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Generally speaking, the book of Psalms follows a movement from lament to praise. The person who compiled the Psalms was communicating a message: the telos (Greek: “end” or “goal”) of humanity is praise, and yet the reality of the human condition in this life is lamentation.
Are your current circumstances giving you more reason to lament or to praise? Both are part of our earthly pilgrimage because of the reality in which we live. The words of the Psalms help us to reflect on the human experience and enlighten us on how to turn to God both in misery and in victory.
The Psalter is divided into five books:
Book I (Psalms 1-41)
Book II (Psalms 41-71)
Book III (Psalms 73-89)
Book IV (Psalms 90-106)
Book V (Psalms 107-150)
The greatest concentration of lament psalms comes in Books I, II, and III. Books IV and V contain a higher concentration of thanksgiving and praise psalms. As a whole, the Psalms follow a very rough narrative pattern which tells the story of Israel, a story through lament and exile to restoration and rejoicing. This narrative trajectory is outlined nicely by Brant Pitre and John Bergsma in A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament (pp. 566-567):
Book I: Introduction and Laments of David (Psalms 1-41)
Book II: The Rise of the Davidic Kingdom (Psalms 41-71)
Book III: Fall of the Davidic Kingdom (Psalms 73-89)
Book IV: Reflections on the Fall of the Kingdom (Psalms 90-106)
Book V: Rejoicing and Restoration of the Temple (Psalms 107-150)
Israel’s story is our story. As we journey through life, sometimes our reasons for lamenting are due to our own choice to turn away from God. Sometimes we lament due to the sins of others which cause us suffering. Either way, the human condition gives us reason to lament.
Even so, because of who God is, praise is always “right and just.” No matter how we feel or what our circumstances are, God is and always will be good, loving, just, all-wise, all-powerful, transcendent, and ever-present. We can contemplate these attributes of God and proclaim who He is through a heartfelt prayer of praise either individually or communally, and especially in the liturgy.
“Praise is the form of prayer which recognizes most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS.” —CCC 2639
To omit either lamentation or praise from our prayer life would be to ignore reality. At every moment, we are in need of God. At every moment, God is worthy of praise. Although at any given moment one or the other may seem more natural, at all times there is both reason to lament and reason to praise.
One day, our need for God will be perfectly provided for as we are united with Him in Heaven for eternity. Our lamenting will end, and the resounding praise of Psalms 146-150 will be our eternal theme song. Until then, let us give our spiritual lives an honest reflection.
- How can I be more real with my prayer to God in expressing my need for Him?
- How can I enter into more heartfelt praise of God, even in times of pain and suffering?