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Psalm 39: An Individual Lament

13 Nov

In The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Roland E. Murphy identifies Psalm 39 as “an individual lament, in a highly original form” (1:582). I will describe in this paper how Psalm 39 exemplifies an individual lament, following an identification of the characteristic elements of this type of psalm. I will then discuss ways in which Psalm 39 is unique: How it diverges from the typical form of the individual lament, and what elements of the psalm of lament are emphasized to a greater degree in Psalm 39 than in the usual individual lament.

Claus Westermann specifies eight distinctive parts of the “Psalms of petition or lament of the individual” (Westermann 64). The first of these parts is the address. In Israelite psalms of lament, addresses are notably brief, especially in comparison to the frequently lengthy introductory addresses of ancient “Babylonian and Egyptian laments” (Kolarcik 15). The addresses of Israelite psalms of lament presume “proximity [to] and familiarity” (Ibid.) with their addressee, who is invariably God. The second component of a psalm of lament, according to Westermann, is the lament proper or the complaint, directed against God or against enemies of the psalmist, who are often depicted as a “powerful army,” deceitful accusers in a “court scene,” or animals, for example (Kolarcik 16). In the case of a penitential psalm, the psalmist’s complaint is self-directed, in lament of his own sin. Complaints may be aimed at more than one of God, an enemy, or the psalmist’s self, even within the same psalm. Laments also feature expressions of “hope and trust in God,” termed by Westermann as a “confession of trust” (64) and by Michael Kolarcik as a “review of past” (15, 17). The psalmist expresses trust in God based on a historical record of God’s intervention on behalf of Israel. The “review of past” may also adopt the form of a sapiential reflection.

“In light of the trust” in God that Kolarcik cites as “the foundation of the lament, the psalmist then makes known the specific petition” (17). Such petitions are imperatives; the psalmist demands that God respond to them.  Psalms of lament may also include a series of “additional motive[s]” for God to answer the psalmist’s plea: God, says the psalmist, “will benefit from intervention on the psalmist’s behalf” (Kolarcik 18).  Some psalms of lament feature a “double wish,” whereby in entreating God to act in the psalmist’s defence, the psalmist also calls for a divine curse or punishment upon his enemy. Notably, in no psalm does the psalmist ask for the ability or strength to crush an enemy, but the psalmist entrusts this action to God. A statement of “divine response,” which conveys “assurance that the lament and the petition have been heard” (Ibid.), is included in some psalms of lament. Lastly, most psalms of lament contain a “vow to praise” God (Ibid.) should God alleviate the causes of the lament.

Of Westermann’s eight elements of an individual lament, he names five of these as “constituent parts” of this type of psalm: the “address, lament, confession of trust…petition, [and] vow of praise” (Westermann 64). The order in which these parts appear in a particular lament are unimportant to Westermann (Ibid.): “This… basic scheme… never becomes stereotyped.” Psalm 39 contains four of five of Westermann’s essential parts of an individual lament, lacking entirely a vow to praise. This psalm incorporates none of the other three elements of individual laments: motives, a double wish formula, or a statement of divine response.

Psalm 39 does include a brief address to God that, not unusually with respect to psalms of lament, is linked closely with the core of the psalmist’s address: “Listen to my prayer, LORD, hear my cry” (New American Bible, Psalm 39:13). However, Psalm 39 is atypical in the placement of its address in its next-to-last verse. The address, Kolarcik observes, is designed to open “the dialogue to what is important for the psalmist”: that God answer the petition (15). As such, the address most frequently serves as an introduction to the remainder of the psalm of lament, and is therefore not placed near the end of such a psalm. Instead of beginning with an address to God, Psalm 39 opens with a lengthy review of the past relationship between God and the psalmist (vv 2-4).  This review of the past is followed by the psalmist’s petition: “LORD, let me know my end, the number of my days, that I may learn how frail I am” (v 5). The placement of this petition within Psalm 39 is not unusual for an individual lament. However, James L. Crenshaw writes that “a peculiar feature of laments within Psalms [is] a decisive transition from plea to confident trust that [the LORD] will act to rectify the situation” (Crenshaw 81-82). Such a transition is present in Psalm 39. However, the expression of trust  (vv 6-8) begins as a sapiential reflection that continues until verse seven– a true statement of trust occurs in verse eight, “You are my only hope”– but also, according to Murphy (1:582), as a complaint against God: “You have given my days a very short span” (v 6a).

Several alternations, in fact, from review of past (vv 2-4, 6-8, 12, 13b), much of which is contained in sapiential reflections (vv 6-7, 12, 13b), to petition (vv 5, 9, 11a, 13, 14), take place in Psalm 39. The first lament cited by Murphy (v 6) is contained within a sapiential reflection, but the first clear complaint, directed against God, is expressed well into Psalm 39: “You were the one who did this… I am ravaged by the touch of your hand” (vv 10, 11b). The lament here is split by the petition, “Take your plague away from me” (vv 11a). Psalm 39 then concludes with an unresolved petition: “Turn your gaze from me…” (v 14). As Murphy suggests, the “dark note” on which Psalm 39 ends nonetheless conveys the trust of the psalmist in God amid what is likely mortal illness. This verse may also serve as a reminder from Torah: “[God’s] face you cannot see, for no [one] sees [God] and still lives” (Exodus 33:20).

I have thus analyzed how, in its elements, structure, and emphasis, Psalm 39 exemplifies a psalm of individual lament, and I have highlighted differences in this psalm from the typical form of an individual lament.

Bibliography

Crenshaw, James L. The Psalms: An Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Kolarcik, Michael. “The Psalms of Lament,” in RGB2263H F Lecture Notes, 15-19. http://individual.utoronto.ca/mfkolarcik/PSALMS3_3Laments.PDF. Accessed 16 October 2011.

Murphy, Roland E. “Psalms.” In The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, 2:569-602. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

 New American Bible.

Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981.

This paper was submitted in November, 2011; MDiv Year III, Semester 1; for a course entitled “Psalms” (RGB 2263HF) at Regis College, Toronto, Canada. Hopefully this Christmas season is not causing  many to lament, but as I show, the purpose of the lament in the Psalms is to convey trust in God that is at the root of any good complaint!

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