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Talk: Praying the Psalms - Canon Dr Hazel Whitehead

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Hazel Whitehead
Thursday 18th February 2016
Lent Series 2016
Download Recording (MP3, 47.3M) Download

Cathedral Lent Talk February 2016 'Telling it like it is: Psalms of Protest, Lament and Complaint

5 ways of interpreting Psalms

I want to begin with a brief resume of the 5 ways in which the Psalms have been interpreted throughout the history of biblical criticism; because, despite the various titles and attributions given to some psalms, we cannot reliably establish when a psalm was composed or who wrote it. Although there are similarities between some types of psalm, they are different from any other book of Scripture; they stand alone – unlike, say, an epistle or a work of prophecy which has a context.

So here are the 5 ways – roughly in chronological order. And note that they are not mutually exclusive – there may be many motives for writing a psalm.

The first explanation for the presence of psalms is that individual people wrote them for their own benefit by describing their own circumstances. After all, many of them begin with the first person 'I'. Imagine Nelson Mandela in prison alone. The assumption is that they were gathered together and became part of the literature of the people.

Closely connected, and a development of that theory is the idea that, although it might sound like a personal psalm, in fact the person is writing on behalf of the whole community all along and expressing representative emotions – even when it begins with 'I'. Think of the Princess Diana aftermath.

Thirdly, is the thought that the psalms were written for formal, liturgical purposes and particularly for annual festivals and royal celebrations. The psalmists, then, were gifted, professional poets, and part of the royal Jerusalem cult. A bit like being the Precentor at Westminster Abbey perhaps.

Connected to this is the fourth idea – which is that psalms are about worship but that they belong much more to individual, private or local worship – not just for special occasions but for all year round, and not necessarily written by professional worship leaders. Think of a home group or a parish.

And then finally – the way which is most favoured by current scholars - that psalmists are poets of life, expressing prayerful reflection on the life which they and their friends and families experience. This means that any psalm can be appropriated for any number of life settings even though the detail and the original context was different.

Other commentators have divided them into other groups – like psalms attributed to David, to Asaph or to Korah; or psalms in which God is called Elohim instead of Yahweh; or psalms with a very royal, kingly connection. Of course, it's not always helpful to overanalyse or over-classify and there aren't water tight boundaries but that gives us a bit of background as we begin these 5 weeks of Lent talks.

The popularity of Psalms today

What we do know is that the psalms hold a special place in the hearts of many Christians – let alone Jews. When I was a Bishop’s Adviser, helping to discern the way forward for potential ordinands, I would often ask candidates to name two desert-island books from Scripture that they would die for – one from the New Testament – and one from the Old. There wasn't a right or wrong answer but their choices could lead to interesting discussions. People chose a variety of New Testament texts but about 9/10 of them chose Psalms as their book from the Hebrew Scriptures.

And the reason?

  • because all of life is here.
  • because they relate both to individuals and to communities.
  • because all emotions, feelings and thoughts – for good or ill – are to be found expressed in the Psalms.
  • because you can be yourself, without pretence.

And all that is true.

Real Life

For most of us, human life comprises a variety of experiences, moods and emotions. We have satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing, moments of joyful surprise when we are overwhelmed by God's new gifts – the birth of a child, a new friendship, a family celebration.

But there are also seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death; and, in a sense, without those darker moments, perhaps we wouldn't appreciate those red letter days quite as much.

The seasons of joy and thanksgiving, as well as the seasons of hurt or suffering often occur during transitional moments in life (whether that's as an individual or as a group) – as we move from one stage to another – from a settled place to an unsettled place– and then from that time of unsettledness to a new settled place. Birth, marriage, coming of age, leaving home, being sent into exile, being allowed home again . . . are such times of transition which affect us as individuals and families, and as communities.

The psalms span long periods of the history of Israel so plenty of happy and sad occasions arise. They aren't all the product of David's pen – whatever it says in your Bible. Some are written before the Exile, some during captivity in Babylon, and some on the return to Jerusalem. They cover, if not the whole spectrum of Israel’s story, certainly much of it. And they are written by real people whose life has elements of joy and sorrow and whose life of faith can bring forth cadences of home and memories of better times.

Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation and New Orientation

Walter Bruggemann, a biblical scholar, categorises psalms in three ways (though, of course, there are fuzzy boundaries). He speaks of Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation and Psalms of New Orientation. (And these overlay and overlap with the 5 ways I introduced at the beginning.)

In fact, he describes the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures in a similar way. He tells us of the Testimony of Israel which is what the Hebrew people believe. In a nutshell, God is good, God created the world and loves it and we are the chosen people. And yet, says Brueggemann, if you read Scripture openly and without blinkers, there is also a Counter Testimony which says – 'Hang on a minute! That may be the rhetoric, handed on from generation to generation – but it doesn't look like that from where I'm standing. We are in exile, the crops have failed, the enemy has come upon us. Where is Yahweh in all of that? Is Yahweh quite as powerful as we thought?'

And then – after the Counter Testimony, comes a new, positive approach to the original Testimony, as Israel thinks again and re-engages with Yahweh anew.

The Psalms of Orientation, which I mention only in passing, are the songs of creation, of Torah, wisdom, thanksgiving, worship and well being. They say - 'This is the heart of our faith, this is what gives us our identity and our self-esteem. Celebrate with us.' All well and good.

But the problem with endless praise and thanksgiving, shouts of acclamation and celebration (and this is true of Christian communities as well as the Hebrew people) is that it does not reflect what the whole of life is like. It does not allow for the genuine animal cries of pain and desperation. It does not let you even think about swearing and cursing – let alone do it - lest God be offended. It does not acknowledge that there are times in any community's life when nobody wants to party.

Psalms of Distress

Which is why, alongside the psalms or orientation i.e. psalms of praise and thanksgiving, we find (especially in the first half) – psalms of complaint, lament, distress – which give us eloquent and graphic descriptions of what it feels like; and it is these psalms that we are focussing on tonight.

The writers feel besieged, constricted, burdened, bogged down, submerged and drowning. They are frequently helpless and occasionally hopeless. Surrounded by enemies, suffering physically, punished by God, they cry out to him for relief and deliverance.

(Interpreting the Psalms, Philip S Johnston. P63 IVP 2005)

We can all identify with that – to some degree.

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; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd ...
and so on.

Ps 22.14ff

It's pretty graphic stuff and we are shown many examples of personal suffering – whether physical, emotional, spiritual or mental. The writer lacks self-worth, expects death any minute and is ill at ease. (Sounds like a Christmas episode of East Enders). We aren't always given the reason why there is such distress but a variety of people are given the blame. The suffering might be self-inflicted or due to human sinfulness; it might be imposed by the enemy or the nations, or be a result of Yahweh's anger or failure to act.

You have made us like sheep for the slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations. You have sold your people for a trifle ... you have made us a taunt for our neighbours, the derision and scorn of those around us ...

Ps 44.11ff

And who is the enemy - for there are plenty of them! ? Well they are rarely named but they are numerous, aggressive, armed, good at setting traps, like wild animals, they bear false witness, sometimes pretend to be friends, and are genuinely godless. This is not just a tiff about a place in the supermarket queue. In addition, the natural world – which is God's creation and should be a delight and joy – can be a source of danger: drought, famine, earthquake, fire, floods, locusts – all conspire against us.

These are the Psalms of Disorientation – the ones that 'tell it like it is', the lament, the complaint which says – I know what everybody says but just look at me. Here we find gutsy honesty, and a seductive vulnerability demonstrated in the expression of the rawness of life.


What if we could be that honest with ourselves and with God? Maybe you are - but you may think that when we talk to God, we have to put on a brave face, pretend to be more confident than we are, or only use polite language for fear of offending or upsetting God – as though God were like a maiden aunt visiting for Christmas. The reality is that we have so much more to say beyond the polite conversational openers; and the reality is that, if our relationship with God is authentic and meaningful, there is no point being on our best behaviour. God will not be fooled.

And Brueggeman, once again:

The psalms of negativity, the complaints of various kinds, the cries for vengeance and profound penitence are foundational to a life of faith in this particular God. Much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness. As children of the Enlightenment, we have censored and selected around the voice of darkness and disorientation, seeking to go from strength to strength, from victory to victory. But such a way not only ignores the Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience.

(Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg, 1984:11)

But is the whole notion of disorientation not a failure of faith and confidence in Yahweh?

Far from it – because reading or writing these psalms of lament and darkness is an act of faith in itself – for, with very few exceptions, the Psalmist always addresses Yahweh. Israel always recognises Yahweh's presence within and beyond the darkness. So even psalms of distress are the articulation of faith amid dislocation when the promises and guarantees seem to have failed. They may be disturbing and unsettled utterances, but they are not faithless ones.

And, in addition, these psalms teach us about faith because they remind us

  • that there are no no-go areas in a faithful relationship
  • that feelings are allowed to be expressed
  • that thoughts are allowed to be vocalised
  • and that we (Israel or Christians) are not in control of the world

These psalms, says Bruggemann '. . . cause us to think unthinkable thoughts and utter unutterable words.' (p53)

But what they also show is that the psalmist wants to be hopeulf and nearly always looks for things to improve, change and develop. He expects that things will get better – so a psalm rarely ends on a downbeat note (but we will look at one in a moment.)

What form do these psalms take?

Well, psalms are not like sonnets or limericks, which have a very set form, but they have enough of a structure to give the reader a sense of familiarity and to comfort them that they have been here before.

A psalm of complaint normally starts with a plea, a petition – asking God to address a situation which is wrong. They might include some of these factors:

  • Yahweh is addressed – as a friend rather than a stranger.
  • The psalmist tells Yahweh how desperate the situation is – in no uncertain terms – and holds Yahweh to account for it.
  • Yahweh is asked to act decisively – sometimes with an explanation of why Yahweh should act – bargaining, bribing, an expression of innocence or guilt.
  • Justice and mercy are cited and Yahweh is reminded of the great relationship they have had in the past.
  • And then sometimes an imprecation is added – vengeance is required, or there will be resentment until it is dealt with.

Sometimes, this is the end of the psalm and we are all left in limbo with no conclusion and no change of heart.

I said we would look at one example and here it is:

Psalm 88

The first 9 verses we might describe as a rant. Death has come, Yahweh is to blame, very strong verbs are used – graves, the Pit, forsaken, dark and deep regions, lies heavy, overwhelms – you get depressed just hearing those words.

This is followed by – you guessed it – another series of rhetorical questions relating to death, graves, shades, abandonment, darkness, and the land of forgetfulness. Basically, Psalm 88 has 18 verses of despair, ending with these verses

13 But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O L
ORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.[
16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.

Hardly a happy ever after ending, is it?

But at other times, having got it all off his chest, the Psalmist is able to move on in a more positive frame of mind and express hopeful confidence. He reminds himself that he has been heard, he remembers the past and knows that Yahweh will act again. Perhaps it is the very act of honest speaking which enables a different perspective to be formed – and we'll look at one like that in a moment once we have recapped.

Recap so far

We have looked at 5 ways of interpreting psalms, wondered about their popularity, said that they express real life, that they are products of the community of faith, that there are periods of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. We have asked whether being honest is a failure of faith and thought not and we have looked at the form of the psalm and at one example of a desperate ending.

Other examples

Now let's turn our attention to one or two more hopeful examples. The first, Psalm 77, is more of a personal lament – or is it? The jury is still out.

Personal and Communal Lament: Psalm 77

The first half of Psalm 77 is a personal cry of despair (v 1 – 9) but seems to have more of a communal interest from v 10 onwards. It breaks very neatly into two halves with the pivotal point being the gap at the end of v 9. Psalm writers occasionally employed this see-saw device with a pivot in the middle.

The first 4 verses give us a clear idea:

1 I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.
4 You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

We are not sure what the trouble is – whether it is sickness, despair, conflict as there is no mention of an enemy or a particular crime . . . but verses 1 – 4 are pretty clear cut: 'I cry aloud, I seek the Lord, my hand is stretched out, my souls refuses to be comforted, I think of God and I moan, I meditate and my spirit faints. I am so troubled that I cannot speak'

It's, to say the least, a bad hair day. But note that in the first three verses God is He but in verse 4 God is You – here is the direct petition. And then we have the shift of thought – looking back and remembering:

5 I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:

Verses 5 - 6 can be read in two ways: despite my desperation, I look back to the good times; or I look back and why can't it be like that now? But the remembering has begun – and this is crucial in psalms of lament – a reminder of a time when we were able to sing the psalms of orientation, when we were not disoriented, when Yahweh acted and was present. The past, our history, our Testimony – is what will keep us going again. And then the questions – but not directed in the 2nd person to Yahweh which would sound like an accusation but in the 3rd person which make them more of a narrative.

7 “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

Verses 7 – 9 is where the psalmist asks himself whether he can ever recapture what it used to be like – steadfast love, graciousness, compassion – all good orientation words - or whether this is it forever? And then the text tells us there is a pause.

The culmination is in v 10 - where the Hebrew text is in dispute incidentally. The real grief – is that Yahweh is not here. The right hand – symbol of strength and victory – is no longer visible or active. Has Yahweh changed? This is the real matter of desperation.

10 And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

vv 11 – 20 Unusually, there isn't then a petition but a resolve to think back again over the good old times. The past is woven into the present as the deeds of the Exodus are remembered - especially deliverance from bondage. And the rehearsing of those deeds forms the plea for their renewal. The verbs build on each other – call to mind, remember, meditate, muse …

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.

Note, too, the shift again between 2nd and 3rd person 'I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord. I will remember your wondrous works of old.' The psalmist is now in a position to be able to address God directly

The second half of the psalm is the hymn of praise full of words reminiscent of creation and nature – reorientation. Verses 13 – 20 recount what Yahweh has done and what Yahweh is like. Holiness becomes the key attribute i.e. Yahweh is all that is not human.

13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Resolution is found because the psalmist has

  • brought Yahweh into the conversation personally,
  • remembered the past,
  • recited salvation history.
  • Recognised Yahweh's continual presence: 'Your footprints were invisible' – sub-text - but you must have been there.

Some think that the psalm may have lost its ending – but this is a moving ending nonetheless. The silent entreaty is that, as you were in the past, we know you will be again. As we trusted and knew you in the past, we believe that we will again.

A Communal Lament: Psalm 137

If psalm 77 is partly personal, partly communal, there is no doubt that Psalm 137 is the cry of the whole people of Israel - either in exile in Babylon after the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE, or having recently returned from exile, sitting back in the rubble and remembering what it was like to be in exile. It is one of very few psalms which contain an explicit historical reference point. Jerusalem, as a real place was crucial for Israel's identity – no other place could be the same, they thought. So if ever there was a time of disorientation, it is this, and it is not short-lived.

v 1 – 4 sets the scene of captivity. The speaker may have been with them or maybe reflecting a corporate memory. The Babylonian plain is very different from Judah and this is described, with its riverside trees. Here, the exiles kept their relationship with Jerusalem alive perhaps through communal laments. Perhaps this is the forced singing of religious songs? (cf Treblinka) Or is it a suggestion that the songs can be sung anywhere – unthinkable to a good Jew for whom it was impossible to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign and barbaric city. The aim is to demonstrate just how faithful the people were even in the face of great adversity. (counter-testimony)

1 By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows[
a] there we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the L
ORD’s song in a foreign land

 v 5 – 6 resolve that the memory will last; life is not controlled by Babylon even though the temple is dust because memory is strong and meaningful and identity is also in the remembering.

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

v 7 – 9 The vow of loyalty out of the way, the writer feels he has permission to make a petition. The climax is reached with the call for judgement on Jerusalem's murderers – the treacherous Edomites (who should have been allies but supported the enemy) as well as the ruthless Babylonian conquerors. Vengeance is left to Yahweh but the writer clearly hopes it will come, and he is certainly entrusting his deepest and darkest thoughts as he hopes that the children will be killed. This is not just a personal hate campaign but a zealous desire to show Yahweh as the Lord and to stop the alien community from reproducing. And, incidentally, all these laments are not just an expression of self-pity but the voice of a community struggling to work out and understand the sovereignty of Yahweh.

7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator![
b] Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

So, we have spoken of psalms of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. We have spoken of Israel's testimony and of Israel's own counter-testimony (all found within its own Scripture). In some ways, it is a witness – both by the Hebrew people and by Christians – to stand firm and say, whatever befalls, however awful life is, though your children have been eaten by lions, your house flooded, your husband killed in Afghanistan, your planet be heading for self-destruction – despite all that, we the people of faith know another story and will shout it from the rooftops in a counter-cultural kind of way, reminding ourselves and everybody else around us that God is and God will prevail.

In that these psalms of despair, lament and complaint attest to the presence of faith, they tell us that faith sometimes means staying in the mess, not retreating to an old orientation that is gone, nor charging ahead to some imagined resolution that rushes ahead of the slow, tortuous pace of reality. Of course, it's great when the Psalmist – or we in our day – can move from lament to praise, or from despair to hope but 'There is not for every personal crisis of disorientation a way out if only we can press the right button.' says our friend, Brueggemann, and he shall have the last word.


Other intriguing topics in the next 4 weeks


Brueggemann, Walter The Message of the Psalms Augsburg Press Minneapolis1984
Eaton, John The Psalms T&T Clark, Edinburgh 2003
Futato, Mark Interpreting the Psalms Kregel Press, Grand Rapids 2007
Gillingham S.E. The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible OUP Oxford 1994
Johnston, Philip S. ed. Interpreting the Psalms IVP Leicester 2005

3,4,5,7,10,17,22,25,26,28,31,39,42,43,54,55,56,57,59,61,64,69,70,71,77,120,140,141,142 - and seven penitiential psalms 6,32,38,51,102,130,143