PSALMS: Laments, by Mary Ellen Chase


From The Psalms For the Common Reader

As John Calvin has already told us, the Psalms are a mirror reflecting all the emotions of the human soul.  We must, therefore, expect to find within them laments for trouble and sorrow, outcries against the slings and the arrows of life.  Moreover, since most of them were written during years of subjection when the very existence of a people was threatened, and since the Hebrews were among all peoples perhaps the most intense and even violent in their emotions, laments were as natural to them as were rejoicings.  There were surely many bitter hours in their long experience when to rejoice was impossible.  They had known invasion, destruction, and death, and the lesser misfortunes of drought, famine, poverty, and plague.  Small wonder, then, that their poets cry out again and again against all that causes them anguish and despair, their enemies who at least seem to be blessed by God; their loss of hope and, worse still, of faith; illness, and their fear and hatred of death; the awful absence of God in their thoughts.

Sometimes the lament is one not of an individual, but rather of an entire people, the subject nation of Israel.  Such is Psalm 44 in which the writer vividly contrasts the mercies of God toward his people in the past with his apparent neglect of them in the present.  Once he delivered them out of bondage and saved them from their enemies.  Now he has put them to shame, scattered them among the heathen, made them objects of scorn and derision to their unwelcome neighbors, bowed their souls to the dust.

Such national laments were without doubt often connected with ritual fasts or with elaborate Temple ceremonies, designed for seasons of penitence and prayer on the part of the people.  This we gather from references in the Old Testament which record proclamations for fasts or for solemn assemblies.  Even the very form of the lament may well have been traditional or, perhaps, conventional.  Certain scholars note that laments were composed and sung by other peoples in the Near and Middle East, such as the Babylonians, the Canaanites, and the Assyrians, in their attempts to propitiate their gods or to bring about their favor.  We know that definite forms of expression and behavior were expected from the professional mourners and from early bands of so-called “prophets.”  But since the details of such ceremonies, or even the proof of them, are impossible to ascertain today with any degree of accuracy, we shall be far more wise simply to read and study the lament as a type of psalm which still holds meaning and value for us after many centuries.

Two characteristic expressions of national laments are the words, Why, and, How long, which echo the bewilderment and the impatient endurance of a whole people.  The writer of Psalm 10 cries:

Why standest thou afar off, O Lord?
Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?

And Psalm 80 is filled with the broken questions of the poet on behalf of his people:

O Lord God of hosts,
How long wilt thou be angry
Against the prayer of thy people?

Such questioning is echoed in other national laments, such as Psalms 44, 74, and 79.

More plentiful and far more interesting among the laments are the outcries of individuals, of human souls in torment. Hermann Gunkel claims that such laments are far more numerous than any other type of psalm.  This is doubtless true; and yet it is significant that there is rarely a lament which before its close does not express hope and confidence with that almost incredible resilience of the Hebrew mind and heart.  Men may be cast down, but they are not defeated; forsaken and yet not deserted; plunged into darkness, yet still able to see light.  And it is unquestionably because of this deathless hope that, in spite of the number of psalms of distress, they do not take from the Psalter its prevailing atmosphere of faith and truth.

The lament as a type usually begins with a call for help, as in Psalm 6, which is clearly the psalm of someone very ill:

O Lord rebuke me not in thine anger,
Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.
Have mercy upon me, O Lord; for I am weak.
O Lord, heal me; for my bones are vexed.

Sometimes this complaining call is lost in an almost angry cry as in the familiar opening words of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Again, as in Psalm 130, the psalmist’s cry, although less personal and more universal in his acceptance of life, is equally one of despair:

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.

In most psalms of this type the opening cry is enlarged upon by a description of the complaint.  Psalm 22 is again an admirable example.  Its writer sees himself despised by men; laughed to scorn because of his faith in God; encompassed by enemies; “poured out like water.”  His “bones are out of joint”; his heart is “like wax”; his “tongue cleaveth” to his jaws; he is brought “into the dust of death.”

The complaint is often followed, though sometimes preceded, by a petition, often pathetic in its despair:

Be not thou far from me, O Lord!
O my strength, haste thee to help me!

And few laments close without a vow of continued faith and confidence, of determination to persevere, whatever the cost.

Through many years of reading books and studying commentaries on the Psalms I have found few students and scholars who share my enthusiasm for Psalm 102, perhaps I should say my delight in it, for to me it is charming and even amusing.  Surely no other lament is so frank and unabashed in its list of grievances!  Those more learned than I are concerned with whether it was originally one psalm, or two, or even three, and with whether it is a national rather than a personal lament.  I am, instead, concerned and touched by the psalm itself, especially by its first twelve verses.  Its description in these verses of a despondent, sick, and deserted man brings to my mind similar hours in my own life and banishes all questions of mere scholarship.  This poor soul is apparently all alone on the top of his house, with no one coming to see him.  Perhaps they are staying away because they are, quite reasonably, tired of his groanings!  He describes himself as a “pelican of the wilderness,” as “an owl of the desert.”  He has a high fever; he cannot eat.  He is terribly afraid lest he be taken away “in the midst” of his days by that God who “shalt endure forever!”  I am sure with the scholars that many of his utterances are noble and even holy and that the latter half of his psalm may well represent his nation rather than himself; but it is his wretched and vividly described plight which interests me and which makes me smile even in the midst of his terrible distress.

Psalms 42 and 43, now generally conceded to have been originally one psalm instead of two by reason of their similar language and of their identical final verses, form perhaps the most moving of all the laments.  Its author is so concrete and simple in the anguished questions which he asks of God that we find our concern with his sorrows easy and inevitable.  He says at the opening of his poem, in a comparison deep in the beginnings of his nomadic race, that his soul panteth after God “as the hart panteth after the water brooks.”  He, too, had gone to the house of God with all his friends and neighbors for some holy day, some festival; and yet all the joy and praise there had not sufficed to keep him from his misery and despair.  He recalls the history of his people, and in spite of his tears and sorrow, which taunt him day and night with doubt, he still clings to God’s light and truth and knows that they will, perhaps at long length, lead him again to the tabernacle and to the holy hill.

Once is not enough for his questioning, his doubt, and his hope.  Three times he asks his bewildered questions, and three times he gives sure and certain proof of his tortured, yet undying faith:

Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
And why art disquieted within me?
Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him
Who is the health of my countenance, and my God.


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