Have you ever been so overcome with anguish you not only feel overwhelmed with sorrow but also utterly, completely, soul-despairingly alone, as if no one on earth could possibly understand the depths of your pain? In times like these, it helps to remember God is there, and He’s ready to shoulder your burdens, suffering, and distress. Not only does God understand and see you in the center of your pain, but He’s available for you, listening and ready as you cry out your heartache, anger, or sadness.
There are several general types of psalms in the Bible that help us understand and express our emotions, from praise and thanksgiving to wisdom, and one of these—called lamentation—is a powerful tool that God’s people use to navigate pain and suffering. Indeed, more than a third of the psalms in the Bible are psalms of lament. Some of the psalms are individual laments, while others are community laments. Regardless, lament is vital because it helps us while we are in the pit of our pain and difficulty. It’s a cry to God, begging or petitioning God to rescue us from our agony. In essence, lamentation is much like the “ouch” we utter when something hurts us physically, only it’s directed toward God.
And at its core, lamentation is an act of faith, for God is the only One who can do something about our pain. When we lament, we acknowledge that God is everything. In our weakness, we call out to our God knowing He is there.
Here, then, are five psalms of lament to remind us we are not alone. God is there, and God can help.
1. Psalm 130
Key verse: Psalm 130:1, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!”
Sometimes we are in misery because our own sin is a barrier to our joyful relationship with God. According to Halley’s Bible Handbook, Psalm 130 is one of several songs of ascent sung a capella by pilgrims traveling uphill to the religious feasts at Jerusalem (hence, “ascent,” as they were literally going up to Jerusalem). They are also called “pilgrim songs.” This is considered to be a penitential psalm, a psalm expressing penance or sorrow for sin, about keeping our eyes on God as we cry out for His mercy.
Here, the psalmist is calling for forgiveness. The first six verses appear to be a call for mercy from the individual psalmist, while the last two verses are more confident in nature, likely spoken by a priest and addressed to the whole community of Israel, assuring them of God’s ultimate triumph and love. The psalmist’s cry “out of the depths” is a reference either to the depths of the sea or the depths of hell—a dark pit of anguish where the sinful psalmist waits in need of forgiveness.
This psalm helps us remember that no matter what we have done to separate ourselves from God, God is a loving and merciful Father who hears our cry and wants to welcome us back.
2. Psalm 6
Key verse: Psalm 6:3, “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?”
Sometimes, we feel deep pain over physical calamity—sickness, harassment, or persecution— whether a consequence of our own making or simply a long period of painful suffering. There are times when we hurt so badly and painfully that we don’t think we can bear our aching a moment longer. This psalm, thought to have been written by David, calls to God for mercy, healing, and rescue.
The psalmist is clearly weary of the time it is taking to deliver him from his present circumstance. “I am faint,” he moans in verse 2, while in verse 6 he says, “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” He is desperate and begs God for help—now. He cannot bear his pain any longer. As he cries to God in our key verse, above, “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” (6:3). The psalm ends on a confident note with the psalmist now convinced, after baring his heart, that God has heard his cry and accepted his prayer.
It can be agonizing when it feels like God is taking a long time to rescue us from our suffering. But as this psalm reminds us, we can take comfort in knowing God is there. We can cry out to Him, and He will hear us and respond in His perfect time.
3. Psalm 38
Key verses: Psalm 38:9-11, “All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes. My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away.”
It’s not only the physical and emotional pain we feel inside ourselves that can drive us to our knees before the Lord. At times, the behaviors or attitudes of those around us can hurt just as much. Like Psalm 6, Psalm 38 is a strong lamentation that expresses fervent guilt over sin and begs for relief. This one particularly bemoans the suffering he experiences at the hands of others, who avoid him, set traps for him, and talk of his ruin (v. 11-12). Some of these are his enemies, while others are close to him, his friends and companions.
It hurts, the psalmist wails, lamenting all aspects of his pain: physical, emotional, and social. Don’t be angry, God—save me! But as our key verse reminds us, none of this is hidden from God. God sees all of our pain. He knows our hearts, and He’s listening when we cry for relief.
4. Psalm 10
Key verse: Psalm 10:1, “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
When troubles befall us, sometimes we find ourselves looking not at our own pain but at those around us. Maybe we see someone else in a similar situation who seems not to be suffering as much or at all, or we see others, especially those involved in flagrant, obvious sin, seeming to prosper while we are floundering. In Psalm 10, the psalmist turns his focus toward the individual “wicked man” (verse 2) who hunts down the weak, lies, and murders the innocent. And yet, this wicked man seems to prosper. “Why?” asks the psalmist. Why does the wicked man prosper and God stands aloof and detached, “far off” (verse 1), while he and others suffer so greatly?
It can be confusing when we are going through hardship to look around and compare ourselves to others. We don’t see the full picture and wonder why God appears not to care about us. Pay attention to me, God, this psalm chastises. Help me! But we know God is not a distant, uncaring, aloof Father. We know He hears our cries—and the psalmist knows this, too. We also know God can handle our anger and our childish petulance when we’re impatient or upset that God doesn’t seem to be responding in the time frame we wish.
For we know God has a plan—even when we cannot see His plan. As the psalmist eventually concludes, “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry” (Psalm 10:17).
5. Psalms 42-43
Key verse: Psalm 42:7, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.”
Much of the repetition of these two psalms indicate they were originally one song, and in many Hebrew manuscripts, Psalms 42 and 43 constitute one psalm. Regardless, these psalms voice profound lament, beginning by reminiscing about old times and expressing discouragement about the psalmist’s present situation. In Psalm 42:3-4, the psalmist seems to shake his head bitterly as he reveals, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.”
But now, his soul is downcast (42:6). As he notes in the key verse (7), his distress is great, sweeping over him like a waterfall or crashing ocean wave. Still, the psalmist tells himself, God is almighty and all-powerful—his “stronghold” (43:2). He pledges to go to the altar and offer God praise, ending the psalm by putting his hope in the Lord in spite of his fear and sadness.
Lament psalms teach us that it’s never wrong to cry out to God. God hears us in our pain and welcomes us close. As we see in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, even Jesus, dying on the cross, expressed his own anguish in lament when he echoed these words from Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” God is strong enough to handle our questions, our anger, and our doubt. God loves us deeply—and He is always there. We are not alone.
- NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible. Copyright © 2019 by Zondervan.
- Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms. Copyright © 2010 by Brian Webster and David Beach.
- Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version, Copyright © 2000 by Halley’s Bible Handbook, Inc.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Arrangements-Photography
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.