The Hermeneutics of Lament (Part 2)

Article by   September 2016
The Rule of Faith and Biblical Lament 

Anger. Loss. Rage. The Psalmist expresses each of these in those mysterious Psalms - the Psalms of lament. An increasing number of Christians express frustration that the worship of their churches is too "happy" and "sanitized" - realizing that we need to recover the Psalms in prayer and worship, complete with the anger and grief that these Psalms bring before God. But as soon as the Psalms of lament show up in the service, red flags appear. These prayers cry out in grief, questioning God and even cursing one's enemies. How can these ancient biblical prayers be prayed today? How can we receive the Psalms of lament as Christian Scripture?

In the first post in this series I explored some key hermeneutical issues that arise when we bring biblical studies, theology, and ministry together by reading scripture in light of a trinitarian "rule of faith." In this second post, I consider the more specific question: what does it mean to read the Psalms of lament, in particular, in light of the "rule of faith?" In other words, how can we receive these ancient prayers expressing anger, loss and rage in a way that transforms the hearers into the image of Christ by the power of the Spirit?

Psalm 13 gives a brief but quite typical example of a Psalm of lament. The first two verses invoke God's presence and cry out in complaint:

1How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 

 2How 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? 

The particular terms used in complaint here are significant. The Psalmist cries out, asking whether the Lord will "forget" him and "hide" his face - this is covenantal language. The Psalmist's cries of "pain" and "sorrow" hinge upon the Lord's promises to "remember his covenant forever" (Ps. 105:8), to shine his face upon his covenant people (Num. 6:22-27). Thus, the Psalmist continues with petitions and cries for deliverance:

3Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed"; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 

"Consider." "Answer." "Give." The Psalmist cries to God to deliver him in the midst of his adversity. Indeed, the Psalmist gives a motivating reason for God to act: "or I will sleep the sleep of death;" all rooted in the plea for God to show his mercy and faithfulness.

5But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me. 

The Psalm moves from laments and petitions to a clear expression of trust in God's "steadfast love" and "salvation." The Psalmist anticipates the day when he can rejoice and "sing to the Lord" for his covenant faithfulness and mercy.

Like Psalm 13, other Psalms of lament express grief, loss and anger, but they do not leave it there - they bring this cry before the face of the Lord. These Psalms do not just "vent" before God, they trust the Lord's promises enough to turn them into complaints: how long will the Lord - who remembers his covenant people - "forget" me? After these complaints and petitions, most Psalms of lament openly declare their trust and hope in the Lord. But even Psalms of lament that do not, such as Psalm 88, are saturated with trust: they trust God enough to bring grief and anger before his throne, to offer faithful complaints, trusting in his covenant promise.

Laments such as Psalm 13 are not only poetry, but also prayers: prayers framed broadly enough for Israel to use them as a prayer book, and expansive enough for the New Testament authors to draw upon them again and again. Indeed, after the lament of Psalm 22 (prayed by Christ on the cross), the imprecatory Psalm 69 is the second most quoted Psalm in the New Testament. "Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them," this Psalm declares. Moreover, these imprecations don't appear to be signs of immaturity. Even the martyrs in Revelation cry out these imprecations in the mode of the Psalms: "'How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'" (Rev. 6:10)

So, if we are to receive the Psalms of lament as the New Testament's own authors do, then we need to find a way to embrace and pray these Psalms. How can we do this? Here, we face the question of what it means to read the Bible as Christian scripture, or according to "the rule of faith." As I show in The Word of God for the People of God, in its doctrinal content, the rule of faith reflects the content of the baptismal (Apostles') creed - confessing that we approach scripture and the whole of life as ones who belong to the one God of the Old and New Testaments, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This confession derives from scripture, but in the patristic and medieval eras, it also served as a key conviction brought to the interpretation of scripture. In the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, this practice was not usually termed a "rule of faith," but a functional trinitarian framework was still embraced by the majority of Protestant biblical commentators.

The "rule of faith" provides a general account of how Christians receive God's word in scripture: as adopted children who have been united to Christ, enabled by the Spirit to journey on a road of growing in love of God and neighbor, anticipating the final, blessed communion with the Triune God. Thus, any particular scripture passage should be received, ultimately, as the Spirit's instrument for transforming us into the image of Christ, cultivating the love of God and neighbor, nourishing a people to be a sign and foretaste of Christ's kingdom in the world.

If we approach the Psalms of lament this way, the exegetical problems are not solved. To the contrary, this may be where they begin in earnest. How can the Spirit use Psalm 137, with its calling down of curses upon the Edomites, to conform us to the image of Christ?

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, 
happy is the one who repays you 
according to what you have done to us. 
Happy is the one who seizes your infants 
and dashes them against the rocks.

Moreover, if we are commanded in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus," then how can Christians pray laments which bring anger and even protest to God?

These are real challenges. A functional rule of faith does not "solve" these problems-- it does not dictate the exegetical outcomes for particular verses. This is especially clear when one looks at the wide variety of exegetical conclusions in the history of patristic, medieval, and Reformation-era exegesis, all of which operate within a "rule of faith" framework. The rule of faith, thus, points to the center and boundaries of biblical interpretation.

With that in mind, I would suggest that the rule of faith shapes biblical interpretation of the Psalms of lament, in particular, in three key ways: --the Psalms of lament are to be prayed, individually and communally; --the Psalms of lament are to be interpreted from the standpoint of readers who have been united to Jesus Christ, the suffering servant and the risen Lord; --the Psalms of imprecations are to be prayed as disciples of the Lord Jesus who teaches that we are to bless and not curse our enemies. The rule of faith sets the bar high for how laments should be received, embraced and prayed in the church. Thankfully, within this framework, we have many companions on the journey - from Augustine and Chrysostom to Luther, Calvin and many others. All of these figures share these priorities in interpreting the Psalms of lament.

If we are to recover the Psalms of lament today, we should not just move our grief and outrage from social media into the sanctuary. We need to allow our grief and anger to be reframed - in light of the Psalmist's stubborn hope in God's covenant promises, and on the path of the enemy-love of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything less than this fails to receive the laments as Christian scripture.


Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His most recent book is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. This series is adapted from a plenary lecture delivered to the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Grand Rapids, MI): March 11, 2016.


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