Lament 2: Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land

Should we sing laments?

Let me first distinguish: I have no doubt at all that there is a place for lament, both in the common English sense and in the technical psalms-of-lament sense (see previous post), in our worship. We should, when gathered before God, weep for and decry the evil in the world; we should wrestle with the disjunction between our confession and our experience. My question is whether we need do that in song. (Marva Dawn, in Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, notes that the Psalms of Lament are excluded from many lectionaries, and so lament is excluded from the whole of worship, not just from song (p. 176); this seems to me indefensible.)

It seems to me that common-lament might most easily find its way into our prayers of intercession, and psalm-lament into our preaching (as noted in the previous post). ‘Ease’, of course, is not a compelling liturgical argument, but nor is it irrelevant. What reasons might there be for insisting that these ideas are expressed in our singing also? Two, as far as I can see: a canonical argument (it’s in the Psalms, so should be in our songs) and a formational argument (singing is what shapes our minds and hearts in worship, and so we should sing these things).

The canonical argument seems more powerful when applied to psalm-lament, but it is perhaps worth noticing that the canonical psalms of lament contain what I have called common-lament; they just do not stop there. Assuming one song is not the whole of our worship, there is potentially space for a song of common-lament, that is moved into the Biblical key by the songs, prayers, readings, or preaching that follows it.

That said, the canonical psalms contain many aspects of human experience that find no place in our hymnbooks (something I notice whenever I find myself at Free Church worship, singing only metrical psalms). Imprecation, in particular, is graphic, lurid and widespread in the Psalms, but probably not something that we are rushing to introduce into our song repertoire. (Back to the lectionaries; the old Anglican lectionary in the BCP omitted only Ps. 58 – whether this omission was right or wrong (‘all inspired Scripture is useful…’ 2Tim 3:16), asking God to break the teeth of our enemies, praying that they will be ‘like the abortion that never sees the sun’, and then looking forward to bathing our feet in pools of their blood, are attitudes that most of us, I trust, would introduce to a service of worship only with a great deal of care!) The psalms – particularly the psalms of lament, perhaps – are also rather good at confident assertions of personal holiness and righteousness before God, which again are not attitudes that populate Christian hymnody through the ages to any great degree.

So, I don’t find a simple ‘the psalms did it, so should we’ argument very convincing. We know neither the origin, nor the redaction history, nor the cultic use(s), of many of the psalms (despite the best efforts of higher critics); nor do we know the reasons for their collection into the Psalter. The psalms of lament, particularly, often read as if they are very personal reponses to a very particular situation, and are not easily generisable to congregational use. I note again that, as far as I am aware, all suggestions of corporate cultic use of the psalter are hypothetical, usually relying on giving far more content to the shadowy new year festival than we can in fact do; one or another hypothesis may happen to be right, but we should not claim canonical authority for the idea. The psalms clearly have a crucial place in Christian worship, but that place might be read rather than sung, and it might be individually (in private devotion, or as a reading in the liturgy) rather than corporately. (My Reformed prejudice: they are Scripture, and so, necessarily, primarily should be preached…)

The formational argument is more interesting. Music gets inside us in a way that little else does. Luther and the Wesleys knew this well. There seems to be a good argument that, if we want the people to internalise certain themes, putting them in regularly-used songs is the way to go. If we want our people to learn to lament, then we should have them sing laments. Do we want our people to learn to lament?

I think another distinction is necessary here, between learning to lament and daring to lament. My observation in odd moments of pastoral ministry is that most people know how to complain to, or about, God (‘common lament’) – they just don’t feel comfortable doing it. If this is right – and I am prepared to be corrected on it – then singing laments may not be the answer; if the pastoral task is to give people permission to do something that comes rather naturally, then it is a task best addressed in preaching. All songs will do in this context is make people feel uncomfortable (as in the sort of song that annouces ‘we are lifting our hands to you’ sung in a congregation which just isn’t…).

What of ‘psalm-lament’? Here, it seems to me, there is a particular place for songs, which take the role, not of the lamenting voice, but of the communal/priestly voice of faithful confidence (to put it in Mandolfo’s terms). Songs can model a faithful response to trouble and lament. This faithful reponse does not deny the reality of trouble, or promise unrealistic answers, but it affirms faith in God’s continued goodness, justice and love, faith in the fixity of God’s purposes, and so reflects, or perhaps engenders, a decision on the part of the believer to continue to live out confessed truth, in the face of circumstances that seem to deny it. Cowper’s God moves in a mysterious way, or the Redmans’ Blessed be your name, seem good examples of precisely this sort of song.


  1. andygoodliff
    Jan 22, 2009

    I think its partly have songs to help us when responding to local or global incidents. i know Craig Gardiner said he struggled to find any kind of song on the sunday after September 11 2001 in the popular worship songbook collections and found some useful song/s in Common Ground.

  2. Steve H
    Jan 22, 2009

    I guess I have three responses to that. One would be along the lines of the posts above; ‘is it really lament that you’re looking for?’ There may be (are) many themes missing in any collection of hymnody; lament is often brought to the fore as a particular lack ‘because singing laments is Biblical – the psalms are full of them’. It is this argument that I am trying to explore.
    The second would be, in the face of true (and local, meaning ‘personally emotionally affecting at least many of the people gathered’), it would seem to me most appropriate to use songs that reflected, in a relatively sober way, a sense of our dependence on God and on the adequacy of God in the face of troubles. I don’t think we are short of songs that fit this description.
    Third, in the face of really serious tragedy, why sing? Extensive scripture readings and prayers, with instrumental music played from CD, might be an appropriate pastoral response. The Roman tradition of veiling the church’s decorations to mark the solemnity of the Passion might helpfully transpose like this into Free Church worship.

  3. andygoodliff
    Jan 22, 2009

    Steve, I hear the challenge, why sing. A few thoughts extra, firstly, if we were to follow Brueggemann’s classifying of the psalms, it seems the majority of our songs in contemporary collections are songs of orientation. Some of us in a group that is an offshoot of the BU Faith and Unity Executive are exploring worship and how often we see to leave the ‘world’ – global and local at the door – what does it mean to bring the world into our worship and specifically what does it mean to bring that into sung worship. Here I find the songs and hymns of Iona much more helpful than Redman, Hughes, et al. I like the songs of Redman and Hughes and that tradition, I’m most happy singing them, but they lack an edge and content that is find in the likes of John Bell and Iona.

    Secondly, where does your argument connect with the likes of Brian Brock’s singing the ethos of God?

  4. Terry
    Jan 23, 2009

    I have to admit that when we sing Blessed be your name, I can’t help but think we’ve become Stoics for five minutes.

  5. Steve H
    Jan 23, 2009

    @Andy: good question. I’ll dig out Brian’s book and have a think…

    @Terry: of course, there’s plenty of scholarship to suggest that Paul’s ethics, in particular, were influenced by the Stoics…
    But more seriously, I think you’re being a little unfair. The core stoic attitude was acceptance of whatever came (‘whatever is, is right’ – Pope, rather than Epictetus, but it gets the point); the Biblical attitude, captured precisely in the psalms of lament, is not acceptance, but a confidence in God which colours/shapes our raging against the injustices of the world. I think Matt & Beth captured that well in the song. (Probably the Cowper is more ‘stoic’.)

  6. Terry
    Jan 23, 2009

    It’s the reference from Job I have the problem with: I’m just not sure that a simple emulation of Job’s attitude at this point is something that the text actually warrants. But then, I do admit that I’ve never actually studied Job!!

  7. hugh
    Jan 27, 2009

    For me it is the unqualified allusion in “Blessed be the name” to Job 1:21 “you give and take away” (in which the Redmans are not alone – see the introductory sentences of Scripture in the Anglican Funeral service) that I question. Isn’t part of the message of the book of Job that, though Job never sees it, the action of “the satan” means that there is more to things than a simply symmetrical ascription of the “giving” and the “taking away” to God.

    For that reason, I think that lament is important theologically, and not just pastorally, and so it is important that it is voiced publically. The poetic crafting of the Psalms suggests that they are more than just the outpouring of the moment.

  8. craig gardiner
    Jan 30, 2009

    I love the idea of Tenebrae and have used it well in Baptist churches … as well as on Iona at Easter.

    I agree with Andy with Brueggemann’s stuff
    but as of course there is also the question why sing in the happy times too?

    Why does anyone sing at any time?

    I like John Bell’s book on this called ‘The Singing Thing’ (Wild Goose 2000)

    Helen Dare in Cardiff is doing lots of work on this

  9. Steve H
    Feb 10, 2009

    Terry, Hugh: apologies for being some time in replying. On Job. Two comments. First, I take it that the narrative sections of Job intend to present Job as an archetypically perfect worshipper of God (although, and I suspect deliberately, not an Israelite of course). The final, and canonical, redaction of the text, with the long poetic sections of wisdom-like debate separating the narratives, is a bit more complex, but still, God’s final judgement remains as it was: Job did not sin in what he said, and is called to make priestly intercession and sacrifice for his friends.
    Second, I think it is fair to ask for good theology from our songs; I wonder whether asking for good exegesis is a step too far? The song uses the line from Job to express an attitude of heart that I take it is appropriate; if the line is taken somewhat out of context, then I can live with that, I think!

    @Craig: ‘why sing?’ is a great question! My (really short) answer is ‘it seems you can’t shut Christians up’. Historically, the church just sings. Always. Everywhere. My longer answer would be an attempt to explore why this is so…

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