What is a lament in the Bible?A lament is an expression of grief, sorrow, disappointment, or mourning. The Bible has many examples of lament. Nearly every prophetic book includes a lament, there are Psalms of lament, even Jesus engaged in lament when quoting Psalm 22:1 on the cross. Nehemiah 1:4 records Nehemiah's reaction to the devastating news that the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. It says, "As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven." The word "mourned" can also be translated "lamented." It says Nehemiah lamented for days. What exactly might that have looked like? The recorded laments in Job, Psalms, Habakkuk, and Lamentations might lend a clue.
After Job has been afflicted with ever increasing suffering, he says, "I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. … But when I hoped for good, evil came, and when I waited for light, darkness came. … My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep" (Job 30:20, 26, 31). Job looks at his situation and is honest about the pain he is suffering. He talks about his dashed hopes and how the only thing left to do is weep and mourn.
Psalm 88 echoes similar sentiments. The psalmist writes, "For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. … Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you. … O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 88:3, 9, 14). The psalmist starts with honesty about the state of his life. He says he is close to death and his soul is full of troubles. He remarks how he has reached out to God for deliverance and yet his suffering continues. And he begins to question why God has allowed his suffering. Like Job, the only response he can muster is to mourn before the Lord.
Most Psalms of lament only begin like Psalm 88, but then follow a more complete structure. They start with expressing sorrow, voicing the depth of the anguish in their current situation; then the psalmists cry out for deliverance, remembering the goodness of God; and finally they end expressing trust and rejoicing in God. Psalm 13 is a good example of a lament with this structure. It begins saying, "How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?" (Psalm 13:2). Then the writer asks for deliverance saying, "Consider and answer me, O LORD my God" (Psalm 13:3). And finally he ends with, "But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me" (Psalm 13:5–6).
The prophet Habakkuk also follows the more full structure of lament in his prophetic book. Habakkuk laments the injustices he sees around him living in Judah before Babylon overtakes Jerusalem. When he brings his concerns before God, God assures him that justice will be served. Habakkuk then ends his lament first stating the full extent of the suffering saying, "Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls" (Habakkuk 3:17). However, Habakkuk then shifts his focus saying, "yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation" (Habakkuk 3:18). Perhaps the best example of lament in the Bible is the book of Lamentations. While other books of the Bible contain examples of lament, Lamentations is the only book that consists solely of laments. Chapters one and two begin by expressing deep distress. Lamentations 1:20 says, "Look, O LORD, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death." Chapter three then shifts focus in verses 19–23: "Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." Here the author of Lamentations turns his focus from the horrors of his situation to the goodness of his God. Chapter four then contrasts the successes of the past with the distress of the present while clinging to the promises of the future. The final chapter, chapter five, ends asking for God's intervention in their spiritual lives saying, "Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old" (Lamentation 5:21).
These biblical laments show that God welcomes our honest emotions. He expects us to bring our anguish and distress to Him. The author of Lamentations filled his book (which is actually an acrostic poem) with only laments, and Nehemiah lamented "for days." There is no reason to hide our disappointment or sorrow from God and no reason to rush through these emotions reaching for joy too quickly. When we bring these laments before God, we align our hearts with His. Isaiah 63:10 states that God's Holy Spirit is "grieved" when people rebel. In Jeremiah 5:30, God remarks that, "An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land." God does not hesitate to look at pain and suffering and declare it a grievous situation. God does not delight in the suffering of His people. In Jeremiah 31:20, God declares about Ephraim, "I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him." Jesus is recorded to have been moved by compassion when confronted with people's suffering. Matthew 9:36 says, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." When Jesus saw people mourning over His friend Lazarus's death, "he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled" (John 11:33). It then says, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35).
God is not unacquainted with deep sorrow, so when we lament, we join with Him in declaring these situations as not ideal. We serve a God who rejoices in doing good to His people (Jeremiah 32:41), who grieves when suffering comes to them (Jeremiah 31:20), and who welcomes our laments (Hebrews 4:16; Matthew 11:28; 1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6).
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