One of the spiritual practices that I have been engaging in over the last few months has been to utilize the Liturgy of the Hours. While I have had a passing a familiarity with this over the last few years of my life, my present health circumstances have lent a new impetus to the practice.
Much of my medication over the last few months has made it extremely difficult to concentrate and focus, which has made it challenging to read for any length of time, which has had deleterious effects on my ability to really engage the scriptures as much as I would want.
All that being said, I came across a podcast that recites the Liturgy of the Hours every day which has been an incredible blessing, since it has given me the chance to have some measure of exposure to the scriptures on a daily basis, probably even more so than I would in a normal state of life.
Perhaps this is just me, or perhaps it is a common thing, but whenever I attempt to study the scriptures, I tend to go back to the same passages, stories and the like that are already familiar to me, and often I don’t get the opportunity to be exposed to portions that are less familiar. I am also terrible at any kind of reading plan that takes one through the whole Bible, so I have essentially given up on that type of approach.
As I have been listening to the Liturgy of the Hours, especially the Evening and Night prayers, I have noticed that during the Psalm portions of the prayer many of the Psalms are what are classified as Psalms of Lament.
In college I studied Pastoral Ministry, and one of my classes was in Hebrew Poetry and Wisdom literature, and so I am familiar with the different classifications. What has struck me, however, is how little exposure we actually have to these Psalms of Lament, whether in our personal study and meditation or in our corporate worship.
As I think through the Psalms that are usually read in worship, they tend to be Psalms of thanksgiving, Psalms of hope and praise and joy. In fact, about the only Psalms of Lament I can really remember being read are ones that have more explicit Messianic undertones, to set up a sort of prophetic vindication of Jesus, his ministry, death, etc. (Psalm 22 comes immediately to mind.)
I suppose it’s not terribly surprising. Some of the Psalms of Lament are simply depressing. In many ways they are also disturbing, for the author actually attributes his suffering to God’s wrath. That is an aspect of faith that we generally tend to avoid talking about as much as we can, at least in my experience within corporate worship.
For example, in Psalm 38 we read:
LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
and your hand has come down on me.
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
like a burden too heavy to bear.
My wounds fester and are loathsome
because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
there is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
I groan in anguish of heart.
Certainly not the sort of comforting message one might hear from Psalm 23 where The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Another example is Psalm 102:
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
Again, the Psalmist feels that God has actually thrown him aside in wrath and anger. Now all that remains is a dark night and the slow march towards decay and death. It may be no surprise that we often don’t read these in worship or even in the solitude of our rooms.
Sometimes the Psalms of Lament express absolute abandonment, which is perplexing for the author for he feels he is suffering unjustly, having done nothing wrong. God has left without a word and makes no reply. Psalm 44 is indicative of this expression:
All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
As I have been going through my stem cell transplant and feeling all the pains and fatigue and struggles associated with it, I have found myself lying on my bed at night listening to these Psalms of Lament. At first it was a sort of surreal experience, because it was almost like these words were describing the very things I was experiencing. The sense of abandonment, the gnawing doubt about the future, the wondering if things were ever going to change, get better or if God even cared any more.
In many ways, Psalm 38 as it was read in the Liturgy of the Hours continued to put words to my feelings in an almost scary way:
All my longings lie open before you, Lord;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart pounds, my strength fails me;
even the light has gone from my eyes.
My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;
my neighbors stay far away.
On my bed I felt alone and felt like sighing. My heart rate at the time was actually quite high from the medication and I felt so weak, The lack of sleep made my eyes feel heavy. I had been in isolation from everyone for months because of my condition. It was as if this Psalm was being composed on the spot, reciting the very things I was experiencing.
Instead of despair, however, it was as if the very act of recalling my sufferings in the voice of the Psalms was the path to comfort and the realization that God was near and with me. Despite my relative unfamiliarity with the Psalms of Lament in recent times, they have become a somewhat integral aspect of my going through this stem cell transplant, in that they have given words to thoughts and longings that I perhaps could not express in words alone.
As I thought about the Psalms of Lament, I considered how in our modern world we tend to give expression to our suffering and sorrows in a sort of ‘shake your fist at heaven’ sort of way. We usually justify it by saying that God can take it, God knows our sufferings, God understands our weaknesses. And to be sure all that is true. However, as I have been more intentionally studying the Psalms of Lament now that my medication is lessened and I can more lucidly approach things, I am less sure that this sort of approach is what is going on in these types of Psalms.
For the Psalmists, (whether David or the other authors) lament was not primarily an expression of raw sentimentality or an outburst of pent-up emotion. That is not to say that those were not constituent components. Rather, the fundamental idea underlying any of the calls for God to act, the questioning of God’s nearness, the pleading for God to show up was that of covenant. That God had made certain promises to his people to protect them, to guide them, to be with them, to march with their armies, to bless them- this notion of covenant between God and his people formed the foundation of the Psalmist’s response to adversity, pain, loss, trouble, etc.
As such, when we read the words of the Psalmist pleading for God to act, reminding God of his promises, begging for relief from his enemies, these are not shaking one’s fist at the sky, expressions of doubt in God’s goodness, a failure of trust or a lack of faith or even the outburst of a misplaced sentimentality or despair; rather, the very expression of lament is an expression of faith, for the Psalmist pours out his heart in the confidence that God is true to his covenant and is not prone to dishonor, break or nullify it.
Thus, to plead for God to remember, to give air to one’s grievances and pain within the structure of the covenant God established with his people was a demonstration of trust and offering one’s suffering into the hands of God, whom the Psalmist had confidence would vindicate and rescue him from his troubles.
In many ways it is difficult for moderns to fully appreciate or appropriate this, for the idea of covenant is a rather foreign concept in our day to day lives. However, this doesn’t need to be, as the scriptures promised that the time would come when God would make a new covenant with us. Hebrews says that:
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance— now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant…
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
In our pain and our distress we can give expression to our grief in faith rather than doubt or fear or despair because there is a covenant that undergirds our entire relationship with God. This covenant is even better than the one in which the Psalmists expressed their faith because it is mediated by one who has given the same expression to the vagrancies of life and all its concomitant pains because he became like us in every way.
Interestingly, the word compassion comes from a Latin compound word- com is a preposition meaning with while passion of course refers to suffering. In the Incarnation, God demonstrates the length of his com-passion in covenant by being with us in our suffering. He is not far off from our troubles, but is right along side us as the mediator of this new covenant in which we can have full confidence that he is near to us and hears us in our distress.
So as I continue to listen to the Psalms of Lament, they no longer have the surreal feeling of what kind of depressing Psalm is this? but have become a rather more poignant expression of faith, that even in the times when I feel most alone and feel most abandoned and lost, God’s covenant with me is not something he is prone to break, but within his eternal promises is with me in my suffering, and as I give expression to my fears and my longings and my pains, he is full of com-passion, and never far away.