The Anatomy of a Lament


The great 4th century Church Father, Athanasius once said:

“The Psalms have a unique place in the Bible because [whereas] most of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.” 

No truer words have been spoken. When we open up the book of Psalms, we find 150 of the most compelling, captivating, and heart wrenching prayers ever uttered. And a full third of these can be categorized as “laments.”

What is a lament? It is a psalm of complaint that names, often in graphic detail, the agonies and injustices of life. As Martin Luther once said, in a lament “you look into the hearts of the saints” and what you see there is a potent mixture of pain… and hope. In my study The Epic of Eden: The Book of Psalms I say that to read a lament is to watch an ancient believer as they stand against the storm.

For a modern believer to pray a lament is to allow the ancients to join you in the midst of your storm.

Most of the laments in our Bibles are written in response to one of two crises: (1) social persecution, and (2) illness. I find it so interesting that these are the blows that can knock the strongest to their knees — then and now. To find oneself isolated from what had been your community; or to have your body fail you, these are the darkest of days. This is the isolation of a pain that no one else can feel. When there is either no hand to help, or no hand that can help.

Equally interesting to me is the fact that whereas we are allowed to ask for help with the second (illness) — announce it as a prayer request, post details on social media, have hands laid upon us at the altar — the former is something we hide. You will likely not be sharing about your husband’s pornography addiction that is decimating your young marriage. Or that your boss has passed you over for a promotion you deserve because of the deceit of a colleague. And you for sure will not be posting that you’re in need of prayer because you’re being investigated at work for potentially discriminatory behavior, or that your daughter is struggling with suicidal thoughts because of an abortion. That kind of “knock the wind out of you” betrayal, bias, slander, and injury… we don’t share those with the community. And it is expressly in this hour where the power of lament tips the scales.

Every psalm of lament in your Bible has five elements. (1) An address of praise to God for His mighty acts in the past; (2) a complaint of distress; (3) a protest of innocence; (4) a petition for deliverance; and always (5) a declaration of confidence in God’s faithfulness and a vow to praise Him… regardless. These literary features may be mixed and matched as the psalmist wishes, but each one is in there.

So let’s take a look at Psalm 70, a brief but powerful lament which embodies the pain and fear of a person who’s gotten the wind knocked out of them.

1Hasten, O God, to save me!
O LORD, come quickly to help me!
2May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace!
3May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!” turn back because of their shame.
4But may all who seek You rejoice and be glad in You;
may those who love Your salvation always say, “Let God be exalted!”
5I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God.
YOU are my help and my deliverer!
O LORD, do not delay.

I hope you can hear that the person who wrote this prayer was scared. They had enemies. And as they looked out on the playing field, the chances that those enemies were going to prevail looked pretty good.  “Please hurry, God,” she cries, “I can’t hang on much longer!”

How about Psalm 62?

 3How long will you assault a man?
Would all of you throw him down – this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
4They fully intend to topple him from his lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts,  they curse. — Psalm 62:3-4

This person has been falsely accused. In fact, there are folks who are actively plotting to destroy this man with slander. Have you been there? Perhaps you’re a pastor and there is a faction in your church that wants you out. You’ve challenged the status quo, you’re gaining a following, complacency is retreating, and folks are actually starting to talk about outreach and diverting more money to the missions budget. So the old guard has started spreading rumors. “Have you seen that new car pastor got last year, wonder where that money came from?” “Hey have you seen how much time he spends with that new woman who just started coming? I hear he’s already recruited her for his personal discipleship group?” But the psalmist, who knows all about what havoc slander can wreak in an honest man’s life, reminds himself:

5 Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from Him.
6He alone is my rock and my salvation;
He is my fortress,
I will not be shaken.
7My salvation and my honor depend on God;
He is my mighty rock, my refuge. — Psalm 62:5-7

How many of us have experienced that 4:00 am wake up, drenched in sweat, overcome with fear at the crisis bearing down on us? If it hasn’t happened, you probably just haven’t lived long enough yet. But this Psalmist knows, so he coaches his soul. He recites the mighty acts of God, he reminds himself of the truth… even in the darkness. And better yet, this Psalmist reminds us of the same.

8Trust in Him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to Him,
for God is our refuge
11One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard:
that You, O God, are strong,
and that You, O Lord, are loving.
12Surely You will reward each person according to what he has done. — Psalm 62:8-12

Athanasius was right. “The Psalms have a unique place in the Bible because [whereas] most of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us.” Join me in my study, The Epic of Eden: The Book of Psalms and let’s learn together how the prayers of the ancients can speak into our lives today.

Watch the Video

Written for Devotionals Daily by Sandra L. Richter, author of The Epic of Eden.

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Your Turn

Are you in a crisis? Is your health failing you? Is persecution knocking at your door? Go to the Psalms and pray them to the Lord. You can find so much comfort in the laments and prayers of our ancient brothers and sisters who cried out to God in circumstances beyond their ability to handle. Come share your thoughts and prayers with us! We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily



Internationally known for her work on Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History, Dr. Richter brings the Old Testament to life by exploring the real people and real places from which it comes. A veteran of many years of leading student groups in archaeological excavation and historical geography classes in Israel, she has taught at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wesley Biblical Seminary, and Wheaton College.

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