Seminary Viewpoints

Lament Psalms for Heavy Hearts

Bruce Meyer | August 10, 2023
Theology Thursday

In a world where brokenness is the norm, believers (Rom. 8:23–25) often find themselves in circumstances, either self-inflicted or circumstantially driven, that elicit great sadness or hardship, just as non-Christians do (Rom. 8:18–22). Contrary to what some may teach, God does not tell us to “keep a stiff upper lip” and wait out the storm, as if sorrow or the expression of pain is inherently sinful. Instead, God provides us with biblical teaching designed not only to help us navigate the hardship but also to deal with our own sorrow in the middle of the pain.

Through the laments in the Scriptures, God instructs us with challenging theology of hopefulness and restoration that advances us in our walk of holiness. Therefore, we must understand that God breathed out the words of the laments through human authors to encourage us to bring our sorrow to Him with a faith-filled expectation that He, as always, will deliver us even through this hardship with purpose.

The Nature of Lament Psalms

A lament is a complaint the author makes to God about his circumstances (Ps. 55:2, 17; 64:1; 142:2). As believers, we are sometimes told not to complain, but the Bible actually gives us the words for such complaints. The complaints, however, are always directed to God rather than to other people. These words of lament, which God inspired for men of faith to record, show us that He isn’t afraid to admit that there are times we won’t have the best of feelings about Him or our circumstances, yet He invites us to Himself in those moments.

In making a complaint to God, we take the problem directly to the one person who is in sovereign control over our lives and our circumstances, the One who has the power to intervene and change. Expecting Him to do something about our situation, we express that expectation to Him in faith. There are many such examples in the Scriptures: Hannah (1 Sam. 1:10–13), David (2 Sam. 1:17–27), Jeremiah (Lamentations), numerous psalmists, and the disciples (John 16:20) are just a few.

Lament psalms compose about one-third of the corpus and, therefore, are the most numerous sub-genre of literature within the Psalms. They can be either individual laments (Pss. 3, 4, 13, 22) or corporate (Pss. 12, 44, 74). Lament psalms are also occasional — based on a specific situation that prompts the lament. Although we don’t always know the exact situation, the truths that the psalmists share still apply to us; the situational ambiguity actually helps us not dismiss the application based on dissimilar circumstances.

Lament psalms contain the following five elements:

  1. An address to God.
  2. A complaint or lament.
  3. A petition for help.
  4. A vow of trust.
  5. A vow of praise.

These elements are rarely, if ever, packaged neatly in a particular order (unlike psalms that are arranged by stanza or as an acrostic) since the emotions in these psalms are usually raw, confusing and chaotic. Therefore, Bible students will need to arrange an outline of a lament thematically, drawing the theology from various verses in the lament to flesh out the ideas of each point. For instance, students may find the author’s laments in verses 2, 8, 14, and 22. They may also discover that in each location there is a different complaint. A statement of trust may occur in several scattered locations, as perhaps are other elements also.

What is significant about the laments is they move from complaint, pain, sorrow or even accusation to faith in the God who acts in our behalf. The psalmist is always looking to God for answers rather than merely complaining to complain. Furthermore, there is always a sense of right and wrong embedded in the laments; the psalmist is looking for God’s justice to prevail. Finally, there is always a sense that the psalmist belongs to God, the side of righteousness, so he is expecting God’s vindication of justice to prevail. That’s where the expectant faith demonstrates itself.

Examples of Lament

Psalm 13

Two psalms come to mind for our discussion. The first is a shorter lament, but it illustrates the theology that David was following. Psalm 13 is only six verses long. It is hard to imagine that either David’s circumstances or his responses resolved that quickly, but his record of the resolution is rather short nonetheless. It’s also easy to remember this psalm number since so many associate unlucky 13 with bad circumstances.

Upon studying, we notice immediately the psalmist’s address: “O LORD” (v. 1). Then David states four problems.

  1. He addresses God’s seeming inattentiveness to him (v. 1).
  2. David describes his own inability to figure out his situation (v. 2).
  3. David expresses a heaviness or darkness of some kind in which he feels “the sleep of death” (v. 3).
  4. David notes that his enemies are prevailing over him (v. 4).

David is, therefore, wrestling with both external and internal afflictions in his lament.

His petition comes in verse 3: “Consider and answer” and “light up my eyes.” He describes his vow of trust in verse 5 and his vow of praise in verses 5–6. The change in David’s theology, his way of thinking about his circumstances, is based on the final clause in verse 6: “because [God] has dealt bountifully with me” in the past. David was basing his current expectation of deliverance on what God had done in the past. From this, we learn God has a track record of delivering His people, even if that deliverance doesn’t come when or how we expect it.

Psalm 88

For the sake of time and space, we’ll take just a brief look at Psalm 88. This psalm is the darkest of psalms, a poem with very little expressed hope. The psalmist describes his complaints this way: “full of troubles” (v. 3), “near to Sheol” (v. 3), trapped in “the pit” (v. 4), “among the dead” (v. 5), “heavy upon me” (v. 7), and “your waves” (v. 7). What is unique about this psalm is there is very little expression of trust and no vow of praise. The complaints are aimed at God directly, almost like a “Dear John” letter addressed to God. We get the sense when reading this psalm that the only hope the psalmist can cling to is the fact that he can bring his pain to God, expecting Him to do something about it (vv. 1-2, 9, 13).

This psalm teaches us that even the darkest of pain, even that which God seemingly causes, is pain that God invites us to share with Him as we maintain a hopeful expectation in Him. God doesn’t turn His children away when they are hurting, but He offers hope in His character and work.

God breathed out the words of lament through human authors that experienced profound suffering, to encourage us in our suffering to approach God with faith-filled expectation that God hears, knows and acts to deliver us from our darkness with purpose.

As discussed by Bruce Meyer on The Steve Noble Show on August 10