The Language of Lament

With more than one hundred Psalms contained in the Old Testament, there is entry for almost every occasion. Thanksgiving. Praise. Supplication. Joy. Fear. Rage. These ancient Hebrew poems and songs have been a veritable game wheel of select-your-feeling. 

Robert Frost once said: “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought; and the thought has found words.” By this estimate, the Psalms are some of the greatest poetry to ever spring from a heart and land on a page, as raw passions are skillfully translated into words we can all use.

This is most evident in a type of Psalm called the “lament.” The lament is an intentional complaint. The writer protests his circumstances, begs for divine intervention, or pines for an injustice to be corrected. These Psalms are dark, brooding, sometimes seething numbers, that can out-angst even the more melancholy coffee shop singer-songwriter.

David – the leading author of the Psalms – was sometimes the most emotionally unhinged. For all of his comforting “The Lord is my shepherd” talk, and joyful “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me” maxims, he could just as quickly spew from his heart and pen blood-lusty, murderous prayers.

Speaking of a sworn enemy, David once cried out in the Psalms: “May his children become fatherless, and may his wife become a widow. May all his offspring die.” And again, giving full vent to his rage, he wrote: “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done – He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

This is a good place to be reminded that the Bible is an extremely human book. The “Word of God?” Yes. Inspired by God? Yes. But above all, it is an earthy and earthly document that shows the real-life, real-world struggles of people just like you and me. When David went banging on about how he hoped to be avenged, or made a list of those he hated, he wasn’t writing a classroom theology text or consciously writing Scripture.

He was just writing, without the slightest idea that we would be reading his words all these centuries later. But we continue to read his words – eavesdropping over his shoulder as it were – because David was honest, with himself and with God; and honest words have a sticking power that eludes the language of flowery coverup.

And honestly, who among us has never been angry, desperate, hateful, frustrated, hurt, or confused? Honestly, who among us, even those who claim to have no faith in God, hasn’t cursed our misfortune and begged heaven for intervention, justice, or some sort of avenging karma? The language of lament captures those feelings perfectly. 

I take comfort – cold comfort though it may be – that such struggles are as old as time itself. I take even greater comfort in the fact that God meets us in our honesty, listens without judgment, and graciously “takes it” when we “let it all hang out.”

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