Many of the psalms are what are called “psalms of lament.” These songs include themes related to sadness, discouragement, and even complaints to God. Why were these sad psalms included in the Bible? Isn’t God’s Word supposed to encourage us?
First, as a book of songs, Psalms includes the full range of human emotions. Many of the psalms are songs of joy and thanksgiving. Others are indeed sad, expressing the inevitable sorrow faced in human life. Psalm 6:6–7 expresses a deeply felt grief: “I am worn out from my groaning. / All night long I flood my bed with weeping / and drench my couch with tears. / My eyes grow weak with sorrow; / they fail because of all my foes.” David sometimes felt as though God had abandoned him: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? / Why are you so far from saving me, / so far from my cries of anguish? / My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, / by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:1–2). This particular psalm was prophetic, pointing us to the emotions that Christ felt on the cross (cf. Mark 15:34).
Second, songs of lament were sometimes used in repentance. Psalm 51:1–2 is set in the context of David’s repentance following his adultery with Bathsheba. David says, “Have mercy on me, O God, / according to your unfailing love; / according to your great compassion / blot out my transgressions. / Wash away all my iniquity / and cleanse me from my sin.” At the same time, David expresses his honest feeling that his bones have been “crushed” (verse 8) and he cannot shake his guilt on his own (verse 3).
Third, many psalms of lament follow a specific outline ending with an expression of trust in the Lord. The traditional pattern is 1) opening address, 2) complaint, 3) request, and 4) expression of trust. All of these elements can be seen in Psalm 2. The psalmist addresses God, offers his complaint, asks for the Lord’s help, and then leaves himself at the mercy of God for a response. These psalms, though sad in parts, should encourage us that “weeping may stay for the night, / but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
Some who have studied the book of Psalms have observed that the kinds of complaints found in the psalms of lament fall into three categories: 1) concerns with the psalmist’s life or actions, 2) concerns with an enemy, or 3) concerns with God’s actions or inactions.
For example, in Psalm 22 the psalmist is concerned with God’s apparent inaction. In Psalm 51, however, David’s concern is his own sin. At other times, the lament focuses on Israel’s enemies, wondering why God had allowed an opponent victory (Psalm 35).
While some psalms may be sad, not all are. In addition, the psalms of lament show the human condition expressed in poetic form. In reading the Psalms, we readily identify with the reality of human emotions and look to the Lord for help during times of need (Psalm 46:1).