Tag Archives: Psalms of Lament

Psalm 43 Calling for God’s Love among a Loveless People

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Psalm 43

1 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
 from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!
2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?
3 O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
 
As mentioned in the previous psalm, Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 are often linked together and may have originally been one psalm. They share a common refrain, which is the final verse of Psalm 43, and when linked do share a common theme and this is the only psalm within the second book of the psalter (see previous chapter) that does not have a superscription (introductory line telling who wrote it or how it is to be sung). I will initially talk about Psalm 43 separately but will conclude by looking at Psalm 42 and 43 together as a unit.

The Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated steadfast love and reflects the relationship that God has established with God’s people, is used at the beginning of this psalm as a negative description of the people the poet asks for God’s defense from. They are literally a people without hesed, a people outside the covenant with the God of Israel, a people who either do not know or who do not respect the relationship that God has offered to the psalmist and their people. Perhaps this psalm comes out of the experience of exile in Babylon where the covenant people are isolated from their home and their temple surrounded by people who worship other gods, or perhaps the psalmist lives among a people who has forgotten who they are. Whatever the context of the psalm the speaker speaks from a place among a people not shaped and formed by the steadfast love of God and isolated with a person or people who through lies and unjust practices have placed the psalmist in need of deliverance. The poet calls for God’s steadfast love among a loveless people.

In harmony with the previous psalm, the speaker feels isolated from God by their situation and oppression. In Psalm 42:9 the psalmist can ask ‘why have you forgotten me?’ and in verse two of our current psalm we hear the question heightened, ‘why have you cast me off?’ or translated differently ‘why have you rejected me?’ (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 404) The ability of the enemy to continue to, in a military metaphor, to press in upon them has left them mournful. God is supposed to be their refuge and yet the boundaries that God is supposed to enforce for the psalmist continue to be violated by the aggressive enemy who is making their life miserable. The deliverance that the poet seeks rests in the hands of a God who appears to have left the speaker in this loveless place.

The answer to a people without steadfast love is the faithfulness of God. The word translated by the NRSV as truth is the Hebrew word ‘emet which is frequently translated as faithfulness. In a situation where the speaker is surrounded by a people without hesed (steadfast love) and where they are experiencing the rejection of God, the psalmist still calls for God’s light and ‘emet (faithfulness) to emerge in their place of darkness and faithlessness. God’s faithfulness can lead them home to God’s temple, to this place where they feel distant from due to exile or a people who has forgotten who they are. Yet, it is God who holds the future for the psalmist. It is God who will bring them out of their current oppression and isolation. The answer to a people without love is God’s steadfast love. The answer to oppression is the God who provides refuge. The answer to their current darkness is God’s light and faithfulness. The long for the time when they can return and sacrifice and sing in joy to God. They reside in hope that they will soon experience the return to God’s house that they seek.

The final verse echoes the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Even in the isolation of the poet, in their experience of oppression by an enemy and rejection by God they can hope with all their being that God will not allow their experiences in the time of their song to remain forever. God is the one they can hope in, praise and will in God’s time bring help.

Both together and separately, Psalm 42 and 43 speak from the experience of a time where God seems distant and the situation of the psalmist is dire. Yet, even amid isolation and perceived rejection these are dialogues of faith where the poet continually returns to the question “Why are you cast down?” They trust in the experience of God’s faithfulness from their past and they hope for God’s faithfulness in the future. They continue to come back to the God who is their hope and their help for the future. They will not remain among a loveless people without the steadfast love of God forever. They will again return to the altar of God and with the faithful ones express their joy as they dwell in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

Psalm 38 A Cry for Forgiveness and Healing

Psalm 38

<A Psalm of David, for the memorial offering.>
1 O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes — it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares; those who seek to hurt me speak of ruin, and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like the deaf, I do not hear; like the mute, who cannot speak.
14 Truly, I am like one who does not hear, and in whose mouth is no retort.
15 But it is for you, O LORD, that I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.
16 For I pray, “Only do not let them rejoice over me, those who boast against me when my foot slips.”
17 For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.
19 Those who are my foes without cause are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good are my adversaries because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O LORD; O my God, do not be far from me;
22 make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.

This is a song for a broken heart, a broken body or a broken spirit. The psalm cries to the LORD for mercy, for reconciliation and for renewed presence. We never hear in this psalm the sin which the author believes they are suffering from but this sin which is mentioned but never named is the perceived cause of the psalmist’s suffering. Something has come between the singer of these words and the LORD whom they cry out to. Something has, in the poet’s mind, caused God to turn away in anger and indignation. Something they believe has caused God’s disposition to them to change dramatically. They are no longer at peace with God. Their relationship with their creator has been fractured and they stand in the position of helplessness and weakness. They feel the weight of God’s judgment and perhaps their own as well upon them.

 While there is no easy or direct correlation between sin and sickness in the bible, the psalmist’s cries do ponder a connection between their physical, emotional and spiritual health. Sin can cause suffering in body and mind and the feeling of abandonment or shame can manifest in physical and emotional ways. While the psalmist language is probably in some senses metaphorical it doesn’t mean that the language of the psalm doesn’t base itself upon the actual pain that the psalmist feels. As Beth Tanner can say, “The burden of sin burns inside, and the whole body feels the strain (v.7) The insides feel faint, and the spirit is crushed (v.8); even if quiet on the outside the mind roars over the torment in one’s heart (v.8)” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 358) The poet has something they feel intensely that has separated them from the protection and provision of their God, some unspoken sin that is seen by God and makes itself known in their body and spirit. They stand in need of forgiveness and reconciliation which will also begin the healing of their mind and flesh.

The poet’s plight is heightened by the distance and judgment they now feel from their community. Friends and neighbors who one relies upon now stand at a distance. Perhaps they feel like a leper who is cut off from the community for fear of contagion or perhaps, like the friends in Job’s narrative, the neighbors and friend have decided the sickness must be a judgment of God. Friends and neighbors stand aside while enemies perceive an opportunity. The weakness of the psalmist becomes a reason for their increased isolation from the community which they also rely upon. They have no words to answer the whispers they imagine being spoken of them as the lie (actually or metaphorically) prostrate and crushed unable to rise.

Though God may have turned away in indignation, at least in the psalmist’s perception, and they feel that God is just in God’s anger they plead for mercy and restoration. They trust that God will not ultimately forsake them. They have reached the point where they are ready to let go of the sin they conceal in their breast and the burden they have carried. They wait upon the LORD for their strength to be renewed. The psalm ends with the cry for the LORD’s steadfast love to overcome the indignation rightly felt. Where the poet feels distance from God and community they call for God’s return and healing. They call out in urgency for their case is dire. They end with the cry for their salvation and we, with the psalmist, enter their time of waiting for the LORD’s action.

Psalm 22-A Desperate Cry to God

Marc Chagall, Solitude (1933)

Marc Chagall, Solitude (1933)

Psalm 22

<To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.>
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
 4 In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
 5 To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
 6 But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.
 7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
 8 “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver– let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
 9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
 10 On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
 11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
 12 Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;
 15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
 16 For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;
 17 I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;
 18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
 19 But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
 24 For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
 26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!
 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
 29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
 30 Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,
 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22 echoes heavily in the gospel writer’s telling of the crucifixion of Jesus and it forms a central part of the liturgy of holy week (closing the Maundy Thursday service and serving as the pivot into Good Friday). For both Jewish and Christian readers this Psalm of suffering and lament has been a place that can reflect the reality of the faithful life when God seems absent and God’s promises not to forsake seem far away. Many people are troubled when they read the language of the Psalms of Lament, particularly the vivid language of Psalm 22 because it seems unlike the language of faith. Yet, here in the place of suffering where the faithful one calls out to God and questions God’s seeming lack of intervention is a faithful (even if difficult) place. As Beth Tanner can state, “Crying out in pain and expressing trust are not incompatible.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 233) There will always be those, like Job’s friends in the book of Job, who want to equate suffering as proof of the suffering one’s unfaithfulness and demand a rigidly ordered world where the righteous prosper and the unrighteous are punished but the real world is seldom that tidy. My experience as well as my reading of the story of many of the saints of the church and the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish story reveal a very different dynamic: frequently those saints and ancestors in the faith do suffer, and often in ways that seem unreasonable, yet they can hold their suffering within the framework of a world where God still remains sovereign even if the world is often incomprehensible.

The Psalm begins with a cry to a known God, the one the sufferer calls out to is their God who they have known in the past, who has been present and active throughout their lives and who now seems absent. It is this absence of God’s presence that makes a space for the crisis of the sufferer and allows their oppressors to have their way. For the petitioner who cries out to God they trust that God is a God who hears, much as in the Exodus when God heard the cries of the Israelites, and the Psalmist calls upon this history of God’s action in the past on their behalf and on behalf of the people. The Psalmist contrasts the position of their ancestors ‘who trusted in you and were not put to shame’ and their own experience of being despised and scorned. The Psalmist oscillates between the ways in which God has acted in the past and their own experience of abandonment, terror and shame. The poetic language of this Psalm is particularly rich in representing their opponents as wild bulls, ravening lions, a pack of vicious dogs and their experience takes a toll on their own body in vivid ways: mouth dried up like a potsherd, being poured out like water and bones being out of joint with a heart that has melted like wax, and they are dying of hunger to the point where their bones stand out against their skin. The person places their petition to God in the direst terms possible, their petition is a matter of life and death and their only hope is for God to hear and act like God has heard and acted in the past and to honor God’s promise not to forsake.

As with most of the Psalms of Lament, Psalm 22 allows us to see the reversal of the petitioner’s condition. In the middle of verse 21 the situation changes and the tone changes. The verse begins ‘save me from the mouth of the lions’ but then abruptly switches ‘from the horns of wild oxen you have rescued me’. We don’t know the time that elapses in this transition but the deliverance occurs and the prayer switches to one of praise. Since God has not despised or disdained, there is a hope for tomorrow. Those who sought the LORD now become those who praise, the poor whose bones could be counted can finally eat and be satisfied and the God who seemed to forsake has become the LORD who reigns over the nations. God’s action in the speaker’s generation ensures that another generation will be told about the God who watches over God’s faithful people and hears their complaints and prayers.

For the first tellers of the story of Jesus the resonant images of Psalm 22 probably helped to make sense of their experience of the crucifixion. For both Matthew and Mark the words Jesus speaks from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi lema sebachthani, my God, my God why have you forsaken me” would resonate with the beginning of this Psalm and the question of the righteous suffer. Even within the experience of that day where the soldiers cast lots for the garments of Jesus, the Psalm provides an easy connection for followers trying to make sense of the senseless suffering. The Psalms provided a language for their experience and words for their pain.

As important as Psalm 22 is for Christians in telling the story of the crucifixion both in scriptures and in the liturgy of Holy Week we cannot leave it only there. Psalm 22, and the psalms of lament more generally, are rich and powerful words that for generations of Jewish and Christians followers of God have given voice to a cry for deliverance. Whether it was the Jewish people in exile in Babylon, slaves crying out in suffering, or the person dealing with a devastating injury or illness that has robbed them of their sense of belonging we need to hear again that the God who we perceive has forsaken us can indeed hear our cry. We need to be able to claim that the experience of suffering and isolation need not be read as an implication of our own unfaithfulness or unrighteousness, but that indeed crying out to God in that time of suffering and isolation is itself a mighty cry of faith. Groaning words can indeed be powerful words when they reach the ears of the LORD who rules over the nations.