Today, we’re going to hear from two separate psalms – first, psalm 23, and then we’ll back up to hear from psalm 22.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Of all 150 psalms, Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the favorite. It gives us a vivid and bright picture of the world we want to live in – where even when things are scary, we are safe, we are provided for, and even enemies sit at Christ’s table together.
And though we occasionally read the psalms of creation, the psalms of praise, and maybe even a psalm or two about God as king, there is a whole section of this book we as Christians routinely avoid: the psalms of lament and complaint. They make us uncomfortable. These psalms are not shy about real pain, fear, anger, and even feelings of abandonment.
While Psalm 23 gives us a picture of the world as it could be, the psalms of lament take the world exactly as it is, with all of the pain and confusion and hurt and fear, and throw it back to God in protest, saying “what are you going to do about it?”
Scripture: Psalm 22
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
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.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
I was raised in a very conservative Reformed church, where you did not sass God. You did not complain. You did not get openly emotional or ever express anger to God. If you were upset, you were not-so-subtly reminded that everything that happens is God’s plan, so deal with it.
I still remember the first time I heard someone break those rules. I was a sophomore in college, leading a Bible study for the freshman quad. One of the first-years, in one of our first meetings said: “God and I are fighting right now.”
And y’all, I was looking around for lightning bolts. In my mind, you didn’t fight with God. God was not to be wrestled with or contradicted. That is not how that worked.
Needless to say, I hadn’t heard the psalms of lament. I hadn’t heard of the early church wrestling with how Jesus changed the rules of engagement.
At its core, lament is a protest. It is a demand that God see us and help us, even and especially in the face of evil and hardship. It is a recognition that not everything that happens to us (or everything we do) is actually God’s will, and that God is capable of saving us.
Lament, in Scripture, has three distinct movements:
First is the outcry – in Psalm 22, it begins with an intimate address: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (If that line sounds familiar, it’s because those were some of Jesus’ last words on the cross.) Then, the psalmist moves to a vivid description of the ways they are suffering: social humiliation, shame, hunger and need.
Then comes the petition. This is a powerful statement, summoning God to act on the speaker’s behalf, because they cannot save themselves. “Do not be far from me,” “do not be far away; my help, come quickly to me!” Embedded in this is not only the assumption that God is listening attentively, but that if God can be moved to act on their behalf, then all will be made well.
Finally – and this is (I think) the most interesting part – comes what some call the ‘motivation’ section of the lament. This is where the speaker lays out all the reasons God should act, and in fact is obligated to act on their behalf. In psalm 22, the psalmist appeals to God’s past actions with Israel and reminds God that their very existence has been God’s project from the outset. From the moment they came into being, they have relied completely on God’s providence –so now, in their distress, they require God’s full attention.
As a whole, this prayer seeks to leverage God to act by arguing that God is obligated somehow to this particular Israelite – and the psalmist believes wholeheartedly that if God will act, then all will be made well.
After these three movements (the outcry, the petition, and the motivation), in this psalm at least, there is a pause – a breath – followed by relief and praise and awe for God’s faithful action. Rescue has come, and the psalmist promises to tell this story of God’s care and intervention as long as they have breath.
Framed in this way, lament holds God accountable for the promises God has made – to shelter us, to care for us, to be with us in the worst of our storms.
We know that relief doesn’t always come in the same breath as the lament. Sometimes, we do not get what we ask for, no matter how fervent and passionate our prayers, and God gives us something else instead. But even then, these laments teach us that we can trust God enough to be completely honest about what is wrong and what we want from God.
God is big enough to hold anything you throw – including your protests, your grief, your anger, your rage, your hopelessness, your demands and your despair – and once you’ve said your piece, God will still be there to care for you and love you and keep you close.
That’s who God is.
We know this in part because of the psalms of lament, and we know this too in the sacraments – in the waters of baptism and around this table, where Jesus invites us to bring all that we have and be fed.