4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 19, 2016
Psalm 69: 1-16 and verses 30-36
This is a perfect week for talking about Psalms of Lament, often called Psalms of Complaint.
In a world that seems to have gone totally off the rails, who can you turn to? The poems and prayers of God’s people are not fragile, and they do not tiptoe around the realities of life. They call on God in times of joy to put their gratitude in the proper place, but when things go wrong, they cry out as well, telling God at the top of their lungs that this is not what God has promised to God’s faithful people. There is a powerful strain of theology in the Hebrew Bible that expects that if God’s people keep their part of the Covenant – we will follow God’s law and God will bless us – that everything will run smoothly in your life and only good things will happen to you. So when you’ve been good and things still go wrong, God’s got to fix it.
There’s a structure to Psalms of Lament: They always start with a cry! “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck!” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” Then the psalmist goes on to suggest the reason for the crisis. Some of the reasons are clear – illness, oppression by an enemy, false accusation. Sometimes the cause of the crisis isn’t very clear, merely suggested. Even though these are called psalms of complaint or psalms of lament, they are really prayers. They are directed straight to God, the only source of help and hope for someone who feels completely helpless. When you read these psalms, it’s easy to forget that they are not only private calls for help, but are prayers and hymns that have been used in communities, and as part of worship.
But even though they are not private, they are certainly personal. These psalms in the midst of a world gone crazy are mirror images of the psalms of praise we heard about last week. In the same way that God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, stoops down to the plight of the man on the dung heap and the childless woman, so the psalmist cries to MY God, my king, my rock. Here the psalmist cries, “O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.” God knows me so well that I can claim my place in God’s scheme of the world, and expect that God will rescue me. “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.”
In this psalm it’s hard to tell what the problem actually is. It seems that the psalmist has been falsely accused of theft. There are also strong references to his being persecuted because of his devotion to God and especially to God’s temple. One commentator has suggested that the writer might be Jeremiah, the prophet, who was persecuted for his devotion to God’s house, alienated from friends and family because of his call to serve God, and literally thrown into ‘deep mire’ at the bottom of a cistern.
If God is the primary audience for a Lament or prayer for help, the human community is it’s secondary audience. As these prayers are read in community they encourage the faith of those who pray them. And they are there for us to read in desperation, to cry aloud when we don’t have our own words.
Every Psalm of Lament turns finally to God in trust: “at an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.” “Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy turn to me.” And later, in verse 30: “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving…for the LORD hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.” The turn to trust doesn’t mean that the situation has actually changed, but rather that the victim knows the God to whom he cries, the God who is merciful and loving. So in the midst of the worst disaster, the reason to cry to God is clear, God has the power to help and God has proven a helper in the past.
And then the psalmist promises to sing God’s praise: “Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah.” The promise to praise God is understood first and foremost as a testimony to the world and one’s own community what God can do and has done. Promising to praise when you are delivered is not bargaining with God, so much as testifying in the midst of trouble that God is faithful and will never abandon God’s people. The promise to praise is a commitment to never forget that when you cried for help, God answered.
Psalms of Lament or Complaint are both for individuals (Psalm 6, 13), as this one is, and also for the whole community (Psalm 44 or 82). Cries for help from individuals are by far the most common.
Those who tell us the story of Jesus make reference to this psalm as they observe some of the things that Jesus said and did, especially the Gospel of John. When Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple in chapter 2, the disciples remember words from verse 9, “zeal for your house will consume me.” Talking about the hatred his disciples will experience as they go out into the world, in John 15, Jesus quotes verse 4, “they hated me without cause.” John even understands Jesus saying, “I am thirsty,” as a fulfillment of verse 21. In Acts, the account of the death of Judas is understood as a fulfillment of verse 25. This Psalm also shows up in Paul’s writing in the book of Romans. So it seems as if the early Christians saw the events running from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the cross and beyond as being related to this Psalm.
The amazing thing to me about Psalms is that they represent the entire span of human experience offered to God in the midst of community. So in psalms like this it’s not unusual to hear curses and imprecations directed at the enemies who are assaulting the faithful one who prays. If you look further in the psalm you hear the writer ask that God will blot out his accusers and enemies from the land of the living, their eyes be darkened, and God’s burning anger overtake them. One psalm even envisions bashing the teeth of the children of one’s enemies. Not for the faint of heart.
Barbara Green (Like a Tree Planted; An Exploration of Psalms and Parables through Metaphor) writes that the Psalms are like an unruly crowd accompanying us on our journey in a noisy welter, thrusting at us many things that we have the opportunity to consider as we go. What they have to say does not need to be protected from our rough and fearful handling of them.
So this week, when we are confronted with another mass murder, practically on the anniversary of last year’s shooting of faithful Christians at Bible Study, we can say with the psalmist, “Do not let the flood sweep over us, or the deep swallow us up, or the Pit close its mouth over us. Answer us, O God, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to us. Do not hide your face from your servants, for we are in distress – make haste to answer us.” Amen.