Individual Laments (Daniel Hoàng)


Daniel Hoàng

Form-Critical Implications in Structure Divisions of the Individual Laments

Gunkel claimed that a typical “Individual Lament” (as coined by him)  has these motifs: 1) summons, 2) lament, 3) motivations, 4) petition, and 5) assurance of prayer being heard.[1]  This classic structural scheme of the biblical psalms of laments pioneered by Gunkel in 1930s still serves as the basic framework for many form-critical psalm researchers.[2] 

After Gunkel, besides the work of Mowinckel, Westermann’s study is one major contribution to form-critical approach to the Psalter.[3]  Westermann asserts that the oscillating movement between two major modes of speeches of praise and lament characterizes the Individual Laments.[4]  While following Gunkel’s basic structural schema as the groundwork, Westermann claims that the Individual Laments typically have these component parts: 1) address and introductory cry or turning to God for help, 2) lament, 3) confession of trust, 4) petition, 5) assurance that prayer is heard, 6) wishes, 7) vow of praise, and 8) praise of God.[5]  According to Westermann, the biblical lament tradition is visible in the poetic material in the book of Psalms, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Job, as well as in the prose materials of the Deuteronomistic corpus and Former Prophets.  For Westermann, lament is the language of suffering; the lament in the Psalter has a historical antecedent and a sequel.[6]  The lament looks forward to the removal of sufferings, and its aim of making an appeal to God is evident in the internal structural transition from lamentation to petition.[7]  Thus, the lament functions as the ground of appeal and the argument of the petition.  In lament, the petitioners seek to inform the Deity about their sufferings, giving the reasons why God should remove the sufferings:

Lamentation has no meaning in and of itself.  That it functions as an appeal is evident in its structure.  What the lament is concerned with is not the description of one’s own sufferings or with one’s self-pity, but with the removal of the suffering itself.  The lament appeals to the one who can remove the suffering.  The transition is evident in the fact that the lamentation flows into petition (to secure God’s attention and intervention) – or, that petition follows lamentation.[8]

Westermann claims that the lament proper in the Individual Laments contains these three parts: 1) God, 2) the one who laments, and 3) the enemies.[9]  However, first, not all of the psalms he listed under the Individual Lament genre contain the lament motifs or make mention of the enemies, e.g., Psalms 26, 51, 54, 61.  More importantly, citing Psalm 6 as one example, Miller skeptically points out that “the relationship of the three dimensions to one another is often not very clear and the interpretation founders on the effort to understand that relationship.”[10] 

In addition to the arguments made against Westermann’s three-party participants, there is the issue of addresser and addressee(s): a significant number of psalms of Individual Laments contain the indirect/direct address to the background audiences.  Concerning the forms of address, there are many instances in the corpus of texts under study in which the petitioner speaks about the Deity using third-person singular forms.  The shift from speaking to the Deity (in second-person singular forms), to speaking about the Deity (in third-person singular forms), is a difficult issue and relates to the issue of genre.  Because of the shift, the direct addressee becomes the indirect addressee, and thus the direction of the speech suggests a social setting, e.g., a public prayer in the worship setting because the third party hearers are present.  Further complicating the issue is the question of what constitutes a prayer.  Are the Individual Laments prayers?  What is the definition of prayer?  I will discuss these issues in the next article. 

The challenges that form-criticism faces have to do with the difficulties in assessing the settings of the psalms.  Even more difficult to assess are the identities of the individuals, i.e., the psalmists/petitioners.[11]  Yet one predicament of form criticism is, ironically, the identifying of similar patterns of linguistic forms and contents so that the delineation of the structure of a psalm or group(s) of psalms into a specific genre might be possible.  This is not to say that a psalm that said to belong to a specific genre must bear a specific fixed structural pattern since it is unlikely that any poetic system will conform to such rigid rules. 

Gerstenberger, the problem of thematically based structure divisions:

The gross structure of any given psalm may be delineated syntactically in conjunction with the literary forms and focuses of its content into sub-units that properly describe the overall rhythmic structure of the psalm, e.g., in terms of its meter, or the number of stanzas/strophes, or modes of speeches.  I have discussed the uncertainties of the former two categories in previous articles and there is no need to repeat them here, but the lack of, or the uncertainty of these descriptions of the formal rhythmic structure often caused erroneous decisions leading to unnecessary textual emendations and structural divisions.  Many structural divisions of the psalms that are based merely on the thematic shifts alone are often found to be erroneous in instances where clear thematic markers are lacking.

Gerstenberger stresses that literary phenomena that occur in biblical Hebrew verse must be taken into account in the form-critical analysis in light of life situation and social setting.  The identifications of these situations and settings remain elusive; yet for Gerstenberger, the life situation and social setting is the cultic context of the liturgical setting for every psalm he interpreted.  Gerstenberger starts out not with the text but the presupposition of the ceremony ritual setting of the psalms: “As a last resort, they came to Yahweh.  “Asking” (š’l) or “seeking” (drš) the Lord for guidance certainly preceded the actual complaint ritual (see 1 Kgs 14:1-3; Jugd 20:23).  Afterward, Yahweh had to be entreated in a manner suggested by a prophet or a singer.”[12]  Concerning the literary assessments, he adds:

Normally the two parts of one line (each individually called a “hemistich,” or “colon”) correspond to each other in a synonymous, antithetical, or synthetic way.  The same feature is well known from other Near Eastern poetic literature.  The literary law here was followed in the whole region and probably developed from oral composition techniques using fixed word pairs.  The form-critical must recognize such general linguistic and literary influences, which may interfere with the formative impulse of liturgical setting on the Psalms.  This last statement is even more true for all those poetic devices that affect the overall structure of a psalm.[13]

According to Gerstenberger, the Individual Laments may contain these elements:

  1. Invocation (appellation and initial plea or petition)
  2. Complaint (descriptive, reproachful, petitionary)
  3. Confession of sin, the assertion of innocence
  4. Affirmation of confidence
  5. Plea or petition for help
  6. Imprecation against enemies
  7. Acknowledgment of divine response
  8. Hymnic elements
  9. Anticipated thanksgiving

As useful as the listing of these motifs is, one recognizes that not every psalm of the classic Individual Lament genre contains all of the above motifs and that a single line or a small group of lines can contain multiple motifs, so the main focus of these lines is not always clearly discernable.  An example is Ps 26:1:

שָׁפְטֵ֤נִי יְהוָ֗ה

כִּֽי־אֲ֭נִי בְּתֻמִּ֣י הָלַ֑כְתִּי

וּבַיהוָ֥ה בָּ֝טַ֗חְתִּי לֹ֣א אֶמְעָֽד׃

Vindicate me, O Yahweh,

For I have walked in my integrity;

And in Yahweh I trusted so that I will not be moved.

These three lines contain three major motifs: 1) invocation and general petition, 2) assertion of innocence, and 3) confession of trust/affirmation of confidence.  Clearly, it is erroneous to split this verse into three separate units as reliance on themes alone might suggest.   

Consider the opening lines of the two psalms that many have claimed belong to the classic Individual Lament genre.  The opening lines of Ps 22:2-3:

 אֵלִ֣י אֵ֭לִי לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי

 רָח֥וֹק מִֽ֝ישׁוּעָתִ֗י דִּבְרֵ֥י שַׁאֲגָתִֽי׃

אֱ‍ֽלֹהַ֗י אֶקְרָ֣א י֖וֹמָם וְלֹ֣א תַעֲנֶ֑ה

 וְ֝לַ֗יְלָה וְֽלֹא־דֽוּמִיָּ֥ה לִֽי׃

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me,

Far from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

By night, and I am not silent.

However, consider the opening lines in Psalm 54:3-5:

 אֱ֭לֹהִים בְּשִׁמְךָ֣ הוֹשִׁיעֵ֑נִי

 וּבִגְבוּרָתְךָ֥ תְדִינֵֽנִי׃

 אֱ֭לֹהִים שְׁמַ֣ע תְּפִלָּתִ֑י

 הַ֝אֲזִ֗ינָה לְאִמְרֵי־פִֽי׃

כִּ֤י זָרִ֨ים׀ קָ֤מוּ עָלַ֗י

 וְֽ֭עָרִיצִים בִּקְשׁ֣וּ נַפְשִׁ֑י

לֹ֤א שָׂ֨מוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לְנֶגְדָּ֣ם סֶֽלָה׃

O God, by your name, save me;

And by your power, vindicate me.

O God; hear my prayer,

Give ear to the words of my mouth.

For strangers arose against me;

And violent men sought my life;

They do not set God before them.

There is no lament in Ps 54:3-5.  The opening lines of the two psalms do not exhibit the same/similar literary forms, moods, thoughts, and contents, not at the word-level and certainly not at the line-level.  Therefore, structure breaks based on themes alone are erroneous because of the pre-determined presupposition of a setting in life and the forced thematic reading.  

[1] Hermann Gunkel and Joachim Begrich, Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel (trans. James D. Nogalski; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998) 121. 

[2] Undoubtedly, the Individual Laments have generated vast numbers of scholarly studies and researches since the time of Gunkel.  Although eight decades have passed, Gunkel’s genre classification of the Individual Laments and their basic structural schema, described in his Einleitung in die Psalmen, published in 1933 by his student Begrich after his death, continues to be adopted and modified by many form-critical commentators and psalms researchers.  Among them are:  Brueggemann, Message, 58 note 21; Gerstenberger, Psalms:Part I, 14; Kraus, Psalms, 54; Miller, They Cried, 55-134; Mowinckel, Psalms in Israel’s, 2: 1-25;  Klaus Seybold, Introducing the Psalms (trans. R. G. Dunphy; New York: T & T Clark, 1990) 116; Artur Weiser, Psalms: A Commentary (trans. H. Hartwell; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) 66; and Westermann, Praise and Lament,  64-71.

[3] Westermann, Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (trans. Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981).

[4] Westermann, Praise, 132.

[5] Westermann, Praise, 64.

[6] Westermann, Praise, 272.

[7] Westermann, Praise, 168, 259- 80.  Cf. Miller, They Cried, 70-86, 337-57.

[8] Westermann 261- 66; also in his other work, The Psalms: Structure, Content and Message (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980) 55-57. The notion of a “sequel of historical lament” might have prompted Balentine to argue that such assertion ignores the authenticity of the sufferings of the petitioners and that the freedom of expression and creativity does not bind itself to the literary-historical traditions.  Cf. Samuel E. Balentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible: The Drama of Divine-Human Dialogue (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1993) 149-50.

[9] Westermann, Praise, 169.

[10] Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Interpreting the Psalms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986) 49.

[11] For a good discussion of this topic, see Amy C. Cottrill,  Language, Power, and Identity in the Lament Psalms of the Individual (London/New York: Clark, 2008).  See also Steven J. L. Croft, The Identity of the Individual in the Psalms (JSOT Sup 44; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987).

[12] Gerstenberger, Psalms, 11-12.

[13] Gerstenberger, Psalms, 35.

Daniel Hoang

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