March 12, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Many of the psalms are classified as laments

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

Although the word “Psalter” means “praises,” the fact is that most of the 150 psalms are not praises.

Sixty-three of the psalms are classified as laments, and are characterized by expressions of grief or fear followed by repentance and gratitude. Forty-five of the psalms are laments of individuals, and 18 are community laments.

We all have an innate sense of how we think life should be, and we all share the universal desire for happiness. Furthermore, we know when something is fair or unfair. When we recognize something as unfair, we tend to cry out in protest. Individual psalms of lament came from those protests.

For the Israelite community, there was the added belief that they were God’s Chosen People. When things were going smoothly and the community was prospering, there was a state of shalom, of peace. But things didn’t always go smoothly, and the community psalms of lament came from those times.

The times of greatest national calamity, of course, were the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C. Sometimes we are not sure which of these calamities the psalm is referring to, as in Psalm 44.

There seems no doubt, though, that Psalms 74 and 79 were written after the destruction of the Temple. Psalm 74 says, “They set your sanctuary on fire; the place where your name abides they have razed and profaned.” And Psalm 79 says, “They have defiled your holy Temple, they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the corpses of your servants as food to the birds of heaven.”

Psalm 89 reminds God that he once favored his people and made a covenant with David, but now “you have rejected and spurned and been enraged at your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant, and defiled his crown in the dust.” It then asks, “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? Will your wrath burn like fire? Where are your ancient favors, O Lord, which you pledged to David by your faithfulness?”

The more numerous individual laments were prayers in times of personal adversities, in times of illness or when the person feels that he or she has been wronged by others. Psalm 88, for example, is the prayer of a desolate man in mortal illness. “My eyes have grown dim through affliction,” he prays, “daily I call upon you, O Lord.” It ends with him bitterly bewailing his misery: “My only friend is darkness.”

Many of the individual laments are attributed to King David, who asks God to deliver him from his enemies, especially Psalms 140 to 143.

Unlike Psalm 88, most of the individual laments end with confidence that God will cure them of their illness or protect them from their enemies.

I wrote about the seven penitential psalms in the third column in this series. They are included among the individual laments. †

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