Keeping Theological and Psychological Readings of the Psalms in Tension

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with psalms of lament, in particular Psalm 88, what just might be the most distressing lament in the whole Bible. In my time swimming in these dark, forlorn waters, I have a lurking sense of shock at the utter sadness expressed in their words. For years I have embraced lamentation as a valid and necessary element of a faith in the God of Israel. I have even said after a long season filled with horrible pains and losses that lament saved my faith because if praise and thanksgiving were the only acceptable prayers to God after my family and friends died, I would not want much to do with this God. Instead, God allows and welcomes our complaints and protests.

Psalm 88 is an individual lament rather than a corporate protest. Its individual nature invites psychological readings and some authors have noted that Psalm 88 accurately describes the experience of depression—loneliness, feeling rejected by God, sleepless nights, feeling trapped, etc. As I read the psalm I want to offer only a psychological reading of this psalm instead of a theological one. That is, I want to let God off the hook and say that Yahweh has not truly hidden his face from the psalmist, but that to the psalmist it merely seems like Yahweh is avoiding him. I want to say that statements made about God in the midst of lament do not adhere to an objective reality about God’s nature. After reading other theologians and having numerous conversations with people of faith, I know that I am not alone in wanting laments to be only subjective protests about the writer’s experience.

I notice, however, that we are generally happy saying that the psalms of praise or psalms of thanksgiving do objectively portray God. For example, we accept the writer of Psalm 145 accurately describes God when he writes, “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (145.9, NRSV). God truly and objectively is good to all. At the same time, we say the writer of Psalm 88 only expresses his thoughts and feelings when he says to God, “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them” (88.8). God didn’t really cause the writer’s companions to shun him, it just feels like God caused the writer pain.

Why the discrepancy, especially when nothing in the texts themselves suggests different readings?

The discrepancy stems from cognitive dissonance. We want to believe that God acts only generously and lovingly toward people—or the more specific variant, God acts only generously and lovingly toward people in the faith community—regardless of what we might experience at the given moment. Therefore we affirm praise and thanksgiving psalms as having objectively accurate descriptions of God. Any description of God that would contradict our picture of Yahweh must be diminished or dismissed. We might ignore lament psalms altogether. More likely, we say that lament psalms are important because they acknowledge suffering and show us that one can protest to God and still remain a person of faith. At the same time, we may insist, what these psalms say about God has little to no bearing on who Yahweh actually is or how Yahweh actually acts.

Our efforts to relieve our cognitive dissonance lead us to a dilemma of inconsistency that needs to be addressed.

We could say every claim about God in the Psalms relates to objective reality, but not many interpreters move in that direction. The verses of the Psalms overflow with symbolism and metaphor, the language of poetry. Some interpreters move the other way to solve the dilemma by saying all the claims about God in the Psalms are subjective. They have a lot to teach us about prayer, but we cannot draw many conclusions about God’s character from them. This option is largely unwarranted given the amount of theologizing we find in Second Temple texts, the New Testament, and other Christian and Jewish writings that grow out of exegesis of the Psalms. Those writers read the Psalms as having something objective to say about God, not just offering accounts of what life with God feels like. Since the Book of Psalms is a collection of poetry, it is probably best to say that the claims of God contained in any of them are a mix of the objective and the subjective.

If we are going to accept the claims about God in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving as objective, then we better accept that the psalms of lament also make objective claims. If we are going to posit the psalms of lament make subjective claims, then we must also assume that some of the statements about God in the praise and thanksgiving psalms are subjective. Our interpretation must respect that psalms are poems and songs, which by their nature use extreme language. As others have shown, the extreme language of poetry reveals deep truths, though not in the same way as scientific texts. Accepting the Psalms’ claims of God as a mix of subjective and objective may solve the dilemma of inconsistent interpretation in theory, but in practice, holding these poles together is a great challenge. How does one tell if a claim is subjective or objective? Or how does a reader know how much of a claim is subjective as opposed to objective?

The psalmists do not give us a guide that says, “These claims of God written in blue ink are theological and those written in black ink are psychological.” That is, there are no clear-cut answers to ultimately solving the objective/subjective dilemma. Instead, we have to risk by wading into the waters of the Psalms’ language. We let the Psalms shine their challenging light on our assumptions about life and God. We read these prayer-poems with our community and listen to others’ interpretations. We pay attention to and question our responses. It is precisely when we want to reject a psalm’s claims about God because we feel uncomfortable that we stop and consider what if these claims are true? This is a messy process, yet is deeply life-giving. The Psalms show us that life with God is no safe, easy affair. We will be challenged, shocked, and ultimately transformed. But we cannot be transformed if we try to remain on the outside, looking for clear-cut answers before engaging in a life of prayer.

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2 thoughts on “Keeping Theological and Psychological Readings of the Psalms in Tension

  1. Your excellent thoughts have me thinking about some of those very comforting truths we hold to be objective, like, um, all of Psalm 139. How would you weigh that in light of this?

    Also, “I was a sinner since birth” comes to mind as something the author could have been feeling in the moment, or it could actually be theological truth. Experience says its theological truth. Thoughts?

    • Thanks for the tough questions, Ryan. As I said, I don’t think there are clear-cut answers to solving the objective/subjective dilemma. Each claim has to be read and interpreted for itself. It’s best to look at how others around us and through history have interpreted the claims. I think the claims in Psalm 139 are a mix of subjective and objective. Even if they are objective, they are put in subjective terms. The psalmist seems to experience God’s presence and watchful eye in a comforting manner. I can just as easily imagine a person making almost similar claims of God’s presence, but interpret that presence as imposing and critical.

      I don’t want to undervalue psychological/subjective claims. Even if we could prove that a claim a psalmist makes is 100% subjective, it doesn’t mean it isn’t as valuable as an objective claim. My hope is that we would begin to see each psalm as containing theological and psychological truths and honor those truths. The problems with the laments is that we have a) relegated them only to subjective claims, and b) we value subjective claims less than objective ones. The subjective claim still reveals to us what life with God is like and how we can engage with God. Further, the community of faith has affirmed for thousands of years that these words are Scripture and didn’t rank the kinds of claims they make. That’s not to be taken lightly. We need the psalms. They teach us how to pray.

      I think your point about “sinner since birth” having some experiential backing is important and a helpful interpretive tool. The community of God’s people have read that verse in particular and through experience and observation has, for the most part, affirmed that it reflects an objective reality. But I would also say it contains deep subjective truth. I know that when I have faced seasons where I seemed unable to avoid sin that I said it was as if I was born into sin and have done little but sin throughout my life. Psalm 51 taught me how to confess my sins to God. It reminds us how seriously we are to take sin and repentance.

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