Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?

In response to my post on The Costly Loss of Lament for the Church, Tim Bulkeley over at SansBlogue rightfully noted that I have tended to continue employ the designation “laments” when referring to what Gunkel called Klagepsalmen. Tim prefers the term “complaints” when referring to the same psalms:

These psalms claim that something is wrong with the world, usually complaining that God has not acted to right the wrong and go on to petition God to put it right. They seldom stop at merely lamenting the wrong.

Tim highlights a fairly common critique of the appropriateness of the term “lament.” I would agree that the term “lament” isn’t entirely satisfactory since in English “lament” tends to be understood passively as a cry of sorrow or grief. In this regard, the psalmist isn’t really “lamenting.” Rather he is describing his distress and appealing to God for aid. That being said, I don’t think that “complaint” is entirely satisfactory either. In common usage, “complaint” tends to be a minor expression of displeasure; you complain about poor service at a restaurant or when your ride is late. In this regard I wonder if using the term “complaint” trivializes the psalms in question.

A number of scholars don’t use either term, but prefer to use terms that derive from the biblical text itself. Thus, Hans-Joachim Kraus, in his excellent commentary on the Psalms, calls laments “songs of prayer” based on the general Hebrew term for prayer, תפלה tefilla. Craig Broyles makes a similar move in his commentary by calling these psalms “prayer psalms.” The rationale for this move is twofold for Broyles. First, he prefers to employ a designation derived from the psalms themselves (as I already noted). Second, he finds that the term “lament” gives undue prominence to one motif in the psalms.

I wonder if a more appropriate name for these psalms may be “pleas” or “petitions.” Gunkel and most other psalms scholars after him have recognized the most important element of the lament psalm is the plea or petition for help. Gerstenberger calls it the “very heart of a complaint psalm” and claims that “in fact, all the other elements can be interpreted as preparing and supporting the petition” (Psalms, FOTL, 13).

I am happy to continue to employ the traditional term “lament” — and even to alternate it with “complaint.” But if I wanted to adopt a more appropriate name, I would probably use something like “prayer of petition” or “plea.”

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One Response to Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?

  1. Ken says:

    It strikes me that the passive aspect of the term lament is quite appropriate as it seems the Psalmist is always fully aware of God’s sovereignty and their own inability to right the injustice or perceived wrong in the face of that sovereignty. I agree with you that complaint seems to trivialize the petition while lament, in my opinion, more appropriately captures the emotional gravity of the situation. From my own experiences, I would more often characterize my moments of grief and frustration with God as laments rather than complaints.

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