In 1965 Beatlemania was at it’s height. Ringo, George, Paul and John were overwhelmed. They struggled to have normal private lives because everything was on display and this was all before social media. John and Paul, in particular turned to the best coping mechanism they had, songwriting, and out of that time came one of their many number one hits. “Help! I need somebody. Help!Not just anybody. Help! You know I need someone. Help!” Later John commented that “the whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was subconsciously crying out for help.” Asking, let alone crying out, for help is not always easy. Most of us struggle with showing vulnerability, yet the most common form of psalms are called lament psalms. Out of the 150 Psalms approximately 85 are lament psalms. That’s over half, nearing on two thirds of the entire book is about people crying out to God- most of the time asking for help. What is interesting is that we hardly ever talk about them or address them in our responsive readings. It is most certainly easier to understand and sing psalms of praise. But what is important to remember is that the compilers of the book of psalms thought that requests for help, as well as hymns of praise, were appropriate human responses to God. By facing their doubts and acknowledging their weakness, Israel’s psalmists led worshippers to adopt a stance of complete honesty before God.
Often these laments take the form of prayers. Prayer is defined as “elemental language, by which our language becomes honest, true and personal in response to God.” Psalm 12 is a prayer and cry for help. This psalm is attributed to David, and that may be the case, but whoever wrote it was in a deep state of depression. However, it is not so much a depression for one’s self but for the state of the world. A modern version could be, “Help me if you can I’m feeling down and I do appreciate you being round. Help me get my feet back on the ground.” Won’t you please, please help me. Because God I need your help! God, we need your help! The psalmists of the lament psalms, especially psalm 12, feel totally overwhelmed and outnumbered in a society that says, “we know what we’re doing and we’re doing great. We’re in charge and we’re doing just fine. We can fix the problem ourselves and we don’t need God’s help.” That is what verse 4 laments, “I’m tired of hearing the words: we can talk anyone into anything, our lips manage the world.” The problem is that talk is cheap and when we turn our backs on God we end up in a world full of lies and deception. We end up in a world that oppresses the weak and creates a wide gap between rich and poor. And yet, the psalmist always hopes in God.
Now, here’s the challenge, it’s easy to say that God always answers those cries for help. But sometimes God doesn’t answer as quickly or in the way we would like. I also believe that God expects us to inhabit the prayers we pray, the cries we cry. If we are crying out for help when it comes to social injustice, then we also have to do something about it. When we pray asking that we will see displays of compassion, then we also have to display compassion. We must genuinely embody those prayers to see God at work. I do believe that calling out to God, praying to God for help, asking God to take our burdens means that God does indeed embrace us and hold us in loving arms but that doesn’t mean we are just simply recipients of grace and love but donors of grace and love.
There is something rather unique about Psalm 12 and it isn’t only that it can be compared to a classic Beatles song but it does have to do with music. At the beginning of the psalm, just before the verse begins, there is a musical instruction. It says, “To the leader:according to The Shem’inth”. Now, that word, Shem’inth only appears 3 times in Scripture. One time in 1 Chronicles when musicians are to play the Lyre as the Ark of the Covenant is returned to Jerusalem, so a joyous time, while the other two references are related to Psalm 6 and 12, both of which are lament psalms. No one really knows what the word means. Most believe that it comes from the word sha’man which means either 8 or fat. So, it could be in reference to an eight stringed instrument- like when we say that the violin, a four stringed instrument plays the saddest songs, well, this is doubly sad with 8 strings. While other scholars believe it refers to a low octave that only men, usually large men, could sing. Either way, at some point in history people were given the instruction on how to play this psalm and it likely was in a low or melancholy tone.
Lament psalms are frustrated, angry, anxious, hurting cries for help. They also, often touch upon, waiting. We have had our fair share of waiting these last few months. Half the time it feels like we’re still in March. In Psalm 130 and many others like it, the author is forced to wait for God in pretty despairing circumstances. We hear the words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” Out of the depths is one of those funny poetic terms that may or may not hit us with the most appropriate meaning. Some translations say, “out of the abyss of watery chaos” or “from the realm of powers of confusion, darkness and death” or simply “God- the bottom has fallen out of my life.” These are desperate times for this writer and yet they seem to also be in a holding pattern, waiting on God. The psalmist repeats “waiting and watching till morning.” And yet the circumstances he is in doesn’t feel like he should be left waiting. But also in this waiting an astounding thing happens. Hope shows up and through hope the psalmist is able to worship. In waiting we are hoping and in hoping we are worshipping. Right now we are in a holding pattern- waiting for a time when we can breathe deep and live without the anxiety of a looming virus. We lament the tensions that restrictions and distance has created. Yet in our waiting we are forced to reflect and cry out for help. We reconnect to the honest relationship God wants us to have with God and with each other.
Laments- waiting- cries for help- are all part of our worship. We have been thrown into an uncertain time and we find ourselves overwhelmed by outrageous behaviour by people in power. We find ourselves dismayed by the actions of our neighbours. I find that I am beginning to fear other people. I certainly am dismayed when I hear about how hurt and angry people are. In these troubling times lament psalms help pull us back to God’s wisdom even as they are cries for help. Feeling anxious, alone, or in doubt are not new and certainly not new to God. God can handle our anxiety and anger. God hears our cries and I truly believe appreciates our honesty. In fact, I think God laments with us. Help, we need somebody, but not just anybody- we wait upon the Lord- for it is in the Lord that our despair transforms into hope. Amen