Someone has referred to the Psalms as the songs and sighs of the saints. Of the 150 Psalms in the Psalter, David composed approximately half – 74. Over time they were collected and bound into individual books to be used as Israel’s hymnal, complete with musical notations. The Psalter became Israel’s voice to God in all generations and was memorized by almost every Jew through daily singing. But the Psalms take on their greatest value when we consider that David’s voice taught our Lord Jesus how to pray. In the Psalms the Lord found words to articulate His deepest emotions during His darkest hour: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? 22:1…Into Your hand I commit my spirit – 31:5…He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken” – 34:2.
So it should be no surprise to us that the most quoted text in the NT comes from Psalm 110, one of David’s psalms. The psalms became so treasured by the church that several complete renditions were composed for congregational singing. We should not underestimate their importance for worship, even today. Sadly today, the majority of psalms are neglected – few are sung in entirety. Many of the well-known phrases that we do sing have been taken out of their broader context, so their original force is diminished. This neglect prevents us from seeing the dynamic movement within the individual psalm. The revival of praise music in our generation has rightly caught the ultimate destination of worship – but has missed the journey. Singing praise is wonderful for the soul…but when the verses are removed from their larger context and merely repeated to gain emotional force, the once powerful images will melt into empty clichés.
The Psalms are dynamic, they move! A careful look at David’s psalms and the shape of the Psalter as a whole reveals that praise is the ultimate destination. But David does not begin with praise. What shapes his voice is not praise but pain, not communion but abandonment, not intimacy but isolation, not love but betrayal. When reading the psalms we must take care to notice that lament preceded praise. When David’s psalms were later compiled, the editors took great care to preserve this order. Before Israel was taught to sing praise, she was taught how to weep: Psalms 3-7. In fact, the only psalm that interrupts David’s journey in the books of Samuel is his lament over the death of his best friend, Jonathan…2Samuel 1:17-27. “Then David chanted with this lament over Saul and Jonathan his son, and he told them to teach the sons of Judah the song of the bow behold, it is written in the book of Jashar.”
Your beauty, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How have the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult.
O mountains of Gilboa, let not dew or rain be on you, nor fields of offerings;
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty,
The bow of Jonathan did not turn back, and the sword of Saul did not return empty.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and pleasant in their life,
And in their death they were not parted;
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet,
Who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan is slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
You have been very pleasant to me.
Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women
How have the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
Teach the sons of Judah the song of the ‘bow’ – ‘the painful realities of life.‘ This would be like our incorporating into our discipleship and SS curriculum a study of grief, pain, and the adversities of life. Why does David begin with lament? Because that was his experience and not at times unlike our own.
The prophet Samuel anointed David at an early age in the presence of his family. The pouring of oil over his head symbolised his consecration to God and created a strong sense of destiny in his soul. The prophet’s word bound God to this young man. Yet for almost 10 years there was surprising little evidence to support this. David was forced by a demonic king to leave his home, forsake his wife and family, and live as a fugitive in the caves of the Judean wilderness. Life seemed so contrary to the promises of God that it raised all kinds of tension in David’s soul.
We become disoriented when reality is in constant tension
with the promises of God.
When the old categories no longer function, we tend to feel displaced, dismayed, distraught, and at times betrayed. C.S. Lewis describes this feeling of disorientation in his book – ‘A Grief Observed’. Documenting his emotions following the death of his wife, he captured his surprise with the phrase: ‘No one ever told me… that grief felt so like fear…and no one ever told me about the laziness of grief, I loathe the slightest effort.’ Attempting to cope with her death he said…‘her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.’ When we face similar times of disorientation we tend to respond in a few predictable ways. For some, challenging the old way of thinking is not an option. So they live in denial and continue to worship as if there were no tension. This is how some were raised. Others make mention of the pain, but quickly move to praise. Quoting Romans 8:28, they refuse to embrace the pain. And then there those who cannot harmonize the competing tunes playing in their head, so when they can’t hold it in any longer they finally find the courage to voice their disillusionment – but often such honesty is reserved for the safe friend or the counsellor’s office, it is seldom expressed publicly in worship!
For David, such an approach was unthinkable. GOD was bound to him because of His promise…“I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee.” (Psalm 2:7) He could count on that loyal love to drive his destiny on earth. Therefore, he had no problem freely confronting God when life seemed contrary to God’s promises. This is what initiates lament in Israel. David’s prayers are more passionate and insistent because of the tension and injustice he felt. God’s loyal-love gave him the absolute freedom to voice his feelings of dismay, doubt, anger, and even betrayal. He cried out because things did not have to stay that way. It was the Lord Himself who taught us to pray…‘Your will be done on earth, as it is.’
Probably the most important aspect of prayer in the Psalms is that they all
begin through the gateway of honesty.
If we are not willing to go through that gateway, we will not grow in our prayers. Someone has said…”Where the cry is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history is not initiated.” The psalms of lament have a definite flow or shape, which suggests that grief needs form and structure to be properly embraced. When we are drowning in sorrow we need structure to reorient ourselves in the chaos and bring new definition to the situation. Most often lament psalms begin with a very personal address to God – ‘You.’ No majestic titles or protocol. This reveals not only a sense of urgency but speaks of a God who is extremely personal, one whom David knew well. Then comes the lament proper, here he carefully details and recounts his pain. Nothing is held back – warts and all are poured out before the Lord. Once he has fully spent his sorrow – he then makes his specific plea for deliverance. Because of the gravity of the situation, these are short and to the point. Sometimes the plea is linked with a vow. When David makes a vow following his petition, it is his commitment to publicly acknowledge God’s deliverance before His people in the context of worship. Thus a psalm of thanksgiving and praise would follow one of lament. Failure to publicly acknowledge the saving act of God was considered a sin. Then we come to what is called the: confidence section of the lament. Once David pours out his heart in agonising desperation before the LORD, sometimes there is an abrupt change in mood from desperation to relief. So radical and profound is the change that it appears he has been transported to an entirely different place and time. This is instructive:
The mere act of spending our grief in full measure before the LORD can sometimes take us to that mysterious place, where we taste the sweetness of the future while still living in the painful present.
May you come find your voice in the Psalms and the sweet relief of laying it all out before the One who knows.