A wise elder in a congregation I once served told me that I should select the first song in worship to be a joyful song of praise. His concern was that I, having chosen a sadder song to begin our Sunday worship, would bring to mind and heart the feeling of a funeral service rather than the glad celebration it was meant to be. Thus the tone of the entire service would be ‘off’ from the very beginning. I appreciated his point and, to this day, have striven to follow this ‘rule’ for the order of worship. And clearly there are many appropriate songs to choose that have aided me in doing so.
Since that time I have grown in my appreciation and reverence specifically for the biblical Psalms. One of the reasons for my attraction to them is their capacity to express a wide range of emotions that God has given us.(1) I was struck by the importance of this as I read a blog post entitled “Not Learning to Lament: Comparing the Psalms to Songbooks.” This entry highlights one of the chapters in a book entitled “Hurting With God: Learning to Lament With The Psalms” by Glenn Pemberton. In chapter 2, the author compares the content of the biblical Psalms with three modern hymnals. As as you can see in the graph below (taken from the blog post), the Psalms far outweigh the hymnals in terms of expressing lament:
The author of the post states: “Note that 40% of the Psalms can be classified as lament. The three songbooks don’t even crack 20%. And two of them don’t crack 15%.”
Now, why should we care about this? Why should this be of interest to congregations who regularly sing from hymnals? One way to answer these questions is to reflect on life itself: are we always happy? Are we always cheerful? Is there a biblical command that we always have a smile on our face and possess “joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart”?
Now it is true that many professing Christians would have us believe these things. Some have even built their ministry on insisting that every Christian always be happy, healthy and successful. To be anything less, in their mind, is to not be living the blessed life that God wants for us. But this is not the biblical teaching, nor is it the Christian experience. Rather, as we have sadly discovered, much of our lives is an experience of suffering, sadness and sorrow. Sometimes it seems to be nothing but trial and difficulty. And if we are to walk, with these troubles, into the sanctuary and be told in sermon and song that being a Christian means always being happy, well what would or should we do? It seems to me that the only options would be: 1) to leave for one would take from this that they must not be a Christian as their emotions and experience do not match with what they are being told they should feel) 2) to stay and hope against hope that I can get that happiness eventually or 3) to conclude that what I being sold is truly poor comfort in light of my pain and suffering.
And so this leads us back to the biblical Psalms, for as the graph above indicates, God, in His infinite wisdom, has given us a song book that perfectly reflects, in so many ways, the trouble in our hearts and lives. And not only does it reflect our true experience in this sin and death cursed world, it also gives us the appropriate words and feelings in order to express these troubles in a godly fashion. For, after all, it is possible to express our lament in an ungodly fashion. The scriptures warn us, for example, about bitterness, which often comes out of a heart that is suffering some trial or difficulty (consider Naomi in Ruth 1:20). And clearly our sadness or disappointment in God must not to come out in anger and hostility against Him (as was Israel’s complaint in Exodus 16:2-3).
So instead of singing our lament out of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12), we may sing in faith about whatever troubles or trials the Lord, in His wisdom, has sent our way, by singing the divinely approved songs for that purpose. Yes, we may lament and cry out to the Lord knowing that He hears us (Psalm 86:5-7).
And let no one conclude that this is only for Old Testament Christians, as if the New Testament did not reveal that Christians suffer just as the saints of old did (1 Peter 4:12ff.; Hebrews 10:32-35; 12:5-11). For did not our Lord Himself give approval of this ancient practice, when He cried out, in the midst of His intense suffering and pain on the cross, the very words of David from Psalm 22:1? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
1. I cannot improve on John Calvin’s words about this matter so I will simply quote them here (from his preface to his commentary on the Psalms): “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated” (emphasis mine).