The Psalmist’s Lament and Contemporary Chinese Hymnody

Article—Issue 27 (May, 2022)

Naomi Thurston
Assistant Professor
The Lament and Christian Hymnody

It is remarkable that the collection which Christian hymn writers for many centuries have used as an inspiration and blueprint for composing songs of celebration and thanksgiving should consist to a large extent of another kind of “song,” prayers of supplication or complaint, which possess a much more negative note and at times a tone of violent desperation. These poems are sometimes paired with or contain elements of the “curse psalms,” or “imprecatory psalms” — indeed the two types generally conflate and are often treated as one. The fusion of curse and lament occurs for example in Psalm 69, a psalm frequently quoted in the New Testament,[1] which lists a string of curses against the suppliant’s enemies. These laments are better described as petitions or prayers rather than hymns or songs of praise.

Although the individual laments also contain an existential recognition of human helplessness and dependence on an all-powerful God, as well as memorably rendered confessions of trust and faith, could not the Jewish and Christian traditions survive well enough without their overbearing emphasis on the negative? Yet there is something in these supplications that seems to address a crucial moment even in our own “age of anxiety”: that moment in which existential questions are asked — or prayed — along the lines of “Why” and “How long? (“Why this misery?”; “How long can this godforsakenness be endured?”) followed by an insistence on and hope of being answered.

The American biblical scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann (1933–) noted some years ago that it was “a curious fact that the [Christian] church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.”[2] It is interesting, too, that Brueggemann, along with many of his contemporaries should think of ours as a world marked “increasingly” by an experience of disorientation or anxiety. Perhaps it is true that our modern age has devised more sophisticated descriptions, starker metaphors to diagnose our basic sense confusion and helplessness. However, disorientation in itself — fear and confusion in the face of a world or situation perceived as chaotic, unwelcoming, or threatening — found religious expression in the Hebrew lament psalms in a compilation of songs written thousands of years ago.[3] The condition is not only chronic in this age, but ailed the ancients; their artistic renderings of the human malady and the divine cures invoked are woven through religious poetry and song for millennia.

The individual lament form of the Hebrew Psalms has been reshaped again and again; we can find its traces in Christian songs written through the ages by composers familiar with its form, even in contemporary Chinese hymnody there are notes which strike an odd Christianized balance between supplication and resolution that expresses itself in praise and thanksgiving. “Hymns” (from the Latin “songs of praise” or the Greek “odes to gods or heroes”) is used rather liberally to designate songs of Christian worship, praise, or devotion found throughout the Protestant tradition of hymnody.

Despite Robert Alter’s warning that “[w]e are likely to perceive the poetic richness of Psalms more finely if we realize that there is a good deal of… refashioning of genre in the collection,”[4] a generic categorization is still helpful. The Psalter is sometimes divided into the following genres (Gattungen)[5]: laments or prayers; hymns or songs of praise; songs of thanksgiving; royal psalms; songs of Zion; liturgies; wisdom and Torah psalms.

“It may come as no surprise that in the current lectionaries the lament is not as popular a choice as hymns of praise”[6] remarks the Catholic priest and biblical scholar Roland Murphy. And yet, as Claus Westermann notes, “the individual lament psalm is by far the most frequently occurring genre in the Psalter. About 50 [of the 150] psalms belong to it.”[7] What accounts for the popularity of the genre over songs of praise or thanksgiving can only be speculated upon. It is worth noting in contrast that browsing contemporary Christian hymnals will reveal a nearly reversed trend: songs that focus on God’s majesty and splendor, or on our gratitude and joy, striking a chord of victory over shame and confusion outnumber songs of woe and suffering. The “dirges” in Christian hymnals might be reserved for Good Friday, and even at Christian funerals, laments are not necessarily the songs of choice. Singing of “trials and tribulations” is generally done from the perspective of Christian — or Christ’s — perseverance in light of salvation already known, rather than from a position of pleading or hope deferred, even if such emphasis might promise more comfort to the struggling believer than a victory hymn at a time of crisis, grief, or despair.

Psalms that question Yahweh’s goodness toward or concern for the speaker by asking “how long?” (Psalms 6, 13) or “why?” (Psalm 22) — or, as is the case with Psalm 3, by exclaiming “how many!” — are starkly underrepresented in traditional Christian hymnody. Why has, for example, the Christian worshipper so selectively inherited from this collection textual inspiration for sung devotion to the God whom ancient Israel addresses with praise, thanksgiving, and professions of trust as well as with laments and prayers of supplication?

While the Greek term psalmos used in the Septuagint conveys chiefly that the Psalter is a collection of songs (more specifically, songs played on stringed instruments — Saitenlieder — echoing and specifying the Hebrew mizmôr[8]), it does little to suggest the variety of poetry contained therein, ranging from praise to desperate curses and lament. The basic form of the individual lament Psalm can be summed up as a five-point formula found in many of the laments:

  1. address (simply “O God” in 44:1; 80:1–2)
  2. complaint
  3. request for help addressed to God
  4. affirmation of trust in God
  5. a vow to praise God when the crisis is past.

A typical example of such a psalm in the Psalter is Psalm 13, which begins with the well-known opening line, “How long, Lord?” This song contains the makings of the classic lament: address to God (How long, O Lord); complaint or supplication (why has God forgotten me, God doesn’t care, doesn’t see, doesn’t hear me, I’m left alone); request (look on me, answer me, give light to my eyes); affirmation of trust (but I trust in your unfailing love); vow to praise God (I will sing praise to the Lord).

Some scholars have argued that the petitioner in this lament is sick, thus he issues the plea that light be given to his eyes: he is dying, on the brink of death, and this is his desperate call to God before “the lights go out” and his enemies triumph over him once and for all. The suppliant’s “eyes are dimmed by failing strength…, by grief ([which is] often associated with the afflicted…), and by longings unsatisfied or hope deferred…”[9]

Janowski argues that light and life are equated to each other in this Psalm, which also happens in Psalms 6 and 38: “Um ‘lebendig’ zu sein, muss der Mensch das Licht des Lebens (vgl. Ps 56,14) sehen können. Er muss aber auch für die Augen der anderen, besonders aber für die Augen Gottes sichtbar sein.”[10] To be alive, the human suppliant must be able to see and be visible to others, including God. What might be alluded to here further is the universal fear of losing one’s eyesight associated with losing one’s point of orientation in life, as in the Sophoclean tragedy, where physical blindness poignantly illustrates fateful ignorance or misunderstanding and “blind” encapsulates the tragic drive toward self-destruction.

The loss of eyesight or God shining his light on the suppliant is a common motif throughout the Book of Psalms, while darkness and blindness represent death, disorientation, and the chaotic. According to Janowski, the “fall” in verse 5 of Psalm 13 marks a “manifestation of the chaotic in the life of the suppliant” — chaos in human life and its literary rendering are not exclusively modern phenomena. The implication in this lament is clear and simple: if God turns to see and listen, all will be well.[11] Here we also see the motif of God’s nearness or his being far away. The suppliant, who in his moment of despair senses the loss of God’s presence, in issuing his plea or cry for help affirms his or her confidence that God is near, even in great suffering and that God’s presence will be felt again.

There are traces of the Hebraic individual lament in Christian liturgy, such as in the hymns of the Wesley brothers or John Newton. One example, reminiscent of Psalm 13, is Charles Wesley’s “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee” of 1741

Father, I stretch my hands to Thee, No other help I know; If Thou withdraw Thyself from me, Ah! whither shall I go?

What did Thine only Son endure, Before I drew my breath! What pain, what labor, to secure My soul from endless death!

Surely Thou canst not let me die; O speak, and I shall live; And here I will unwearied lie, Till Thou Thy Spirit give.

Author of faith! to Thee I lift My weary, longing eyes: O let me now receive that gift! My soul without it dies.

The relationship between “faith” and “seeing” is clearly highlighted in the lines of this hymn; they express vividly the sentiment of many of the lament Psalms of hope deferred and waiting for God’s salvation: both for God to reveal himself to the suppliant and by making the suppliant visible again.

Two Chinese Hymn Writers: T. C. Chao and “Xiaomin”

T. C. Chao’s Notes on Hymn Writing

T. C. Chao(趙紫宸)(1888–1979) has been described as the “Father of Chinese hymnody.”[12] He not only was one of the first, along with the Methodist missionary Bliss Wiant to compile an all-Chinese Protestant Christian hymnal in the early 20th century, but also wrote and translated into Chinese numerous Christian hymns designed to cater to the Chinese soul, both in tune and language.

There are traces of the individual lament in some of Chao’s texts. Of interest, too, are his introductory remarks given in the preface of the second hymnal, with original Chinese hymns, in which Chao lays out his understanding of what Chinese Christian hymns should contain (111 ff.). According to Chao, they should reflect:

  1. Realism 111
  2. Simplicity 111
  3. Challenge 112
  4. Chinese heritage 113
  5. Personal Experience 114
  6. Praise to God 114
  7. Daily Life 115
  8. Social Concern 115
  9. Doctrinal Teaching 115

The interesting point about being “realistic” and conveying “personal experience” is that these two requirements for Chinese hymn writing correspond closely to the character of the individual lament and reflect the notion of emphasizing the petitioner’s or believer’s Sitz im Leben when pondering the likely significance of his or her prayer. One of Chao’s hymns, “Praise Our Father For This Lord’s Day” (138/213) set to a Buddhist chant, although Christian in conception and outlook, still bears definite traces of the Hebraic plea for God’s presence so commonly expressed in the individual lament, as for example in the third verse:

Sometimes we bear pain and sorrow/Sometimes darkness hides the morrow; Father, Father, leave us not/When sore trouble falls as our lot.

The fifth verse contains another plea: “Father, hear us while we pray/And receive us now and for aye.”

“Lü Xiaomin’s “Canaan Hymns””

Themes in the hymns of Lü Xiaomin(呂小敏) (“Xiao Min,” born 1970) are wide-ranging, from songs of thanksgiving and praise (some styled closely on those of the Hebrew Psalter, such as songs resembling Psalm 119 or 139) — even patriotism — to songs affirming trust in God’s goodness (part of the more positive sections of the lament) to songs invoking perseverance in the face of suffering, hardships, and persecution (see Hymn 93) to “ascension-like” hymns, to questioning songs (such as Hymn 19) — and straightforward laments. Some songs, such as 161 “Joseph’s Story,” also retell biblical stories. In length Xiao Min’s songs range from two lines to choruses with several verses.

One of Lü Xiao Min’s hymns mixes different types: “Hymn 146” in her vast collection of songs written over the past few decades is a direct plea to God to have pity on her country, her country’s leaders, and her family, “Hear my Heart’s Cry” (《聽我心聲》):


This hymn might be compared to Psalms such as 17, 61, or 102, all of which can be classed as individual laments. One of them, Psalm 102, is also referred to as one of the “penitentiary Psalms,”[14] while Psalm 61 has been described by Richard Murphy as a “mild lament.”[15] However, it is interesting that all five of them essentially open with the same plea as Lü’s hymn: “Lord, hear my cry.” These are the first lines from each Psalm:

17: “Hear, O Lord, my righteous plea; listen to my cry.”

61: “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.”

102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.”

Another hymn, 297, “求主拯救我們的家” (Please, Lord, save my family) echoes this sentiment. While the reference in this text is to the singer’s family — the talk is of family and relatives living far away (or, perhaps, in an extended sense, spiritually separated from their Christian biological family) — the reference to “家” might also be a plea asking God to save “our country.”

你的家你的家在哪裏?你的親人你的親人在何方?路程遠任務重我們快趕工,時間都是匆匆。我們都來 對主說拯救我們的家,我們都來對主說拯救我們的家,在遙遠的都市里在遙遠的鄉下,求主拯救我們的家。

A typical lament hymn is Canaan Hymn 148, “Lord, Have Mercy on Me” (《主求你憐憫我》):


“Lord, how I always grieve you. I ask you this day to take pity on me. Not heeding your instruction, I have been to blame. Still I turn to you in prayer. Lend your mighty hand to steady me. I will no longer go my own way. I submit to your guidance completely.”

Here can be seen the typical outline of the Hebraic individual lament, reinvented in Chinese Christian supplication:

  1. address: “Lord”;
  2. request: “take pity”;
  3. “complaint”: my pitiful state/”not heeding your instruction” (“I have been to blame”; here is the Christian rendering based on a theological understanding of human sinfulness and the need for Christ’s redemptive grace);
  4. request: “lend your mighty hand”; and, finally, the
  5. promise of loyalty and devotion: “I will no longer go my own way. I submit.”
Truth or Romance

So in conclusion I ask: is it in fact true, as Brueggemann suggests, that “[m]uch Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness”?[16] Brueggemann reacts to what he regards as the general avoidance in Christian hymnody and liturgy of the “psalms of negativity,” claiming that Christians prefer to see themselves as going from “strength to strength” and from “victory to victory,” a preference he finds apparent in the ways Christians express themselves to their God in song. Perhaps the individual lament was not meant to be sung, but rather prayed in private or, as some scholars have suggested, in a ritualistic context, in the presence of a mediator who then offers the suppliant God’s response, which in turn results in the latter’s move from supplication to an individual expression of trust or vow to praise. I would argue that the lament does survive in Christian hymnody, though not in its full Hebrew literary form. Examples of both English and Chinese contemporary hymns offer evidence that the individual supplication as found in the ancient Hebrew Psalter has been creatively adapted and reworked to serve modern-day Christian worshippers in recounting their own situation, recalling the hopelessness once faced without God and now replaced with a hope in Christ.

Normally, however, when we think of the Psalmist, the Hebrew Psalter or “psalms, hymns, and songs” that Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians reminds Christian believers to sing as an encouragement to one another in their Christian gatherings,[17] our first association is hardly that of “pitiful.” Paul’s admonition could also be read in just this light: singing in order to encourage might imply the need of the Christian for solace and comfort in song — not music alone, but such words that capture a moment of existential anguish, terror, desperation, or despondency articulated to melody, words and notes that through their repetition, quality of communal ownership, and power to resonate and lend courage, reminding the listener — or singer — that through conscious and deliberate, physical articulation of her plight she can address herself to another, that in song her cry can be heard. This articulation and addressing oneself to another, who might actually see a situation perceived as hopeless for what it is rather than what it appears to be, is itself an act of faith. This point of appeal (as for instance in Psalm 88) is introduced at the very beginning as an essential element in the songs of lament: “Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry…”). Paul meanwhile goes on to admonish the church to “give thanks to God the Father.”

What are we to make of the numerous individual laments in the Hebrew tradition which offer no immediate cure-all, wholesale resolution, songs of woe which begin on the note of “Where are you, God?” and end not on a note of fulfillment, but “merely” the hope of rescue? What should we make of the Hebrew Psalms that speak of the God who has forsaken us (like Bonhoeffer’s God, who leaves us to live in a “world without a working hypothesis of God”), a God seemingly far off, whose intervention in the end is hoped for but not seen? Is this not an uncomfortable moment for triumphalist Christianity? And yet, is not the raw emotion that the Psalmist expresses in the poem of supplication one that is felt by every human being, and felt by each of us living in Hong Kong today? Though Christian tradition readily acknowledges the state of sinful wretchedness that necessitates divine intervention to free sinners from sin and destruction, that same tradition has less readily incorporated the Hebrew lament in its original form and intent into its songs of worship: instead it has reinterpreted the song of supplication into a “song of triumphant solution”: there is no waiting, no holding out; strictly speaking, there is no need to risk this existence on the abstract hope of being heard in the future. While the “song of solution” need not — does not — reflect life experience in its entirety, the tone of Christian worship songs is often that of wholeness, healing, and cheer. Examples of pure supplication are rare, though not entirely absent.

The Lord’s Prayer is in fact a prayer of supplication. It asks God to act. It expresses a waiting on God, a trust and hope that, if one judged merely by much of the emotion generated in contemporary as well as a great deal of traditional Christian worship, is largely missing from the Christian experience. The prayer of supplication and the lament of the Psalmist give expression not just to the life-negating emotion of temporary despair or lack: more importantly, they express ultimate faith in God to intervene. But the moment they capture is real, authentic life experience, the moment before the suppliant sees her prayers answered, before his tears are wiped away: as Hannah in the Book of Samuel or Stephen before he sees heaven opened up. The “song of solution” knows only the moment of the answered prayer. It does not invite the believer to reflect on Gethsemane, but leaps to the resurrection. The hymns of Lü Xiaomin, a Henanese Christian with no formal musical training who suffered persecution for her Christian witness, encompass both, the pleading and rejoicing, victory and despair. Lü’s own life taught her the song of supplication, a song for our age and situation in Hong Kong, a song of hope as the lament affirms the justice that it longs for.

Works Consulted

  1. ^ Cf. Murphy, Roland E. The Gift of the Psalms. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2000. Print. 109.
  2. ^ Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. Print. 25.
  3. ^ Cf. Robert Alter, “Psalms.” The Literary Guide to the Bible. Ed. Robert Alter. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Pr. of Harvard Univ. Pr, 244–45.
  4. ^ Robert Alter, “Psalms.” The Literary Guide to the Bible. Ed. Robert Alter. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Pr. of Harvard Univ. Pr, 1994. 247.
  5. ^ James Limburg, “Book of Psalms.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. David Noel. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Print. 522–36.
  6. ^ Ronald Murphy, The Gift of the Psalms. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2000. Print. 61.
  7. ^ Westermann. 47. (The German original: “Der Klagepsalm des Einzelnen ist die im Psalter bei weitem am häufigsten begegnende Psalmengattung. Es gehören etwa 50 Psalmen ihr an.”) Confer also Alter. 247–48.
  8. ^ Jan C. Gertz, Grundinformation Altes Testament. 415.
  9. ^ Comments on Psalm 6:7. Zondervan NIV Study Bible: New International Version. 793.
  10. ^ Janowski, Bernd. “Das verborgene Angesicht Gottes: Psalm 13 als Muster eines Klagelieds des einzelnen.” Klage. Jahrbuch für biblische Theologie, Band 16. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verl, 2001. 35.
  11. ^ Ibid.
  12. ^ Cf. Fang-Lan Hsieh, Hua Xia Song Yang Hua Wen Zan Mei Zhi yan jiu. Xiang Gang: Jin xin Hui Chu Ban She, 2011.《華夏頌揚華文讚美詩之研究》。香港:浸信會出版社,2011.
  13. ^ Online resource: 和 (Archived Date: February 5, 2022).
  14. ^ Cf. Ronald Murphy, The Gift of the Psalms. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 2000. Print. 74.
  15. ^ Ibid. 104.
  16. ^ Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002. Print. xi.
  17. ^ Confer Ephesians 5:19 ff.