Selected Individual Laments (Daniel Hoàng)



Structural breaks in the Individual Laments can be determined in light of syntactic patterns, focuses, and modes of speeches.    The opening poetic paragraph has several functions:

1) It addresses God

2) It petitions

3) It explains reasons for the petition 

The first clause of the opening paragraph is given in the second-person singular imperative that stands before or immediately after the vocative, asking God to vindicate, judge, save, rescue, or listen to the petitioner’s speech.  This construction is then usually followed by two subordination causal clauses, i.e., syntactic dependency, explaining the reasons for the petition.  The first causal clause of the pair begins with a perfective verb led by a causative כי; the second causal clause, which continues the motivation also with a perfective verb, begins with a waw apodosis/interclausal conjunction.[1]  These motivation clauses intend to move Yhwh to respond to the petitions.  Using Ps 26:1 again as an example that exemplifies such syntactical dependency construction:

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.

In the example of Ps 54:3-5b below, the short form of address-petition-motivation construction includes all three elements of address (vocative), general petition (imperative), and motivation (prepositional phrase) in one opening sentence, Ps 54:3a.  The next line, Ps 54:3b, contains a non-perfective and prepositional phrases reiterating the argument of the first line.  Another vocative and a series of additional imperatives or perfective or non-perfective verbs in second person singular repeat the invocation/petition/motivation construction.  Ps 54:3-5 illustrates such syntactical connection between the lines in the opening paragraph:

 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, may you 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.

In some cases where the situation seems urgent, the imperative takes an accusative beginning with the preposition מִן adverbial phrase pointing to the main source that causes the petitioner’s crisis.  Psalm 59:2-4a exemplifies this type of construction; one notes the imperative + imperfective clauses:

הַצִּילֵ֖נִי מֵאֹיְבַ֥י׀ אֱלֹהָ֑י

 מִּמִתְקוֹמְמַ֥י תְּשַׂגְּבֵֽנִי׃

הַ֭צִּילֵנִי מִפֹּ֣עֲלֵי אָ֑וֶן

וּֽמֵאַנְשֵׁ֥י דָ֝מִ֗ים הוֹשִׁיעֵֽנִי׃

כִּ֤י הִנֵּ֪ה אָֽרְב֡וּ לְנַפְשִׁ֗י

יָג֣וּרוּ עָלַ֣י עַזִ֑ים

Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;

May you set me aloft from those who rise up against me.

Deliver me from iniquity doers

And save me from men of bloodshed

For behold, they lie in ambush for my life;

Strong men attack me,

In other cases, as shown in Ps 64:2-3 below, the imperfects are used instead of the imperatives.  The imperfect takes double accusative adverbial phrases beginning with the preposition מִן, Ps 64:3a-b; this construction forms the parallelistic phenomenon of verb gapping.  The statements point to the source of crisis and express the petitioner’s suffering in order to motivate God to respond:

שְׁמַע־אֱלֹהִ֣ים קוֹלִ֣י בְשִׂיחִ֑י

מִפַּ֥חַד א֝וֹיֵ֗ב תִּצֹּ֥ר חַיָּֽי׃

תַּ֭סְתִּירֵנִי מִסּ֣וֹד מְרֵעִ֑ים

מֵ֝רִגְשַׁ֗ת פֹּ֣עֲלֵי אָֽוֶן׃

Hear, O God, my voice in complaint;

From dread of the enemies, preserve my life.

Hide me from the counsel of evildoers,

From the tumult of those who do iniquity.

In some cases, the change in the direction of address marks the structural break.  Accompanying such changes in directions are changes made in verbal forms to introduce different focuses and modes of speeches.  In the example of Ps 57:2-4 below, the shift from second-person singular to third-person singular forms moves God’s position from the direct addressee in v. 2 to become the background audience in vv. 3-4 (who are the direct addressee(s) in vv. 3-4?).

חָנֵּ֤נִי אֱלֹהִ֨ים׀ חָנֵּ֗נִי

כִּ֥י בְךָ֮ חָסָ֪יָה נַ֫פְשִׁ֥י

וּבְצֵֽל־כְּנָפֶ֥יךָ אֶחְסֶ֑ה

 עַ֝֗ד יַעֲבֹ֥ר הַוּֽוֹת׃

אֶ֭קְרָא לֵֽאלֹהִ֣ים עֶלְי֑וֹן

לָ֝אֵ֗ל גֹּמֵ֥ר עָלָֽי׃

יִשְׁלַ֤ח מִשָּׁמַ֨יִם׀ וְֽיוֹשִׁיעֵ֗נִי

חֵרֵ֣ף שֹׁאֲפִ֣י סֶ֑לָה

יִשְׁלַ֥ח אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים חַסְדּ֥וֹ וַאֲמִתּֽוֹ׃

Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,

Because I will seek refuge in you;

I will seek refuge in the shadow of your wings

Until Destruction passes by.

I cry to God Most High,

To God who provides for me.

May he send from heaven and save me;

May he reproach one who crushes me. Selah.

May God send his kindness and his faithfulness.

Using the preceding observations, e.g., change of direction of address, and syntactic phenomena in determining structural breaks, the following additional modes of speeches might be identified in the twenty psalms under study.

The Affirmation and Confession Mode of Speech

The Affirmation and Confession mode of speech generally consists of these three elements: a) declaration of trust, b) protestation of innocence, and c), confession of sins. 

  1. In the Declaration of Trust the waw adversative with the subject pronoun, e.g. “but I . . .,” or “but you . . .,” stands at the beginning of a clause indicating a change in mode of speech, and therefore a structure break:[2]

וְאַתָּ֣ה אֲ֭דֹנָי אֵל־רַח֣וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן

אֶ֥רֶךְ אַ֝פַּ֗יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃

But you, O Lord, are the merciful and gracious God,

Slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth (Ps 86:15).

  1. Protestation of Piety and Innocence: This mode of speech usually follows the Summons and Introductory Petition. An example is Ps 17:3-5:

בָּ֘חַ֤נְתָּ לִבִּ֨י פָּ֘קַ֤דְתָּ לַּ֗יְלָה

צְרַפְתַּ֥נִי בַל־תִּמְצָ֑א

זַ֝מֹּתִ֗י בַּל־יַעֲבָר־פִּֽי׃

לִפְעֻלּ֣וֹת אָ֭דָם בִּדְבַ֣ר שְׂפָתֶ֑יךָ

אֲנִ֥י שָׁ֝מַ֗רְתִּי אָרְח֥וֹת פָּרִֽיץ׃

תָּמֹ֣ךְ אֲ֭שֻׁרַי בְּמַעְגְּלוֹתֶ֑יךָ

בַּל־נָמ֥וֹטּוּ פְעָמָֽי׃

You have tried my heart, visited me at night.

You have tested me and found no evil in me;

I have determined that my mouth will not transgress.

As to the works of men, by your words

I have kept myself from the way of violence.

My steps have held to your paths;

My feet did not slip.

Confession of Sins: This mode of speech is infrequent in the group of psalms under study. An example is Ps 51:5-6 below:

 כִּֽי־פְ֭שָׁעַי אֲנִ֣י אֵדָ֑ע

 וְחַטָּאתִ֖י נֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִֽיד׃

לְךָ֤ לְבַדְּךָ֨ חָטָאתִי֮

וְהָרַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ עָ֫שִׂ֥יתִי

For I know my transgressions;

And my sin is before me.

Against you only, I have sinned;

And I have done evil in your eye.

The Complaint

This mode of speech has three categories: a) complaint against the enemies, b) complaint about the sufferings of the petitioner, and c) complaints against the Deity. 

The complaint against the enemies: In this type of complaint, the perfective verbs nuance the aspect of present perfect to describe the events that have happened in the past and continue in the present.  An example is Ps 55:3b-4:

אָרִ֖יד בְּשִׂיחִ֣י וְאָהִֽימָה׃

מִקּ֤וֹל אוֹיֵ֗ב

מִפְּנֵ֣י עָקַ֣ת רָשָׁ֑ע

כִּי־יָמִ֥יטוּ עָלַ֥י אָ֝֗וֶן

 וּבְאַ֥ף יִשְׂטְמֽוּנִי׃

I am restless in my complaint and I am distracted

From the voice of the enemies

And from the pressure of the wicked,

For they bring down trouble upon me;

And in anger, they bear a grudge against me.

Complaint about the suffering of the petitioner: The suffering can be due to illnesses, persecutions by the enemies, or the burden of sins.  In Ps 55:5-6 below, this mode of speech made no mention of the enemies.  Here, the suffering is mental illness, the terrors of death:

לִ֭בִּי יָחִ֣יל בְּקִרְבִּ֑י

וְאֵימ֥וֹת מָ֝֗וֶת נָפְל֥וּ עָלָֽי׃

יִרְאָ֣ה וָ֭רַעַד יָ֣בֹא בִ֑י

 וַ֝תְּכַסֵּ֗נִי פַּלָּצֽוּת׃

My heart is in anguish within me,

And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

Fear and trembling come upon me,

And horror has overwhelmed me.

In other cases, the suffering is the real physical danger posed by the enemies.  An example is Ps 57:5 below:

נַפְשִׁ֤י בְּת֥וֹךְ לְבָאִם֮

אֶשְׁכְּבָ֪ה לֹ֫הֲטִ֥ים בְּֽנֵי־אָדָ֗ם

 שִׁ֭נֵּיהֶם חֲנִ֣ית וְחִצִּ֑ים

 וּ֝לְשׁוֹנָ֗ם חֶ֣רֶב חַדָּֽה׃

My soul is among lions;

I lie down among cannibals who devour,

Their teeth are spears and arrows

And their tongues are sharp swords. 

The complaint against the Deity: This mode of speech is uncommon in the Individual Laments under study; it occurs only in Psalms 43 and 102.[3] This mode of speech usually contains a vocative clause naming the Deity as the cause of the pettioner’s suffering.  In the Individual Laments, there are two common types of vocatives: vocative of expression and vocative of exclamation.  Ps 54:3 contains an example of vocative of expression:

אֱ֭לֹהִים בְּשִׁמְךָ֣ הוֹשִׁיעֵ֑נִי

O God, save me by your name.  (Ps 54:3)

In the above example, אֱ֭לֹהִים is the vocative expression; it identifies the Deity as the one to whom the petitioner is speaking.  It is an independent syntactic element from the imperatival clause “save me by your name.” 

In other instances, the interrogative clause stands after the vocative and forms an exclamative expression.  One example of this type is Ps 22:1:

 אֵלִ֣י אֵ֭לִי לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי

My God my God, why have you forsaken me? 

The interrogative “why have you forsaken me?” identifies the vocative phrase “My God my God” as the person to whom the question is addressed.  Such vocative-interrogative construction is the direct exclamative expression.  Some have argued that this type of construction, and other similar interrogative clauses that occurred frequently in the Individual Laments, is the petitioner’s complaint against the Deity.[4]  However, it is an intricate matter to define the categories or dimensions of the complaint.  Depending on the context, not every example of this type of expression can be interpreted as the complaint against God.  Consider this lament proper in Ps 35:15-17:

וּבְצַלְעִי֮ שָׂמְח֪וּ וְֽנֶאֱ֫סָ֥פוּ

נֶאֶסְפ֬וּ עָלַ֣י נֵ֭כִים וְלֹ֣א יָדַ֑עְתִּי

 קָֽרְע֥וּ וְלֹא־דָֽמּוּ׃

בְּ֭חַנְפֵי לַעֲגֵ֣י מָע֑וֹג

חָרֹ֖ק עָלַ֣י שִׁנֵּֽימוֹ׃

אֲדֹנָי֮ כַּמָּ֪ה תִּ֫רְאֶ֥ה

הָשִׁ֣יבָה נַ֭פְשִׁי מִשֹּׁאֵיהֶ֑ם

מִ֝כְּפִירִ֗ים יְחִידָתִֽי׃


But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered themselves together;

The smiters whom I did not know gathered together against me,

They slandered me without ceasing.

Like godless jesters at a feast,

They gnashed at me with their teeth.

Lord, how long will you look on?

Rescue my soul from their ravages,

My only life from the lions.

Commentators have different interpretations of the phrase “Lord, how long will you look on?”  Gunkel sees this type of question as a rhetorical device designed to challenge the Deity’s honor, i.e., a motivation device to persuade God to act.[5] Miller considers it as a complaint against God to challenge the way God has acted or threatened to act.[6]  Kraus interprets the question as part of the supplication to follow.[7]  Hossfeld interprets the petitioner’s question as part of the lament proper.  For Hossfeld, the question has a more confrontational nature, i.e., it is not a complaint but an accusation (Anklage) made against the Deity; the petitioner accuses the Deity of being a bystander who watches the petitioner about to be killed by the enemies but not doing anything to help.[8] 

On the other hand, Eaton agrees with Westermann, interpreting the question, not as a complaint against but an appeal to the Deity for immediate responses.[9]  Such expression describes the petitioner’s feeling of isolation and distress; it assumes a close relationship between the petitioner and the Deity.

The complaints against the Deity clearly identify at length the Deity as the cause of the sufferings (cf. Psalms 6, 13, 43, 102).  In the complaints against the Deity, the petitioner explicitly accuses the Deity as the main cause of the sufferings.  This type of speech continues the complaint at length; it appears predominantly in the psalms of the communal laments, in Jeremiah, and in prose prayers.  In the twenty psalms under study, Psalms 43 and 102 are the only two psalms that contain the complaints against God.  Below is Ps 102:10-12 is one example:

כִּי־אֵ֭פֶר כַּלֶּ֣חֶם אָכָ֑לְתִּי

 וְ֝שִׁקֻּוַ֗י בִּבְכִ֥י מָסָֽכְתִּי׃

מִפְּנֵֽי־זַֽעַמְךָ֥ וְקִצְפֶּ֑ךָ

כִּ֥י נְ֝שָׂאתַ֗נִי וַתַּשְׁלִיכֵֽנִי׃

יָ֭מַי כְּצֵ֣ל נָט֑וּי

 וַ֝אֲנִ֗י כָּעֵ֥שֶׂב אִיבָֽשׁ׃

For I have eaten ashes for bread;

And I have mixed my drink with weeping

From your indignation and your wrath,

Because you have lifted me up and cast me down.

My days are like a stretched out shadow,

And I, like grass, wither away.


Another example of the complaint against God is Ps 80:5-7 below.  The complaints made against the Deity are clear and pronounced.  The petitioner accuses the Deity as the acting agent for all the hardships and embarrassments; the accusations made against the Deity are explicit.  Zenger interprets Ps 80:5-7 as “reproaching Yahweh with the utter contradictoriness and absurdity of his behavior.”[10]

יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֣ים צְבָא֑וֹת

עַד־מָתַ֥י עָ֝שַׁ֗נְתָּ בִּתְפִלַּ֥ת עַמֶּֽךָ׃

הֶ֭אֱכַלְתָּם לֶ֣חֶם דִּמְעָ֑ה

 וַ֝תַּשְׁקֵ֗מוֹ בִּדְמָע֥וֹת שָׁלִֽישׁ׃

תְּשִׂימֵ֣נוּ מָ֭דוֹן לִשְׁכֵנֵ֑ינוּ

 וְ֝אֹיְבֵ֗ינוּ יִלְעֲגוּ־לָֽמוֹ׃

O Lord God of hosts,

How long will you be angry with the prayer of your people?

You have fed them with the bread of tears,

And you have made them to drink tears in large measure.

You make us an object of contention to our neighbors,

And our enemies laugh among themselves.

The Petition

The petition is the request made to the Deity to remove or lessen the sufferings.  The core verbal forms for this mode of speech are the imperative forms with first-person singular suffixes.  The jussives are also used in conjunction with the imperatives expressing the wishes for divine blessings for the petitioners (friends may be included), or curses of the enemies.  The petition generally consists of the following types: healing from illness, protection from the enemies, seeking justice, forgiveness of sins, removal of punishment, protection from sins, punishment of the enemies, and gracious divine intervention.[11] 

The petition for gracious intervention can be given in the form of negative prohibition and is often interpreted erroneously, in my view, as the complaint against God.  Ps 35:20-22 is one example:

 כִּ֤י לֹ֥א שָׁל֗וֹם יְדַ֫בֵּ֥רוּ

 וְעַ֥ל רִגְעֵי־אֶ֑רֶץ דִּבְרֵ֥י מִ֝רְמוֹת יַחֲשֹׁבֽוּן׃

וַיַּרְחִ֥יבוּ עָלַ֗י פִּ֫יהֶ֥ם

אָ֭מְרוּ הֶאָ֣ח׀ הֶאָ֑ח רָאֲתָ֥ה עֵינֵֽינוּ׃

רָאִ֣יתָה יְ֭הוָה אַֽל־תֶּחֱרַ֑שׁ

 אֲ֝דֹנָ֗י אֲל־תִּרְחַ֥ק מִמֶּֽנִּי׃

For they do not speak peace,

But they devise deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land.

They opened their mouth wide against me;

They said, “Aha, aha, our eyes have seen it!”

You have seen it, O Lord, do not keep silent;

O Lord, do not be far from me.

The negative prohibitions, Ps 35:22a-b, are theologically loaded.  I interpret such negative prohibitions as the rhetorical statements intended to move the Deity to response.  These statements nuance the essences of the Deity: God knows all things for he has “seen it.”  God has spoken in the past and is expected to speak again, thus “O Yhwh, do not keep silent.”  From divine presence to divine immanence, God is everywhere and is present amidst his people and so the expectation “O Lord, do not be far from me.”  One should interpret the ideas of the absence and silence of God in relation to the expectation of the certainty that God will speak (cf. Pss 10:1, 17; 27:9; 69:17; 102:2; 143:7), and that God will reveal himself to intervene on behalf of the petitioner (cf. Ps 55:17-19).[12] 

Praise and Affirmation of Prayer Heard

Praises usually occur after the petition, or at the end of the poem.  The petitioner praises the Deity in order to persuade the Deity to take action.  Generally, praises might be grouped in two typical categories: conditional and unconditional.  In conditional praises, the petitioner makes a vow to praise if the Deity answers in favor of the petitions.  In some cases, this type of vow of praise involves the promise of sacrifices (e.g., Ps 51:21). 

Unconditional praises are the expressions of gratitude.  In other instances, the petitioner praises the Deity giving the indication that the Deity has heard the prayer.  This type of praise is usually declarative in general and often appears at the conclusion of the poem (e.g., Ps 57:8-12).  

[1] Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (2 vols. Subsidia Biblica 14; trans. T. Muraoka; Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico: Rome, 1996) 638.  See also, Anneli Aejmelaeus, “Function and Interpretation of כי in Biblical Hebrew,” JBL 102/5 (1986) 193-209.

[2] 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) 179; and so Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (trans. Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981) 69-75.

[3] Interestingly, scholars have raised many issues concerning the genre and structures of these two psalms.  Many have viewed Psalm 43 as the conclusion of Psalm 42.  The assessment of structure and genre for Psalm 102 is notoriously difficult; this psalm contains many difficulties and implications regarding genre classification.

[4] Cf. Hans Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms (trans. Keith Crim; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986) 137.  So Miller, They Cried, 70-71.

[5] Gunkel, Introduction, 155-56; so Weiser, Psalms, 303.

[6] Patrick D. Miller, They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) 70-74; so Craig C. Broyles, Psalms (NIBC 11; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999) 171.

[7] Joachim Kraus, Psalms (2 vols.; trans. Hilton C Oswald; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) I, 394; so Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms: Part 1 with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry (FOTL 14; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 152.

[8] Frank- Lothar  Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Die Psalmen 1-50 (Wurzburg: Echter, 1993) 221-22.

[9] John Eaton, Psalms, (London: Cromwell Press, 2003) 158-59.

[10] Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2 (Hermeneia; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005) 315.

[11] For a comprehensive list of verbs used in the petition proper, see Aejmelaeus, Traditional Prayer, 15-50. 

[12] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms (trans. Keith Crim; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986) 38-40.

Daniel Hoang

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