Six Weeks with the Psalms
Psalms of Lament
Full disclosure here, I think lament psalms are some of my favourites. Not just because I have a tendency to be miserable sometimes (!) but because I think they’re some of the most striking in terms of their poetry, sometimes they’re the most descriptive. I think they’re very honest too, and we can identify with them because they describe feelings and emotions we all have at some time or another. We all doubt at times, we all have, what’s the expression, ‘black nights of the soul’? Sometimes you can turn to these psalms and see someone going through the same thing we go through ourselves. And, for me at least, that helps.
Something like a third of the psalms are laments. That could be for a number of reasons.
I remember hearing an interview with a songwriter – I can’t for the life of me remember who it was, but he was asked, ‘why do you write so many sad songs?’ and his reply has always stayed with me, he said, ‘Because I’ve got better things to do when I’m happy.’ Maybe that’s the reason? Or maybe it’s about the period in which the psalms were written, when there was unrest, when there was turmoil.
I think worship was different at the time when the book of Psalms was put together. Lament must have formed part of their worship, whereas today it’s mostly about praise. Back then, I think they were not scared to express doubt, but today we talk mostly about trust. I can’t remember ever actually using a lament psalm in a service, and of I have I probably haven’t concentrated on the lament part of it, I’d probably have looked more at it’s elements of trust and praise. We’ll see when we look at our psalms for this week how there’s usually that kind of element in them.
I chose this one because, although it’s quite short, I think the psalm shows a structure that’s present in a lot of the lament psalms – it’s a structure that has four elements,:
Address: where the psalmist cries out to God, makes his appeal to God. ‘Help LORD’, ‘Save’, (depending on translation)
Complaint: where the psalmist sets out a situation or circumstances that are wrong, or unjust. ‘Everyone lies to their neighbour, they flatter with their lips.’
Request: when the psalmist asks God to do something, to intervene. ‘May the LORD silence all flattering lips.’
Expression of trust/praise: Sometimes this will be interwoven into the psalm, sometimes, like here, it’s stated at the end. “You, LORD, will keep the needy safe and will protect us forever from the wicked.’
There are a couple of things I want to pick up on here.
Verse 2: ESV version has ‘with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.’ Some versions are more poetic than others. Looking at the original Hebrew, this line is ‘with lips of smooth things, and a heart and a heart, they speak.’ Hebrew doesn’t do plurals as English does. So you can see where the translators have made their choices – lips of smooth things, smooth talkers, flatterers – a heart and a heart, two hearts, or a double heart. But the point the psalmist is making is that the organ of speech, the mouth, is divided, and so is the organ of understanding, of intention, the heart, is divided as well. Meaning a duplicitous person. When you look at translations like the GNB, where it says ‘they deceive each other with flattery’, well, it’s not exactly poetic, is it?
And the next verse, the NIV has ‘May the LORD silence all flattering lips.’ The original, and some versions stick with this, has the LORD cutting off the lips. It should be said that this was never meant to be taken literally, ‘cut off’ in Hebrew is basically stop, or make still, so while the NIV gets the sense of what’s happening right, it’s sanitised.
And the last verse apparently has provoked a lot a lot debate, it’s tacked on, it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the psalm. Look at Psalm 7, 16, 17. They seem to end in a more satisfying way, don’t they?
Heman the Ezrahite sounds like some kind of superhero, or someone out of Lord of the Rings. Heman is mentioned in the book of Chronicles, in quite a few places ((1 Chronicles 6:33, 15:17-19, 16:41-42, 25:1; 2 Chronicles 5:12, 35:15) and mostly connected with music, so I think it’s bound to be the same person. Heman was the grandson of Samuel, son of Joel (1 Samuel 8) and Joel was not a good man, he ‘took bribes and perverted justice.’ For all we know, he could have been a victim of abuse. He was definitely not a well man, physically or emotionally.
This is a tough read, isn’t it?
Walter Brueggemann says it’s an ‘embarrassment to conventional faith.’ Discuss!
The typical lament psalm structure isn’t present here. Instead we have something like this:
Address: v1 & v2
Complaint: (all of it!), v3-v9a
It seems to return to address and complaint in v13-18
I think it’s the only lament psalm that doesn’t have at least an element of praise, or redemption in it. To me, the repetition of complaint and request with no outcome reflects the state of mind of the psalmist.
I don’t know what you think about this psalm, but for me it seems to be an outpouring of grief. Apparently this psalm was often paired up with Psalm 22 on Good Friday. I don’t think I’d want to read this on Good Friday, myself
Just to show how other might have a different point of view, here’s what GP Morgan says about Psalm 88:
“From beginning to end there is no trace of bitterness, no desire for revenge on enemies, no angry reflections on the goodness of God. Rather, the references to God reveal a remarkable sense of His grace and goodness.” Do you agree? I don’t – the psalmist directly accuses God in v6, 7, 8,
Is there anything positive in it at all? Maybe just the first line? Even that, I think, is just part of Heman’s plea for help. ‘Lord, God of my rescue.’
I think if there’s anything positive, it’s that the psalmist doesn’t, at any point, express any doubts in his belief in God. I hope that it just represents a particular low point for Heman. It’s worth mentioning too that it’s good in a way that canon. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
“With other laments, Ps 88 stands as a witness to the intent of the Psalms to speak to all of life, to remind us that life does not always have happy endings. Long trails of suffering and loss traverse the landscape of human existence, even for the devoted people of God. There are cold, wintry nights of the soul, when bleakness fills every horizon, and darkness seems nearly complete.” Marvin Tate
‘The psalm provides a good dose of realism in the face of so called faith that is very unrealistic and romantic. Life is like that. Life is unpredictable; life can be extremely harsh and filled with suffering. The psalms address all aspects of life, not just the good parts. Here in Ps 88 faith faces life as it is. The psalm shows that the experience of darkness also has its place in the life of faith. Psalm 88 reminds us that life does not always have happy endings. Suffering and loss are part and parcel of our human existence, even for people who are devoted to God.’
(This is a particularly good paper on Psalm 88, I think.)
“One has two options: either to wait in silence, or to speak it again. What one may not do is to rush to an easier psalm, or to give up on God..” Walter Brueggemann.
I wonder if Paul Simon was thinking about the last line of Psalm 88 when he wrote, ‘Hello darkness, my old friend.’
It’s possible it wasn’t the Moses who wrote this, but there’s no evidence to say it’s not, so we’ll go on that basis. If it was written by him, it’s the oldest psalm.
What about the structure?
Address: v1 & v2
Trust/Praise: v17? It’s not quite fulsome praise, I think there’s still a question mark over this.
It doesn’t quite stick to the structure we spoke about in psalm 12, but it has a lot of familiar devices in terms of how the psalms were composed..
It’s very poetical – remember in the first week or two we spoke about Hebrew poetry and how, while it doesn’t rhyme, it uses other techniques instead. Well, there’s a lot of parallelism in this psalm, where one clause either contrasts or complements the clause before. Look at verse 6, I like this morning/evening, flourishes/fades, renewed/withers. And verse 7 kind of reverses itself, and 8 does the same kind of thing. This is called chiasm, not sure if we mentioned this in week 1 or 2? It’s like a symmetric pattern.
But I think it’s the use of metaphors that make this psalm stand out for me – verse 4, verse 9.
Other notable points:
Verse 12 – heart of wisdom. Think back to ps12 where I said the Hebrews saw the heart as the source of understanding and intention. When we think of wisdom, we think of the mind, the brain, they saw wisdom as coming from the heart.
Verso 17 – the word ‘establish’ is important, as the Hebrew word used here is the same one they use when they’re talking about making building strong, so all the talk before about how life sprouts and withers is contrasted with a desire on Moses behalf for solidity and permanence.