“Genre research in Psalms is nonnegotiable, not something one can execute or ignore according to preference. Rather it is the foundational work with which there can be no certainty in the remainder.
It is the firm ground from which everything else must ascend.”
- Hermann Gunkel
Perhaps no scholar has influenced the modern study of the book of Psalms as much as Hermann Gunkel. His pioneering form-critical work on the psalms sought to provide a new and meaningful context in which to interpret individual psalms — not by looking at their historical background or their literary context within the Psalter (which he didn’t see as significant), but by bringing together psalms of the same genre (Gattung) from throughout the Psalter. Even though Psalms scholarship has refined and critiqued his approach and have moved on to different approaches, Gunkel’s form-critical legacy remains firmly entrenched in modern scholarship and is the default starting point for most studies of the Psalter.
The Genres of the Psalms
According to Gunkel, for psalms to be considered as part of the same genre (Gattung) three conditions had to be met:
the psalms had to have a similar setting in life (Sitz im Leben), basis in worship, a common cultic setting, or at least originally derive from one;
they had to be characterized by common thoughts, feelings, and moods; and
they required a shared diction, style, and structure — a language related to form (Formensprache). This feature provides the signals of the particular genre.
Working with these criteria, Gunkel isolated a number of different genres or types of psalms. In his earlier work he highlighted four primary types of psalms (hymns, community laments, individual thanksgiving psalms, and individual laments), with various subcategories, as well as several mixed forms. In his later work, completed by Joachim Begrich, he identified six major types (hymns, enthronement psalms, communal complaints, royal psalms, individual complaints, and individual thanksgiving psalms) and a number of smaller genres and mixed types. I have tended to follow the later classification, with modifications as noted. Also note that some psalms are found in more than one category. This is especially the case with sub-genres since Gunkel wasn’t consistent in how he dealt with them.
For this summary I have relied primarily on these two works:
Hermann Gunkel (completed by Joachim Begrich), Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel (Mercer University Press, 1998; translation of Einleitung in die Psalmen: die Gattungen der religiösen Lyrik Israels [Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985, 1933]; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com).
Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction (Fortress Press, 1967; translation of his article in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart [2nd ed; J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1930]; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com)
I have also included this summary as a PDF document below (it is a handout I put together for my Psalms class). Feel free to download it and use it as long as you keep the ascription in the first footnote. (While I have double checked the references, please let me know if you find any errors or omissions.)
Introduction: A call to praise, sing, and rejoice to Yahweh in some form.
Body: The reasons why Yahweh should be praised (often introduced by כי, kî, “for”).
His qualities and attributes.
His regular or repeated actions, including his works in creation and conservation of cosmos and his works in history, especially for Israel.
Conclusion: renewed summons to praise.
Sitz im Leben
Hymns were sung as part of worship on diverse occasions, including sacred festivals as well at other times, perhaps by a choir or an individual singer.
B. Songs of Zion
Psalms 46; 48; 76; 84; 87; 122.
These psalms tend to lack a proper introduction. They praise Yahweh by praising Jerusalem, addressing the holy place, and calling down blessings upon it. They were sung at particular occasions that celebrated Jerusalem’s majesty and future eschatological significance.
C. Psalms of Yahweh’s Enthronement
Psalms 47; 93; 96:10-13; 97; 99.
Often begin with the words יהוה מלך, “Yahweh has become king.”
Contain many calls to rejoice.
Have brief references to Yahweh’s deeds, depicted as just now taking place.
Give descriptions of what his reign will mean to Israel and the world.
Present the idea that a new world kingdom is coming.
Sitz im Leben
These psalms were used as part of Israel’s worship, likely including an enthronement festival in which Yahweh is glorified as king. These psalms were given a prophetic, eschatological, reinterpretation in their final stages.
Calling upon Yahweh by name (usually in the vocative)
Lamenting complaints over the misfortune; almost always political in nature.
Supplications and petitions to Yahweh to transform the misfortunes.
Thoughts aimed to excite confidence in the suppliant or to move Yahweh to action, such as his honour or the sake of his name.
Often end with a certainty of hearing.
Sitz im Leben
The setting of these psalms are days of national fasting and/or complaint festivals brought on by various national calamities, such as war, exile, pestilence, drought, famine, and plagues.
Laments will typically include the following element, though not necessarily in the same order:
Summons to Yahweh.
Complaint/Lament proper, often preceded by a description of the prayer.
Considerations inducing Yahweh to intervene, whether by challenging Yahweh’s honour, exciting his anger by citing the enemies’ words, or by the nature of the complaint itself.
Petition/Entreaty. This is the most significant part of the complaint psalm. May be of a general nature or may be quite specific (confessional petitions, petitions of innocence, etc.).
Conviction of being heard (present only in some Psalms) and/or a vow.
Sitz im Leben
The setting in life is difficult to determine due to the formulaic character of the language in laments. Originally derives from the worship service and then later were used as spiritual songs of the individual. These psalms were occasioned by apparently life-threatening situations rather than everyday life; such situations may include illness, misfortune, persecution from enemies — though one needs to be careful about taking the images too literally.
2) Psalms Protesting Innocence
Psalms 5; 7; 17; 26. These psalms have an accentuated assurance of innocence, and even in some cases a qualified self-curse.
3) Psalms of Confession
Psalms 51; 130 (Psalms expressing national penitence include Psalms 78; 81; 106; cf. also Ezra 9:9-15; Neh 9:9-38; Dan 9:4-19). These psalms are characterized by a painful awareness of having sinned against Yahweh and deserving punishment. In this light they ask forgiveness and appeal for God’s grace.
4) Psalms of Cursing and Vengeance
Psalm 109, among others. These psalms strive for retaliation against enemies.
5) Psalms of Trust
Psalms 4; 11; 16; 23; 27:1-6; 62; 131 (Psalm 125 is a national song of trust). These psalms reformulate the lament psalms and shift their focus to an expression of trust and confidence, so much so that often the complaint, petition, and certainty of hearing are displaced. They often speak of Yahweh in the third person.
Formally Royal psalms are of different types, though in all cases they are “concerned entirely with kings.” Some of their distinguishing elements include:
Praises of the king.
Affirmations of Yahweh’s favour to the king.
Prayers for the king (or his own prayer) and royal oracles.
Portrayals of the king’s righteousness and piety.
Sitz im Leben
These psalms were performed at some sort of court festivity, where they were performed in the presence of the king and his dignitaries. Specific occasions may be enthronement/accession festivals and anniversaries, victory over an enemy, healing from an illness, among others.
An expanded Introduction, declaring the intention to thank God.
Narration of the trouble, usually to the guests of the celebration. The psalmist usually recounts:
his trouble (thus they are akin to Laments)
his calling upon God
Acknowledgment/proclamation of Yahweh’s deliverance; usually directed towards others.
In many cases, the psalm ends with an Announcement of the thank-offering.
Sitz im Leben
Since the word usually translated “thanksgiving” is the same word used for “thank offering” (תודה; todah; e.g., Ps 50:14, 23; Jonah 2:9), it is clear that these psalms were intended to be used in a cultic setting. It is thought that the individual, in the presence of the worshiping congregation (e.g., 22:22; 26:12), would testify personally to God’s saving deeds, accompanied with a ritual act and meal. Eventually, these psalms freed themselves from the actual sacrifice.
B. Thanksgivings of the Community
Psalms 66:8-12; 67; 124; 129.
These psalms are parallel in form to the individual thanksgiving psalms. The life setting for these psalms was likely a cultic celebration at the temple in remembrance of God’s help and intervention.
V. Wisdom Psalms
Psalms 1; 37; 49; 73; 91; 112; 127; 128; 133.
While there are wisdom elements found in psalms of a variety of genres, there are psalms which exhibit a concentration of wisdom themes to be considered a distinct type. As such, these psalms do not exhibit a single formal pattern, but share a number of characteristics, including:
Psalmist speaks of his words as wisdom, instruction, etc.
He describes the “fear of Yahweh.”
He addresses his hearers as “sons.”
He warns, teaches, and uses figures, question and answer techniques, beatitudes, descriptions of Yahweh’s ways.
VI. Smaller Genres and Mixed Types
A. Pilgrimage Psalms
Only one complete example remains, Psalm 122. These psalms were used at the beginning of a pilgrimage as well as once the pilgrim had reached his or her destination.
B. Psalms Using Ancient Stories (Legends) of Israel
Psalms 78; 105; 106. These psalms are subsumed under other literary types (e.g., Ps 105 is a hymn), but may be grouped together because they share a number of common characteristics:
The Narration of Yahweh’s deeds and/or the sins of Israel (of Heilsgeschichte)
The Exhortation (as in Deuteronomy)
C. Psalm Liturgies
Psalms 15; 20; 24; 14/53; 66; 81; 82; 85; 95; 107; 115; 118; 121; 126; 132; 134. These psalms are characterized by their antiphonal structure, particularly suited for corporate worship.
As I mentioned above, Gunkel’s classification is just a starting point. Much has changed since Gunkel did his seminal studies of the Psalms, though few studies have the Psalms have had as lasting of influence. Perhaps in future posts I will highlight some of the changes and trends since Gunkel.
Since then Bio Nascimento has translated the handout into Portuguese (with my permission). I don’t know how many readers I have that read Portuguese, but I figured I would make the translated handout available, so here it is:
Many problems still remain with the form critical approach to the psalms. Recent literature has definitely exhibited more caution about the specific social and cultic settings proposed for the psalms. While earlier form-critical work has continued to be useful — if not essential — to recent psalms scholarship, its usefulness is found in the literary and stylistic features that it highlights, as well as its broad suggestions about situations in life.
Wisdom in the Psalms?
The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak justice.
The law of their God is in their hearts;
their steps do not slip (Ps 37:30-31).
A persistent problem that has continually dogged the form-critical approach to the psalms is the lack of agreement on certain forms. No where is this disagreement felt more than with the wisdom psalms (although Royal psalms would be a close second). Norman Whybray has even refered to the task of identifying wisdom psalms as “making bricks without straw.” While Gunkelâ€™s (Introduction to Psalms; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) characterization of wisdom psalms as having a didactic intent and personal and individual expressions of experience has generally been accepted by scholars, as well as his identification of Psalms 1, 34, 37, 49, 78, 105, 106, 111, 112, and 127 as wisdom psalms, no two scholars are in agreement that these are the only criterion and even on what psalms are wisdom psalms! Other criterion include: learned authorship, specific stylistic features (such as “better than” sayings, numerical sayings, adress to sons, alphabetic compositions, extensive use of metaphors, etc.), common motifs, a mood of private devotion and piety, and a concern for order. This has led some scholars, such as Norman Whybray and Roland Murphy, to identify many more wisdom psalms in the Psalter. In contrast, James Crenshaw (The Psalms: An Introduction [Eerdmans, 2001], 87-95; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) questions the very category of wisdom psalms. He notes:
I do not see any profit in attributing such psalms to the sages when we know so little about the authors and their social contexts. Perhaps we should limit ourselves to what can definitely be affirmed: some psalms resemble wisdom literature in stressing the importance of learning, struggling to ascertain life’s meaning, and employing proverbial lore. Their authorship and provenance matter less than the accuracy and profundity of what they say (p. 94).
Here is a listing of wisdom psalms according to some recent scholars:
As noted above, there have been many refinements of Gunkel’s approach to the psalms and the laments — as the most popular type of psalm found in the book of Psalms — has received its fair share of attention. Some of the most significant changes in the interpretation of the individual laments since Gunkel have centred both on his description of their structure (Formensprache), as well as his reconstruction of their putative setting in life (Sitz im Leben).
By and large, Gunkelâ€™s formal treatment of individual laments has been accepted by most scholars with only minor changes, most of which consisted of refinements or elaborations of the various components that make up the lament. For instance, Westermann, in his Praise and Lament in the Psalms, fleshed out the â€œlament properâ€? in lament psalms by identifying its three main constituents which varied in importance at different times:
the complaint against God,
the psalmistâ€™s lament over personal suffering, and
the complaint against those who oppose him, i.e., the enemy.
A more extensive refinement on Gunkelâ€™s classification has been offered by Craig Broyles in his Conflict of Faith and Experience in the Psalms. He has suggested a further division of the individual laments into complaints (psalms where Yahweh is accused of wrongdoing on behalf of the psalmist) and pleas (psalms where the Yahweh is not responsible but is appealed to for help). While this distinction is helpful, at times the distinction between the two categories is ambiguous. It does highlight, however, an important question about the primary nature of the lament and related issues of nomenclature (e.g., should the genre be labeled laments or complaints, etc.; see my post on Laments, Complaints, Prayers, Pleas, or Petitions?).
One component of the individual lament that has received a fair amount of attention is the â€œcertainty of hearingâ€? that often occurs near the end of lament psalms (though not necessarily). What has attracted the attention is the sudden change in mood from despair to confidence. For example, in the ending of Psalm 6, the psalmist declares (seemingly) out of nowhere that Yahweh has heard his supplication:
Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame (Ps 6:8-10).
The most common explanation of this sudden shift is related to seeing a cultic setting behind the psalm in which a priest delivers an oracle of salvation that promises Yahwehâ€™s response between the lament proper and the words of confidence. This view was advanced and solidified by Bergrich, who drew a number of parallel expressions between the lament psalms and the salvation oracles in Second Isaiah, and attempted to reconstruct what the oracle of salvation would of looked like. The biggest weakness with this view is that there are no extant salvation oracles in any lament psalms, and if this was the common practice, the reasons for omitting the oracle are not clear. Others have tried to explain the phenomenon by appealing to an inward psychological process whereby during his prayer the psalmist either recalls Godâ€™s past faithfulness or comes to grip with his situation and moves on, or recalls his faith in God the divine warrior. While there may be some vestiges of a cultic action behind the shift in tone, the notion of recollection of Yahwehâ€™s past deeds or some similar faith-oriented explanation is just as if not more likely.
Since Gunkelâ€™s time there is also a new appreciation for the individuality of each psalm (though it should be noted that as is often the case, it was Gunkelâ€™s students, and not Gunkel himself who applied form-criticism too rigidly). Because form-critical descriptions tended to focus on what is generic and not what is specific, earlier form criticism often resulted in a psalmâ€™s individuality to be glossed over. This new concern is due in part to the renewed interest in Hebrew poetry, and in part to dissatisfaction with the large collection of psalms that didnâ€™t fit neatly into any one genre. What is clear, however, is that a psalmâ€™s internal poetic structure needs to be determinative in breaking down a psalm into stanzas, etc., rather than a predetermined generic mold.
Most of the debate since Gunkel has focused on the Sitz im Leben of the lament psalms, and, on a more theoretical level, on the relationship of Sitz im Leben to form. To a large extent, the discussion of the setting revolved around the identity of the â€œIâ€? and the enemy in the laments. The debate surrounding the identity of the â€œIâ€? in the psalms has its roots before Gunkel with the work of Smend, who argued that the â€œIâ€? in many psalms is not an individual but a personification of the community. Gunkel, and Balla in accord with him, argued that this may be the case when a connection is made explicit (e.g., Ps 129; though I understand the liturgical reference to Israel in the first verse as redactional), and appealed to â€œJeremiahâ€™s confessionsâ€? and the psalms that seem to make a distinction between the psalmist and other Israelites (e.g., Ps 35) to support the view that the â€œIâ€? is an individual.
A modified version of Smendâ€™s view has been resurrected in the last century with the work of Birkeland (a student of Mowinkel). He argued in two publications that since the enemies are clearly foreign nations in communal laments, and the enemies in individual laments are describe with similar terms, and are even at times explicitly identified as foreign nations (see Ps 9), then the only logical conclusion is to maintain that the enemies in individual laments are also foreign nations. This view presupposes that the â€œIâ€? in virtually every individual lament (Birkeland has been rightly criticized for his unequivocal statements) is a representative of the nation, likely the king, which would make them royal psalms. Mowinckel, who had originally maintained (in his Psalmenstudien) that the Sitz im Leben of the individual laments was a healing ritual in which the psalmist would go before the priest in the temple and ask for healing (This view was based on Mowinckelâ€™s understanding of the enemy as theâ€œworker of evilâ€?, i.e., a sorcerer who is responsible for the psalmistâ€™s illness), was partially convinced by Birkeland. Mowinckelâ€™s modified view, as found in his The Psalms in Israelâ€™s Worship, distinguished between personal psalms of lamentation with sorcery and a healing ritual as their setting, and national psalms of lamentation in the â€œI-form.â€? The notion that the â€œIâ€? is the king representative of the nation has also been argued recently by John Eaton (Kingship and the Psalms [SCM, 1975]; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and Steven Croft (The Identify of the Individual in the Psalms [Sheffield, 1987]; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com), though neither of them are as dogmatic or extreme as Birkeland.
Other settings that have been proposed for the individual laments include a juridical setting in which the psalmist, who had been unjustly accused, would flee to the temple to undergo a trial in order to clear his name (e.g., Beyerlin). He would then pray the psalm to encourage Yahweh to adjudicate a fair judgment. Along a similar vein, Delekat proposed that the laments were originally inscriptions left in the temple by those seeking refuge. Attempts have also been made to understand the enemies in light of socio-economic conditions within Israelite society. Gerstenberger has argued that the context for the laments may be the postexilic family clan, rather than the temple, and that the enemies may often be from within the clan (see his Psalms: Part 1: With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry [Eerdmans, 1988; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). The laments, then, would be used in a ritual to restore harmony to the clan and rehabilitate the individual. The late Gerald Sheppard takes a similar view, arguing that that laments were read aloud in the temple and were meant to be overheard by the enemies (members of the ruling class?), thereby exposing them to the community and perhaps leading them to repentance.
All these proposed settings for the individual laments have some merit, though it seems more likely that a multiplicity of situations lie behind the laments. There are a number of psalms in which the setting appears to be one of illness (though Mowinckelâ€™s understanding of the â€œdoer of evilâ€? as a sorcerer was clearly overstated, as he himself eventually admitted). Ps 6 has already been mentioned, and there are many other psalms that make reference to the psalmistâ€™s pain and wounds (e.g., Pss 13; 38). But there are also psalms in which there appears to be a juridical setting where the psalmist is pleading his innocence, e.g., Pss 4, 5 (what the specific setting is, however, can only be answered with speculation). There are also psalms in which the enemies do seem to be equated with foreign nations (though it is not clear to me that this means that the â€œIâ€? in the psalms therefore needs to be a king or ruler), and others where the enemies appear to be from within the same group. And finally, there are also many laments (the majority?) in which the enemy appears to be a personal enemy of the psalmist who poses a real (or perceived; cf. Keel) threat to the poet.
The point that Iâ€™m making is that it is not necessary â€” or even desirable â€” to try to find â€œtheâ€? Sitz im Leben of the laments. And even if there was one original setting for them, I think that it is unlikely that we could determine it with any certainty. This is because of the stereotypical and formulaic nature of much of the descriptions in the laments. The situation of the psalmist and the nature of his trouble is never specified and can often fit a variety of contexts. Therefore to try to limit the setting of the laments moves against the direction in the psalms themselves. From a slightly different angle, modern folklore studies have also underscored the fact that the interaction between the performer, his material, and his audience is often quite complex and cannot be understood in simple one-to-one terms. The notion that a genre has a one-to-one connection with a single setting is not born out by the evidence. Even a genre like a hymn, which most would place in the cult, is equally at home in a variety of contexts as history and usage has proven (e.g., Gerstenberger, who places many in the context of synagogal worship). Moreover, while there is likely an original oral (and cultic) background to the lament psalm, at some time they were written down and transmitted throughout the community and used again and again by different people in different contexts. Quite opposite to the notion that something was lost by writing it down, the stereotypical character of the laments (and the psalms in general) allowed for diverse and rich usage. Some laments may even have been composed in such a general way so that they could be used in a number of different personal situations.
This is a perspective that Patrick Miller has done a lot to advance, and I think that he is essentially correct (see his Interpreting the Psalms [Fortress, 1986; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). The open-endedness of the laments make them fruitful quarry for theological reflection. As Miller has argued, this open-endedness allows the laments to be appropriated by people in all sorts of different situations within and without the community of faith. This, however, does not mean that one should not attempt to determine some of the possible settings of the laments. Some knowledge of their setting helps us contextualize our theological reflection and ground it in human experience.
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, ×ª×¤×œ×” 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.”
I have been working on this post for a week. Actually, I haven’t really been working on it for a week; this post has been sitting as a draft in WordPress as I have been avoiding it in light of the tragic events in my friend’s life. On the one hand, talking about lament is appropriate is view of such a horrific tragedy. On the other hand, more than anything else, I don’t want to sound trite. Job’s (so-called) friends did fine as long as they kept their mouths shut — it’s once they opened them that things went sideways! In my mind, this recent tragedy underscores the need for the church to embrace lament fully as ancient Israel did.
I have been discussing lament psalms in my psalms course over the last few classes and was struck once again of the importance of lament for the life of faith. Of all the different types of psalms in the Psalter, laments occur most frequently. While some of the details of their form and setting in life are elusive (at least to scholars), it is pretty easy to identify lament psalms by their tone, which is one of sorrow, complaint, disorientation, and suffering. Take the following examples:
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lordâ€”how long? (Ps 6:2-3)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads (Ps 22:1, 6-7).
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
Turn your gaze away from me,
that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more (Ps 39:11-12).
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Ps 69:1-3).
You [i.e., Yahweh] have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend (Ps 88:6-10, 16-18).
Complaining in Faith to God
Many Christians don’t know how to handle tragedy. Consequently, they don’t know what to do with the lament psalms in the Bible. They think that “complaining in faith” to God is a contradiction. “Christians aren’t supposed to complain!” “We are to ‘rejoice always’ aren’t we?” But when we come to the book of Psalms we find it filled with complaints — and not just complaints about the psalmist’s circumstances, but also complaints directed towards God, challenging God’s perceived inaction (“How long, O Lord?”) and sometimes challenging God himself (“You have caused…”; see Ps 44:9; 60:3; 90:15). Roland Murphy has asked whether “we have lost the art of complaining in faith to God in favor of a stoic concept of what obedience or resignation to the divine will really means” (“The Faith of the Psalmist,” Interpretation 34 , 236).
Rather than understanding complaint and lament psalms as expressions of doubt or unbelief, it is more appropriate to see them as manifestations of a deep faith. No matter how virulent the psalmist gets â€” at least the psalmist knew where to direct his complaints! He or she had the inward conviction that God was there. There was no question in the psalmistâ€™s mind that God is there and that he will listen to the prayer and perhaps change his or her circumstances for the better. Lament psalms are not resigned lamentation; they do more than just whine about current hardships. They are fundamentally appeals or petitions to God to do something. What characterizes these psalms with few exceptions is the confidence that the situation can be changed if the LORD wills to intervene.
The Costly Loss of Lament
Walter Brueggemann broached this very subject (and I stole part of the title of his essay for this post!). In his article, “The Costly Loss of Lament” (JSOT 36  57-71), he explores the theological significance of lament psalms. In particular, he explores the question of “what happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage?” (p. 59) His answer to his question is twofold. First, when lament is lost, there is also a loss of genuine covenant interaction. Brueggemann argues that when the second party to the covenant (i.e., the psalmist/petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is only permitted to praise, then there is no real covenant relationship. God does not want only “yes men and women.” He wants people who are honest and real in their relationship with him. “Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control” (p. 60). I might add that such a situation only serves to reinforce the status quo and legitimates a view of God that doesn’t square with the God of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.
A second loss caused by the loss of lament, according to Brueggemann, is “the stifling of the question of theodicy” (p. 61). What he means by this is not theoretical questions of God and evil, but the capacity to raise legitimate questions of justice with God. I think here of Psalm 89 where in the first half of the psalm the psalmist rehearses and celebrates God’s promises to David (vv. 1-37), only to throw God’s promises in his face in the second half (vv. 38-51):
But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust (Ps 89:38-39).
The psalmist is raising a justice question related to God’s character. If he promised that, then why is this happening? In this sense lament articulates a formal complaint against God (see the book of Job as an extended lawsuit against God). Such articulation ensures that such questions of justice are not swept under the carpet. Like Ecclesiastes, laments recognize that the world is not as it should be — it is hebel – it is not right.
If we lose the ability or the right to lament, to complain to God, then we lose a vital component of our relationship with God. And when it comes right down to it, God knows our hearts, so why not be honest with God at all times? We should feel free to speak freely to God when we are walking through the darkest valley and when we feel like we could praise him forever.
Lament as One Stage in a Journey
Finally, while a few lament psalms end on a note of utter despair (see Pss 38; 39; 89; 143; and in particular Ps 88), most give way to hope. The distress the psalmist is experiencing is very real, but it is not final in the psalmist’s eyes. Parallel to the structure of the Psalter with its move from lament to praise, lament should be seen as only one part of the journey. Praise is the ultimate goal. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). That being said, we must embrace the night. We must embrace lament — and we must allow others who are walking through the darkest valley to embrace lament as well. Let us not be like Job’s friends and quote platitudes and Bible verses when we should be remaining silent and walking along beside our friend in silent prayer.