Artist Concept of a Supermassive Black Hole, NASA/JPL-Caltech. Public Domain under NASA policy
Tragic events expose the fragility of the worlds we inhabit.
Undoing the meaning of the words that we speak and hear.
The gravity of the grief is so powerful that nothing escapes it.
There are no beautiful words that can undo betrayal.
Letters litter the lawn as they lose their creative power.
Words are worthless when the unspeakable occurs.
Tragedy transforms treasured truths into discarded trash.
Narratives go nowhere. Sacred stories are suddenly suspended.
Poetry enters a precarious pause. Its rhymes and rhythms undone.
Someday the words will regain their meaning for the wounded one.
When the gravity of grief is not so great. But not yet.
First the fragile pieces must be gathered, their world recreated.
Only time can transform the truths tragedy trashed.
Patient presence with survivor of the unspeakable
May once again allow words their worth in the world.
Narratives may find their new way. Sacredness seen in stories.
Poetry and prose relate reality in rhyme and rhythm.
Beauty beyond the brokenness of betrayal as new words emerge.
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you notstay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Jesus grieves. God has often been described using Greek philosophical concepts or the enlightenment idea of a detached God, but the God of the scriptures grieves. Jesus does not embrace his upcoming death calmly, like the Greek teacher Socrates, nor is Jesus portrayed as a warrior motivated by honor. Contrary to the Stoics who attempted to live self-control, discipline, and modesty becoming free from passion through apatheia this is the narrative of the passion (pathos) which means it is a narrative of suffering. The God who is with us in Jesus is not a detached God unable to feel but is the God of scriptures who grieves over the situation of the world and God’s people. This window into Jesus’ emotional state and prayers at Gethsemane gives us a strong contrast to the view of the heroic in the Greco-Roman world and instead gives us a look at the life of Jesus and the Father who are wrapped up in the messiness and the suffering of the world.
Jesus has already indicated that he is soon to be handed over to the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders and has also indicated that his closest disciples will all be scandalized because of him and one of the twelve will hand him over to the chief priests. Even Peter, who has insisted he will die if necessary to remain faithful to Jesus, will prove not only to be one who denies that he even knows him but also one who is not strong enough to even keep watch. Jesus goes off alone to pray, but his prayers hang in the air of Gethsemane unanswered. Jesus still refers to God as my Father, but this is a time of testing. Jesus encounters the emotion that the disciples have felt when he has indicated that he would be handed over to the authorities. During their final meal, the disciples were greatly grieved and now Jesus begins to be grieved and distressed. Jesus asks for there to be another way forward. Using the metaphor for the upcoming suffering as a cup that must be drunk, Jesus uses a common image in the psalms and prophets for both judgment and consolation for the people. Yet Jesus subordinates his will to the will of the Father and the option of the cup passing without being drunk remains an unanswered petition.
Peter, James and John have been unable to keep watch, even for the first watch of an hour. They prove that they are not strong enough even to fulfill this request of Jesus, and they are not ready for the time of testing. Jesus encourages them to pray as they keep watch and departs a second time to pray. Only Matthew includes the words to the second petition to the Father, which continues the cup metaphor but indicates that if the contents of this cup must be consumed that Jesus will submit to the will of the Father. Jesus, upon seeing the disciples sleeping on watch again, releases them and departs for a final prayer. This three fold repetition, familiar to those who have read through these reflections on Matthew’s gospel, completes the cycle of prayer and prepares us for the rapid transition to the handing over of Jesus. The transition is abrupt as the disciples are roused with the announcement that the hour has ‘come near/is at hand’ when the Son of Man is handed over into the hands of sinners. It is interesting that Jesus, often accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners now turns the accusation towards those who are coming to take him into custody. The transition between the prayers at Gethsemane and the handing over of Jesus has come near with the approach of the disciple who will hand Jesus over.
For a different style of reflection upon this passage and the upcoming crucifixion narrative see my poem Golgotha.
Pathos which is behind both the English word passion and its opposite, apathy, can mean suffering or experience or emotion. When referring to rhetoric pathos was to persuade by emotional means, but when referring to the passion (pathos) narrative it is referring to the primary meaning of suffering. This is also the root of the English word pathetic.
 See for example Genesis 6:6, Psalm 78:40, Isaiah 63:10
 In verse 22 the disciples are lupeo sphodra (greatly grieved) while here Jesus is moulupeo kai ademoveo (grieved and distressed/anxious) in verse 37 and peripupos estin e psyche my eos thanatou (deeply grieved, the psyche/soul of me being like death) in verse 38.
 There are too many examples to list all of them, but some representative passages would include: Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 51:17-21, Jeremiah 25:15-28, and Ezekiel 23:31-33.
 The Greek iskuo means being strong, powerful, or able and gregopeo means to keep watch. While the disciples do fall asleep, the Greek text focuses more on the disciples not being strong enough to fulfill their task of keeping watch.
Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0
Of David. 1 Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! 2 Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! 3 Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, “I am your salvation.” 4 Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me. 5 Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them on. 6 Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them. 7 For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. 8 Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it — to their ruin. 9 Then my soul shall rejoice in the LORD, exulting in his deliverance. 10 All my bones shall say, “O LORD, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.” 11 Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me about things I do not know. 12 They repay me evil for good; my soul is forlorn. 13 But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom, 14 as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning. 15 But at my stumbling they gathered in glee, they gathered together against me; ruffians whom I did not know tore at me without ceasing; 16 they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth. 17 How long, O LORD, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! 18 Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. 19 Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye. 20 For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land. 21 They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.” 22 You have seen, O LORD; do not be silent! O Lord, do not be far from me! 23 Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense, for my cause, my God and my Lord! 24 Vindicate me, O LORD, my God, according to your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me. 25 Do not let them say to themselves, “Aha, we have our heart’s desire.” Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.” 26 Let all those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion; let those who exalt themselves against me be clothed with shame and dishonor. 27 Let those who desire my vindication shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, “Great is the LORD, who delights in the welfare of his servant.” 28 Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all day long.
Life can be difficult and painful and a crisis can overwhelm our ability to focus on anything beyond the anxiety and suffering of the present. The psalms speak from the height and breadth of human emotion and experience. They cry out to God to attempt to reconcile the promise of a loving God who cares for and protects us and those times those times where it seems God has turned away or abandoned us to our enemies. Yet, against all evidence that God is absent or distant the psalmist cries out zealously for the LORD to intervene and fight for them against their enemies. The poet asks for God to take sides, to not stand with their oppressors any longer. To be the God who sees and hears and acts. To be the divine warrior who rouses the armies of the heavens to defend the righteous ones and to punish the wicked and evil ones.
For some Western Christians the idea of praying for God to intervene in such an active way using such militaristic language may be initially troubling. We may be captive to the image of God which was used by many thinkers of the last several centuries who imagined god as an ‘unmoved mover’ who doesn’t become involved in the affairs of this earth, or we may imagine a philosopher’s god that remains stoic and passive but neither of these gods resembles the God portrayed throughout the scriptures. A god who refuses to judge and who is merely noncoercive love might work in a suburban life where we believe that we can secure our own future but the God of the psalmist is a God who helps those who are unable to deliver themselves. Who seeks justice for the oppressed of the earth who call upon their Lord and who hears their cries for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
In Psalm 35 the poet speaks of a time where crisis is overwhelming them and they require God’s deliverance. The cry for the LORD of the heavens and the earth to contend against their enemies and to become their salvation becomes, as Brueggemann and Bellinger state it,
a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be called psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 176)
One could imagine this psalm on the lips of many faithful people throughout the history of Israel and the history of the church: Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other civil rights leaders as they received death threats or were beaten as they attempted to peacefully point towards a more just society. Martin Luther as he was hidden away at Wartburg Castle and felt like the world was falling apart around him as the gospel was misinterpreted by some and his life was sought by others. Jesus as he prayed in the garden knowing that he was going to be handed over to Pontius Pilate, beaten and then crucified. Jeremiah as he proclaimed the LORD’s judgment to the people of Judah and was met with scorn and persecution. These and countless others could easily have had these words upon their lips as they continued to trust in God in the midst of the evil and wickedness they saw in their own time and lives.
Within this cry of the psalmist is the painful language of betrayal and the confusion it can cause in a life. The opponent set a trap for them and a pit for them to fall into, and the poet doesn’t know how to answer the malicious witnesses that have risen against them. From their perspective they have done good and evil has been returned to them. They attempted to treat the other with empathy and compassion and they have received mocking and disdain. The experience of this has left a deep pain upon the soul of the psalmist as they attempt to navigate these treacherous waters they find themselves in.
The cry, “How long, O LORD” resonates as the poet waits for their deliverance. They trust that the deliverance will come as they zealously cry out to God, but they wait on the LORD’s response. They cry for God to awaken and stir, to draw near and to vindicate. They cry for justice in the face of injustice and God’s triumph over their oppression and oppressors. One of the gifts of the psalms is that they give us a model of people who lift up the cries of their heart before their God. This prayer comes from a place where others would succumb to doubt and hopelessness, but this faithful psalmist continues to zealously cry out for God’s intervention in their crisis.
<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.
Job (oil on canvas) by Bonnat, Leon Joseph Florentin (1833-1922)
To the leader. A Psalm of David 1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Psalm 13 is one of the examples used to talk about a Psalm of lament because it comes out of the experience of struggle and strife and calls upon God to act upon the crisis that the faithful one is experiencing. The crisis is not only a physical or emotional crisis but for the Psalmist, at its core, it is a theological crisis. The confident opening of the Psalter with Psalm 1 that sings about how the LORD watches over the righteous and the way of the wicked perishing is called into crisis by the moment of conflict where God seems to have forsaken the one lifting up this prayer. In the midst of the crisis the Psalmist cries out to the LORD and calls upon God to act.
This type of bold prayer, which calls upon God to act and to intervene, might seem unusual for many people. Many Christians were taught growing up that you didn’t accuse God or question God’s motives and that prayers were always to be polite and stoic. Although this view is common it has little to do with the Biblical model of prayer or the relationship of many of the faithful with God. Jeremiah, for example, makes numerous accusations towards God throughout the book of Jeremiah, Job also can cry out and expect God to act upon his complaints, and finally the Psalter is full of powerful, unfiltered emotions that are directed towards God and wrestle with the LORD who can bring about a resolution to the struggle. It takes courage to ‘gird up ones loins’ and stand before God in this manner, to be willing to accuse God in failing in God’s responsibility to maintain faithfulness and watchfulness as a covenant partner. The Psalmist views the relationship with God as pivotal for their life and if God turns God’s face away and removes God’s protection and allows the enemy to prosper and prevail then God is not fulfilling God’s part of the relationship. The Psalmist’s faith is strong enough to confront God that all is not right in God’s creation (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 163) and that God is the responsible party to ensure that the righteous are protected and the wicked are punished.
How long, which is repeated four times in the first half of the Psalm is not asking for a time period but rather for an immediate intervention. It is a rhetorical device that is common in African-American preaching to increase the intensity of the expectation and hope that change is coming for the way things are cannot be sustained in a creation where the LORD is paying attention and is active. For example Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech in Montgomery, Alabama on March 25, 1965:
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 79)
How long will the Psalmist continue to cry out to God before God answers? The hope is certainly not long. In the God forsaken place that the Psalmist cries from they know that only the enemy’s triumph and the sleep of death wait for them. They are at the end of the strength and the end of their resources and despair is coldly creeping into their soul, and yet in an act of defiance the call out to their God to act on their behalf, to fulfill God’s promises and to rescue the righteous one from the triumph of the wicked.
The Psalm ends with a note of trust or perhaps, as many commentators believe, the Psalmist has seen God’s answer to their prayer. If the prayer is answered we have no way to know how long elapses between verse four and the final statements in verses five and six. Perhaps they come hours, days, weeks or even years later when the Psalmist now stands in a place where God’s face continues to shine upon them. Yet, perhaps the ending is not a triumphal as a final answer but the whisper of trust into the deafening depression of despair. From my own experiences there can be this type of internal dialogue in that place of hopelessness where one struggles with and for one’s faith. One can boldly cry out to God and call upon God to act in the situation. Even in that space where all one perceives is isolation there can still be that turning back to the foundations of one’s life. I have trusted in you before, your love has not failed in the past, the how long will be not long and even though I may not see it now I can trust that I will indeed sing the songs of the LORD again.
Paris Psalter, folio 136v ‘Reproched de Nathan a David, David penitent
<To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.> O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. 2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. 3 My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O LORD– how long? 4 Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. 5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise? 6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. 7 My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes. 8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. 9 The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer. 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.
We will never know the situation that any particular Psalm is spoken originally from, except perhaps in cases where the Psalm itself gives us clues. Psalm 6 cries out in terms that reflect in turn a sense of alienation from God’s steadfast love, physical ailment or illness, anxiety and depression, and persecution by enemies and it is possible that all of these were afflicting the Psalmist at one particular moment or that the Psalmist may have used language and memory of these experiences to speak to the distress they feel in the moment as they cry out to the LORD. The Psalmist views their life as resting in the LORD’s hands and begins the appeal directly to God, crying out the name of the LORD. The Psalmist appeals for God’s graciousness not for the Psalmists own merit or worthiness but out of God’s hesed (steadfast love). In language that appears frequently through the psalter, the Psalmist speaks of their anguish and asks for God to end it. God’s anger may not be the only struggle of the Psalmist but it is the decisive one, for God’s anger is what the Psalmist is crying out for God to set aside so that they may be healed and their enemies may be put to shame.
The Psalmist cries out ‘how long’ and pleads for God to turn and relieve the poet’s suffering. Whether the poet is literally suffering in their bones (vs. 2) soul (vs. 3) and eyes (vs.7) there is a connection between external stresses and physical symptoms. As Rolf Jacobson aptly states, “anguish can dehumanize a sufferer, so that one’s sense of self is reduced to pain in one’s bones, body skin.” (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 105) Crying out how long while a traditional cry of lament also may indicate that the “pain described is no longer bearable and the speaker is at the breaking point. The intent of the phrase is to mobilize YHWH in a moment of desperate need.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 48) And perhaps if the question how long can be answered the Psalmist can endure until the LORD’s anger has passed.
This is one of the first Psalms we deal with the anger of God in relation to the faithful one, the Psalmist who cries out in lament. God’s anger is a necessary corollary of God’s love or as Jim Nieman, my preaching instructor years ago put it, “God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love, God’s indifference would be the opposite of God’s love.” God’s love is not a sweet sentimentality to the Psalmist or throughout the Bible. God may care for and love me, but God also loves my neighbor and when my actions result in suffering or death to my neighbor then God’s anger arises from that love. Yet God’s steadfast love is always stronger than God’s anger and God’s anger is always connected to that love. (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 107)
The Psalmist trusts that in going to the LORD in lament that the Psalmist words are heard. Faith is far more than an optimistic state of mind for the Hebrew people, it is an active calling upon God to act according to God’s steadfast love precisely from the position of suffering. Even though God’s ways may be unknowable at times and mysterious there is still potent power in crying out to the LORD and that God actively hears and intervenes in their lives and in their world. And from my own experience it is often these times of questioning and suffering and anguish where later we can see the faith of the one who endures and cries out deepened. It is a fuller faith that trusts in a God who is present in the midst of the times of joy and the times of tears. A life which can endure the times where our bed is flooded with tears because we know in God’s mysterious time that God’s steadfast love will show itself and that God’s steadfast love will last longer than the suffering or the anger. That eventually the LORD does hear the sound of the Psalmist, ancient and contemporary, weeping and that the LORD does act upon these pleading words.
One final note on the Psalm in verse 5 where it mentions “for in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” In ancient Israel there is not yet a hope for a resurrection of the dead or anything more than a shadowy existence in the afterlife. Thinking about the resurrection is something that emerges much later and is up for debate at the time of Jesus. In the New Testament this will be a part of the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. At the time the Psalms are written they are written with a very earthly understanding of God’s blessings and God’s anger. God’s steadfast love was a worldly reality that unfolded in the ways God took care of God’s people (or disciplined God’s people) and this may be hard for us to approach in the same way today in a secular world where we no longer think of unseen forces moving on our world but part of the Christian and Jewish understanding of reality is that God does act upon our world. For Christians it becomes a part of the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’