Psalm 69: 7 It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.
8 I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.9 It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
10 When I humbled my soul with fasting, they insulted me for doing so.
11 When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.
12 I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.
13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
With your faithful help 14 rescue me from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.
16 Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
17 Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.
18 Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.
19 You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.
20 Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
The Christian writer and speaker, Philip Yancey, spent a month in the mountains of Colorado one summer. As part of his devotional life he thought he would do like what Billy Graham, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and many other Christians have done: each morning he would read as many as ten psalms from the Old Testament book of Psalms.
Yancey expected to experience a great spiritual high from the combination of mountain grandeur and natural beauty, and the joyful, inspiring words of the Psalms, words such as: “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate,” in Psalm 145. But as often as not, what Yancey read were words like those in today’s reading: “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face.8 I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.” Or even angry words of cursing, like: “Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts,” from Psalm 55.
You’ll understand if we don’t use that psalm passage for our calls to worship, I hope.
Sometimes Yancey came away from these Psalm readings feeling a bit queasy, spiritually sea-sick from the contrast between nature’s supreme grandeur, and the anguish and anger that he read in at least half of the Psalms.
That’s why, when I first saw Psalm 69 in the lectionary Bible passage schedule for this month, my first thought was, “What a downer! Don’t preach on that passage!” But then I remembered my negative gut reaction to something I read in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune a few years back. Someone wrote to the editor about the latest church controversy and said, “The Bible is God’s Word, but only in those passages that tell us good news.” You know, wherever and whenever it fits with today’s feel-good, hyper-therapeutic triumphalistic ideals of control and command, winning and achieving, but not whenever it confronts us with sin, judgment, weakness, warning, death, grief or guilt.
To avoid offense today, we could just take a pair of scissors to the Bible and cut out half the Psalms, the half that are, or which contain, laments. Oh, and don’t forget the prophets. They can wail and lament with the best of them, like Jeremiah, in chapter 7: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me….For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”
In other words, If I had known that this prophet business would be so hard, I wouldn’t have signed up for it. Where do I go to resign, by the way?
Jesus himself wept and lamented over the city of Jerusalem: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” That lament came on the heels of his glorious triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Jesus himself then would not pass muster in an age when “nothing succeeds like success.”
In fact, whenever you read in the Gospels that the disciples had to go looking for Jesus and found him in the wee hours of the night off in the desert somewhere praying by himself, that’s what Jesus, as a Jew’s Jew, would likely have been praying: one of the Psalms. And not just a favorite feel-good Psalm of choice: a devout Jew like Jesus would know and follow a shared schedule of Psalm readings and prayers. And he would likely have recited and prayed them by memory. All of them. Jesus did not recoil from the psalms of lament, because he quoted them so often.
This practice of praying all the psalms carried over into the church. In the 6th Century AD, St. Benedict organized a rhythm of life for monasteries around work and seven times of prayer and Bible reading a day that Benedictine communities still follow. Each of those prayer times includes at least one Psalm, so that you’ll read or pray through all 150 Psalms each month. The whole book of Psalms, even the sad, angry or painful Psalms, has been the prayer book of our spiritual family, from before and after Jesus.
But how can such painful, sometimes even embarrassing, angry, anguished, doubting, despairing words of people to God, be God’s Word to people? Here we come to the first of three answers to the question, Why are all those laments in the Bible, especially the Psalms? that you find in the bulletin outline.
These laments are in the Bible so that: 1)we can be…. honest with God and ourselves; honest about our griefs, losses, betrayals and sufferings; 2)So we can hear…. the voices of those who are suffering such things even when we are not suffering them (especially when we are not); 3) So we can better know… Jesus.
As for the first answer, So that we can be honest with God, ourselves, and others: If we were expecting a life without griefs, losses, betrayals and struggles, sorry, wrong planet. This one’s fallen. And so are we. God promises us better, in fact, perfect, but on God’s own mysterious timetable. In the meantime, how tempting it is to try and look like we’re there already, to sweep everything broken, painful, confusing, and frustrating under the carpet; to ignore it, deny it, and hope that it goes away. Otherwise, we may fear that God and others will reject us because we don’t have it all together, like everyone else seems to. As though we could hide anything from the God who knows us better than we can ever know ourselves, and yet who never stops loving us better than we can ever love ourselves. Yes, such denial sounds crazy, but isn’t that how we often do church, or try to present and sell church to the world, as though we are the people who have got it all together and under control, and so can you if you do just like us?
Psalm 62:8 has this beautiful definition of prayer: “Pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.” In other words, lay it all out before God; even the worst thing about us is safe with God; God won’t strike us dead for our feelings, foibles and failures, nor will the earth open up to swallow you. In fact, the Psalms treat the angry, angsty, anxious things we offer up to God as something like an honor, a treasure or a sacrifice. In Psalm 58, the Psalmist says, “Put my tears in your bottle; are they not recorded in your book?” It’s like God receives the sobs and sorrows we offer up to him like precious perfume, to pour out on heaven’s holiest altars. This same God, we are told, will wipe all tears from our eyes.
Now I’m not saying that public worship in front of another 150-plus people, some of whom might not know us from Adam, is always the time to just let anything and everything about us just hang out. Some people write their own laments as prayers in their journals. But if there is no person, no place, no time and no way in which our true selves, the good, the bad and the ugly, can be known, in care and compassion, by God, ourselves and someone else, then those very scary things we deny and ignore will only fester and grow in power and control over us. Nothing has as much power over us as whatever it is we are working hardest to ignore, deny and avoid.
We can get so good at hiding, ignoring and denying the scary things about life and ourselves that after a while, we’ve hidden them from ourselves. Isn’t it funny how often we go after people for things we’re really trying to avoid about ourselves?
“Angry?!! What makes you think I’m ANGRY?!!! When you’re the one who…..!”
But if we can admit, express and confess things like anger, fear, doubt, jealousy or whatever before God and ourselves at least, then these scary feelings and experiences lose at least the power of secrecy, silence and shame over us. And we’re actually less likely to project them onto other people, or, God forbid, to act them out. Notice how in even the most hair-raisingly angry psalms the psalmist is still leaving the score-settling up to God, and not taking it into his or her own hands.
When life throws us for a loop and we can’t make heads or tails of it, grief must have its due. We must lament, or we will resent. Our passing griefs will turn into longstanding grudges, against others, or even against ourselves, as depression. To lament, by contrast, is to offer up our griefs to God in prayer, a prayer with open hands. To resent, by contrast, is to hold on to our griefs with clenched fists until they become grudges. To lament is to offer them even as treasures to God. To resent is to treasure these things for ourselves, to caress them, keep them and count them over and over again as debts to hold against the world, and so justify ourselves.
In the Psalms of the Bible we see every part of our humanity brought before God and laid out as a treasure for God to take up and transform. By contrast, whatever suffering we don’t let God transform, we are bound to transmit to others. So many of our most beautiful hymns, and those beautiful, powerful African-American spirituals are examples of how God can transform life’s trials and trash into heavenly treasures.
Another thing the Psalms of lament do is that they help us to hear…. the voices of other sufferers. Having owned up to our own worst feelings and experiences, we’re more likely to recognize their presence and effects in others. And we’re less likely to look at fellow strugglers and say, “What’s wrong with you?” and “Get away, you loser, before you drag us down with you!” We can lean in toward other sufferers and strugglers and say, “I know that story; welcome to the club; Can I be of help? You’re safe with me.”
The God who hears the cry of the poor, the weak, the neglected, rejected, oppressed and distressed wants us to hear that voice too, when it is not our own voice, especially when it is not our own voice. Because when things are going well, and we feel relatively secure and happy, it’s easy to believe that everyone should think and feel that way. It’s easy then to believe that we are blessed because we earned it. And if others aren’t so blessed, it can only be their fault.
When my daily Bible reading and prayer includes a heart-rending lament like Psalm 69, I’ll admit, I am tempted to skip ahead to the next reading. But that’s a good time to stop and ask myself, “When have I ever felt that way? And why?” and if I don’t feel that way now, what did God do to get me out of that spiritual and emotional pit?
Another good question for reflection would be: “If Psalm 69 does not feel like my prayer at this moment, who else might be feeling it right now? And why? Someone with a chronic disease or a terminal illness? Asylum seekers and the undocumented? Our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Congo or South Sudan? The long-term unemployed? The Homeless? Is there any way in which God might use me to turn their prayer from a lament into a hymn of praise and thanksgiving? Or, might someone be praying that because of me, God forbid? Or against me? Was I somehow guilty of the indifference, neglect, or the abuse or exploitation that this Psalm laments? If so, I need to know that, and do something about it.
So that’s a second value of laments and lamenting in the Bible, especially the Psalms: in them God makes us hear the voice of the poor, the oppressed, the suffering, the exploited or neglected, even when they are not ourselves. Especially when they are not ourselves.
Here’s the third reason for the Psalms of Lament: I know one person who could pray all the laments of the Psalms by rights. In his last dying breaths, while nailed to a Roman cross, Jesus prayed the opening lines of one of the most wrenching laments of the Psalms, number 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now, whenever a rabbi quotes the first line of a Psalm, we are to think of the whole Psalm. When Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” of course he felt what that entire Psalm expressed: words like, “all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my mouth[a] is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws,” and “I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
What an uncanny description of the cruelties of crucifixion, even, of Jesus’ crucifixion.
But I also believe that Jesus was confessing what Psalm 22 also says, toward the end:
21: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”
Most of the laments in the Psalms end on a note of confidence like that.
Jesus said, “Search the Scriptures, for they testify of me.” On the road to Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday, Jesus explained to his unwitting friends how their Bible foretold all that was to happen to him. As soon as someone invents a time travel machine, I want to go back there and then and record that sermon, to get all the details. I suspect that the Psalms were especially important in Jesus’ exposition of the Old Testament, including today’s reading from Psalm 69. John’s Gospel records that after Jesus drove the money changers and animal merchants from the temple, the disciples remembered verse 9: “zeal for your house consumed me.” For Jesus, then, the Psalms were not only his prayer book, they were the script for his life. He it is whom we meet in the Psalms, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” as “the Righteous One” who commends his sufferings and his vindication to God. So whenever we have trouble identifying with the laments of the Psalms, let’s stop and ask ourselves, How do we see Jesus in these laments? What do they tell us about him?
The laments of the Bible tells us about how Jesus suffered with us, suffered like us, and suffered for us. But they also tell us about his faith in his Heavenly Father’s vindication of himself, which happened in a tomb that is still empty. It’s Jesus’ voice that we also hear at the confident, victorious end of so many of the Psalms of lament, like Psalm 69: “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving….32 Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.33 For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.”
The laments of God’s People and of God’s Word are also the laments of God’s Son. That tells us that lament is an important word to God, even a precious and sacred word. But the Psalms and the Gospel tell us that lament is never the last word. The glorious things that his Heavenly Father did for Jesus he does for us, his joint heirs, as well. You can read all about it in the Psalms, even in the Laments.