It strikes me that the passive aspect of the term lament is quite appropriate as it seems the Psalmist is always fully aware of God’s sovereignty and their own inability to right the injustice or perceived wrong in the face of that sovereignty. I also agree with Tyler that complaint seems to trivialize the petition while lament, in my opinion, more appropriately captures the emotional gravity of the situation. From my own experiences, I would more often characterize my moments of grief and frustration with God as laments rather than complaints.While Tyler, after summarising other suggestions, like "songs of prayer" - which while it has the advantage of using "biblical language" is neither really English, nor captures the precise nature of these "songs", writes:
I wonder if a more appropriate name for these psalms may be “pleas” or “petitions.” Gunkel and most other psalms scholars after him have recognized the most important element of the lament psalm is the plea or petition for help. Gerstenberger calls it the “very heart of a complaint psalm” and claims that “in fact, all the other elements can be interpreted as preparing and supporting the petition” (Psalms, FOTL, 13).I rather like this, as he notes the heavyweights draw attention to the central role of the "plea" in these psalms. But I am still a bit nervous of domesticating them. "Plea" sounds so much safer than "complaint" when addressed to God... And some of them are not at all "safe". Jeremiah's disputes with God somehow seem tamed if one calls them "pleas".
Complaining in Faith to God
The Costly Loss of Lament
Lament as One Stage in a Journey
[Tyler uses the more "traditional" name for this sort of psalm "lament" I'm convinced that Gerstenberger and others are correct and that "complaint" - a root Tyler uses a lot in the post, but chooses not to use to name the category - fits the content better. These psalms claim that something is wrong with the world, usually complaining that God has not acted to right the wrong and go on to petition God to put it right. They seldom stop at merely lamenting the wrong.]
In discussing the ways in which complaint is a form of prayer that is deeply faithful (contrary to the contemporary feeling that to complain to the Almighty would show lack of trust) Tyler has the nice line:
No matter how virulent the psalmist gets - at least the psalmist knew where to direct his complaints!
Which fits with Anon's (I thought that the quote came from Conrad Gempf but can't find it) claim that central to Old Testament talk of God is the understanding that "The one thing God cannot stand is to be ignored." The Bible consistently tells us the story of a unique God (as opposed to a god), who is passionate ("jealous") such a God is a natural target for complaint (after all if there is no other power who else can we hold responsible) and "big enough" to take it. Any less is lack of faith, or lack of trust or relationship!
Tyler follows Brueggemann in his analysis of the consequences of the loss of complaint in public and private worship. A faith that merely praises, while sileconnivesomplaint conives with stiflings quo, stiffling the personhood of the people, and denying real relationship. In the end such an "accepting" or stoic faith denies God and demeans humanity!
The main area where I'd have liked to see Tyler go further is in his last section. This is the time to introduce Brueggemann's greatest gift to readers of psalms, the three fold circle (or spiral) of experience expressed in the psalms:
Life is good - psalms that express satisfaction and joy at God's well-ordered world (Brueggemann's psalms of orientation).
Life is a mess - psalms of complaint, confession etc. (Brueggemann's psalms of disorientation).
Psalms that at first glance look like the thanksgivings and praise of the orientation phase, but go deeper and recognise that life is a gift (reorientation in Brueggemann's classification)
Brueggemann sees this cycle happening in life, time and again, not just in psalms. This notion seems to resonate with each class of students to whom I've taught this material.
[I wrote about this approach to the psalms as "appropriate spirituality" back in March 2004. At that time I called the three categories good space, bad space, and God space now I prefer the "life is good, life is a mess, life is a gift" approach.]
There's a nice scene in the old movie Titanic that captures this. Jack a poor drifter has been invited to the first class dining room (watch the film if you need to know more). He explains that he won his ticket in a poker game, his rich and powerful audience respond in various ways:
life's a game of chance
a real man makes his own luck
I think life is a gift
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