The Book of Psalms, a major source of ancient Israel's worship, demonstrates an intimate connection between worship and covenant. Covenant is certainly a central motif to many Psalms. According to Walter Brueggemann in Worship in Ancient Israel, the rhetoric found within the Psalms “indicates that in worship as a covenantal transaction Israel was not a submissive, second-rate player but was a full, vigorous partner to YHWH with an unapologetic presence and an unembarrassed voice that refused to be silenced or cowed.” The Psalms display Israel voicing this rhetoric through both celebration and petition.
Covenant language is one key factor to understanding petition Psalms. In these Psalms, Israel pledges its commitment to God their great King, appealing He honor their covenant agreement. They are filled with affirmations of covenant loyalty, using language such as “You are my God”, “You are my Lord”, or “You are my King” (see Ps 16:2; 44:4; 63:1; 118:28; 140:6). Such expressions are a vassal's response, ratifying the covenant offered by their great Suzerain King.
One common feature found in petition Psalms is their reference to the worshiper’s enemies. The Psalms frequently address an opposition between the faithful worshiper and an ungodly foe. Due to the worshiper’s covenantal relationship with God, God’s enemies are also the worshiper’s enemies. Such Psalms find the worshiper pledging his own loyalty to God while also petitioning Him for deliverance from his enemies. This is seen in Psalm 31:14-16:
But as for me, I trust in you, O LORD,
I say, "You are my God."
My times are in your hand;
Deliver me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
Make your face to shine upon your servant;
Save me in your covenant-love.
Israel understood the importance of vocalizing troubles to God. They made pleas to His faithfulness through lament, protest, and rage in times of injustice or Divine silence. Psalm 31 also provides an example of how Israel’s covenantal worship anticipated future Divine action. As God was faithful to his covenant in the past, so would He be in the future.
Walter Brueggemann calls this aspect of Israel’s worship “truth-telling.” He writes: “Such speech, in its rawness, is in fact an expression of great faith; it expresses deep conviction that when YHWH is mobilized in order to honor YHWH’s covenantal commitments to Israel, YHWH has full power and capacity to right any situation of wrong.” He later continues: “Such speech of rage addressed to YHWH is credible only when the worshiping community has confidence that the covenant God addressed is both willing and able to intervene in contexts of unbearable suffering.”
Unfortunately, this is uncommon in most worshiping communities today. We hardly speak of healthy lament or rage, much less allow space in worship for them. These definitely are not the most seeker-friendly models of worship. Is there still a space for lament and rage in worship? What is lost as we eliminate such elements of worship?
I have my thoughts – what are yours?