Life is full of burdens, and we can become quite weary. Jesus calls us to come and lay our burdens down before him so that we may find rest. Throughout the Psalms we find prayers that do this very thing. They are called Psalms of lament.
However, the concept of a lament today is a bit of a misnomer. Many think of lament only as a way of unburdening or giving voice to our pain.
While this is definitely an important part of the process, we are missing how lament is not an end in itself, but rather a process to find healing and true rest. Many times, the rest is experienced in the midst of waiting and surrender — resulting in greater hope.
This process takes time and doesn’t necessarily conform to our expectations, but it is through this willingness to honestly deal with our pain and suffering before God that we can find healing and true rest. The journey of lament can usher us from pain to rest, resulting in praise and thanksgiving. God never promised an easy life.
In fact, if we are honest, many would agree that life can be quite hard. We are all either coming out of a difficult time, in the midst of a difficult time or about to enter one. However, as Christians we also see that these cycles of struggle can often result in praise and thanksgiving.
The book of Psalms, which has been recognized as the prayer and hymn book of God’s people, reflects this reality.
In his seminal work on the genre of the Psalms, Hermann Gunkel identified the following major categories: hymns (descriptive praise), songs of thanksgiving of the individual (declarative praise), laments of the people (communal laments and laments of the individual. While each of these major categories have specific elements that characterize them, many scholars, including Claus Westermann, recognize that the distinctions between the categories are not necessarily stark.
In other words, what the psalter or book of Psalms illustrates is that the human experience oscillates between deep anguish and profound joy.
Additionally, Westermann argues that the structure of the book of Psalms depicts a trajectory from lament to greater hope and praise. He notes that the literary arrangement of the Psalms shows a movement from lament to praise.
The first half of the book of Psalms is dominated by laments, but larger groups of Psalms of praise or hymns appear only in the second half of the Psalter. To be sure, this trajectory is by no means a movement of a simple linear direction. Scholars also note that there are hymns (Psalms of praise) in the earlier part, and there are laments toward the end of the psalter (e.g., Psalm 140-143).
However, the shift of emphasis is undeniable. So why does the structure of the psalter matter?
I believe it reflects the life of faith that we daily experience. There is a continual movement from pain and anguish to surrender, joy and celebration. We live lives that are burdened with hurt, anxiety, loneliness, betrayal, as well joy, celebration and delight.
Lament enables us to move from pain to the candor of true wrestling and questioning, resulting in greater hope and even praise. I would exhort us all to a deeper life of faith that honestly deals with pain so that our journey can lead to greater hope and even praise!