A Look at Lament Songs in the Bible

Thursday, 09 November 2006 17:09

Barish Golland   Istanbul,Turkey

This brother shares his knowledge of an acient and relevant Biblical song form... The Lament

excerpted from ???The Sorrow Songs as Lamentation???, 2003
     Laments found in the Hebrew Old Testament, particularly those of the Davidic Psalms and the Book of Lamentations, offer us a particular kind of lament that incorporates themes unique to the plight of the Israelites. Many of these laments have also served as archetypes of suffering and deliverance that were to inspire many different cultures under similar circumstances, as in the case of the African-American sorrow songs. The Biblical laments - prayers and songs by faithful men and women of the Bible who showed a remarkable openness and honesty in their relationship with God ??? still carry powerful meaning and relevance for us today.

     Lament themes found in ancient Hebrew literature such as the Book of Psalms represent the deepest cries of agony, anger, confusion, disorientation, sorrow, grief and protest, expressed towards a God who they knew would listen and ultimately respond affirmatively to this emotional outpouring. A scholar on the Hebraic and Qumran laments has stated:

The lament proper typically speaks of both physical danger and mental anguish, wandering, bent and broken people attacked by the false words of the enemy, the wish that God take revenge on the enemy, [and an] appeal for deliverance  (Berlin 7).

According to Walter Brueggemann, a prominent Hebrew Bible scholar, ???lamentation becomes "credible speech" when communities are able to tell the truth about themselves and the world - and that happens (only) when certain theological underpinnings are in place??? (Smith 2). Those underpinnings involve a relationship between the lamenter and his God that is close and deep enough for the protester to speak in imperatives, addressing God as ???you??? and reminding him of his covenantal promises, as is the case with many of the lament psalms.


Dan Allender speaks of a more personal, heart-centered role of lamentation found in the Hebrew literature of the psalms, and translates its cry as the cry of everyman:


The cry of pain is our deepest acknowledgment ??? we are not home. We are divided from our own body; our own deepest desires; our dearest relationships. We are separated and long for utter restoration. It is the cry of pain that initiates the search to ask God, What are you doing? It is this element of a lament that has the potential to change the heart. (Allender 2, 5).

Allender, like Brueggemann, emphasizes that a personal relationship with one???s God is involved in the expression of lament. Though the Hebrew lament was mostly read in communal settings, there is still a remarkably internal and metaphysical reciprocity involved in the voicing of lament towards an extramundane authority. Allender goes on to say that a lament ???paradoxically voices a heart of desire and ironic faith in [God???s] goodness???Lament embodies the passions of need, the fight against injustice, and implicitly the loudest proclamation of hope??? (1,7). Here we see a paradox within the lament that mirrors the cultural archetype of affliction and restoration. It seems that the lamenter has both the acknowledgement of suffering and injustice, and the ironic or perhaps irrational faith that things will turn out for the better.

In the Hebrew lament literature, Psalm 22 is an exemplary individual lament that expresses, in its first lines, a cry of loss, but at the end an acclamation of hope. The speaker is first feeling as if he has lost his relationship with God, as if God has abandoned him:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

So far from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

By night, and am not silent  (Psalm 22:1-2).

The writer later comes to a renewed and thankful expression of trust and hope in a God that saves. Yet we see here a profound inner lament of loss in the context of apparent abandonment. In the original Hebrew it is a sung lament[1], so initially there must have been a much more emotionally heightened, metalinguistic effect on the listener through the music the text was set to.

The opening lines of this psalm have the lament motif of one directly addressing God, charging him with abandoning his servant. Here the ???I??? historically is attributed to David, as the heading, ???A Psalm of David???, indicates.[2] However, textually the identity of the speaker is left ambiguous. In later history, this lament was to be reiterated prophetically by Jesus as he hung nailed to a cross.[3] The long awaited Messiah, the Son of God, ended his life with a powerful expression of suffering in the form of a lament.

Even as this psalm is read today, the ordinary believer is allowed to attune himself with the universality of the suffering involved, and can place himself in the context of the first-person ???I??? and voice the same agonies through song. In effect this brings about a cathartic experience - a turn from suffering to thanksgiving, for by the end of the psalm the tone has changed from lament to praise:

They will proclaim his righteousness
          to a people yet unborn???
          for he has done it
. (Psalm 22:31)

        The theme of hope in a future good has in fact a prominent role in the Biblical laments. In the Book of Lamentations, for instance, ???the purpose of lament briefly gives way to a note of hope in God's faithfulness to His people.??? Though the lament ends on an ambiguous, open-ended note, in between hope and despair, ???still the promise of restoration remained for the nation as hope for the future.???[4] 

Among the classifiable lament forms in Hebrew literature, the city-laments found in the Books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah were most prominently used to proclaim judgment. The individual and communal laments in the Psalmic literature[5] served distinct social roles as personal and public prayers. All, interestingly enough, were traditionally sung in communal settings, either by individuals or groups of singers, in ritual and non-ritual contexts.[6] Many of the psalms have headings that give directives for musical performance, occasionally within the context of community rites:

The Psalms and prayers of early Jews were first intoned by the leader or cantor and repeated by the congregation, which became a refrain throughout the entirety of Psalm or prayer (Clark 283).

As with cross-cultural lamentation, here again we see how responsorial or antiphonal forms and leader-chorus alternation play a role in performance stylization, as was the case with that of the Afro-American spirituals.


The Hebrew psalms as religious lyric poetry are said to express ???the emotions of a poet as they are stirred by the thought of God and directed God-wards.??? As expressions of universal human realities and emotions, the lament psalms of the Bible use ???non-specific and highly metaphorical language??? and were used primarily as ???liturgical expressions of an ordinary individual???s suffering and restoration within the context of small group rites.??? Certain lament psalms are associated with the prayers of great rulers like King David or are prophetic accounts of future salvific figures like Jesus. Thus, in the lament psalms an especially compelling persona gives voice to his sense of what God has done to him, lamenting his predicament, with a not uncommon expression of a desired outcome at the end of the lament (Menn 1-3).


The communal laments in the Book of Psalms express the themes generally alluded to in the discussion on Hebraic laments. Certain characteristics commonly associated with the individual lament are unique to this sub-genre:

1. Direct address to God interlaced with charges of abandonment

2. Appeals to memories of former deliverance

3. Descriptions of taunting and threatening behavior of enemies

4. Enumeration of acute physical symptoms

5. Pleas for assistance (Menn 1).

The individual lament psalm has sustained the test of history as a genre most importantly because it allows for an exhaustive substitution of the ???I??? of the lamenter. In one psalm both King David and Jesus Christ a thousand years later can speak the ???I??? of the lamenter, allowing a broader inclusiveness all the way up to the modern believer. Thus the suffering and desire for restoration of the ordinary believer of today can find resonance with the sentiments expressed in a lament song written nearly three thousand years ago.

For more on the ???Sorrow Songs as Lamentation??? please see barishgolland.googlepages.com/thesorrowsongs2


Menn, Esther M. ???No Ordinary Lament: Relecture and the Identity of the Distressed in Psalm 22.??? Harvard Theological Review, Oct 2000, v 93, i4, p301.

Allender, Dan. ???The Hidden Hope in Lament.??? Mars Hill Review, Premier Issue:

pgs 25-38, 1994. (www.leaderu.com/marshill/mhr01/lament1.html)

Berlin, Adele. ???Qumran Laments and the Study of Lament Literature.??? University of Maryland. (orion.mscc.huji.ac.il/orion/symposiums/5th/berlin00.html)

Clark, Edgar Rogie. ???Negro Folk Music in America.??? Journal of American Folklore, Vol 64, No 253, Jul-Sep 1951, pp 281-287.

Smith, Alex. ???Hope and Hopelessness.??? Abstract for Conference on ???Recovering the Language of Lament.??? (www.wfn.org/2002/06/msg00062.html.)

[1] The heading for the Psalm reads, ???For the Director of Music. To the tune of ???The Doe of the Morning.??????

[2] Matthew 27:46. See Menn, pg. 3, for a detailed account of the identity of the ???I??? in this psalm.

[3] Matthew 27:46

[4]Theology Online, ???Lamentations, Introduction.???

[5] Psalm 77 and 88 are examples

[6] See for example Isaiah 16:11 and Jeremiah 48:36, where different instruments are said to be used during performances of laments. Jeremiah???s composed laments were taken up by singers (2 Chronicles 35:25).


We hope everyone enjoys this week???s article and our teaching column Biblical Arts Scholarship.

??         Barish Golland is a member of the Istanbul church of Christ. www.istanbulmesihkilisesi.org You can learn more about his works at is personal site barishgolland.googlepages.com

Barish was born in 1977 in Istanbul Turkey, to Canadian and American parents. He studied cello in the Arts Program at Canterbury High School and jazz piano with David Hildinger in Ottawa, Canada. He then went on to study Composition at McGill University in the Faculty of Music from 1996-1998 with a minor in jazz piano studies.

His early style (1993-1998) was influenced by modal jazz and modern classical music. Composers that have influenced him include Gyorgy Ligeti, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Keith Jarrett. Currently Barish is composing choir music and spiritual songs for congregational worship, and continues to explore modal jazz improvisation.

Barish???s arrangement of Psalm 103 is available with part teaching tools at www.ICCsongs.net

For further study on related topics, I recommend Douglas Jacoby???s CD series ???Reading, Praying and Living the Psalms???  Douglas Jacoby's Psalm Series It digs deeply into the various types of poetry found in the Psalms and will shed light on Barish???s work.

Other Bullets???

??         Jon Augustine will be performing in Baltimore on December 2, 2006 as part of his East Coast appearances sharing his newly released, inspired debut album ??? ???Carry Me Home???. See the Greater Baltimore Church of Christ web-site for more details. 

??         A Planning Survey for the 2007 Song Leaders' Conference is now set-up for the next month. We would really appreciate your help in giving input and getting the word out about it; especially to prospective attendees. It is an easy, five minute activity. Here's a direct link to the survey . 

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