75% of Psalms are 1 of three main types: lament, thanksgiving or praise. Here is the general form for lament psalms.
Introductory Cry for Help
- Lament psalms are characterized by their address: “Oh, LORD!” They immediately turn to God for help.
- Frequently, the lament psalm has an introductory petition and lament.
- It is extremely helpful to remember this introductory petition/lament distinct from the petition proper and the lament proper.
- Individual: In either brief or extended fashion, the psalmist describes his lamentable state.
- sickness: the enemy rejoices that his affliction is a defect in him and his God (e.g. 6, 13, 31, 38, 39, 88, 102).
- accusation: a false accusation is made against him (e.g. 7, 17, 26, 27).
- persecution: physically abused by the enemy (e.g. 3, 9, 10, 35, 52, 56, 57, 62, 69, 70, 86, 109, 120, 139, 140, 141, 143).
- sin (e.g. 6, 25, 38, 39, 41, 51)
- Communal: the whole nation is lamenting over military crisis, drought, famine, epidemic, etc. Many terms are vague so the psalm can have wide application in worship (e.g. 10, 44,58,60,74,79, 80, 83, 90, 137)
- 3 subjects often stated:
- I – the king or nation
- YOU – God
- THEM – the psalmists enemies
Confession of Trust
- Frequently contrasted to the lament
- Many lament psalms have such extended sections pertaining to confidence that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether the psalm should be classified a lament or a song of trust.
- Martin Luther: “My faith keeps hurting while my hurt keeps believing.”
- Frequently 2, sometimes 3 petitions given
- LISTEN (or look, pay attention, etc).
- DELIVER (or save)
- PUNISH them BECAUSE
- MOTIVE: frequently, the psalmists gives a motive for God to intervene
- Vow of Praise: The petition is still open. The psalmist does not assume the petition has been granted, but offers vows of praise that God will answer. Normally he includes the content of his vow, presenting the praise he will offer.
- Declarative Praise: When this is the case, there is an abrupt change of mood from lament to praise. The psalmist is confident that God will answer his prayer, he offers up the acknowledgment he will offer in the temple when the petition has been granted in reality.
How do we account for this change in mood?
- Some suggest at this point a priest informs the psalmist that his prayer has been heard and will be answered. (For example, Eli & Hannah).
- Another explanation is that by faith the psalmist knows intuitively that his prayer has been heard.
Caution: This is the basic scheme but the possibilities of variation are numerous.
- Address – vs 1-2
- Petition – vs 1-2
- Lament – vs 3
- Confidence – vs 4
- Imprecation – vs 5
- Praise (freewill offering) – vs 6
- Praise (renewed) – vs 7
- Address & Lament – vs 1-2
- Confidence – vs 3-7
- Lament – vs 6-8
- Confidence – vs 9-10
- Lament – vs 11-18
- Petition – vs 19-21
For more: Claus Westermann, The Praises of God in the Psalms (1965). You’ll probably have to track it down in a library.