The Psalmist Gets the Blues

“My tears have been my food day and night.” – Psalm 42

There are more prayers of lament in the Bible than there are prayers of praise.  Fully one third of the psalms are psalms of lament.  Psalm 42 is one of them.

A biblical lament is an impassioned plea:  “There is something wrong here.  Things are not right.  I must give voice to my complaint.”

Lament is not whining.  God does not like whiners.  Whiners always find a way to whine, regardless of the circumstances, whereas lament is a legitimate response to hardship.  The great Mahalia Jackson used to say, “Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help.”  The same could be said of lament.  The two have much in common.

I once asked a blues guitar player in my congregation to put this psalm to music.  Sure enough, the words of the psalm and the agonized strains of the wailing guitar were a perfect match:  “Tears have been my food, day and night.”

Tears that are never shed do not go away.  They become something else—bitterness, depression, hardness of heart, increased grief.  We can offer lament in the confidence that God invites us to bring the fullness of our sorrow.

In Psalm 56 there is this plea to God:  “Put my tears in your bottle.”  Imagine:  God has a bottle for our tears.

That means we don’t need to keep our tears in the tight little bottle within us where they are usually kept, burning and vengeful, because God has a bottle for our tears.

It must be a bottle as big as the ocean because in it are the psalmist’s tears, Jesus’ tears over the death of his friend Lazarus, widows’ tears, newborns’ tears, spurned lovers’ tears, Mahalia Jackson’s tears, mingling with the tears of countless others from countless sorrows.

God receives our tears—the literal tears and the musical ones—as readily as God receives our songs of praise.


Today I offer a prayer of thanksgiving that you invite our prayers of lament.

About the Author
Martin B. Copenhaver is President of Andover Newton Theological School.  His newest book is Room to Grow: Meditations on Trying to Live as a Christian.