Learning to Lament with the Psalms

Shobana Vetrivel   |   February 2, 2018 

Most of my childhood involved different circles of friendship – school, colony, Sunday school, siblings, cousins, etc. All these friendships had moments of fights over small and big things, tears over unfair sharing of toys and chocolates, sorrow over friends moving away, distress over school discipline and so on. In all my memories of times I’ve cried or seen someone cry, there has always been a rush of responses, “Don’t cry", “It will be fine”, “Let me tell you something funny”, “Don’t keep thinking about it”, “Think happy thoughts”, “If you cry your face will be stuck like that!”, etc.

Even in my journey as a follower of Christ, sadness or tears were something to be gotten over quickly or sometimes even considered sinful. The rush of responses has been, “The Bible says we have to rejoice always”, “We have to seek joy in the midst of trials”, “Have you any sin in your life?”, “You are not praying enough.” etc.

So ultimately, sorrow, sadness and periods of dryness are seen as something to be suppressed and gotten over quickly. It is seen as a weakness that needs to be overcome. There is a sense of shame tied with it, which then leads to denial. So if we are experiencing sorrow or sadness, we hesitate to tell people about it. We ask ourselves, "Are we truly people of faith, if these things are a regular part of our life?".

We are wary of difficult emotions. We don’t always know what to do with them and we wish God didn’t make us feel all that we feel. Culturally we swing between the extremes of suppression for the sake of honour and reputation to melodrama and theatrics. The Psalms show us how to deal with difficult emotions. They show us that the response is not to suppress them but it’s also not to overindulge. They show us how we can best experience the human capacity to feel without being crushed under its weight or controlled by its power. They teach us how to lament before God and even one another.

The lament psalms are the largest category of psalms. The Psalm I want to focus on is Psalm 42 which is an individual lament. It should be read together with Psalm 43 (a number of Hebrew manuscripts have Psalm 42 and 43 together; also, Psalm 43 has no heading of its own and concludes with the same refrain found in Psalm 42). Many scholars identify David as the author and he wrote this when he was in exile because of his son Absalom. The music of the Psalm is ascribed to the sons of Korah who were priests in charge of song and music ministry in the sanctuary during David’s time. The psalmist was experiencing a deep sense of sadness, spiritual dryness and was feeling distant from the presence of God.

The Reality of the Psalmist (Psalm 42:1-4)

The psalmist describes his situation vividly and the imagery is that of a thirsty deer panting and searching for a cool spring of water. That seems to be a good feeling to have - to be seeking God with an intense hunger and thirst. Being far away from the sanctuary in Jerusalem, he is not able to worship God the way he used to.

He remembers how it used to be; how he would be the one leading worship, leading the processions, with songs of praise, with shouts of joy, and thriving in corporate and public worship. Past memories sharpen his present pain.

Instead of the soul’s thirst being satisfied in God’s presence – he has only two things all day long – tears and taunts. My tears have been my food day and night while they say to me all day long ‘Where is your God?” (Verse 3) He has to hear taunts from his enemies who look at his circumstances and question God’s presence. He compares this to a wound in his bones.

The Psalm echoes a question that I’ve asked a million times when situations are tough, never-ending and prayers seem to be falling on deaf ears - “where are you, God?”. During times of spiritual dryness, we remember what it felt like when we were close to God. We remember the joy we once experienced. We question if we will ever feel as spiritually alive as we used to. It feels like God has abandoned us, it feels like faith in God is hard, it feels like God is good generally but not to me.

My usual response, and I suspect for many of us has been to suppress these emotions and to pretend things are fine. Force ourselves to laugh, think happy thoughts and get over it quickly because otherwise we are being bad witnesses. But how does the psalmist respond?

The Response of the Psalmist (Psalm 42:5-11)

He remembers God’s Character (Psalm 42:5-8)

The psalmist says in verse 6, “My soul is downcast therefore I remember you”, he then talks about his location. The mention of Jordan and Mount Hermon could be linked to the imagery in the next verse; this is where the streams and waterfalls come together to form the river Jordan. The psalm follows an imagery of water, his thirst, and his tears. Now his situation feels overwhelming like waves crushing over him.

“Deep calls to deep, at the roar of YOUR waterfalls; all YOUR breakers and waves have gone over me.” (Verse 7) But the waves and breakers that overwhelm him are the Lord’s. In the midst of his sorrow, he affirms God’s sovereignty over his circumstances. This is both distressing yet comforting. It is comforting because God is Sovereign, He is in control and he is under God’s sovereign care. God is present with him through it. God commands his steadfast love in the day and at night he responds in song. Because of God’s covenantal love towards him, the psalmist is able to sing a prayer to God. He is far away from the sanctuary- from the place of worship- but he remembers God’s character and his soul sings to God.

Songs speak to the deepest part of us; they help us remember who God is! The Psalms are primarily songs, they are God’s word to us to help us give voice to our feelings and help us remember God’s character.

“Sing these songs, and they will renew you from head to toe, from heart to mind. Pray these poems, and they will sustain you on the long, hard but exhilarating road of Christian discipleship.” N. T. Wright

He is brutally honest before God (Psalm 42: 9-10)

The psalmist does not hesitate to make his feelings known to God. He throws out these questions to God - Why have you forgotten me? Why do I have to go about mourning? Why have you rejected me? I am in pain because of those who say to me “Where is your God?” I am telling you what they are saying because I want to know – Where are you God? Why don’t you do something to change my circumstance?

C. S. Lewis says about prayer, “We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.” We don’t have to pray sanitised prayers; we can come before God with all our feelings, all our doubts and all our questions. The Psalms show us what that looks like; they give us permission to be brutally honest before God.

He preaches to himself (Psalm 42:5, 11)

He ends each section of his lament with these verses.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

The psalmist talks to himself. He looks deep into his soul and asks questions. Times of difficulty, sadness and dryness force us to think more deeply than we do in our normal daily life. It is an opportunity to question why we feel the way we feel and to search our own hearts and see who or what are we relying on. The psalmist asks himself the question, “Whom are you putting your hope in?”

Paul Tripp says, “No one is more influential in your life than you are. Because no one talks to you more than you do.”

What kind of self-talk do we have going on? Is our self-talk searching our souls and pointing us to hope in God or are we beating ourselves down and believing in lies?

“Instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.” Martin Lloyd Jones

The psalmist speaks to his soul of hope, a confident hope that he will praise God again, he will see the end of this and he will get through this with God- his salvation. The most important sermon is the sermon that you preach to yourself.

During times of tears, sadness, suffering, spiritual dryness or circumstances brought about by injustice, we can be real about what it feels like because we have the testimony of priests, prophets and kings who have lamented before God. The Psalms are full of prayers of people who have brought their real selves before the real God.

The greatest Prophet, Priest and King - Jesus – is someone who suffered, who faced rejection, who faced taunts, who cried out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”(Psalm 22). We can lament because we have One who lamented; a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Hebrews 5:11 says “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”

Because of Jesus’ reverence we can be certain that God hears us, our lament can lead us to hope because we can be sure that God is for us, He is with us and nothing can separate us from His love.

"The prayer preceding all prayers is 'May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.'" C.S. Lewis

Photo Credit : Unsplash


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Shobana Vetrivel

Shobana Vetrivel enjoys the hustle and bustle of city life and the adventure of living in New Delhi. She has an educational background in social development and theology and has worked in both development and ministry settings. She currently works with Delhi School of Theology and is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology. Books, travelling, theology, coffee and deep conversations are a few of her favourite things.  

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