Abstract:Many churches seem to have lost the art of singing lament. This article urges a recovery of this forgotten practice, firstly, by demonstrating from within the Psalter itself the importance of singing the psalms (including the laments) and setting them to music; secondly, by exploring some of the obstacles to singing in times of distress; thirdly, by examining the way in which lament enables a singing of pain and sorrow; fourthly, by investigating what can be known of the manifold powers of music and song (for proclaiming and recalling God’s word and consoling and uniting God’s people); and, finally, by articulating something of the important relationship between lament and praise.
The contemporary church, by and large, is neither adept nor comfortable with singing lament.1 One reason for this is that many churches have long ago stopped singing the Psalter. There are exceptions, of course.2 There are also numerous contemporary songs based on various biblical psalms or parts thereof. But, on closer examination, most of these are drawn from psalms of praise or thanksgiving, not psalms of lament. Furthermore, a decrease in psalm singing has led not simply to a lack of acquaintance with sung lament but to a loss of appetite for it. The chief reason for this, as Bonhoeffer once observed, is that when “read only occasionally, these prayers are too overwhelming in design and power and tend to turn us back to more palatable fare.”3 Added to this, there are very few contemporary congregational songs of lament. Again, there are exceptions (the Redmans’ “Blessed be Your Name” or Stuart Townend’s “How Long” come to mind), but they really are exceptions. This is in contrast to the balance of the Psalter, where 67 of the 150 psalms are typically categorised as laments—if not in whole, then in part. Finally, the neglect of many traditional “lament hymns” (e.g., “Abide with Me” and “Be Still My Soul”) has meant that the congregational resources for sung lament are negligible indeed. Not surprisingly, this “absence of lament in our life together has reduced to a dearth the speakers of its language.”4
There are also a number of cultural and theological factors at play. Doubtless, the “autonomous agent, who in self-sufficiency excels in all the gadgetry of the ‘Electronic Revolution,’ is reluctant to see him or herself as ‘despairing in absolute need.’”5 More significantly, a marked tendency towards an overly realized eschatology, fed by the lingering lure of the prosperity gospel, is hardly conducive to personal and emotional honesty, particularly in seasons of distress. The theology-praxis street also runs in both directions: just as poor theology creates anemic and imbalanced songs, so the singing of defective songs reinforces poor theology and further entrenches bad practice. Carl Trueman is therefore right: “A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals.”6
In light of this situation, my aim in this article is to argue for a recovery of the practice of singing lament. By this I don’t just mean reviving the practice of singing the biblical Psalter (although this would certainly help). I also mean finding (and perhaps writing) more hymns and songs that do what the lament psalms do—that is, help us belt out the blues as believers as we wait for the coming of Christ and the consummation of his kingdom.
I will make my case in five steps: firstly, by demonstrating from the Psalter itself the importance of singing the psalms (including the laments) and setting them to music; secondly, by exploring some of the obstacles to singing in times of distress; thirdly, by examining the way in which lament enables a singing of pain and sorrow—even singing about not being able to sing; fourthly, by investigating what can be known of the manifold powers of music and song; and, finally, by articulating something of the relationship between lament and praise.
1. Instructions Concerning the Singing of the Psalms
1.1. Were the Psalms Intended to Be Sung?
A careful reading of the Psalter reveals that a large number of the psalms were intended, by their authors, to be sung. This is clear, firstly, from the content of those psalms in which we find exhortations to sing (e.g., Pss 9:11; 30:4; 68:4) or from calls to join the psalmist in singing the Lord’s praise (e.g., Pss 34:3; 95:1–2; 118:24). It is also apparent from the historical information contained in the titles of a number of psalms. Psalm 7, for example, bears the title: “A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjamite.” The title of Psalm 18 is even more detailed: “For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”
In addition to this, if not from the point of composition, certainly by the time of the Psalter’s compilation, a plethora of musical designations and liturgical directions are embedded in the psalm titles. For example, fifty-eight bear the description מִזְמוֹר (LXX: ψαλμός), meaning something like a lyric ode set to music and usually translated “psalm.” Fifty-four contain the address לַמְנַצֵּחַ (LXX: εἰς τὸ τέλος), meaning “to the choirmaster” (ESV) or “to the director of music” (NIV).7 Twenty-nine employ the Hebrew designation שִׁיר (LXX: ᾠδή), meaning a song. Six psalms (Pss 16, 56–60) are nominated as a מִכְתָּם (LXX: στηλογραφία), which appears to mean some kind of musical reflection or supplication. Psalm 7 (along with Habakkuk 3) is described as a שִׁגָּיוֹן (LXX: ψαλμός), which also appears to be a musical or liturgical term, possibly calling for “an animated musical beat.”8 Psalm 145 has the designation תְּהִלָּה (LXX: αἴνεσις), meaning a “song of praise (ESV) or “psalm of praise” (NIV) or “hymn” (HCSB).9
1.2. Were the Psalms Intended to Be Accompanied?
Building on these descriptors, a range of titles give specific directions regarding the use of musical instruments; notably, the נְחִילוֹת or “flutes” (e.g., Ps 5) and the נְגִינָה or “stringed instruments” (e.g., Pss 4; 6; 54; 55; 61; 67; 76). Others refer to the employment of a particular tune (e.g., Pss 6; 8; 9; 12; 22; 45; 46; 53; 56; 57; 60; 62; 81; 84; 88). Additional instructions such as “According to Mahalath” (Pss 50; 88), “According to Sheminith” (Pss 6; 12), “According to Gittith” (Pss 8; 11; 84) and “According to Alamoth” (Ps 46) all seem to refer to “musical terms, possibly indicating melodic or rhythmic formulae which should be used.”10 References to various musical instruments—such as harps, lyres, tambourines, pipes, trumpets and cymbals—are also to be found within the body of a large number of psalms (e.g., Pss 33:2; 43:4; 49:4; 57:8; 68:25; 71:22; 81:2; 92:3; 98:5–6; 108:2; 137:2; 144:9; 147:7; 149:3; 150:3–5).
All of these indications simply reinforce the picture presented by the writers of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah; that music played a major part in Israel’s temple worship in both pre- and post-exilic times (e.g., 1 Chr 6:31–48; 15:16–28; 25:1–8; 2 Chr 5:11b-13; 7:6; 29:26; Ezra 3:10; Neh 12:35, 41, 46). As far as performance was concerned, this seems to have been entrusted mainly to the Levites who not only sang and led as a choir but also played the instruments (e.g., 1 Chr 16:4–42).11 As far as congregational participation was concerned, this involved not only the periodic interjection of acclamations such as “Amen!,” “Hallelujah!,” and “Glory!,” but also the widespread communal singing of both praise (e.g., Pss 32:11; 33:1–3; 34:4) and lament (e.g., Pss 44:9–14; 60:1; 74:1–2).12
1.3. Which of the Psalms Were Sung in the Temple?
Although it is difficult to determine exactly how many of the psalms were used in temple worship, the historical books of the Old Testament show various psalms being employed at key junctures in pre-exilic Israelite history. For example, David’s song of deliverance in 2 Samuel 22:2–51 is virtually the same as Psalm 18, 1 Chronicles 16:8–36 contains Psalms 105:1–15, 96:1–13 and 106:47–48, and Psalm 132:8–10 appears in 2 Chronicles 6:41–42.13 As far as the post-exilic period is concerned, evidence from the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmuds confirms that many “were employed – wholly or in part – at annual festivals, on days of special distinction, at the additional sacrifices on Sabbaths, New Moon days and certain festivals, and as proper psalms for the days of the week.”14 These latter sources specifically nominate only fourteen psalms out of the entire Psalter (Pss 24; 30; 48; 81; 82; 92–94; 113–118). This, however, is hardly grounds to conclude that they were the only ones sung, for a much larger number of psalms contain references to singing in the context of temple worship (e.g., Pss 7; 9; 18; 27; 30; 33; 47; 49; 57; 61; 66; 68; 71; 81; 87; 89; 92; 95; 96; 98; 105; 108; 118; 135; 137; 138; 149). Such references strongly suggest that “the psalms in which they are found were themselves sung in the Temple.”15
What is of particular interest, for our purposes, is that out of the lists of psalms above, thirteen are generally classified as laments (Pss 7; 9; 18; 27; 30; 57; 61; 71; 82; 89; 94; 115; 137). In other words, it is not only praise or thanksgiving psalms that were sung communally but the lament psalms also.16 In fact, when the evidence of the preceding sections is brought to bear, a strong case can be made for concluding forty-three of the lament psalms found in the Psalter “are likely to have been sung in the Temple.”17 Given the plethora of musical descriptions, directions and instructions that we’ve identified, this is not really surprising.
In light of this evidence, the Psalter is rightly regarded as the “hymnbook” of the Second Temple and, no doubt, contains the First Temple’s “hymnbook” as well.
2. Reasons Why Singing Can Seem Impossible
2.1. The Problem of “Distracting Emotions”
The Psalms, of course, do much more than simply provide us with information about how they were intended to be (or were in fact) used. In the process of unveiling the purposes of God through the historical progression of Israelite kingship, one of the chief aims of the Psalter is to teach God’s people about the trials and triumphs of the life of faith, and how to respond appropriately as they journey with the Messiah from suffering to glory, from lament to praise.18 Indeed, because the Psalms cover the whole gamut of human emotions, while at the same time giving us divinely inspired words with which to praise and pray to God, “the Holy Spirit gives us great encouragement and freedom to express all that we are thinking and feeling, whether those thoughts and feelings are about ourselves, others or even God.”19 For this reason, John Calvin had good reason to write:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.20
Calvin’s list of “distracting emotions” clearly indicates that the lament psalms were uppermost in his mind as he penned these oft-quoted words. For the lament psalms reveal the manifold reasons why God’s children can feel agitated or aggrieved or (to use Brueggemann’s evocative terms) become “dislocated” and “disoriented.”21 What’s more, in such a place of dislocation and disorientation, singing praise can be (or at least feel) either impossible or inappropriate.
2.2 Dislocation: Psalms 42–43
Two psalms illustrate this. The first is Psalms 42–43, which are best treated as a single psalm.22 At the very heart of the psalmist’s lament is the fact that he cannot, for reasons that become clear as the psalm unfolds, “go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng” (42:4). In short, he is lamenting the fact that he cannot praise. What then is his situation? He is evidently a long way from Jerusalem, for he is recalling the praises of the temple “from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar” (42:6). Furthermore, he appears to be the captive of “an unfaithful nation” (43:1)—oppressed by enemies (42:9), taunted by adversaries (42:10) and surrounded by men who are “deceitful and wicked” (43:1).23
The psalmist’s deepest distress, however, lies in the fact that God appears to have “forgotten” (42:9) or “rejected” him (43:2). This is why he finds his enemies’ question—“Where is your God?” (42:3, 10)—so vexing. So as he beholds “the waterfall at the source of the Jordan near Paneas and the waters that dash headlong down the mountains round about ... he sees nothing but the mirrored image of the many afflictions which threaten to involve him in utter destruction.”24 Hence his cry: “all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (42:7). Therefore, as much as he yearns to do so, he cannot sing the praises of Zion in such a place or in such a state. His only hope is that God will send forth his “light” and “truth” that they might lead him back to his “holy mountain” (43:3). Confidence that God will, in due course, bring this about is the ground of his threefold self-exhortation: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him” (42:5; 11; 43:5).
2.3. Disorientation: Psalm 137
Unlike Psalms 42–43, Psalm 137 has an identifiable Sitz im Leben or, at least, a clear historical point of reference: Israel’s experience of exile in Babylon. But whether it was written in exile or after having returned from exile is a matter of considerable debate. On the basis of the perfect tense verbs and the repeated adverb “there” in vv. 1–3, a number of scholars have argued that the psalm contains “the voice of exiles who have returned to live in the ruins of a Jerusalem not yet rebuilt.”25 If this is correct, the psalm “reveals the sufferings and sentiments of people who perhaps experienced at first hand the grievous days of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in the years 587 BC, who shared the burden of the Babylonian captivity and after their return to their homeland now, at the sight of the city still lying in ruin, give vent with passionate intensity to the feelings lying dormant in their hearts.”26 However, on the basis of historical-critical and text-critical indicators, Ahn has made a compelling case that the psalm cannot be post- exilic, but “is likely to have been composed after 587, but prior to the arrival of the 582 group.”27
For our purposes, the question does not need to be settled. For regardless of precise provenance and date, Psalm 137 reveals the strong and painful emotions that were felt at the time of the exile itself. As Kidner writes, “Every line of it is alive with pain, whose intensity grows with each strophe to the appalling climax.”28 The cause of this pain is twofold. Firstly, there is the memory of Zion (v. 1)—in particular, the horrors of what had been done to it by the Babylonians (egged on by the Edomites) on “the day of Jerusalem” (vv. 7–8). The consequence of this painful memory is that Zion is no longer “a source of strength, as in Psalm 48, but a cause for tears.”29 Secondly, there is the mocking demand of their captors and tormentors for “songs,” “songs of joy,” “one of the songs of Zion” (v. 3)!30 This immediately raises the question of v. 4: “How can we sing the song of the Lord while in a foreign land?” That is, given all that has happened both to Jerusalem and us, how can we possibly rejoice? The implied answer is that “we can’t!”31 The reason, suggests Brueggemann, is that “the songs of Zion are pornographic when they are sung among those who do not hope is Zion.”32 The lyres thus remain hung upon the willows (v. 2).
3. Singing About Not Being Able to Sing
3.1. The Song of Psalm 137
But that is not the end of the matter. Indeed Savran argues that v. 4 should be read not as a blanket refusal, but “as an preface to the response of vv. 5f (and vv. 7–9), saying essentially: ‘This is how we shall sing.’”33 Even if this interpretation is questionable, vv. 5–6 clearly function as an oath of self-imprecation in the form of a personal “pledge song”34—as is suggested by their chiastic structure:
A If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
B let my right hand forget its skill!
B´ Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
A´ if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
The psalmist’s determination not to forget Jerusalem clearly includes not forgetting to sing of Jerusalem.35 This is underscored by the references to “right hand” (v. 5) and “tongue” (v. 6)—the musician/singer’s tools of trade. To put it bluntly, should he ever forget to rejoice over Jerusalem, he calls upon God to curse his ability to sing and play the harp.36 The person who makes such a pledge can only make it in hope; the hope that Jerusalem’s day will come again and the songs of Zion will once more be heard.
In fact, the psalmist’s hope is so vivid that it leads him to reformulate his position on the possibility of singing. As Savran puts it: “Whereas Jerusalem was earlier recalled in mourning, and singing of Zion was considered an impossibility, the second person address indicates that Jerusalem is alive in the consciousness of the psalmist; it is this memory which animates the psalmist and allows him to keep functioning.”37 In short, because of his confidence in God and the ultimate triumph of his purposes, the psalmist is able to sing what Allen calls “a modified version of a song of Zion.”38
What, then, is this modified “song of Zion”? It is none other than Psalm 137 itself: a song about the inappropriateness of singing the songs of Zion in Babylon, and yet a song of Zion nonetheless. But it is more than that too. For it is a song that contains both a “pledge song,” to sing of Jerusalem in hope of its restoration, as well as a “vengeance song” (vv. 8–9), in anticipation of the just judgment that will come upon Israel’s enemies.39 It is thus a song that expresses both faith in the present and hope for the future—albeit, even paradoxically, in the form of grief-stricken lament. And yet lament is vital to the nurturing of such hope, for just as “[h]ope that cannot lament denies the awful reality and the continuing power of death and sin,”40 so lament that does not hope denies God’s sovereign faithfulness. The practice of singing lament, then, is designed to awaken faith and inspire hope as God’s people persevere through seasons of pain.
3.2. The Song of Psalms 42–43
Similar observations can be made regarding Psalms 42–43. Seven features mark it out as both a song of lament and a song of hope. Firstly, it is addressed לַמְנַצֵּחַ; i.e., “to the choirmaster”. Secondly, it is described as a מַשְׂכִּיל, which most likely means “an artistic or teaching song.”41 Thirdly, it is the first of the psalms written by “the Sons of Korah,” one of the levitical families who functioned as temple singers and musicians during the reigns of David and Solomon.42 Fourthly, as we’ve noted, it is a song about not being able to sing; or, at least, being prevented from singing “songs of praise” in “the house of God” (42:4). Fifthly, as we’ve also noted, it’s a song of “trust” (יחל);43 an expression of confidence that the psalmist will again be restored to worship in Zion. The basis for this hope is the Lord’s commitment to his people: hence the final words of the threefold refrain: “my Saviour and my God” (42:5; 11; 43:5). Sixthly, it is a paradoxical song. Calvin suggests that the author “represents himself as if he formed two opposing parties.”44 Kidner (perhaps more helpfully) speaks of this as a “dialogue between the two aspects of the believer, who is at once a man of convictions and a creature of change.”45 Finally, as a way of addressing this anthropological (and eschatological) tension, it is a song of both preservation and perseverance. This is clear from 42:8:
By day the Lord directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life.
Theologically, then, the song shows us the reality and necessity of both divine grace and human faith. The former is clear in that it is Yahweh who “directs” (tzawah) his “steadfast love” (chesed), sustaining the psalmist on his difficult journey.46 The latter is clear in that by “praying to God by day and singing his praise at night he clings to the God who he imagines has forsaken him and chastises him.”47 Here then is real faith in God; a faith that so grasps the promise of God that it sings God’s praise through the darkest night of the soul. It even celebrates his presence in the midst of the experience of his absence.48 It is, thus, a faith that gives rise to hope: the hope that the psalmist “will yet praise him” (42:5; 11; 43:5).
But what is especially instructive is that such a song of hope takes the form of lament. This reveals something of the link between lament and praise (a link to which we will return) and the way in which the singing of grief leads to the strengthening of hope. It also shows how the articulation of hope frees the believer to genuinely grieve. As Verhey writes: “It is not just that we are not to mourn as those who have no hope. It is rather that hope mourns.”49 The song of lament that genuinely grieves before God’s gracious throne powerfully exercises the muscles of hope: hope that our sovereign and merciful God will yet deliver us from evil and restore us to unhindered praise. It is, therefore, precisely the kind of song that God’s afflicted children must sing and sing again.
4. The God-Given Powers of Music and Song
As we established in the first section of this essay, a large number of psalms of all “types” “were intended to be musical worship responses.”50 But why? What does music add? And what, in particular, is the advantage of singing lament rather than simply speaking it?51 Scripture answers these questions in several complementary ways (some more direct than others), and both historic Christian reflection and the human sciences provide further supporting insights. These answers and insights can be usefully gathered under the following headings: power for proclaiming, power for recalling, power for consoling and power for uniting.52
4.1. Power for Proclaiming
In terms of the relationship between music, singing and proclamation, a number of Old Testament texts reveal a connection between music and the activity of prophecy. For example, in 1 Samuel 10:5, Saul is informed that as he approaches Gibeah he will meet “a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, timbrels, pipes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying.” He is then told that the Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon him and that he too will prophesy (v. 6). Similarly, in 2 Kings 3:11–19, when Elisha is called upon to prophesy, his response is “bring me a harpist.” Then, while the harpist was playing, “the hand of the Lord came on Elisha” (v. 15).
The clear import of these texts is that music was “one means of the hand (Heb. “hand, power”) of the Lord coming upon a person, whether to calm or control (as with Saul in 1 Sa. 16:16, 23).”53 Reflecting on the “powers” thus divinely accorded to music, Luther remarked:
The Holy Ghost himself honors her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha [II Kings 3:15]. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel [I Samuel 16:23].54
In addition to the association between music and the early prophetic tradition is David’s appointment of “some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals” (1 Chron 25:1). The nature of their prophetic ministry is amplified in v. 3 where we’re told that they “prophesied, using the harp in thanking (yadah) and praising (hallel) the Lord.”
Various reasons have been suggested as to why these singers are described as prophets and their praises as prophecy. Ross highlights the two most significant. First, as the canonical content of the Psalter reveals, the psalms written, collected and sanctioned by Asaph (et al) “were understood to be God’s word to the people, that is, prophetic compositions.”55 Second, not only was the elevated poetic form of the psalms harmonious with the form of much divine prophecy, but “singing or rhythmic chanting was considered the most powerful form that prophecy could have and a form of prophecy itself.”56 In addition to this, it is clear from both Old and New Testaments that the concept of prophecy includes not only fore-telling (prediction) but also forth-telling (proclamation).57 Prophecy, then, is an entirely appropriate rubric under which to gather all divinely inspired words, including praise and (as we shall argue below) lament.
Scripture provides no detailed analysis of the specific psychological or educational benefits of singing the Word of God. However, both the human sciences and human experience reveal that these are bound up with music’s capacity to aid cognition and to express and evoke emotion. In terms of cognition, educationalists and therapists of various kinds have long been aware that “songs enhance cognitive processing by involving the brain in sequencing of information, short-term as well as long term memory storage, and motor learning as individuals respond to auditory cues.”58 In terms of emotional expression and evocation, this is more complex as both intrinsic factors (i.e., structural or melodic features of the music itself) and extrinsic factors (i.e., emotionally significant associations triggered by the music) are involved.59 Whatever the precise blend of factors, the net result is that music is “one of the most emotionally potent media we know.”60
What is of especial interest at this point is the way the singing of meaningful words connects both the cognitive and affective dimensions of both singers and listeners. Key to this connection is the fact that the words of a song not only enable the communication and reception of the cognitive content of the song, but the singing of them facilitates the expression and evocation of the emotional reality of that content.61 This combination enables the words of the song to penetrate more deeply so that they “circulate through our system” in a way that they might not otherwise.62 Reflecting on this phenomenon, Luther again comments:
Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul.... After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [God’s word] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.63
Such an understanding of the educational and emotional benefits of proclaiming the word of God in song is not confined to Old Testament. Paul’s instruction in Colossians 3:16 reveals that he shared this understanding.64
The making of music and song, then, is one divinely appointed way of proclaiming the word of God. This is so even when the addressed directly to God and irrespective of whether it takes the form of adoration or praise, petition or lament. The flipside of this power to proclaim truth is the power to impart teaching and so to generate faith—vital keys to survival in times of deep distress.
4.2. Power for Recalling
Music and song not only enable God’s word to be proclaimed but his grace to be recalled. Once again, such recollection is not only a feature of the praise and thanksgiving psalms (e.g., Pss. 105:5; 143:5), but also a feature the laments (e.g., 42:6; 137:6). That music has the capacity to evoke memories is well recognised.65 Both personal and corporate memories are embedded in music, so that often when the past is unrecoverable by other means, people can regain a sense of identity and hope by listening to or playing music. For the reasons given in the previous section, when the human voice is brought into the mix and truthful and meaningful words are articulated in song, the effect is even more powerful. The music, however, remains integral in this process. As Saliers writes: “The remembrance of the words is carried and prompted by the melody and sometimes the harmonic and rhythmic elements.” 66
This is one of the reasons why music and song played an important role in Israel’s life of faith, particularly in times of distress. Singing of God’s mercies toward the nation in days past—when (for example) they “groaned in their slavery and cried out” (Exod 2:23)—was a way of putting the present into perspective and also awakening hope for the future. In other words, the Israelites not only understood the connection between recollection and lament, but also the power of song to articulate grief in a way that ameliorates it. Accordingly, “Israel enacted and trusted liturgical practices that made the transformation of pain vivid, powerful, and credible. It did its singing and praying and praising in ways that shaped pain into hope, and grief into possibility.”67 Chief amongst those liturgical practices was the singing of the psalms of lament.
Psalm 77 illustrates the point. Its title—“For the director of music. For Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm”—tells us plainly that it is a song. It is also a song with a focus on remembering. This is clear from the repeated use of a series of related verbs—“remember” (זכר [x4]), “meditate” (שׂיח [x3]), “ponder” (הגה [x1]), “consider” (חשׁב [x1]) and “seek” (דרשׁ [x1]), all of which “indicate the energy the speaker is turning inward.”68 But it is the structure or “journey” of the song that is of greatest interest. The first nine verses contain the lament of one who is in such distress that he can neither sleep nor speak (v. 4). At this point his memories only provoke his lamentation: “I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint” (v. 3). In fact, remembrance of his “song (נְגִינָה) in the night” (v. 6),69 forces him to articulate a series troubling doubts and painful questions (vv. 7–9).
But then, in v. 10, the psalm takes a dramatic turn. The psalmist decides to think back to “the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand” (v. 10); that is, to the Lord’s deliverance of Israel at the time of the Exodus. So he vows in vv. 11–12:
I will remember (זכר) the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember (זכר) your miracles of long ago.
I will ponder (הגה) all your works
and meditate (שׂיח) on all your mighty deeds.”
So what happens as a consequence? According to Brueggemann, “the psalm engages in concrete remembering which takes the mind off the hopelessness of self. The memory of hurt resolved contextualizes present hurt, as yet unresolved.”70 Tate, however, doubts that the process of transformation and recontextualization is quite so complete. He suggests that the psalm leaves both speaker and reader waiting “for a new revealing of the unperceived steps of God through the great waters.”71 He has a point. The psalm certainly ends with only a historic reference to the Lord’s leadership of Israel “by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (v. 20); no contemporary act of deliverance appears to have yet taken place. So, he concludes, the psalmist’s recollection “does not bring an immediate end to doubt and waiting.”72
This is both right and wrong. It is right in that “God moves on his own schedule and often the faithful must endure the anguish of waiting.”73 But it is wrong in that the psalmist’s remembering directly addresses and resolves his doubt. In fact, by the end of the psalm, as Kidner notes, “the pervasive ‘I’ has disappeared, and the objective facts of the faith have captured all his attention and all of ours.”74 Thus, the psalm does “what praise and confession are meant to do—represent the God of revelation as the reality and subject of truth in the face of all circumstances and contrary experience.”75 In other words, despite his present affliction, the psalmist’s recollection of God’s redeeming grace in the past grants him a new perspective on the present and so awakens his hope for the future. This is the gift he offers to all who will sing his psalm. As Leslie writes:
The psalmist’s purpose is clear. Through this brilliant ending to his psalm he will say to worshiping Israel in its hour of deep dejection that the God of Israel’s ancient and glorious past is still leading His people through waters that threaten to engulf them and will still provide “shepherds” like unto Moses and Aaron.76
In short, the process of lament has proved effective—not because it has removed the source of the psalmist’s distress, but because it has enabled a renewed trust the Lord in the midst of continuing trial. As Harrichand writes of the communal laments: “it is within the prayer of lament that Israel recalls its covenant relationship with God, which then gives rise to Israel’s hope.”77
Furthermore, the musical form of the psalm is far from incidental in achieving this effect.78 Not only are human memories and emotions profoundly intertwined, but music taps both the emotional and memory centres of the brain at once.79 When divinely inspired truth (or what Wright calls “credo”)80 is added to the mix and then articulated by being sung, the combination is indeed a potent one. For
“[t]he ones who sing and recite can remember when it was not like it is now, and can hope for when it will again not be like it is now.”81
The practice of singing lament, then, is one divinely appointed way of recalling the grace of God in times past and so renewing trust in times present. This power to recall enables both the renewing of faith and the strengthening of hope.
4.3. Power for Consoling
As well as power to proclaim and recall, music and song have a pronounced and well-recognised ability to console.82 Research from a wide range of disciplines has demonstrated music’s many therapeutic benefits in the areas of psychological, physiological, social, emotional and cognitive functioning.83 What is of particular interest is the way music provides not only an outlet for expressing turmoil or grief but a means of processing sorrow and bewilderment.84 This provision is seen most powerfully in the practice of singing therapy, where singing is used to assist those suffering trauma to release suppressed emotions and, by so doing, to help them “process the truth and reality behind their inner pain.”85 Aware of this power, Luther was unrestrained in his praise of music:
Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions … which control men or more often overwhelm them … Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to subdue frivolity, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate … what more effective means than music could you find.86
Perhaps the earliest biblical instance of the consoling power of music is found in 1 Samuel 16. After the Lord afflicts Saul with an evil spirit (v. 15), his servants suggest he finds someone who is able to play the lyre. Their reasoning is as follows: “He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better” (v. 16). David is the man found for the task and, as they anticipated, whenever the “spirit” came upon Saul David played his lyre and not only would relief come to Saul, but “the evil spirit would leave him” (v. 23).87
Not surprisingly, some have seen here “an early acknowledgment of the possibility of music therapy.”88 But not just any music. As Watson notes, “purely celebratory music would jar with the king’s initial mood; it would not console, it would mock.”89 The only music that could have therapeutic impact would be “a music that acknowledges and encompasses the negatives of existence but nevertheless transforms them through the power of musical form and artistry, so that negativity gives way to consolation.”90 This, in God’s kindness, is what happens to Saul. For as much as the Lord is the cause of Saul’s affliction, his gifts (of both music generally and David’s skill specifically) are also the source of his consolation.
Music’s power to console, however, deserves further probing. As we’ve already noted, “music connects with our emotions, expresses and evokes them, and makes them humanly liveable.”91 It does this not only by facilitating expressions of joy but also by aiding the expression of both difficult feelings and inchoate responses. This ability “to give structure to emotionally charged experiences is what makes music such a powerful aid to the process of mourning.”92 Jeremy Begbie calls this “representative concentration,”93 explaining that “in music, emotionally significant bodily movements are embodied in a concentrated (musical) form, in such a way that the music can represent us and concentrate us emotionally as we are drawn into its life.”94 In this way, music can “enable a more concentrated emotional engagement with the object or objects with which we are dealing.”95
Sung lament is more powerful still. Being both instrumental and vocal, it draws on the therapeutic capacities of both music and singing, combing both “languages” (the cognitive and the affective) into one. While the dominant power ought to be located in the words that proclaim (particularly if it is God’s word that is being sung), the “music is by no means a superfluous addition to the words that might equally well convey consolation simply by being read. On the contrary, the music enacts the consolation of which the text speaks.”96 Nor is it being “placed at the disposal of some purpose that is alien to its own nature: it exercises its power to console by purely musical means, although in conjunction with the text.”97 What we are dealing with here, theological speaking, is the bringing together of the twin voices of the opera Dei (the works of God) and the oracula Dei (the words of God), the harmony between general revelation and special revelation.
The original tunes to which the biblical laments were sung are now lost to us. Nevertheless, the fact that many were written to be sung is highly significant, particularly in view of the powers of music and song to heal and console.98 This does not make singing some kind of “silver bullet” for transforming pleading into praising. But it does highlight its God-given capacity of assisting us in the honest articulation of sorrow, the effective processing of pain and the awakening of genuine hope. For “the psalms of lament do not dismiss or deny or seek to avoid sorrow. On the contrary, they allow a grieving person to move more fully into the valley of the shadow; knowing on different levels, that no matter what, God is indeed present in the sorrow.”99 But more than that, they point beyond sorrow; for even though their primary “focus is on process rather than result it must be recognized that there is a patent expectation, on the part of the psalmist, of some kind of resolution.”100
Sung lament is, therefore, an exceedingly powerful force—both individually (e.g., Pss 42–43) and corporately (e.g., Ps 44). Indeed, because “the lament as such can be a movement toward God, it became a component part of worship. This assumes that the experience of profound suffering can bring one to God, provided the experience is verbally articulated in the lament.”101 Lament, thus, points to the possibility (if not creates the reality) of rejoicing in the midst of suffering. Consolation and hope cannot, thus, be separated. Consequently, “an ineradicable strain of hope and expectancy surrounds the lament.”102
The making and singing of songs of lamentation, then, is one divinely appointed way of consolation. This power to console generates both the power to hope and the power to heal.
4.4. Power for Uniting
Finally, in addition to the ability to proclaim, recall and console, music and song have a remarkable power to unite. Singing, in particular, creates a sense of solidarity and belonging. As Ramshaw writes: “group singing bonds the community. Singing together is a physical as well as emotional and spiritual experience of unity: We enter into a common rhythm and we make one sound.”103 Whilst this experience is not as widespread in western society as it may be in other less individualistic cultures, most westerners have known it at various points—perhaps as a disparate group of supporters rally behind their favourite team by singing the club song or perhaps, more dramatically, as demonstrators express their unified opposition to some form of oppression in a rousing protest song. In this latter scenario, the sense of unity can be palpable, encouraging and emboldening the participants. For in “the defiance that prompts the singing, there is the understanding that one is not alone.”104
All corporate singing, to some degree, has this effect. In fact, a number of recent neurochemical studies have found that group singing increases participants’ oxytocin levels, indicating an experience of intense social bonding.105 Given that the lament psalms were designed to be sung, it makes sense that almost a quarter of them are communal in form (i.e., written in the first-person plural).106 However, the individual laments also have a long history of being sung corporately.107 For not only are such psalms presented as “a model for how the community can express and resolve its doubt,”108 but the ‘I’ of the individual psalms often has a representative function; i.e., it is a “Collective ‘I’.”109
This insight highlights a point of major interpretive importance, which we have already touched upon but need to return to briefly. The book of Psalms is not, first and foremost, a book about either the believer’s or the community’s life of faith. Rather it is fundamentally concerned with the historic progression of Davidic kingship in light of the promise made to “the Lord’s anointed” (Ps 2:7; cf. 2 Sam 7).110 What this means is that the “I” of the Psalms is very often the “I” of the king, the Messiah, and so, in the fullness of time, the “I” of great David’s greater son, Jesus Christ. One of the implications of this, as Bonhoeffer saw, is that if we want to read, pray or sing the psalms, “we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.”111
However, God’s Messiah is never to be thought about independently of “those who take refuge in him” (Ps 2:12). The king may be in the foreground, but his subjects are always in the background. The Psalter, then, also tracks the journey of the Messiah’s people. For this reason, believers are invited by Christ “to join in his words of trust in God, his words of longing for deliverance, his prayers for the overthrow of the enemies of the Lord and of his Christ, his joy in God’s salvation.”112 Indeed, in the communal laments, the people step into the foreground and the Messiah sometimes seems to disappear from view! Yet even here, as Cameron and Shead observe, we are able “to see in the pattern of Israel’s national life a Christ-shaped echo.”113
Psalm 44 provides an example of this. The opening words (“O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us”) make very clear that this is a national lament: a “lament by the people and for the people.”114 It is also another “maskil of the sons of Korah” addressed “to the choirmaster,” and therefore a lament intended to be sung. What is unique about Psalm 44, however, is its clear profession of innocence (vv. 17–22): “All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant” (v. 17). In light of this Delitzsch comments: “In this psalm, Israel stands in exactly the same relation to God as Job and ‘the Servant of Jahve’ in Isaiah.”115 Thus we hear the “Christ-shaped echo.”
But we also hear a church-shaped echo. This is why, in Romans 8:36, Paul can cite v. 22 (“Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered”) and apply it to Christians. Indeed, for Paul, “Christians are called to share in their Lord’s sufferings: sufferings foreshadowed in those of the righteous sufferer in the psalms, whose voice is heard in so many of the lament psalms, such as Psalm 44.”116 This, then, is a lament that is sung by Christ through his persecuted people so that they might sing it back to him in their hour of need.117
Our chief interest, however, lies in the communal nature of this lament and the consequent importance of singing our prayers together. For singing “‘transports’ us not only to God, but connects us to the people with whom we are worshiping. Singing builds and strengthens the assembly.”118 Indeed, the cultivation of collegiality is one of the great gifts of the Psalter. As Bonhoeffer explains:
The psalms teach us to pray as a fellowship. The Body of Christ is praying, and as an individual one acknowledges that his prayer is only a minute fragment of the whole prayer of the Church. He learns to pray the prayer of the Body of Christ. And that lifts him above his personal concerns and allows him to pray selflessly.119
For this reason, the activity of singing “is both an enactment and an exposition of the church’s unity. Singing, we might say, is a sounding image of the unified church.”120 This was certainly the view of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c. 35–c. 108) who wrote in his epistle to the Ephesians:
Therefore in your concord and agreeing charity, Jesus Christ is sung; and every single person among you makes up the chorus. That so being all consonant in love, and taking up the song of God, ye may in a perfect unity with one voice, sing to the Father by Jesus Christ; to the end that he may both hear you, and perceive by your works, that ye are indeed the members of his son (1:15–16).
Moreover, the reality of the unity fostered by communal singing has further implications. It lifts us above our need for personal authenticity and helps us to pray larger prayers, prayers more reflective of the needs of others, prayers more in line with the will of God. Hence Bonhoeffer again writes:
It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray.121
This is not to downplay the fact that Psalm 44 was “a song in season” for national Israel (at least, at the point of its composition), as it has been for the churches of Jesus Christ at many point of persecution in the present age. It is not then a song for every season. But the key point is this: when it is time to mourn together we need such songs so that as we sing the word of Christ back to him, the bonds of our unity might be strengthened and we might know that we are not alone. Communal lament is, therefore, a great and gracious gift. For contemporary churches to lack the ability to make use of such a gift is deeply lamentable and underlines the truth of Bonhoeffer’s observation: “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian Church.”122
The practice of singing lament, then, is one divinely appointed way of uniting God’s people in seasons of sorrow “so that with one mind and one voice [we] may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6).
5. The Relationship of Lament to Praise
We come, finally, to the relationship between lament and praise. It is commonplace for the two to be viewed as polar opposites, as if one is the antonym of the other. Of course, there is an important truth contained in such a view and they are certainly juxtaposed in Scripture. The writer of Psalms 42–43, as we’ve seen, laments the fact that he cannot praise and thus longs for the day when he will be restored to praise and no longer have cause to lament. And yet, with this juxtaposition, there are profound connections between lament and praise that also need to be appreciated. In fact, there is even a case for regarding lament as a form of praise.
5.1. Lament as the Pathway to Praise
As we have already noted, the shape of the Psalter is governed by the historic progression of Israelite kingship in light of the promise made to David in 2 Samuel 7. After the introduction of Psalms 1–2, Book I begins with a series of laments, reflecting David’s experience of persecution in the time of Saul (Ps 3–7). Books II-IV take us from the reign of Solomon through the exile and to the ground for Israel’s hope. Book V climaxes with a celebration of redeemed existence under a new Davidic king (Ps 144–145), before concluding with an explosive catena of pure praise psalms (Pss 146–150). Therefore, although lament may be seen as the first word of the Psalter, praise is most certainly the last. As Miller writes:
To go through the Book of Psalms is to be led increasingly toward the praise of God as the final word … The literary arrangement of the Psalter gives clear testimony to this reality as each book of the Psalter is concluded with doxology (Pss. 41:13; 72:18–19; 89:52; 106:48), and the Psalter as a whole ends in Psalm 150 with its fulsome call for everything to praise God every way that is possible.123
What is true at the macro level of the Psalter is also true at the micro level of many particular lament psalms: they begin with pleading but end with praising.124 As Jones writes: “a distinctive movement from plea to praise characterizes the lament psalm. This movement may be, at times, sharp and somewhat disjointed. It may be uneven. Nevertheless, this movement from plea to praise is essential in understanding the power of the psalms of lament.”125 The power of which Jones speaks is the power of reality: the reality of our pitiful plight (on the one hand) and the reality of God’s game-changing grace (on the other). As Jones puts it: “The depth of pain expressed in the laments is all too real. Yet so too is the possibility that this pain can be transformed, will be transformed, into praise.”126
But what is the link between possibility and certainty? How is the singing of pain transformed into the singing of praise? According to Jones, we are never told: “A mystery occurs in the movement between plea to praise, from disorientation towards new orientation. There is no clear and certain answer as to what makes this movement possible. Nevertheless, it is a most remarkable transformation.”127 Remarkable it certainly is, but perhaps not quite so impenetrable as Jones seems to think.
The transformation, as Westermann notes, lies in “lament’s function as an appeal.”128 In other words, “lament is supplication; it is the means by which suffering comes before the One who can take it away.”129 What this reveals is that the movement from plea to praise is actually a reflex of the sufferer’s movement toward God. This is why a change of mood often occurs within the lament psalm itself, even if it’s only a change in outlook and not yet a change in situation.130 Otherwise put, lamentation is turned into praise not only by the experience of deliverance but also by the expectation of deliverance. This is because the honest articulation of need opens the door to the faithful reception of provision, even if only in anticipation. As we have seen, the key lies in the way that lament arouses faith and hope, and so enables the sufferer “to see the path leading to an alleviation of suffering.”131
A song of lament does not need to be autobiographical in order to have this effect. Singing the laments of other saints can be just as effective, if not more so, in helping us “express our frustrations and remind us that in them all God is present and “working for our good.” Then we may be free to join in a psalm of pure praise and thanksgiving.”132 In fact, as we’ve seen, the lament psalms of Scripture are ultimately none other than the words of him who “in the days of his flesh offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Heb 5:7).133 It is he who has given them back to us that we might sing them before his “throne of grace, that we might receive mercy and find grace in our time of need” (Heb 4:16). Little wonder, then, that the psalms of lament typically end with a vow of praise.134 For true lament is none other than the divinely established pathway to praise.
5.2. Lament as Praising in the Dark
To sing lament, however, is not merely to begin a journey toward praise, it is itself to set foot on the path of praise. “As strange as it sounds, prayers of lament in a biblical pattern are actually a form of praise to God and an expression of trust in his promises.”135 After all, the whole Psalter is labelled tehillim (praises); the laments as much as every other “type.” As Shead and Cameron write: “Whatever a given psalm looks like – lament, instruction, thanksgiving, and so on – the act of taking it upon our lips becomes an act of praise.”136 This can be seen in the way the lament psalms “express a fundamental trust in God in the midst of tribulation.”137 Hence my description of lament above as “praising in the dark”! But even more than that, the laments “open us to the greatness of a God who not only can hear, but also can handle our pain, our self-pity, our blame, and our fear.”138 They, thus, propel us toward “new and unforeseen breakthroughs in understanding who God is and how God can be trusted.”139 In this way real lament leads to growth in the knowledge of God and thus serves to increase his praise.
In the larger frame, and this side of the consummation, praise and lament work together and need each other to keep the one honest and the other focussed. For, on the one hand, praise “can retain its authenticity and naturalness only in polarity with lamentation.”140 Yet on the other hand, and as we learn from the content of Psalter itself, “Israel also mixes lament with praise, because they know beyond doubting that in God’s unchanging, unfailing love they will be saved in the end.”141 The same is true for the Christian church: lament we must, but only ever in hope! For “the spine of lament is hope: not the vacuous optimism that ‘things will get better,’ which in the short run is usually a lie, but the deep and irrepressible conviction, in the teeth of present evidence, that God has not severed the umbilical cord that has always bound us to the Lord.”142 It is this conviction that enables believers to sing their griefs before the throne of grace, confident that he will never leave or forsake us (Heb 13:6).
If there is truth in the dictum, “Tell me how you lament, and I will tell you how you are,” then many contemporary evangelical churches are in poor shape. In fact, the widespread lack of familiarity with the practice of singing lament is nothing short of tragic. As Trueman writes:
By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church. By so doing, it has implicitly endorsed the banal aspirations of consumerism, generated an insipid, trivial and unrealistically triumphalist Christianity, and confirmed its impeccable credentials as a club for the complacent.143
Of course, it’s always possible that, like Paul and Silas in the Philippian gaol (Acts 16:25), the church’s determination to sing praise in the midst of trial is a laudable manifestation of a resilient faith. As Brueggemann speculates: “It could be that such relentlessness is an act of bold defiance in which these psalms of order and reliability are flung in the face of disorder. In that way, they insist that nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”144 This may sometimes be the case. It is more likely, however, that “a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.”145 Thus, the inability to lament is much more likely to be “a frightened, numb-denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life.”146
The only way to remedy such a tendency is through an acknowledgement of the problem, a genuine turning to God and a thoroughgoing change of practice. This will inevitably involve the recovery and reemployment of older songs of lament (principally the Psalter itself)147 and the discovery (if not the writing) of fresh laments also.148 The alternative is to deprive the people of God of a full knowledge of God himself. For as Jinkins notes: “We cannot expect a people’s understanding of God to reach much higher than their hymn books.”149 Our singing, therefore, needs to reflect the fact that God is not only sovereign over our sufferings but also present with us in them. It also needs to express the christological reality (reflected in the shape of the Psalter) that just as suffering is the road to glory, so the path to praise passes through lament.
Given the manifold powers of music and song to aid us on the journey of discipleship, we would do well to harness them faithfully and make use of them for the sake of our souls, the health of the church and, above all, the glory of the triune God.