Learning Lament, Part 2

The book of Psalms is a great place to observe and learn Biblical lament. One psalm, in particular, stands out to me as pure lament. Psalm 88 is a fragmented cry of utter agony. It is a pleaful song that even Job, though he could identify, would cringe at the bitter pain displayed in these passages. The agonizing soul torment described in this psalm is so intense that it may very well be, much like Psalm 22, an intimate indication of the torment that caused our Savior's soul to be sorrowful even unto death.

Typically when we study psalms we break them into themed sections which are often indicated by the word, "Selah". But Psalm 88 is difficult to break into parts as it is one large plea of confusion and torment, each passage fractured from the next. The psalmist has been tested to his physical, mental and relational limits. More than that, the limits of his faith have been stretched, yet he still casts his hopeful pleas upon the God Most High.

The specific and lengthy introduction before the psalm gives us more clues to the depth of tone. It is a “Maschil” indicating it is an instructive or didactic psalm. A saint has bravely gone before us cracking wide his tortured soul in order that we might peek in and take lessons from his utter lament. The Sons of Korah were commissioned to set this lament to the tune of “Upon Mahalath Leannoth” which is said to indicate "concerning afflictive sickness," which, as we see in this psalm, was at the very least accompanied by some kind of mental torment.

Though it is the most sorrowful of songs, it is still seen as a triumph. Even in his devastating state, the psalmist is casting his cares to God with the hope he would be heard. This psalmist is expressing pain from relational isolation, physical distress, as well as spiritual and mental torment. Psalm 88 readily extinguishes any argument tempting us to think that the Bible doesn't address mental illness. The author expresses that he feels as though he is enduring God's wrath as a consequence of his sin (vv. 7) while also a prisoner either in a cell, in his mind, to his bedridden body, or some other malady that society called “unclean.” Plainly said, the psalmist is being sifted like wheat with affliction and half-truths on all sides.

Pure Lament is Godly

Of all the Psalms of lament, Psalm 88 is one-of-a-kind. It is the only psalm without a war cry of triumph, or resolute trust in God. The psalmist is believed to be Heman the Ezrahite, an Israelite famous for his wisdom who resided in Egypt under the oppression of Pharaoh before the exodus (1 Kings 4:31; 1 Chronicles 2:6). In these passages, he acknowledges that God is his Savior (Psalm 88: 1, 2) which keeps his soul from utter despair. Yet this belief does not extinguish his misery nor cure his afflictive sickness.

Before we think of the psalmist as faithless, let us remember that faith can be maturely expressed as deep laments of desperation to the heart of our loving Father. The psalmist is incoherent with grief and, though there is little light in the outpouring of his heart, his words are aimed heavenward. Therein is his deep faith expressed. Satan has tricked modern Christians into thinking that, if we are in Christ, we don’t feel (or at the very least show) pangs of distress. This deeply passionate psalm offers a stark correction to that deception.

In the midst of suffering, our culture ads insult to injury by heaping pity or destain upon the laments of the faint-hearted when we should be in awe of the faithful prayers of one being sifted like wheat - whose faith is being stretched beyond what we can see or understand. Whatever faith the faint-hearted possesses, it is not failing in lament.

When circumstances catapult me beyond my measure of faith, I can feel weak, unstable and faint-hearted, dizzily grasping for something - anything - to hold me still and upright. It feels like a storm cloud has descended upon me obscuring my vision with sleet and lightening while shaking my bones with thunder. Disorienting. It would make sense if I chased earthy solutions. It would make sense if I determined that if God is good He wouldn't let me suffer like this. It would make sense if, after decades of affliction, sorrows and losses I might, in the words of Job's wife, "curse God and die" (Job 2:9). But blessed is the soul who cannot see God through the raging storm of suffering yet still lays her desperate pleas before Him. This is evidence of belief that, even still, God is good and trustworthy. It is evidence of belief that this suffering is our loving Father moving the unseen around to create more good. This is walking by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is a miracle of faith worthy of marveling over. This is a rich act of belief not to be watered down or invalidated by platitudes but an invitation to learn the holy practice of lament and join in making our requests known to God. Heman is teaching us, in this psalm, that it is possible to express the fullness of our anguish without questioning God’s love and goodness. Even if one is lamenting over their sin, their laments are ever pure in the eyes of God.

Belief is not Dependent Upon Verbalization

It is absolutely appropriate for a saint to express in one way or another, "I believe God is good and working good but right now everything is not okay and I'm not going to pretend that I am okay with it." However, typically we don't eloquently state our confidence in God as we grieve. We may become able as we process through the trauma, but often those truths lay unspoken underneath our pain, obscured by the shadows of our tears, yet firmly holding up our countenance from utter despair. And that is perfectly okay.

We should not feel guilty for not verbalizing our confidences while lamenting, nor should we be forced to. The intense suffering we experience and witness can be appropriately met with an equally intense amount of grief. It may be difficult to express all that we are feeling and believing in any given moment. God understands. When we go to God with our laments we are declaring in Whom we have confidence. By bringing our laments to the throne of grace we are displaying a measure of hope that we will be heard and delivered by our God of Angel Armies. Just because it isn't spoken doesn't mean you are doubting. Take hold of your guilt-free freedom to lament, no matter how dark or faithless it may seem in the eyes of the culture around you.

Take Breaks in Your Lamenting

Psalm 88 contains two Selahs that seem to break the mold of their regular use. Typically, Selah is a musical pause, an instrumental break in the music that leads us to consider what we’ve just sung or heard. We are encouraged to earnestly consider the passage that precedes it, sit quietly with the passage, chew on every word and then we may continue to the next passage to discover how it is linked.

In this psalm the Selahs are still respites, however, the interludes do not seem to bring enlightenment or encouragement. They are less moments of meditation and more literal resting from the expression of grief. Heman has exhausted himself by calling out day and night to 'Elohiym Yĕshuw`ah (God of my Salvation, v. 1). Mourning comes in waves. I feel so often that the intensity of emotion my soul is capable of producing would have the power to rip my physical body to shreds. We can even find confirmation that this is true as we observe Christ praying so ardently in the garden at the Mount of Olives that his capillaries broke and he began to sweat blood. Our heavenly Father is so gracious to allow us respite from our weeping so that our bodies can rest, and so patient to eagerly wait for us to rouse again and take up our weeping right where we left off.

Why Psalm 88 is One-of-a-kind

Psalm 88 being the only psalm of its kind tells us two things. First, lament without some kind of cheery or happy ending has a place in the human experience. As Christians, we are not expected to always have an encouraging resolution. Sometimes life hurts so thoroughly we cannot see through the thick fog of our suffering. We are human, we don't have God’s perspective and He does not expect us to have perfect perspective - that is for Him alone. We are currently living by faith in what we cannot yet fully envision. He is not disappointed with us when we cannot see, but pleased as we turn to Him when affliction is a shroud over our eyes.

Second, this kind of lament shouldn't overtake the breadth of our prayers. Of the approximately 100 psalms of lament, Psalm 88 alone is of complete and pure lament. Lament over suffering is not only acceptable but a necessary Christian practice. However, if we are perpetually putting up offerings of complaint before God without eventually turning to encourage ourselves with what is true about God, then our laments may very well soon turn to hopeless grievances which can give way to depression, hopelessness, and bitterness. There is a place for Psalm 88 laments, yet the breadth of our laments should remember our hope in the God who saves.

Go ahead, Lament Freely

Take the time you need lamenting your Psalm 88 prayer, my friends. Speak your bleeding hearts honestly and openly to the God of Hosts. Pour it all out - the manifold of your hurt, every open wound, the complete variegation of your distress. Let it pour forth intentionally to Jehovah Rapha - the God who heals - without concern of what others think of your faith. Then, when it is time, and without pressure, begin to remind yourself of who He is, how He loves you, all that he is capable of accomplishing and all His glory He intends to display through you.

Next week in Part 3: Confession in Lament we will explore the role confession plays as suffering reveals our need, lack, and/or unbelief.
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