Finding Lost Words: The Church’s Right to LamentWritten by G. Geoffrey Harper and Kit Barker, eds. Reviewed By Dieudonné Tamfu
Finding Lost Words, edited by Geoffrey Harper and Kit Barker, draws two conclusions about the Western church: it needs to rediscover lament, and the gap in Psalms studies between biblical scholarship and the church needs to be bridged. Thus, the book’s fifteen Australian contributors aim “to make recent developments in Psalms scholarship accessible to pastors and students, and to assuage the loss of lament in the life of the church” (pp. 2–3).
The volume has five parts. Part one surveys the history of the use of lament and grieves the demise of lament in the western church (pp. 9–23). The authors recount that John Calvin, John Wesley, and Charles Spurgeon all embraced laments psalms as prayers to be emulated and even endorsed them for corporate worship (pp. 24–51).
The second section addresses theological questions that often hinder the use of lament psalms. How are the words once directed to God now God’s word for his people? Does lament suggest a failing trust in God or an unsound frustration with God? Does the work of Christ and the triumphant theme of the New Testament nullify the need for lament? If not, how do the lament psalms function in light of Christ’s work?
Part three contains essays focused on exegetical issues. Two of the essays explain how to interpret Hebrew poetry. One essay discusses the best methods for translating lament psalms (pp. 175–88). Among other helpful guides, the essays demonstrate that interpreters must read lament psalms in the context of the entire Psalter (pp. 133–47), paying attention to their placement in the Psalms.
The essays in part four discuss how lament can be employed in the church: preaching lament (pp. 191–203), singing lament (pp. 204–22), praying lament (pp. 223–36), and lament in pastoral care (pp. 237–48). Part five exemplifies the preaching of lament psalms with four sermons, two on Psalm 88, one on Psalm 13, and one on Psalm 137. The volume concludes with the appeal, “If Jesus Wept, You Can Too” (pp. 283–87).
The authors rightly mourn over our lack of grieving in the Western church. Over time the church in the west has developed the notion that lament is incompatible with faith. Such a notion, the authors reveal, could not be more removed from the way the Bible presents faith in Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus has not eliminated the use of lament, rather, it is the basis for which we can come to God with every emotion and pain. Because of Jesus, we can complain with confidence that he will not reject us. “We cannot withhold parts of our lives from our conversation with God lest we withhold part of our life from his sovereignty” (p. 22). The authors correctly argue that lament does not indicate lack of faith. Rather, “Lament is a genuine cry of faith, not faithlessness, for at its core is a recognition that one’s own personal situation, or situation in society, is in the hands of a sovereign God; the person of faith brings their complaint to their sovereign Lord, instead of complaining to others about him” (p. 21).
It is not uncommon to hear someone apologize for crying or grieving in a time of severe loss. The fact that people find it necessary to apologize for weeping in suffering reveals our gross need for the revival of lament psalms in our churches. Through the lament psalms the church can find words to express their faith in suffering, as they cry and complain to their sovereign Lord.
While the volume brims with insight after insight, one significant weakness is the lack of gospel preaching in the model sermons. One of the model sermons, on Psalm 137, does not mention Jesus, the cross, or the gospel (pp. 268–75). In addition, the sermons mainly portray Jesus as a model for how to use lament psalms. While it is true that Jesus’s life of suffering and lament is an example for believers (cf. 1 Pet 2:21), to present him only as a model to imitate leaves out a significant component of his work on the cross. Jesus modeled for us how to lament, but he also empowers us to cry “Abba! Father!” by his Spirit, and we lament with greater hope than the psalmists because Jesus’s death offers us the greatest possible assurance of God’s love, nearness, and faithfulness (Rom 8:32). Jesus is more than a model—I do not think these authors would object, but I wish it were clear in their sermons.
In spite of this, the book equipped me to serve the suffering sheep I pastor and the students I teach, and my heart burned at several points as I read it. I encourage you to read it and find the lost words of lament that your soul may be yearning for. Find words in lament psalms to express your faith in times of suffering. Jesus lamented, taking away our deepest pain, and we should also lament, as Jesus comes along as our High Priest to help us in our trials.
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA