While there are numerous hymns of praise and thanksgiving in the Psalter, petitions and laments form the largest single category of psalms.
These entreaties are moving prayers that reflect the challenge of honoring God when difficulties arise. They express the reality of life’s struggles—day-to-day temptations as well as major setbacks and failings—in a world that has been infected by mankind’s sin.
Many of the laments in the psalms concern the supplicant’s own circumstances—for example, personal sufferings and troubles; life-threatening sickness; or persecution, harassment, or false accusations brought against him by his enemies. These individual prayers are composed in the first person as heartfelt cries for God to come to the psalmist’s aid in misfortune. Typically, they open with an appeal or invocation to God; then follows a description of the distress and a request for the needed help—perhaps for healing, for rescue, or for vindication.
At times the psalmist’s prayer includes an admission of sin (seen as the cause of the trouble) and a plea for forgiveness, while at other times there is an assertion of innocence and righteousness. Frequently, the psalmist states reasons why the Lord should hear his prayer, citing his own fidelity or recalling God’s covenant promises. Such entreaties commonly end with gratitude or an exuberant proclamation of God’s glory. Though the supplicant expresses pain and deep personal anguish, his prayer is never without some trace of hope and trust in God and an expression of confidence that God has heard his cries and will deliver or save him.
Psalms 42 and 43 were originally a single poem, sharing a single meter and united theme. The highly lyrical style of this lament of one living near Israel’s northern border—near Mount Hermon and the headwaters of the Jordan River (Psalm 42:6)— makes it one of the finest poems in the Bible. It’s not actually clear how the psalmist, probably a Levite or one of the Temple singers, came to be so far from Jerusalem, but the deep sadness of his song suggests that he might have been among the captives led off by invading kings, perhaps even earlier than the time of the Babylonian Exile. If you’ve ever had a bad case of homesickness, then you know how this psalmist is feeling! His poignant longing strikes a universal chord—who hasn’t experienced times when God seems absent or far away? This ardent prayer of an exiled Israelite reflects the prayer of all who long to see God and yearn for their heavenly homeland.
The imagery of the deer panting with thirst vividly expresses the unquenchable yearning experienced by the psalmist. The cry “My soul thirsts for God, / for the living God. / When shall I come and behold / the face of God?” (Psalm 42:2) vibrates with the exile’s intense longing for the Lord. He is distressed by this feeling of deep thirst, which is insatiable because of the distance separating him from the Temple in Jerusalem and the hindrances of his enemies. Their mocking taunt, “Where is your God?” (42:3, 10), intensifies his pain. However, the psalmist keeps up his courage with a fervent trust in God, voiced repeatedly in the refrain “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him” (42:5, 11; 43:5), which binds the two psalms together into one poem.
The psalmist’s craving to draw near to God, the fountain of living water, is inseparable from his memories of going up to the Temple sanctuary in the company of fellow worshippers (Psalm 42:4). Recalling God’s past nearness, now seemingly lost, brings pain but is also the basis for hope—the psalmist will be vindicated and again “go to the altar of God” (43:4). Together, Psalms 42 and 43 offer us the assurance that our own tears, questions, disquiet, despondency, and oppression are not overlooked by the Lord. As we have known God’s presence in the past, so we can trust that we will again delight in his presence in the future.
The Example of St. Thomas More
Consider the plight of Sir Thomas More, whose feast day is celebrated on June 22. More was a lawyer in sixteenth century England. He was also a social philosopher, author, a Chancellor to King Henry VIII, and Lord High Chancellor of England from October 1529 to May 16, 1532.
In 1534 the English Parliament passed legislation that declared King Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England. Holding fast to the Catholic Church’s teaching on papal authority, Sir Thomas More refused to take an oath recognizing the king’s supremacy, which was required by the law, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Fifteen months later, he was tried for treason. Convicted on perjured testimony, Sir Thomas More was sentenced to death and beheaded on July 6, 1535. On the scaffold, he told the crowd of spectators that he was dying as “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Sir Thomas More found strength and comfort in the psalms during his imprisonment. A short version of the breviary and Psalter that he used in the tower called the Book of Hours still survives with marginal annotations written in his own hand. These notes give us insight into his spiritual life and inner struggles as he approached death.
More prayed the psalms frequently and highlighted many verses in the Book of Hours particularly relevant to his circumstances, among them Psalm 27:3: “Though a host encamp against me, / my heart shall not fear; / though war arise against me, / yet I will be confident.”
Other notes reveal his awareness of his human frailty and ask for strength and the grace of virtues such as perseverance and hope—for example, he penned the word “trust” next to Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I fear no evil.” Next to the lines “How lovely is thy dwelling place, / O Lord of hosts! / My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord” (Psalm 84:1-2), he wrote, “The prayer either of a man who is shut up in prison, or of one who lies sick in bed, yearning [to go] to church, or of any faithful man who yearns for heaven.”
And one note that reveals More’s deep longing for God is especially moving when we recall that, filled with the ardent desire to see God, he wrote it while awaiting execution: “Happy the man who can say this from his soul: As a hart longs for flowing streams, / so longs my soul for thee, O God. / My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. / When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:1-2).
This selection is excerpted from The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2013) Available at www.wau.org/books