The Way of Beauty Complaining to God with the Psalms

‘More bad news in the world?  How much can we assimilate? What of our own personal difficulties? What next?’ We hear these sentiments from neighbors and from chance conversations.

Although at the close of their nightly programs, news anchors try to report one nugget of good news, should we turn off and tune out the bad news that daily enters our homes?  Well, there is no escaping our world, for it’s the only one we have to save.   

We live in a world of uncertainty, of dependency, of contingency.  If is really a very large and consequential word, linked to contingency. If this happens, then this will or will not happen.  The incontrovertible fact is that we are born into contingency without our having willed it.  Today, a person, who claims to be in touch with reality, cannot escape occasional bouts of feeling uncertain, unsafe, and unnerved. We have to deal with the real.

Complaining to God

In their long, tragic, and friendless history, the Jews have lived in danger with contingency. It’s is a large part of their identity. In the Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye, is a poor Jew eking out a living in czarist Russia.  Toiling in the drudgery of daily annoyances, his eyes turn heavenward and with dripping sarcasm, he questions God’s decision: “I know we’re your Chosen People, but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”  Aren’t his sentiments also ours? 

The Psalms of Lament and Complaint

The theology of the Psalms is one of trust and reliance on God because of the memory of his saving deeds, not merely in Israel’s history, but also in the personal experience of the individual Israelite—and by extension of you and me.

The 150 psalms are lyric poetry, analyzed according to situations in life.  A few points should be made about the psalms.

1. They are prayers to God, not prayers about God
2. The 150 psalms are also referred to as the Psalter (from Gr: psalterio = string instrument used for accompanying these songs)
3. The psalms constitute the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.  They are personal and communal, extending to all dimensions of life.  
4. The psalms are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  They are an essential element of the prayer of the Church. 
5. The psalms are relevant in every condition and time.
The psalms use the structure of parallelism, that is, the second part of a verse rephrases what the first part has expressed:

Psalm 17: “I call upon you; answer me, O God
Turn your ear to me; hear my prayer”

Psalm 47: “All you peoples, clap your hands;
Shout to God with cries of gladness.”

Parallelism is the key to appreciating the conviction of the Psalmist in creative repetition.

There are more psalms of lament and complaint than of any other psalm-type.  The life-setting or the human condition is betrayed by the complaint itself. The prayer acknowledges what the Johannine verse declares outright:  “Lord, to whom shall we go; you have the words of eternal life” (6:67).  First, the community laments, and the individual laments.  Second, the appeal to God is for help, to win God’s sympathy by describing the nature of the complaint—sickness, danger of death, sin, old age, and especially enemies. Descriptions may be interrupted by repeated requests, pleading for God’s intervention–his justice and fidelity.  Psalms about being unjustly accused of false charges or of being unjustly treated are part of the complaint psalms. 

The collective psalm finds its life-setting in a national calamity, such as defeat in battle.  The structure is similar to that of an individual lament: cry for help, description of distress and request, and the motifs for God’s intervention.  Some of these psalms are:  Psalms 3, 4, 7, 10, 13, 69 and many others—46, 73, 78, 79, 82, 88, 105, 136. 

Psalm 3
2 How many are my foes, LORD! How many rise against me!
3 How many say of me, “God will not save that one.” 
4 But you, LORD, are a shield around me; my glory, you keep my head high.
5 Whenever I cried out to the LORD, I was answered from the holy mountain. 

Psalm 5 
2 Hear my words, O LORD; listen to my sighing.
3 Hear my cry for help, my king, my God! To you I pray, O LORD;
4 At dawn you will hear my cry; at dawn I will plead before you and wait.
5 You are not a god who delights in evil; no wicked person finds refuge with you;
Psalm 7 
2 LORD my God, in you I take refuge; rescue me; save me from all who pursue me,
3 Lest they maul me like lions, tear me to pieces with none to save.
Psalm 10 
1 Why, LORD, do you stand at a distance and pay no heed to these troubled times?
2 Arrogant scoundrels pursue the poor; they trap them by their cunning schemes.
12 Rise up, LORD God! Raise your arm! Do not forget the poor!
13 Why should the wicked scorn God, say in their hearts, “God doesn't care?”

Psalm 13 
2 How long, LORD? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me?
3 How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
4 Look upon me, answer me, LORD, my God! Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death,
5 Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed,” lest my foes rejoice at my downfall.
6 I trust in your faithfulness. Grant my heart joy in your help, that I may sing of the LORD,
7 “How good our God has been to me!”

More in The Way of Beauty

Psalm 69   
2 Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck.
3 I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. I have gone down to the water depths; the flood overwhelms me.
4 I am weary with crying out; my throat is parched.
5 My eyes have failed, looking for my God.

Psalm 102
1 O Lord, listen to my prayer
2 and let my cry for help reach you.
3 Do not hide from me
4 in the day of my distress.
5 Turn your ear towards me
6 and answer me quickly when I call.

To Whom Shall We Go?

In times of trouble, the psalms of complaint bring a consolation unique in all religious poetry.  Of course, the other psalms contain sentiments of soaring praise and thanksgiving, a treasury to be sure.  It must be said however, that we humans are prone to complain. Thus, praying these psalms will put us in our place where we belong—in the strong and protective arms of God. There, without airs and without contingency, we can weep and whine, kick and scream to our hearts’ content.

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