Heather Dubrow opens her book, Genre, with a spectacular illustration. She writes: “Assume that the following paragraph opens a novel entitled, Murder at Marplethorpe”:

“The clock on the mantelpiece said ten thirty, but someone had suggested recently that the clock was wrong. As the figure of the dead woman lay on the bed in the front room, a no less silent figure glided rapidly from the house. The only sounds to be heard were the ticking of that clock and the loud wailing of an infant.” 

So, what type of book are we reading? I’m already looking for clues as to who killed the woman because we are obviously in the midst of murder mystery. But what happens if we read the same paragraph with a different title, something like, The Personal History of David Maplethorpe. Suddenly, everything changes. The clock is no longer a clue as to when a murder took place, but is more likely the approximate time of a birth (biographies often start with the birth of its hero). The dead woman is no longer a murder victim, but David’s mother who must have died in childbirth. The person who is fleeing is no longer a suspect, but more than likely a midwife running to get help. One genre expectation leads in one direction and the other leads in an entirely different one, and nothing changed except our expectation. 

Knowing the proper genre is key to reading the Bible, and that is true especially of the Psalms. Knowing that a particular psalm is a lament or a wisdom psalm or a hymn (or any of the other types) shapes how we approach and understand what we are reading. Plus, having a sense of the genre alerts us to what elements ought to be coming at us as we read the Psalm. Knowing this also helps us interpret it. When it comes to the Lament Psalms, most scholars will argue that there are seven elements (although they do not necessarily all follow this particular order):

  • There is an invocation where the psalmist calls out to God
  • There is a plea for God’s help
  • There is the complaint
  • There is often a confession of sin or a statement of innocence
  • There is a curse upon those who are doing evil
  • There is a statement of confidence in God’s response
  • There is a statement of blessing 

In this series, we’ve been focusing primarily on the plea for God’s help and the complaint.  For instance, we see both of these elements in Psalm 13 (and they are both loaded with emotion):

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

We can also see these two elements in Psalm 25:

In you, Lord my God, I put my trust.
I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Again, in Psalm 42:

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me?
        Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”

There’s no doubt that these two features are at the core of a Psalm of Lament. The psalmist calls out to God with a complaint. The emotion is palpable. The need is urgent. The pain is excruciating, and the psalmist refuses to be anything but honest and authentic with God. That’s the quintessential definition of a Psalm of Lament. 

But that is not all that a lament psalm entails. Two other elements deserve our attention. 

First of all, we should note the incessant nature of the plea. In a nutshell, the psalmist doesn’t give up. The psalmist entreats God again and again to grant his request. For instance, look at the number of times the psalmist implores God in Psalm 6:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?
Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?
I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping
     and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

We see the same intensity in Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 

And again, in Psalm 28 we see the psalmist plead with God to answer his prayers (also note that the psalmist prays that the evil actions of these individuals would recoil back on them and that they would be undone by their own wicked plots): 

To you, Lord, I call; you are my Rock, do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent, I will be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help,
      as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place.
Repay [those who do evil] for their deeds and for their evil work;
    repay them for what their hands have done and bring back on them what they deserve.

Here’s the point: When the psalmist prays, he does not simply ask once and move on. He prays and prays and prays, and he does not give up. There is an intensity found in the psalmist’s prayer that drives him to demand an answer and to refuse to move on without getting that answer. In all honestly, I stumble in this regard; and I bet most of us do. And we do so for one of two reasons. Either we come to God not expecting anything which then leads us to give up prematurely or we whine and whine without ceasing which soon leads us to resent God. The first way demonstrates a severe lack of faith, and the second reveals a self-absorption in prayer that disregards God’s will and wisdom. But the psalmist prays and does not give up. He finds God and holds on to him until God answers. 

But there’s a second element we should note here. Not only does the psalmist pray and not give up, but he ends each psalm, not in fear, not in resentment, and not in doubt, but in a firm confidence in God. The Lament Psalms originate in horrific situations. They are saturated with pain. They cry out to God with a complaint and they long for God to act, but they never lose sight of God’s goodness and faithfulness. The strange juxtaposition of complaint and confidence is amazing, and the way the psalmist balances his deep need with this remarkable trust is incredible. Here are just a few examples (and remember, each of these is from a deeply impassioned lament psalm): 

Psalm 3 — From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.
Psalm 4 – In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 7 – I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness; I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.
Psalm 13 — But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
Psalm 25 – Guard my life and rescue me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, Lord, is in you. Deliver Israel, O God, from all their troubles!
Psalm 40 — You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.
Psalm 42 — Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

The psalmist refuses to let go of his request, but he also refuses to let go of his faith in God. He is overcome with the depth of his need, but he never doubts God’s goodness, wisdom and love. These two characteristics make the Psalms of Lament a powerful weapon in our spiritual arsenal.

And that is why we pray: 

“Arise, Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of those who do evil by invading Ukraine. Awake, my God; decree justice. Judge the wicked. Put an end to their violent and murderous schemes. For wicked men plot evil and disregard your holiness by killing the innocent. You are a God of peace, but women and children are being butchered.  You are a God of peace, but Ukrainian civilians are being slaughtered or displaced. You are a God of peace, but the Ukrainian church is being martyred. You are a God of peace, and yet the whole world is being pulled closer and closer into war.  And there is nothing we can do to stop the madness except to cry out to you so that you will act and bring an end to this horror. Come, O God of justice, and bring an end to this evil for we trust in your goodness and grace. We know you hear us. We know you care about your world. We know you care about your church. We know you care about people made in your image. And so, we call on you to act and to act swiftly and to bring your justice to bear upon this unjust situation. Therefore, we will be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. We will not fret when people succeed in their evil ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Instead, we will wait in hope for the Lord’s justice; he is our help and our shield. Amen.”

Note 1: Tremper Longman’s book, How to Read the Psalms,
was an immense help in the production of this post. 

Note 2: We will get back to genre identification
and its 
importance in a future blog.