“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (vv. 5, 11).
These beautiful, elegant verses from Psalm 30 often adorn little knick-knacks and more serious pieces of art. They are truly inspiring lines of poetry.
"Angel of Grief" sculpted by William Wetmore Story (left), a happy woman (right)
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?” (v. 9). How about that one? Is it poetry? Sure it is, but how likely are we to see it on a coffee mug—or as a decoration on someone’s tee shirt? Probably not so much!
What about the book of Lamentations?
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 22-23). This is truly majestic stuff! I imagine there are some people who don’t realize it comes from this book. Of course, it’s the inspiration for one of the most beloved hymns of the church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
There’s a worship chorus many of us have learned, those who are familiar with some of the music of the Maranatha Singers: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; / his mercies never come to an end. / They are new every morning, new every morning; / great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, / great is thy faithfulness.”
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (v. 1).
That’s how Lamentations begins. I wonder, what are the chances of those lines embellishing a plaque mounted on a wall in your house? Compared with “great is thy faithfulness,” what are the odds of that appearing on the welcome mat at your front door? Probably not so much!
As you can see, celebration and lament often go together. We’re good with the celebration, but how about the lament? About 40 percent of the psalms are psalms of lament. Lament is shot through the books of Job and of course, Lamentations. Psalm 22 appears on the lips of Jesus on the cross. (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) Lament appears throughout the scriptures.
Given the weight the Bible puts on lament, it would seem our worship would include at least a tiny bit more of it. Our hymns scarcely mention it. Churches that do lament better are the traditionally black churches. No doubt, they’ve experienced much more of it.
Psalm 30 portrays the other side of the danger, of the misfortune. It is used as one of the psalms in the Easter season. It speaks of life from death. Aside from the little goody we’ve already seen, “What profit is there in my death,” we have verse 3: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”
Sheol is the land of the grave. It is the underworld. It is the land of the dead; it’s like Hades in Greek thought. Not much happens in Sheol. It’s a gloomy, gray place. All the restaurants are closed. All the musical instruments have been confiscated. There’s nothing to read, nothing to watch, no fun whatsoever. And as we see in verse 9, addressed to the Lord, “Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” The worship of God is absent.
Sheol is the land of the grave. As such, it can include death in many forms: whatever is destructive, whatever is harmful, whatever is shameful. As for the psalmist, what is presented is recovery from a serious illness. Indeed, it’s an illness that first appeared to be terminal.
It has been a long night.
I’m sure we can relate to this in a literal way. There are those nights that seem to never end. Maybe we’ve even looked to the east, wondering when the sky would begin to show signs of light. Perhaps we’ve been sick in body. Perhaps we’ve been sick in heart.
Finally, here comes the dawn. Maybe we’re still sick, but a sense of relief takes hold. We’ve made it through the night! Hallelujah.
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”
It’s been a hard road, as verses 6 and 7 tell us. “As for me,” according to our poet, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.”
I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible puts it. “Carefree, I used to think, ‘Nothing can ever shake me!’ Your favour, Yahweh, set me on impregnable heights, but you turned away your face and I was terrified.” In Biblical thought, when God’s face is turned away, favor, special privilege, is suspended—if not canceled altogether. Who can say what that would mean for any single person? For that matter, who can say what that would mean for any single group?
The other night, while we were talking about the virus, Banu wondered about the next thing we’re supposed to be afraid of!
We must admit that for many, favor and special privilege are too often absent.
In 1996, Pastor Soong-Chan Rah and his wife Sue started a church in inner-city Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the Central Square neighborhood, positioned between Harvard and MIT. The students called it “Central Scare.” That is, “the scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.”
After the church had been going for a little while, Rah was planning a sermon series, but he wondered, “What should I use?” He considered the gospel of Mark, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or even Revelation, with God’s vision of the heavenly city. Eventually, he decided to go with the book of Lamentations. It’s safe to say the church growth gurus rarely suggest that one!
He felt the need to meet the people where they were. Instead of glossing over their suffering, he wanted to address it. He wanted to give them the language for it. He didn’t want the “rah-rah,” exuberance to be the only word that was heard.
The status quo—the way things are now—isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. In many ways, the status quo is a cause for mourning, a cause for grief.
In his book, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah comments, “Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place. Tax rates should remain low. Home prices and stocks should continue to rise unabated, while interest rates should remain low to borrow more money to feed a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.”
The book of Lamentations pictures a city and temple that have been destroyed and a people who have been forcibly relocated by a mighty empire. Jerusalem, who “was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal” (v. 1). She’s had to exchange her fine garments for a burlap sack.
“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place” (v. 3). They have no place to call their own.
There is something we already incorporate into our worship that has a resemblance to lament. It’s when we join in our prayer of confession. When we confess our sin, we admit the wrong in our action and in our inaction. We do this at the corporate and at the personal levels, that is, as a body and as individuals. One would presume—one would hope—that at least a smidgen of lamentation goes with it!
As for lament itself, it also is expressed for all of us and for each of us. Are we to take responsibility, to follow up on lament? Is it enough to simply “feel bad” when it’s within our power to act? I would suggest that St. James’ maxim of “faith without works is dead” would apply (2:14-26).
How about when we have little or no control over the situation?
Rev. Rah describes the book of Lamentations in several ways, including that of a funeral dirge. Already in chapter 1 we see references to widowhood (v. 1), young girls grieving (v. 4), priests and elders perishing (v. 19), and a note that “in the house it is like death” (v. 20).
“Lamentations 1 depicts the reality of death and suffering that leads to the appropriate response of lament. The city of Jerusalem has died, and Lamentations 1 initiates a funeral dirge in response.” Jerusalem is a dead body. It must be acknowledged and mourned. It must be honored. “The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”
When we mourn, we remember. Christopher Wright says, “Part of the horror of human suffering is to be unheard, forgotten, and nameless. Lamentations is a summons to remember.” It “forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, whether we approve or not. We are called not to judge, but to witness. Not to speak, but to listen.”
When Job’s friends heard of his misfortune, they traveled great distances to be with him. They were true friends, being with him in his pain. They were witnesses. Of course, when he began venting his “every mood that the deepest suffering causes,” they began to judge!
Earlier, I expressed the concern about being morbid, being a Debbie Downer. With that in mind, can we see the power of lament? Can we see how it helps us to be real? Can we see how it enables us to honor and care for each other? Can we see how, through a meandering, circuitous route, lament leads to joy?
Clearly, not everyone has experienced the same degree of sorrow; not everyone has had the same amount of misfortune. However, I think there’s something we all have in common—something we’ve all gone through. And that is, the pain of growing up. The feelings of rejection, of awkwardness, of embarrassment—that’s all part of the package.
For those who are still kids, I can tell you, “Hang on; you will get through it. It might not seem like it, but you will make it.” Of course, even as adults we still deal with that stuff, but one hopes we become better able to handle it and learn the lessons it provides.
The remembrance and witness that come with mourning and lament do indeed impart power. They lead us in the path of Jesus, a man acquainted with sorrows. He walks with us through those never-ending nights. And finally, here comes the dawn. Our mourning gives way to morning.
 Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 1, paragraph 1.
 Rah, Introduction.1.13.
 Rah, Epilogue.2.1.
 Rah, 2.1.6.
 Christopher J. H. Wright, “Lamentations: A Book for Today,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:2 (Apr 2015), 59.
 Wright, 60.