Intro: Complaint as a Spiritual Act
Joel N. Lohr, PhD, is the President of Hartford Seminary, a leading interfaith graduate school. He is an award-winning author, scholar of religion, and passionate leader in interreligious relations and higher education. His teaching and research have focused on the Bible, specifically the Torah/Pentateuch, as well as Jewish-Christian relations and dialogue, Interreligious Dialogue, and Leadership in Higher Education. He has published ten books, with both academic and popular publishers.
Joel S. Kaminsky is the Morningstar Family Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of Bible in the Religion Department at Smith College. He has been a visiting professor at Duke, Harvard and Yale Divinity Schools and held the position of Visiting Jewish Studies Research Scholar at Durham University in England. The author, co-author, or co-editor of several books and numerous essays, much of Kaminsky's research seeks to illuminate the overlapping but quite distinct ways that Jews and Christians over the past two millennia have interpreted the Hebrew Bible.
The Book of Psalms has a striking number of individual and communal complaints that contain very strong indictments of God. Many readers assume that the Bible is a pious book and as such it should not have passages that question God’s behavior. But ancient Israel believed that God has a personal side to which the worshipper and the larger nation can appeal in very personal language. Much of the continuing power of this fascinating book is that it compellingly communicates the pain and suffering that are too frequently a part of our human experience. It might be said that the theme that pervades these psalms is distress. Some have estimated that lament psalms constitute over half of the psalms in the Psalter. Many of these psalms contain insights concerning the articulation of pain and how one learns to work through life’s difficulties and still embrace God.
There is some evidence that individual complaints, like the following one found in Psalm 13, reveal a two-step process in which the person first approached God to articulate his or her complaint, and after receiving an assurance either from a priestly official, or perhaps just from the experience of worshipping in the temple, were bolstered and reassured.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
This is not to say that all such psalms end on an upbeat note. Thus, the concluding line in Psalm 88, one of the darkest psalms in the Bible, is a thought that seems to trail off and whose final word is not one of hope, but actually the word “darkness” or a “dark place.”
One of the clearest examples of a communal complaint is Psalm 44, as one can see from the following excerpt. The psalm begins by recounting how Israel had always acknowledged that God, not Israel’s own armies, had conquered other nations and planted Israel in its homeland. Yet, it then goes on to note that things have gone completely awry and that after examining their own deeds the evidence suggests that God is not maintaining his share of the covenantal relationship with Israel:
Yet you have rejected us and abased us,
and have not gone out with our armies.
You made us turn back from the foe,
and our enemies have gotten spoil.
You have made us like sheep for slaughter,
and have scattered us among the nations.
All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.
Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
(verses 9-11, 17, 23-24)
One can see here quite clearly the forceful language the community uses to ask pointed questions of God when the evidence suggests that God, not the community, has fallen short. In fact, nowhere in this psalm does the poet state that Israel has sinned, something largely out of character for communal laments in the Psalter. One also finds here the idea that God needs at times to be awakened through the calls of the oppressed and downtrodden, just as God only begins to redeem Israel from Egypt when the cries of the slaves cause God to remember his covenantal obligations (see Exodus 2:23-25).
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In recent months, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing a tragedy that often leaves us feeling helpless and traumatized. While it would be pointless to deny that various human actions or inactions have either exacerbated or ameliorated some of the effects of the virus, most recognize that it is theologically problematic to view the virus as a punishment sent from God. To add to this, in recent days our attention has been drawn to instances of racial injustice, leaving many of us calling out the Psalmist’s words: “How long, O Lord?” or “You have made us like sheep for slaughter”. In these situations, we pray to God, not only for the strength to endure, but also to express a range of other emotions, including anger with God. Psalms like these help us articulate the complex set of feelings that pain and suffering—especially when experienced as undeserved or excessive—evokes in human beings and religious communities. That we have had to pray these types of psalms at home privately, or on Zoom meetings, or in churches and synagogues masked—standing apart from each other rather than worshiping together in close community—adds a new dimension to our understanding of the psalmist’s expressions of alienation from God, and may speak to our feelings of anxiety aroused by prolonged physical isolation from one another. These communal and individual complaints, directed not just toward God but often pointedly at God, constitute a central part of ancient Israel’s worship and can serve as an important spiritual resource today.
Excerpted and adapted from: Joel S. Kaminsky and Joel N. Lohr, The Hebrew Bible for Beginners: A Jewish and Christian Introduction (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 193-95.