Question: "What are the psalms of lament?"
Answer: Bible scholars tend to identify the psalms by type or category, but they debate the exact classifications, with some naming more categories than others. Generally, there is agreement on a system that includes at least these five types: psalms of lament, royal psalms, thanksgiving psalms, wisdom psalms, and then a mix of smaller genres such as historical and prophetic psalms.
Lament is a major theme in the Bible and particularly in the book of Psalms. To lament is to express deep sorrow, grief, or regret. The psalms of lament are beautiful poems or hymns expressing human struggles. The psalms of lament comprise the largest category of psalms, making up about one third of the entire book of Psalms. These psalms are prayers that lay out a troubling situation to the Lord and make a request for His help.
There are two types of lament psalms: community and individual. Community psalms of lament deal with situations of national crisis—they describe problems faced by all the people of God. Psalm 12 is an example of a community lament, expressing sadness over widespread sin: “Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore; / those who are loyal have vanished from the human race. / Everyone lies to their neighbor; / they flatter with their lips / but harbor deception in their hearts” (Psalm 12:1–2).
Individual laments address various isolated troubles—problems faced by one member of the people of God. An example of an individual psalm of lament is Psalm 86, as David lays out his need before God: “Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God; / ruthless people are trying to kill me— / they have no regard for you” (Psalm 86:14). There are forty-two individual psalms of lament and sixteen community or national psalms of lament.
The psalms of lament are poetic hymns meant to be sung to God. They deal with issues that were and still are central to the life of faith for individual believers and the whole community of faith. The lament psalms express intense emotions, real human struggles, and the anguish of heart experienced by the people of Israel as they lived out their faith individually and corporately.
The men and women of the Old Testament were as real as we are today. They danced and sang, rejoiced and laughed, argued and confessed, lamented and mourned. They expressed emotions to God in prayer just as we do today. When we encounter difficult struggles and need God’s rescue, salvation, and help, the psalms of lament are a good place to turn.
The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther treasured the psalms of lament. Of them, he said, “What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid the storm winds of every kind? . . . Where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. . . . When they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for your fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator has so portrayed them. And that they speak these words to God and with God, this I repeat, is the best thing of all. This gives the words double earnestness and life” (Word and Sacrament, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. E. T. Bachmann. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960, pp. 255 –56).
Like the whole book of Psalms, the psalms of lament follow a pattern that begins with suffering and ends with glory. Usually, these songs start on a negative, complaining note, but they end on a positive, faith-filled note.
A lament typically opens with an address. For example, Psalm 44:1 says simply, “O God,” and Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God.” A psalm of lament will contain a complaint: “Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:22). A request to God for help will be found in a psalm of lament: “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever” (Psalm 44:23). A psalm of lament will incorporate an affirmation of trust in God, often remembering His previous acts of faithfulness: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Psalm 13:5). And, finally, a psalm of lament will contain a glorious vow of praise to God: “I will sing the LORD’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13:6).