by David Gambrell
The voice of lament resounds throughout the witness of Scripture. The five books of Moses, or Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy), center on the cry of God’s people for deliverance from captivity: “The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of their slavery their cry for help rose up to God” (Exod. 2:32). The books of the prophets feature sharp protests against injustice and corruption (see Isa. 58, Amos 5) and bitter complaints about oppression and exile (see Jer. 8. Lam. 1). The Writings, or Wisdom literature, include the tears of Job and the pointed, poignant prayers of the psalmists (a great percentage of which are psalms of lament). At the heart of the Gospels is Jesus’ cry from the cross, quoting a classic psalm of lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:47, Mark 15:34; cf. Psalm 22:1). The Epistles record, among other things, the apostles’ accounts of division and persecution in the early church (see 1 Cor. 1, 2 Cor. 6).
The biblical tradition of lament might be described as (1) an authentic expression of pain or protest (2) rooted in deep relationship with God (3) in the anticipation of relief and redemption. Each part of this definition is worth unpacking. First, lament arises out of real struggle and suffering, and this angst is offered to God without apology. The psalms of lament teach us there is nothing we cannot bring to God in prayer. Second, lament stands on a firm foundation of faith in the goodness and grace of God. Those who love and trust the Lord know that God desires what is right and will not turn away from us in our time of need. Third, lament exists in a larger context of hope and praise. We have the confidence and boldness to cry out in this way because we believe God is at work for our salvation.
The typical structure of a psalm of lament (whether communal or individual) illustrates the interplay of these theological dynamics. These psalms generally begin with direct address to God, calling on the name of the Lord—a form of speaking that assumes deep relationship. They continue with raw descriptions of suffering and sin—holding nothing back from God. Psalms of lament hinge on a bold petition, or cry for help—asking God to deliver, heal, or forgive. They may include statements of confidence in God—memories of God’s transforming work in personal life or salvation history. And they conclude with the promise of future thanks and praise—often in the context of public worship with a joyful feast. These elements may differ from psalm to psalm in their order or emphasis, but together they make up the classic form of lament in Hebrew Scripture.
Psalm 25, sung and prayed on the First Sunday of Advent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary, is an example of lament in action in Christian worship. Because Psalm 25 is, in its original language, an acrostic poem—organized around the letters of the Hebrew alphabet—it does not adhere strictly to the typical lament form; nevertheless, it contains most of the elements of a classic psalm of lament. One finds direct address to God: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (v. 1); descriptions of suffering: “my enemies exult over me” (v. 2) and “I am lonely and afflicted” (v. 16); petitions for help: “Lead me in your truth” (v. 5), “Be mindful of your mercy” (v. 6), “Pardon my guilt” (v. 11); expressions of confidence: “you are the God of my salvation” (v. 5), “Good and upright is the Lord” (v. 8); and strong suggestions of restoration and redemption in God: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (v. 10) and “I take refuge in you” (v. 21).
Notice, in particular, the emphasis on waiting in Psalm 25. The psalmist says: “Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame” (v. 3), “for you I wait all day long” (v. 5), and “May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you” (v. 21). No wonder this psalm is appointed for the First Sunday of Advent, a season of waiting! Psalm 25 sets the stage for this time of anticipation in the Christian year, in which we look and long for the coming of Christ’s reign of righteousness, justice, and peace. In fact, the theme of waiting is a prominent feature of other psalms of lament: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage” (Ps. 27:1), “I waited patiently for the Lord” (Ps. 40:1), “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps. 62:5), and “my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for morning” (Ps. 130:6).
Psalms of lament provide a model for faithful prayer in the season of Advent, as well as other times of struggle, suffering, and sin. Prayers of lament keep us grounded in reality and sensitive to the pain of others, even as we put our hope and trust in the promise of God’s new creation. They help us to notice and name what is wrong in the world and in our lives; they encourage us to renounce evil and reaffirm our faith in the holy, triune God; and they empower us to join in God’s reconciling, redeeming work. With the psalmists, then, along with “prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and with all the faithful of every time and place” (Book of Common Worship, p. 387), let us pray with confidence: “For you I wait, O Lord”—this Advent and always.