. The court eventually found in her favour.
The case was a major factor in the introduction of Working With Children Check legislation throughout Australia and contributed to the creation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It also led to the resignation of Peter Hollingworth as Governor \General because he was the Archbishop of Brisbane at the time of the abuse.
We lament all such abuse, decry cover-ups and support truth-telling. And we continue to cry out to God for justice and new orientation in all things.
I began by talking about the dirth of contemporary lament songs. But I did come across one during the week that I thought was a good example, written in 2108 by a guy called Ken Bible.
We’re not going to listen to it or sing it, but I do want to read the lyrics to you as I close.
How long, my Lord, how long? I need You, God unseen!
I cry, I pray but feel ignored, Unheard, unloved, unclean.
Deep sorrow floods my heart. The darkness closes in,
With evil gathering all around And weakness all within.
Like the lament psalms, the last verse moves to an expression of trust and praise.
I trust Your love, my God, Whatever time may bring.
I hold to what can never change And rest, rejoice, and sing! Amen
- R. Truman, The Wages of Spin (Christian Focus, 2004) p.160
- Walter Brueggemann, “Spirituality of the Psalms” (Augsburg Press, 2002), p.8-9.
This is an abridged version of his “The Message of the Psalms” (Augsburg Press, 1984).
- Walter Brueggemann, “The Message of the Psalms – a Theological Commentary”, p.59-60.