Preaching the Lament Psalms
Preaching the Lament Psalms
I know no better way to say it or write it. Life has those kinds of moments—the kind where human language experiences the poverty of speech, unable to adequately describe personal or communal pain. Been there? If not, keep living.
The good news is that the Bible gifts us language and examples to grieve the tragic sufferings of life. It's called lament, and it is an oft-ignored category within a broader genre of Scripture. Paying attention to its tenor, texture, and tone will help both you and me as we process life's dark days.
To be sure, the people of God are no strangers to indescribable difficulty. We suffer, as does the rest of creation. The difference is that we have help and a hope that others do not. For centuries, the church has found God to be her refuge and strength, a very present help in the time of trouble. We meet God in places of trouble. We come to know him in seasons of weeping. We do not despair and lose hope, but instead we take our tears with us. Ours is the testimony that those who sow in tears reap in joy.
There may not be a more opportune time in our nation to revisit the category of lament in Scripture and discuss how to responsibly preach this unwanted genre. Our nation is handicapped by moral failure. From Baton Rouge to Baltimore, social unrest is everywhere. No agency seems to have an answer. We are threatened from abroad and weakened from within.
These troubles affect the church, too. Her impoverished record of race relations, defending the weak, easing the burden of the poor, and abstaining from political vice is bringing about a strange kind of exile in the public square.
It may be helpful to teach those to whom we preach how to lament.
The biblical reasons for lament vary. The consequence of rebellion, the after-effects of personal sin, the fact that we live in a fallen world: these are just a few of them. Whatever the reason, the process of reaching God in the midst of distress is one that deserves our attention. Lament is a biblical-theological manner of handling horror and pain in the face of devastation. You can find the prophets lamenting—Isaiah does in chapter 64, requesting the judgment of God on his enemies. Micah speaks in the language of lament in 7:1, likening the absence of the righteous to the vacancy of an expected harvest. Jeremiah, too, laments on behalf of God's people. He is deeply grieved by their sin and suffering.
The preacher should likewise feel the pain of the people. In our proclamation, there ought to be some semblance of their brokenness.
The psalms provide an entry for us into the language of lament. As a collection of hymns and poems, they require a perceptive system of interpretation. These are songs of the heart. They are not always literal or politically correct. They can be outspoken, graphic, and dramatic.
Below are some suggestions for how to preach the lament psalms.
Read and re-read the psalm(s)
This might appear elementary, but a habit of reading Psalms makes one more proficient in recognizing its nuances. As a whole, the psalms repeat familiar themes that are discernible to the consistent reader. Commentaries are helpful in making connections, but there is no substitute for becoming a student who sits at the feet of the psalmists. For example, the last book of the Psalter begins at 107. Reading Psalm 107 through Psalm 150, one notices the theme of thanksgiving emerging as a pronounced intention of the collection. A careful reading draws our attention to the language of praise and thanksgiving. Of course, scholars can point these things out for us, but regular reading of the psalms helps us, under the watch of the Holy Spirit, to perceive the associations ourselves.
The psalms travel in thematic groups. They weep, laugh, pray, and cuss—often in the same psalm. Reading them in groups or by book will help you pinpoint the relationships. For example, Psalm 1 is a general invitation to consider the path of wisdom. It beckons readers not to stop at its strophe, but to pursue the content of its book. It dovetails into Psalm 2. Trouble emerges in Psalm 2, but is quickly quieted by the strength of the Lord's anointed. The last clause of 2:12, as a resolution, reiterates the theme of Psalm 1: how blessed are all who take refuge in God. Psalm 3 beckons trust in God during upheaval and assures us of what Psalm 1 promises; the final clause of verse eight announces the blessing of God upon his people. Though we may not have the situational context for each psalm, their literary contexts provide beneficial interpretive insights.
Investigate the literary form: structure, intensity, resolution
As poems or hymns, most of the psalms employ poetic devices. They play on words, build intensity, make use of metaphor, and pair words, which often balances their structure. This is important because we cannot treat the psalms, in general, as we do other categories of Scripture, like the Epistles. The psalms invite us to admire their poetry. It is through the vistas of the poem, song, or prayer that we run into the heartfelt emotion of the psalmist. There we encounter the power of God.
Lament psalms not only weep, but they move the reader along a journey of faith. Some of them limp on the journey. They appeal for help. Our preaching can do the same. Many of the lament psalms involve at least four movements. In nadir tones, they articulate a desperate condition, plea for help, express confidence in God, and find assurance of deliverance in his character.
Psalm 12 illustrates a path that lament psalms often take. The petition for help is immediate in verse one, then the psalmist describes the circumstances that make life so painful. Before he concludes, the psalmist finds comfort in the word and strength of God. This is a picture of life: trouble can appear unannounced, with no warning.
Psalm 22, another lament song, demonstrates intensification in lament. Notice the progression of the psalm—there is a sort of climactic movement to it. The psalmist intensifies the description of his pain. He can recognize God's reliability in generations of old, but he struggles with his present difficulty (v. 6-7, 12-18).
The structure of the psalm provides cues for our preaching. A number of the lament psalms find resolution in giving praise to God. In the peak of their struggle, they note something remarkable about the character of God that unleashes praise. The same psalm that often begins in tragedy ends in triumph. The psalmist sees the greatness of God as his victory over personal anguish.
I like to read the psalms in the JPS Tanakh; it is the more literal translation of the psalms. The Tanakh titles the psalms Tehillim, which means "praises." It reminds me that life, even when shrouded in despair and lament, ought to find its way to the place of praise. The journey of faith moves toward praise of God. This is not some emotional crutch or philosophical detachment from reality. In the greatness of God, we find much good. His proven character is our confident assurance that he is on our side and that things will work out for our good (Ps. 73).
Let the themes inform your preaching
If we are not careful, we can easily forget that the people to whom we preach face great trials. The psalms are left on record in part because God's Word anticipates our struggles with life's unmitigated difficulties. Our preaching should involve the kind of pastoral care that acknowledges the reality of suffering and refuses to offer trite solutions, but instead builds confidence in the character of God and the reliability of his Word. Only these things will help us.
To that end, in our preaching of the lament psalms, we should consider building the tension in the sermon as the psalmist does in the poem. Let your hearers experience life's escalating groans as a permissible sentiment before God. Use the lament psalms to remind people that God can handle our tough questions. In fact, history records that none of our questions are too tough for him anyway. Preaching lament psalms enables our communication to be honest and our people to be transparent with God. It does not polish pain or ignore frustration; instead, it tells us where to take our pain and frustration.
When preaching the lament psalms, we would do well to pay attention to the metaphors and themes of dislocation. Whereas our preaching should offer hope, it should not try to resolve the troubles of life too quickly. Sin's impact on our world is real and thorough. The psalms encourage us to sing through our pain, to bless the Lord in high and low moments, and to trust his nature. In him, we find abounding joy and grace.
Charlie Dates is the senior pastor at the historic Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois.