Psalms of Lament for Such a Time as This
The United States and world have essentially shut down during this novel coronavirus pandemic. We are encouraged to remain at home. I have been grateful to see numerous appeals to Scripture. These appeals have included scriptural reminders that God is with us, that we be encouraged, that we remember to pray, that we repent, that we care for those around us. All of these are appropriate and call us to a renewed commitment to follow Jesus.
Many of the scriptural passages I have seen have come from the Psalms, especially the Psalms of Lament. These psalms sometimes feature the voice of an individual (such as Ps. 13, 22, and 86). At other times, such as in Psalm 12, we hear the voice of the larger community of faith. We hear their familiar words twenty-five hundred years later:
“How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1)
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent.” (Ps. 22:1, 2)
The New King James Version capitalizes the personal pronoun in Psalm 22 because this is also a messianic Psalm. These words are spoken by Jesus on the Cross (Matt. 27:46).
Many commentators have recognized that the Psalms were the prayer book of Jesus (Bonhoeffer, Life Together). The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was made perfect through what He suffered and that He experienced every temptation humans experience (Heb. 2:10, 17, 18; 4:15). Thus the laments in the Psalms are more than the despairing voices of Israel’s David and others. They are the voices of broken, sinful, and grieving humanity, taken up by the voice and experience of the sinless Son of God, the Messiah of Israel. In other words: we are not alone! Indeed, “God is with us” (Emmanuel in biblical Hebrew).
I’ve often thought about this over the past two weeks. I am personally aware of three families—personal friends—that are walking through an unusual period of grief. These families have had loved ones die and have been unable to go through the usual process of grieving with a funeral and burial, where comforters attend a public service or take time to visit at a funeral home. I’ve listened to pastors talk about the difficulties of carrying on the pastoral care that usually accompanies these circumstances. These pastors themselves are grieving, too—grieving for their sheep, and grieving because their usual expressions of comfort feel lost.
The laments in the Psalms are taken up
by the voice and experience of the
sinless Son of God, the Messiah of Israel.
The grief those around us feel goes beyond the death of a loved one. Millions around the world have lost jobs, have lost health, have lost normal life routines. And they are grieving through these losses.
I write these words on March 28, as we prepare for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It is appropriate that the lectionary readings for this Sunday come from Psalm 130 and John 11.
Psalm 130 is a lament sung as worshippers made their way to the Jerusalem Temple:
“Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of My supplications” (Ps. 130:1, 2)
John 11 recounts the death and resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus had been dead four days when his sisters Martha and Mary confronted Jesus when He arrived in their hometown of Bethany. “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21, 32). The grief they felt was as real as the grief in the world today. Jesus saw that grief; that is why “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35).
In John’s chronology, the raising of Lazarus occurred in the season leading to Passover. In my mind, Jesus, Mary, and Martha likely heard pilgrims singing Psalm 130 as they made their way through Bethany towards the Jerusalem Temple. Besides the plaintive cry of those first verses, they would have also heard these words:
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I do hope. O Israel, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is abundant redemption” (Ps. 130:5, 7)
Yes, we grieve. We cry, we remember, we wait. But as St. Paul reminded us, we do not “sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). So let us read and pray the Psalms of Lament with one another, certain of the hope that lies before us in Jesus Christ. Amen.