I was on the point of missing out the next dozen Psalms from this series because they seemed to be almost boring in the way the Psalm writer poured our complaint after complaint about how hard his life was. Then I remembered that these Psalms of Lament make up the greatest proportion of all the Psalms. There are actually 42 Psalms of Lament in the Bible – that is more than a quarter of the total. 12 of those are corporate lament but 30 are individual and personal laments which make up one fifth of all the Psalms. So although when we think about different kinds of prayers they don’t immediately spring to our minds, obviously these kinds of prayers of lament are actually very important in the life of faith.
Laments may be statements of personal despair, like Psalm 22, or communal cries in times of crisis, such as Psalm 137. Lamenting personal suffering 69, 38 or complaints against enemies 109. Some are complaints against God 22. They sometimes describing distress or misfortune Psalm 22:6-18 and cry out for deliverance. Some protest innocence Psalm 59, or express wishes or curses Psalms 55:15, 61:4, 106:6, 30.
Psalms of Lament are simply cries for help. They teach us how we can pray when our life gets tough and we are facing problems of every kind. This is particularly the case with the Psalms of Individual Lament where the writer is pouring out his heart to God in the crisis he is experiencing. Psalms of lament tend to contain the same elements in the same order
Calling on God, Describing our suffering. Anger and blame against those causing the suffering
. Calling on God to intervene and to help. Expression of faith and confidence in God. Anticipating God’s help. Thanksgiving for God’s help and promise of commitment.
For each of these elements we’re going to start by looking specifically at Psalm 54. A couple of years ago we spent an evening of reflection on Psalms 3, 5 and 6 and I will remind us of what those Psalms said as well. And but I will also point to other examples of the different elements because they are all there as well in Psalms 55 through to 63.
Calling on God
54 1 Save me, O God, by your name; vindicate me by your might.
Psalms of Lament usually begin with a declaration of faith in God as the writer calls on God to help. They often include an appeal to an aspect of God’s character, to God’s name as the holy and righteous and unchanging and all-powerful Almighty God.
55 19 God, who is enthroned from of old, who does not change—
he will hear them and humble them, because they have no fear of God.
57 1 Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.
2 I cry out to God Most High, to God, who vindicates me.
Or some Psalms make an appeal to God’s loving-faithfulness, his covenant loyalty.
5 7 But I, by your great love, can come into your house; in reverence I bow down towards your holy temple.
6 4 Turn, LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Some Psalms describe God with words like shield, rock, refuge, fortress and tower.
3 3 But you, LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
59 1 Deliver me from my enemies, O God; be my fortress against those who are attacking me.
9 You are my strength, I watch for you; you, God, are my fortress,
10 my God on whom I can rely. God will go before me
62 1 Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him.
2 Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I shall never be shaken.
When it comes to praying about the problems we are facing, the Psalms of Lament teach us that it is important to start with God himself. To begin by taking our eyes off our problems and fix them instead on the Almighty and Eternal God and his loving faithfulness. The grounds for all our prayers will always be the character of God, and his love expressed to us in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Describing our suffering
54 3 Arrogant foes are attacking me; ruthless people are trying to kill me— people without regard for God.
5 9 Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave; with their tongues they tell lies.
6 2 Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint; heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long?
55 4 My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me.
5 Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.
56 1 Be merciful to me, my God, for my enemies are in hot pursuit; all day long they press their attack. 2 My adversaries pursue me all day long; in their pride many are attacking me.
57 4 I am in the midst of lions; I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts— men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.
We should never be afraid of telling God how we are feeling. It is alright to complain to God about the situations we are facing and it is acceptable in prayer to spell our the details of our problems. We can be completely honest with God.
Anger and blame and even cursing against those causing the suffering
54 5 Let evil recoil on those who slander me; in your faithfulness destroy them.
3:7 Arise, LORD! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.
58 6 Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; LORD, tear out the fangs of those lions! 7 Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. 8 May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.
The Psalms of Lament are clear that we are allowed to be angry with people who are threatening or hurting us or those that we love. We saw this especially as part of our Survey of the Old Testament last summer when we looked at what are called the imprecatory Psalms. Some passages call down judgment on Israel’s enemies, like just then Psalm 58:6, Break the teeth in their mouths O Lord, or Psalm 139:21-22, ‘Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord? … I count them my enemies.’ Perhaps the most extreme example is Psalm 137:8-9 recalling the destruction of Jerusalem and of Solomon’s Temple by the invading Babylonians and crying out for equally brutal retribution.
Psalm 137 8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. 9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
In passages like these the Bible is not telling us that God approves of such curses. But it does teach us that it is alright to express our true feelings to God in prayer. We do not have to dress up our appeals in politically correct language. With God we can tell it like it is.
Calling on God to intervene and to help
54 2 Hear my prayer, O God; listen to the words of my mouth.
54 4 Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.
3 4 I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain.
5 1 Listen to my words, LORD, consider my lament.
2 Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
In prayer we do not just complain and tell God how we are feeling about our problems. Part of prayer will surely be to ask God to help us, to rescue us and deliver us. Even though God already knows what challenges we are facing, our requests should always be specific. Telling God the actual ways in which we need him to help us is a way of expressing our dependence on his grace minute by minute and day by day.
But at the same time true prayer comes from a certainty that God will indeed help us in our hour of need.
Expression of faith and confidence in God
3 6 I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.
55 22 Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous be shaken.
23 But you, God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of decay;
56 10 In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise—
11 in God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?
When we bring our concerns to God in prayer, we should have the faith to trust that he will indeed act on our behalf.
Anticipating God’s help
54 7 You have delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.
5 3 In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.
6 8 Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping.
9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.
55 16 As for me, I call to God, and the LORD saves me.
17 Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice.
18 He rescues me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.
56 3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise— in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?
Often in the Psalms of Lament, the writer is so confident of God’s help that he gives thanks in anticipation even before his prayers are answered and he has received the help he needs. At other times he makes promises that he will bring thanksgiving, or praise, or sacrifices when God has answered his prayers. All our requests to God should always be accompanied by thanksgiving to God, for what he has already done and for everything he is going to do.
Thanksgiving for God’s help and promise of commitment
54 6 I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you; I will praise your name, LORD, for it is good.
5 11 But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.
56 12 I am under vows to you, my God; I will present my thank-offerings to you.
13 For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before God in the light of life.
57 7 My heart, O God, is steadfast, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music.
8 Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn.
9 I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.
10 For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
11 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.
59 16 But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble.
17 You are my strength, I sing praise to you; you, God, are my fortress, my God on whom I can rely.
So here are the elements of the Psalms of Lament. Here is how we also should pray in times of trouble. Calling on God, remembering that the grounds of our prayers are his divine character. Describing our suffering, telling God how we truly feel even if that involves anger and blame against those causing the suffering. . Calling on God to intervene and to help. Expressions of faith and confidence in God which anticipate God’s help. Leading to thanksgiving for God’s help and promises of commitment.
As David said in 2 Samuel 22 4 ‘I have called upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised. So I have been saved from my enemies.