What is lament?

What is lament?

I’m good at cynicism.  I’m also good at escapism.  Oddly, I’m also good at triumphalism.

I’m not good at lament.

In the wisdom literature of ancient Israel’s Scriptures, authors boasted of the limitless might and shrewdness of Israel’s God:

“Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him.  For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.  The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.”

Yet, curiously, alongside this boast was lament–a lot of it.  Somewhere between a fourth and a third of Israel’s 150 “psalms” could be called psalms of “lament” or “complaint.”  Listen.  David, Israel’s most famous king, writes,

“I am worn out from my groaning.  All night I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6.6).

This psalm is “For the director of worship.”  David wrote it for Israel to sing.  The same is true of this more famous psalm (Psalm 22):

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”

There is no embarrassment here.  Nor is Israel’s king aware of any “contradiction” between God’s goodness and David’s circumstances.  Rather, he is recounting the cost of evil to a faithful Creator.  That’s lament.

Let me “unpack” that statement backwards—i.e., starting at the end.

1. Lament speaks to a Creator: Lament is more than the vocalization of grief; it is the communication of that grief to Someone. In Lamentations the speaker is confident of both a human and divine audience. This divine audience is Israel’s God, who is also the Creator, the One who had “created the heavens and the earth” and who had made all of it “very good.”

2. Lament speaks to a Creator concerning evil. Now because lament speaks to the Creator, it presupposes a divine blueprint for the world—a way that things were intended to be, a way that is “very good.” Anything that departs from that comprehensive divine blueprint is by definition not “good”—that is, it is objectively wrong, unjust, evil.

Lament, then, is always a duet: the melody—the primary part, if you will—speaks of the wrongness of our loss; but the harmony—the secondary part—speaks of the goodness of what was lost. The reason we are so grieved is that what was lost was so good. Hence, the longing that comes with lament.

3. Lament speaks concerning evil to a faithful Creator: Just as importantly, when injustice entered the world, the Creator did not withdraw himself. Rather, in the face of injustice God took action and chose an aged, barren couple (Abram and Sarai) and promised that through their descendants He would overcome injustice in the world. And now more than ever in history Abraham has become a “father of many nations,” and these children of Abraham are indeed blessing the nations. Why? Because Israel’s God never breaks his promises. He is a faithful Creator.

So lament speaks about real evil, true injustice, to a faithful Creator, a Creator who has committed himself to overcoming evil through a most unpromising couple.

4. Lament recounts the cost of evil to a faithful Creator: So lament speaks about evil to a faithful Creator. But just what does it say about that evil? It recounts how costly it is. It recounts how much evil hurts and harms, how much it humiliates, separates, alienates, destroys, degrades, defiles, and deprives. Lament recounts the cost.

But why does lament do this? Why this recounting? Because it speaks to a faithful Creator who is still active in the world, one who will yet again prove His faithfulness. It recounts the cost of evil in order to appeal to and urge a faithful Creator to be what He said He would be—a Deliverer and Judge. He was the Deliverer and Judge to our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, He will be the same to all who are united to him.

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