I hadn’t heard Gordon Wenham’s name until I picked up his book The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, 2013). I’m not liable to forget his name easily after reading this excellent book. The first several chapters are especially good as they lay out the history of psalm singing and theological and practical reasons why we should incorporate them more heavily into our personal, family, and corporate worship. Chapter one is a fascinating discussion of speech-act theory and how the psalms change us as we sing and pray them.
In chapter two, titled “Praying the Psalms,” Wenham describes each general type of psalm (praise, lament, penitential, messianic) and how they can be used by us today. His discussion of the psalms of lament is especially helpful, given the difficult nature of these psalms. Laments are psalms “in which the writer prays that God will deliver him from some crisis: sometimes his enemies, sometimes defeat in battle, sometimes a life-threatening illness” (pp. 43-44). Note that there is a full chapter later in the book dealing with the imprecatory psalms.
Wenham notes that the most frequent type of psalm in the collection of 150 is not psalms of praise, as we might think (or wish). The laments actually are the most frequently appearing type of psalm. But how are we as Christians in the 21st century to use these dark, sometimes violent, psalms? I’d like to share Wenham’s outline of his answer to this question. I recommend reading the book to learn more.
Theological Reasons for the Laments
1. The lament psalms are some of the most quoted in the New Testament. Psalm 22 and 69 are the top two most frequently quoted psalms in all of the New Testament.
2. Jesus prayed these lament psalms. If Christ was praying through the psalter on the cross, as Wenham argues earlier, He would have sung about a dozen laments by the time he reached Psalm 22.
3. The book of Revelation includes one of the prayers of the dead martyrs in heaven that is based on the lament psalms (see Revelation 6:9-10, based on Psalm 94:3, 79:10, and 119:84).
4. The early church prayed these psalms.
Practical Reasons for the Laments
1. Not everyone who comes to church is full of joy and happiness. “Sufferers may pray the laments with hope that they will be able to say not only, ‘How long, O Lord?” but also, ‘I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.'”
2. By praying these psalms those who have no problems and difficulties in their lives can learn to sympathize with those in trouble and pray for those who are suffering or persecuted.
Laments Versus Violence
Wenham asks, “Should a Christian really say, for example, these words: ‘Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none?'”
1. It is surely better to pray to God to punish the wicked than to do it yourself. Praying the laments breaks the circle of violence instead of perpetuating it.
2. These prayers to God to judge the wicked are an expression of hope in God’s justice. None of us wants to see the wicked get away with it. Human justice is very imperfect…By calling on God to intervene, the psalmist or the one praying the psalms is affirming that God is the utterly fair and all-knowing judge. To those suffering, such laments are a message of hope: God will not let the wicked get away with it forever.
3. These psalms do more…If we care about the suffering of our fellow Christians, we should pray these psalms.