Writing Songs That Lament (And thoughts on Psalm 22)

To prepare for writing this article, I went back and read through the entire book of Psalms. Okay, I skimmed through the book of Psalms. Still, I went through all 150 Psalms and made note of how many were either laments or, in some way, a cry of distress. About 52 out of 150 Psalms (about 35%) gave me the impression that the worshiper was confused, depressed, angry, remorseful, grieved, or on the brink of death. Then I went back and took stock of the songs I sing on Sunday morning. How many of them reflected these Psalms? The answer: about eight, if I’m being generous (close to 6% of the songs we sang in the last year). Within those eight, only one or two even begin to approach the vivid imagery that is featured in the Psalms (The Getty’s “I Will Wait For You” doesn’t count since it basically is Psalm 130). So God dedicated almost one-third of His congregation’s song book to vivid expressions of distress while I have barely approached the topic with watered down, vague imagery of culturally palatable troubles.

This fact, that God put aside a third of the Psalms for voicing distress, should at least lead us to meditate on a Biblical expression of grief as we read through, and meditate on, His Word. Consider some of these lines from the Psalms. When was the last time we uttered them, or something similar, on Sunday morning as the body of Christ?

I am weary with my sighing
Every night I make my bed swim
I dissolve my couch with my tears.

Psalm 6:6

How long O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

Psalm 13:1

My God my God why have You forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning

Psalm 22:1

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress
My eye is wasted away from grief, my soul and my body also

Psalm 31:9

I don’t know if I have ever sung lyrics quite as dark as these and only a few times have these Psalms, or similar verses, been recited on a Sunday morning. In my Evangelical experience, grief, lament, and confession are generally swept away, relegated to the individual’s private life. Instead of a corporate bearing of burdens or solace in common plight, we keep these negative feelings away from our gatherings which forces the individual to bear the full weight of their own distress. Or perhaps, even worse, those who are suffering begin to feel cut off from the happy congregation. Why should I come to church if my melancholy is just going to ruin the mood? Now there is a time for solitude, and there is a place for individual lament, indeed many of the Psalms are individual laments, but it is important that this does not take the place of corporate lament.

Now I can hear an objection to this idea, even in the back of my own mind. What about the resurrection? We live in a time where we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we know the hope of the resurrection, and we have such wonderful promises through Christ. In light of this, should we not be filled with and express hope, joy, and excitement? In regards to this objection I have two thoughts.

First, yes. As a Christian who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who has seen the mystery of Christ unveiled, and who lives in a time of unparalleled material blessings (I’m looking at you, AC unit) I should give thanks and praise for all that God has given me. Simply having access to the Gospel story should lead me to sing songs of joy that David and the nation of Israel could not even imagine.

However, and secondly, even though there are stories born from the Gospel that David was unaware of, he was not ignorant of the Gospel. To see this, we need to look at Psalm 22. Now to get the full impact of this Psalm I suggest reading Matthew 27 then when you come to Matthew 27:46, pause, and read Psalm 22. The following comes from notes for a sermon I preached at First Baptist Church of Wycombe entitled “He Has Done It!”.

Microsoft tells me that that last time I modified this file was Saturday April 20th, 2019 at 11:44pm. Those were probably that last edits I made before I printed it off and tried to catch some sleep, knowing that I would be preaching at the sunrise service the next day (Easter Sunday). I began that sermon with an apology for lingering on Good Friday but made the promise that we would not stay there. Still, we needed to start there because Jesus, and Psalm 22, were going to teach us how to rely on God as the answer to our suffering. Looking back now, from the midst of the storm that is 2020, I find my studies for that sermon have been a great and timely comfort.

I see Psalm 22 in five parts. Each of these parts walks the singer (or reader) through the process of suffering, gradually turning the cries of deepest grief into a song of greatest praise and proclamation of the Gospel.

The Cry (v1-2)

Psalm 22, verses 1 and 2 begin where Matthew 27:46 left off. Jesus is hanging on the cross and he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”. Day and night the Psalmist cries out but there is no answer and no comfort in the passing of time. Even though the Psalmist’s circumstances (day turns to night) have changed, there is no comfort because comfort is found in the presence of God. Unfortunately for the Psalmist, God seems to be gone. By itself this is a dark and depressing section. However, when we take it with the rest of the Psalm it becomes an essential part of the journey of lament.

Remembering What God Has Done (v3-10)

After letting out such an emotional cry the Psalmist tries to counter the darkness with facts and logic. Verses 3-5 recall intellectual knowledge of who God is and what He has done. The Psalmist recites that God is enthroned (v3) and that He has delivered His people in the past (v4-5). However, despite these reassurances, the Psalmist’s present circumstance is still unbearable (v6-8). There is this great contrast between the present experience and the historical truth. It is such a contrast that recalling the historical data for comfort is insufficient. This data does not raise the Psalmist from the pit of suffering to a place of praise. So the Psalmist tries again, this time recalling personal experience (v9-10). This seems to yield better results.

God I need You Here With Me! (v11-21)

This next section begins with the Psalmist begging for God’s presence (v11) but then immediately dives back into describing the agony of the present circumstances (v12-20). If you have noticed, I identify the writer of this Psalm primarily as “The Psalmist” instead of as king David. This is because of this section. Here, what is hyperbole for David is reality for Christ. I cannot tell if David has written Psalm 22 as a poetic rendition of his own experience or if it is a prophetic retelling of the events of Matthew 27. Or both. Either way, the Psalmist, whether he be human or divine, does not shy away from describing his terrible circumstances. It is not generic darkness in which the Psalmist is stuck. Instead it is bone counting, hand pierced, garment rent, laying in the dust of death torment. Once again I find myself asking “when was the last time I sang a song with words like these?”. Yet even with these terrible circumstances, and even after crying “my God my God why have you forsaken me?” the Psalmist still calls on God for deliverance (v20-21).

Praise Before Salvation (v22-26)

Nothing has changed. The Psalmist is still in the middle of death and destruction. All he has done is bring his troubles before God and ask that God be near (even after yelling that God seems to have forsaken him). Yet the Psalmist knows, partly by looking back at what God has done (3-10), that he can step out on faith and look forward to what is to come. This section is crucial in our journey though suffering. We cannot rely on changing circumstances. Sometimes things will work out for us in this world. Other times our suffering will go unanswered until glory. Yet no matter what we are going through, our God is worthy of all praise. We do not praise Him because He changes our circumstances, we praise Him because of who He is and what He has done. This brings us to the final part of our journey.

Hope in what God Will Do (v27-31)

The Psalmist knows that in the end, ever knee will bow and declare that Jesus is Lord. It will be told for generations yet unborn that He has done it! Or as Jesus put it in John 18:30, “It is finished”. From David’s perspective, he knows that God will preserve his line. He knows, despite his present circumstances, that God will make good on His promise to establish His kingdom through David’s son. From Jesus’ perspective, He knows that on that cross He has secured eternal life for all who believe in Him. Either way, the Psalmist finds his ultimate comfort in the Gospel. Nothing short of the person and works of Jesus Christ can bring hope to a shattered world.

And How Does This Relate to Songwriting?

There are some important take-aways from the form and content of Psalm 22.

First, put your hope in the Gospel and not in changing circumstances.

Second, don’t be afraid to share your grief with God. Even when it feels like He has forsaken you cry out “my God my God why have You forsaken me?”. Remember, He gave You the Psalms to sing at home and as a congregation. He did not write them to be ignored or for us to be ashamed of such dark language. God knows that we go through terrible times and He has given us the words to tell him what we are feeling.

Third, grief is a journey. We all want to be in a Psalm 23 state of mind but I think the Psalmist knew we needed to sing Psalm 22 first. We want to be in a place where we are singing Psalm 22:27-31 but I don’t know if we can honestly sing God’s praises while secretly harboring unexpressed bitterness in our hearts. How can we sing “I love God!” with our mouths while crying “my God my God why have you forsaken me” in our hearts? It is only by being honest with ourselves, God, and each other, that we can rest in genuine peace and fellowship. Too many people feel that they have to put on a mask to come to church, and I’m not talking about a face mask for Covid.

So how does this relate to songwriting? Take stock of what you are singing. Does it help you through the journey of grief or are you skipping over Psalm 22 to get to Psalm 23? If you are writing songs, be honest and vivid. If generic darkness gets the point across then use generic darkness (See “Set Free”) but if you are dissolving your bed with tears (See “The Lord Has Heard”) don’t settle for saying you were a little sad.

Also, if you use songwriting to meditate on Scripture (which I highly recommend), don’t skip over the Psalms of lament. For that matter don’t skip over Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, or Revelation either.

But keep this in mind. The goal of lament is not to leave us in a state of lamenting. Instead, take this definition from Pastor Mark Vroegop (which I got from Matt Boswell’s sermon “The Joy of the King”) “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust”. Lament is a crucial part of the journey that enables us to be honest with God and ourselves. Once we know we can be honest with God it is so much more natural to trust Him. Then if we come to a place where we trust Him in the midst of our troubles, we will find that our praise is only magnified by what we have gone through.

If I have one application for songwriters it would be this: write songs that give the hurting a voice. Give them songs that let them honestly express their pain while also leading them to hope in the person and works of Jesus Christ. God dedicated one third of His songbook to cries of distress. That tells me that He wants us to come to Him and sing just as we are. Whether we are worn down, if we are sinners, if we are tormented, or torn, God is calling us to bring it all to Him and trust in His unfailing love. Don’t wait to be better, don’t worry about bringing down the mood, come as you are and in time God will wipe away every tear and make all things new (Revelation 21:4-5).

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