Fall 2015

Broken Hearts and Bold Faith

Psalm 74 and the power of lament
by Dr. Steve Roy

Psalm 74 is a psalm of the exile, a song of lament over the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It’s a psalm of corporate grief, of communal mourning. To be sure, it is a song that points us to the ultimate hope we have in our covenant-keeping God. But not before the agony of lament is fully felt and expressed.

The Bible is God’s story, and because God wins in the end, there is hope. But biblical hope is not naïve. It’s not unrealistic. It doesn’t ignore pain. Instead, the Bible is unflinchingly realistic and so very honest about suffering and the brokenness of our lives and our world. And as a result, it’s filled with lament, with grief, with mourning—in ways that so many of us evangelicals are not.

And so when we ask the difficult questions—How do we respond to terrorist bombs in Boston, beheadings in Libya, cancer deaths in the pediatric ward and Alzheimer’s theft of our mother?—Psalm 74 gives us a crucial part of the answer. Psalm 74 tells us that if we’re to be as honest and real and authentic as the Bible, we need to be a people of lament.

Deep grief

In Psalm 74, Asaph the psalmist is grieving over the deportation of the people of Israel and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The enemies of God were intense; they were hostile. According to verses 5-7, they were filled with such rage that they behaved like crazy men, wielding axes and smashing the paneling of the temple and everything else that made it beautiful. They burned Yahweh’s sanctuary to the ground and defiled the dwelling place of His name.

But more is going on than just enemies conquering a city. Their actions occurred after God, in His anger, had rejected His people. And this reality prompts the emotions of this lament.

Asaph begins Psalm 74 by laying bare his heart. He asks, “O God, why have You rejected us forever? Why does Your anger smolder against the sheep of Your pasture?” His questions are not so much a plea for answers as a cry of agony.

The pain Israel was enduring seemed to Asaph to be permanent. Truly, the suffering is always the most intense when we don’t know when or if it will ever end. The uncertainty is unbearable.

Asaph comes back to this point in verse 9, after he describes what has happened. You see, it wasn’t just the temple that was gone. No, the messengers of God, the prophets, were gone as well. And so God was silent: “We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left.” And worst of all: “None of us knows how long this will be.

All too often, we would rather live in denial.

Lessons from lament

Let me point out two key lessons we can learn from this psalm. First, lament presupposes a clear, accurate vision of reality. We will never lament as God calls us to do if we can’t see the situations of our lives, our relationships, our churches, our communities the way they really are.

In Psalm 74, Asaph is brutally honest. There is no sugar-coating of this situation, no positive spin to take the hard edges off reality: God’s dwelling place has been defiled, His name has been reviled and His anger burns against us. Lament faces reality as it really is.

One of the greatest obstacles to our own practice of lament is that, all too often, we would rather live in denial; we would rather close our eyes and enjoy our own comfort even while fellow image bearers of God suffer and die.

We do need to be careful lest we make too much of a parallel between the situation of Israel during the exile and our own situations. Yet this principle of lament still holds: If we are to lament as God would have us do, we cannot close our eyes to the nature, the causes and the consequences of terrorist bombings, of the poverty of our neighbors, of the prejudices in our communities and in our own hearts. If we don’t take that seriously, and if we don’t take seriously the fact that the people who are suffering are all image bearers of the Creator God (and many are our brothers and sisters in Christ), we’ll never be able to lament as we should.

The second lesson is that lament presupposes the engagement of a broken heart. Friends, you and I will never be able to lament if we try to assume the pose of the detached observer, the objective analyst. No, lament is about engagement—engagement of the heart even before engagement with our prayers and with our lives.

With those two lessons in mind, how should we as the people of God bring our laments before Him? Let me suggest two spiritual practices.

Ask raw, bold questions. Asaph asked, “Why?” And, “How long?” You might be uncomfortable with edgy, angry, anguished questions directed to God. Yet godly lament involves trusting God enough to boldly bring all of our emotions, all of our questions to Him. He delights in that kind of faith.

Pray for God to remember. The agonizing questions we saw in verse 1 are followed by the earnest prayer of verses 2-3, repeated in verse 18. Asaph calls upon God to remember: “Remember Your people; remember Your covenant relationship with them. And remember Mount Zion—remember this city where You dwell and Your sanctuary that has been destroyed. Remember the enemies who have done all this.”

God’s remembering is a prelude to action.

Theologian Derek Kidner teaches us in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary that in Scripture, God’s remembering does not primarily involve His mental state of consciousness. Rather, His remembering is a prelude to action.

We can see this, for example, in Exodus 2-3. The Israelites were in slavery in Egypt, and they were groaning because of their bondage. They cried out to God and “God heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:24-25). Then in Chapter three, God acted: He appeared to Moses in a burning bush; He called him to go to Pharaoh; He promised He would work to deliver His people from their bondage.

Do you see the connection? God’s act of remembering His covenant and His covenant people leads Him to compassion, to concern and, ultimately, to redemptive action.

Look and take action

So here in Psalm 74, when Asaph calls on God to remember His people and His temple, Asaph is asking God to act in compassion and in redemptive power. It is a bold prayer, made even more bold by the recitation of the reasons why God should remember His people.

Asaph reminds God of His sovereign work in the past—works of both creation and redemption. He speaks of God in verse 12 as “my King from long ago [who] brings salvation on the earth.”

The point is that Yahweh is the Redeemer of Israel, the Lord of all creation and the ruler of all the nations. This is the God whom Asaph calls upon to remember: O God, remember Your people; remember all that has happened to them; remember their suffering and pain; remember Your covenant with them. Remember them, have compassion on them and act.

That’s why the call for God to remember merges into prayer for action. The call of verse 2 (“Remember the people You purchased long ago”) leads into the prayer of verse 3 (“Turn Your steps toward these everlasting ruins”). In other words, Look with compassion and care on this city’s inhabitants—look and take action.

At the end of the psalm, the call of verse 18, “Remember how the enemy has mocked You, Lord” leads into the extended prayer of verses 19-23. This is a prayer that boldly asks God, among other things, to have regard for His covenant (verse 20), to work on behalf of the poor and the oppressed (verse 21), to rise up and defend His cause (verse 22)—in other words, to make things right.

When we face tragedies and injustice in our homes, our neighborhoods and our world, Psalm 74 models for us the response of godly, corporate lament. It moves us to seek as clear and accurate a picture of the realities involved as possible, for godly lament is always based on truth. It moves us to heartfelt engagement, connecting with brokenhearted empathy to real people and their pain. It moves us to honestly bring all of our questions to God and makes us bold to call on God to remember these people—His image bearers—and their suffering.

And as we call on God to remember, Psalm 74 makes us bold to intercede and ask Him to rise up and act. And you know what? That kind of bold faith will move us to rise up and act as well.

Adapted from a chapel sermon at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on April 18, 2013.

Dr. Steve Roy is associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.