The Journey from Lament to Praise
Lament Psalms #1 – The Journey from Lament to Praise – Psalm 73 (Material in grey type below was omitted from the sermon recording) Today, I would like to introduce you to the lament psalms. The richness of the lament psalms is something of a new discovery for me. In the past, I've gravitated towards the praise and thanksgiving psalms. But in the last 3 years or so, I have come to appreciate the lament psalms, because they provide rich resources for navigating the complexity of life. The lament psalms are psalms for our current situation, when life is perplexing and distressing; when it is hard to see what God is doing and easy to give in to doubt or fear. I'm going to begin by setting up a framework for understanding the lament psalms. Then we will use this framework to look at Psalm 73. The book of psalms has a special function in the Bible. John Calvin described the psalms as the mirror of our souls… He wrote “I have been accustomed to call this book… ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul’; for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.” The psalms are a mirror, because they reflect what is really going on inside. It is in the lament psalms in particular that we see “all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts” – what Calvin calls the “the distracting emotions”. I’ll refer to them as the “dark emotions”. Later, I’ll say a bit more to explain what makes a psalm a lament psalm. But for present purposes, just note that it is the most common type of psalms. The lament psalms make up almost half the psalter, with a concentration in the first half of the book. When we read these psalms and see the expression of other people’s dark emotions, we see ourselves reflected in a mirror. But the psalms are more than a mirror. As we see ourselves reflected in that mirror, the psalms do their work on us, to shape the expression of our “dark emotions”, in three important ways. Firstly, they give Permission to articulate our struggles and raw emotions. The psalms shows us that we don’t have to pretend – that it is OK to be real with God. The psalms speak aloud what we feel inside but might be reticent to put into words. Ps 6 6 I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. The Psalms are refreshingly – even embarrassingly – frank with God. Ps 74 1 Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smoulder against the sheep of your pasture? The Psalmist can even be demanding of God at times : Ps 4 1 Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. In summary, the psalms give permission to be real with God. Secondly, the psalms help us to express our dark emotions in trust, rather than unbelief. Lament is not moaning about God – lament is prayer addressed to God. Lament is ultimately an expression of trust, because to lament like this you have to believe in God, believe in his good purposes for us, believe that our current experience of life is not how it ultimately should be, and believe that God can and will fix things.1 In summary, the psalms give direction to our distress – showing how to express it in trust to God. Thirdly, the Psalms give us appropriate words for us to appropriate. The Psalmist give me better words than I can come up with by myself. In the midst of my distress, I am not very articulate, and may not be able to say much more than “God – this is awful”. Then I read Psalm 42: Ps 42 5 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me … 7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. These words resonate with my experience, and say it better than I can say it myself. The words of others who have been there before me helps me to put into words what I would otherwise struggle to do. As one Psalm scholar puts it, we are burning our lamps with borrowed oil (Rolf Jacobson). But these words are not merely human words. At the same time they are also God’s words. Whereas the rest of the Bible is “Words from God to us”, the psalms have the extra dimension that they are also “Words from God for us”. God himself is providing us with the right words to express how we feel during the dark times. In doing so, the Psalms also show us the limits of appropriate speech – showing us where NOT to go with our words. We must not stand with the fool in Psalm 14:1, who says in his heart “There is no God”. We must not – Psalm 1:1 - sit in the seat of mockers. We must remember – Psalm 5:5 – that the arrogant cannot stand in your presence Lament is appropriate, provided it doesn’t cross the line into unbelief, contempt or arrogance. The psalms give us the appropriate words so that we don’t cross that line. So, to sum up this point, the lament psalms give permission, give direction, and they give words for our laments. Or to say the same thing another way, the Psalms give us words to be authentic, to be articulate and to be appropriate as we come to God in prayer. As we read these psalms and appropriate them for ourselves, we see our own struggles through the lens of “triggers” and “responses” There are three kinds of triggers – 1) external threats – “foes” who are “out there”, who attach, betray, conspire, despise or entrap… 2) internal struggles – when we are overcome by what us rises from within – frustrated by unmet longings, devastated by loss, crushed by frailty or infirmity, burdened by sin.. 3) and – perhaps the difficult most of all – struggling with God; when it feels like God is against us. That God has abandoned us, that we are being justly punished by worse, or even worse, that God is putting us through suffering that is undeserved. These various triggers produce a wide array of responses – ‘dark emotions’. We are not going to look at each of the examples listed on the slide. But we can see from the range that Calvin was on the money – the psalms reflect “all the distracting emotions with which [our] minds … are wont to be agitated.” For today, we are going to focus on Psalm 73, and ask the question – what was the trigger for the psalmist, and what responses did it produce? The trigger is his perception that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. This is a particular problem for the Old Testament believer, because of the expectation that God would bless the righteous and curse the wicked. From the Psalmist’s perspective, the world is out of kilter. But his response is much more than a mere curiosity or surprise that things are not as they should be. Instead, 4 dark emotions bubble to the surface – envy, self pity, despair and bitterness Verse 3: Envy 3 I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. Verse 13: Self-pity 13 Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure Verse 16: Despair 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply. Verse 21: Bitterness 21 my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered Appreciate the honesty of the psalmist – this is how he was feeling. The fact that those who are “the righteous” and “the wise” can have these dark emotions demonstrates that it is OK to be in this place, at least for a time. It is not a sign of spiritual apostasy to have emotions like this. Whereas we might struggle to admit feeling this way, this psalmist is being real, to help us to be real. To be real enough to admit we feel fear … or anger … or envy… or whatever. Lament psalms meet us where we are – in the midst of real life – because the reality is that we do feel like this, and the psalms let us be honest with ourselves, and honest before God. This is one of the ways that Jesus used the Psalms, appropriating them for himself. • In John 13:18, Jesus sees that his experience of betrayal by a close friend is parallel to David’s experience in Ps 41:9 • In John 15:25, Jesus identifies with David in Ps 35:19 (and 69:4) as one who is “hated without cause” • And on the cross, Jesus appropriates two psalms and applies them to his own experience – Psalm 22:1 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34) and Psalm 31:5 – “into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). However, these psalms don’t merely meet us where we are in life – they also move us. They take us on a journey. There is a particular “trajectory” to lament psalms. Most lament psalms follow a typical pattern, which is summarised this diagram with 5 blue arrows. Appeal -> Complaint -> Turn to God -> Petition -> Praise These are the 5 typical elements, but they can be arranged in slightly different orders, and sometimes one or more of the elements is missing. However, this pattern is still very helpful because it helps us to know what to look for, and sometimes to ask the question why is something missing. We can see these 5 elements in Psalm 13, which was read earlier. It begins with an appeal to God – How Long O Lord? Next is the lament – The same question asked in 4 slightly different ways - Will you abandon me forever? How long will you hide your face? How long must I bear pain in my soul? How long will my enemies triumph? Verse 3 is the petition - Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Verse 5 recounts the moment of turning to God - But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. And the psalm ends in verse 6 with a vow of praise. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me. In the journey from lament to praise, the “turn” moment is pivotal. It is the moment when the psalmist turns from looking at their own triggers and responses, and instead looks ‘upward’ (as it were). It is this turn that enables the petition and praise. Lament psalms encourage us to make the same pivot–to turn to God and let this reframe our response to the dark circumstances and dark emotions. That’s what we see happening in Psalm 73. The turn moment comes in verse 16-20 Prior to this, the psalmist looking at the wicked, looking at his prosperity, his life of ease – the modern equivalent would be the mansion, the luxury yacht, the overseas trips… And he’s looking at himself in self-pity – I’m missing out; what do I get by being righteous… But in verse 16, he turns, and enters the sanctuary, and looks upwards; he gets an eternal perspective. Yes, the wicked most prosper, but it is only temporary – their final destiny is not pretty. Verse 19 - How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! Their wealth; their revelry; their arrogance – it is all going to evaporate in an instant, like a dream disappears when you wake up. It is that realisation that helps the psalmist reframe his perceptions. He recognises that God has been guiding him with him counsel – God has brought him on this journey. This is not just a personal “ahah” moment of self-discovery – this has been a divine revelation. And that is because God has plans for his people – “afterward you will take me into glory.” This heavenly perspective is what makes sense of life now – and if it doesn’t fully make sense of it, it makes it liveable – even if it feels like I am missing out now, we will have God and his goodness for all eternity. Note how far the psalmist has come in the second half of verse 25 – “earth has nothing I desire besides you.” That is not where he started, is it? At the outset, be envied the prosperity of the wicked. He desired what they had. Now, it has all changed. Though, of course, the external reality – the “trigger” has not changed – there are still wicked people out there who are prospering. What has changed is the psalmist’s response to the triggers – not self-pity for himself, but – if anything – pity for those who are going to miss on God and all his goodness forever. And this leads to a further transformation – from lament to praise. The psalm started as a complaint about God’s failure to deliver blessing. It ends in praise - But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. Firstly, that Lament is a “redemptive struggle” Lament involves an honest struggle with God. Lament begins with anguished question – Lord, Why? How Long? and being prepared to be taken on a journey to find the answer. We don’t want this, do we? We want the quick fix. The psalms shows us that engaging in the process of lament is a “redemptive struggle”, which can only come through the struggle. We have to take the journey through lament – which is often a stomach churning rollercoaster journey of ups and down – in order to get to the destination. There is no short cut, because it is only on the journey that we can discover the answers. In Psalm 73, we have walked the journey with a man whose eyes are focussed on the prosperity of the wicked. When he looks at this, he spirals from envy to self-pity to bitterness. By the end of the psalm, he can say “earth has nothing I desire besides you” … a long way from the misdirected desires that had fuelled his envy at the outset. But the only way to get to this destination was to walk to journey of lament. It is only by being willing to face the feelings of disorientation – things are not as they should be – that we can take that journey. Jesus does the same thing with his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, by using key ideas from Psalm 37. Psalm 37 is – like Psalm 73 – a psalm about not envying the prosperity of the wicked. Ps 37:11 tells us it is in fact the meek who will inherit the land. Jesus uses Psalm 37 to invert our perspective about what it really means to be blessed – “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” – really? Yes, really! It may not feel like it, but this is reality, and Jesus is taking his disciples on a journey to discover that reality. The critical moment in the journey – the moment that cannot be short-circuited - is the “turn moment” – the pivot – when we are prepared to pour out our dark emotions to God. Lament psalms teach us how to pivot towards God, and begin to understand reality from his perspective.2 The final thing to note is that lament is often a shared journey. Too often we pull back from other people who are gripped by lament, because we don’t know what to say. The psalms help us to walk with other on the journey of lament - to weep with those who weep. God has given us the lament psalms for times like these so we can be authentic, articulate and appropriate as we come to him in prayer. Let's use them as God intended.