Lament 1: Yet will I hope

Posted on January 21, 2009

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Pastors complain about songwriters; it was no doubt ever thus. Somehow, no-one has ever quite written the perfect song to conclude your brilliant sermon, or to express (your sense of) the collective mood of your people as they gather together. One of the standard complaints in recent years is the lack of songs of ‘lament’. This, it seems to me, bears some reflection – enough that I want to spread it over at least a couple of posts.

Three immediate questions occur to me: what is ‘lament’? Should it be sung? Does the coming of Christ make any difference to its reality?

Ever since Gunkel and Mowinkel, ‘Lament’ has been one of the standard recognised forms of the Psalter. That said, the psalms of lament are not, straightforwardly, ‘laments’ in what I would regard as the normal English sense of the term. The OED offers us two meanings for lament (n): ‘a passionate or demonstrative expression of grief’ and ‘a conventional form of mourning’. The Bible knows laments in this sense – ‘a voice heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children’ – but the psalms of lament are not merely expressions of regret or great sorrow – all (bar Psalm 88 ) end in celebration and/or triumph, although they begin in complaint.

Some recent scholarship has found varying voices in the psalms of lament: the complainer is met with a communal or priestly response re-affirming the faith of the community in God’s goodness and justice. This strikes me as an important idea: whether we accept the idea of multiple voices within a cultic setting, or see a more ‘poetic’ idea of an internal debate within the mind/heart/spirit of the particular psalmist, all the psalms of lament seem to contain this urgent dialogue, reflecting the present disjunction between lived faith and confessed faith, and the existential struggle that arises from this disjunction.

(An example of this, drawn from Mandolfo’s God in the Dock: Dialogic Tension in the Psalms of Lament (JSOTS 357): consider Psalm 7; vv. 1-7 (Eng. numbering) are clearly lament – complaint, voiced by the Psalmist to God. v. 8a, though, is a change of voice; rather than the deeply personal pleas addressed to God that have come before, this is an affirmation of the truth of who God is: ‘YHWH judges the peoples’. In response to this confession, the pleas resume in v. 8b: ‘Judge me, YHWH, according to my righteousness…’ Mandolfo suggests the same happens in 9b, which she translates as ‘The one who tests the thoughts and emotions is a just god [sic]’ (i.e., as indicative, rather than vocative, with the NRSV, NIV [which inverts the verse], &c.), and again in v. 11-16: ‘God is a just judge, &c.’ Finally, in v.17, the psalmist is convinced, and responds with praise over God’s righteousness.)

If we are to sing songs of lament, then, that adequately reflect the psalms of lament, they will be songs which express a similarly dialogical process, acknowledging both the pressing questions of lived experience, and the confident affirmations of faith – and acknowledging that both deserve to be taken seriously. This seems a difficult task for a song – much more the common stuff of sermons. (This difficulty is, I think, what leads to Mandolfo suggesting multiple voices, at least in the cultic use of the psalms; the psalm of lament becomes a piece of cultic theatre, illustrating or modeling the way the faith of Israel may resolve doubts.) So, should we sing laments? Next time…

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