The most common type of song in the Psalms is not praise, or even thanks, but lament.
While that may seem strange to us at first, it begins to make more sense when we pause to think about our lives in this fallen age and the kind of prayers we pray. Living in this age, ravaged in various measures by sin, with fears within and fightings without (2 Corinthians 7:5), we are not always poised to offer praise and thanks. Often we find ourselves — if not most often — in the posture of lament, pleading with God to help, to heal, to remedy, to rescue.
The glory of psalms of praise is that God deserves our praise at all times, regardless of our circumstances, whether all feels right in our little worlds or not. The glory in psalms of thanks is that God, our Savior, has acted on our behalf. The glory in laments is that despite our pain and difficulty, and struggle and doubts, we still turn Godward. Our faith is being tested, and in the very act of turning to our Lord, rather than elsewhere, there is hope. In lament is often where we find him to be our greatest Treasure.
When We’re Languishing
As glorious as praise and thanks are, it is fitting in this age that the book of Psalms contains more laments — what Walter Bruggemann calls “psalms of disorientation” — than any other type of psalm, because we are, in truth, so often disoriented.
“Spiritual sanity is restored in the very act of addressing God and rehearsing what he has promised.”
Take Psalm 6, for instance. Hard circumstances in David’s life (whether related to his son Absalom’s rebellion or not, we do not know) have led him to see his sin, and to cry out to God for rescue. Some consider this to be the first of six “penitential psalms” (Psalms 32, 38, 51, 130, and 143), which focus on repentance. But David also has been sinned against, and gravely. So his pain and confusion in Psalm 6 are great. And in such a whirlwind of disorientation, God doesn’t tell him, and us, to just grit our teeth, put on a smile, and sing a happy song. God invites us, as Aslan says to Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, “Tell me all your sorrows.”
God sees and knows our confusion, and doesn’t sweep it under the rug, but acknowledges it with the most common type of psalm in his inspired songbook. He calls us to more than just rehearsing our pain, though. David does cry out in his despair in the psalm’s first seven verses — such pleading with God is typical of laments. But then the beloved king changes his key with a surprising burst of confidence in the final three (verses 8–10). Ending on a resounding note of confidence (in God) is also typical in laments.
God means for us to move beyond the disorientation that prompted our lament. In fact, God designed the very nature of biblical lament to be a channel of his grace to help us along the path to spiritual reorientation.
God Hears Our Prayer
In Psalm 6, the transition from David’s rehearsing of his pain and confusion to his burst of confidence in God is really quite startling. He has just said he is languishing and troubled (Psalm 6:2), even “greatly troubled” (Psalm 6:3); that he is weary with moaning and floods his bed with tears every night (Psalm 6:6). Then he turns on a dime and declares,
The Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my plea;
The Lord accepts my prayer. (Psalm 6:8–9)
Now, the tides have turned, and he announces that all his enemies will be ashamed and “greatly troubled” (Psalm 6:10). But how does David know, with such confidence, that God has heard him, and that his Lord will indeed respond, that it’s just a matter of time? Where does this newly expressed confidence come from?
It’s not from new revelation, as if God whispered something to him after his pleas and groanings in the first seven verses. And we do not have any indication that this surprising turn comes after some delay in time, as if David came back and added the final three (verses 8–10) later on, after God had answered. In fact, verse 10 twice indicates (“shall” in the ESV) that the deliverance is still future, not past. How does David get this burst of confidence? Don’t we all want access to this next time we find ourselves languishing?
How God Turns the Tide
The answer is that the psalm itself — the recalling of the truth of God’s covenant (the repeated mention of his covenant name, Yahweh), and God’s commitment to his glory (Psalm 6:4), along with David’s fresh honesty about his spiraling self — is the channel through which the grace of faith, and confidence, flows. Spiritual sanity is restored, in the midst of disorientation, in the very act of addressing God and remembering who he is and rehearsing what he has promised.
Laments, like this, are not exercises in wallowing or making things worse. Rather, they are exercises in the Godward restoration of spiritual sanity. They are divinely appointed means of grace through which we first move in spirit from disorientation to reorientation, and in doing so regain the strength of soul to endure until God addresses our external circumstances in his good timing.
Who Compares to the King?
You might say, That’s all well and good for David. He was the king of God’s chosen people. Of course God heard his prayers. But I’m just a footman. I’m literally one in a billion professing Christians worldwide. How do I know that God receives my prayers? Can I say with David, “The Lord has heard; he accepts my prayer”? Can I have anything close to the confidence David has?
You can have every bit as much confidence as David. In fact, in Christ, we have more.
“God’s timing is not ours, but he will deliver, and may very well do so all at once.”
Jesus Christ is great David’s greater son. He is the total fulfillment of all David embodied, and of all God promised to David, as the king of his people. Jesus is not great because his ancestor is David. Rather, David is great because his descendant is Jesus. When we believe in Jesus — when we trust him as our Savior, Lord, and Treasure — that faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, joins us spiritually to him, so that we are in him. Not only does our sin become his, and he puts it to death on the cross, but also all that is his becomes ours.
The question about our confidence isn’t a question about how we compare to David. The question is about how David compares to Jesus. By faith, we are in Jesus. And if God heard the sound of David’s weeping, and heard David’s plea, and accepted his prayer, will he not hear and accept the prayers of those whom he sees in his Son? He will. As sure as God heard and accepted David’s prayer, even more so does he hear and accept the prayer of those who are Christ’s.
God’s Stunning Invitation
God’s timing is not ours, but he will deliver his people, and may very well do so all at once, as Psalm 6:10 says, “in a moment.” If you are languishing, and you are in Jesus, and you have cried out to him and asked, “How long?” (Psalm 6:3), know that he has indeed heard and accepted your prayer. That doesn’t mean he will change your circumstances immediately or in precisely the ways you want. He typically does not. David’s confidence and hope came not on the other side of external deliverance but on the other side of reorienting on God through this prayerful song of lament, which gave him the spiritual wherewithal to endure until full deliverance finally came.
God’s stunning invitation to us to have his ear in prayer is not just a summons for praise and thanks. He invites us to cry out to him. He bids us come to him with our pain, to tell him all our sorrows, knowing that he hears, that he will act in his timing, and that he will give us what we need to endure until that day.