The book of Psalms is one of the most popular books in the Bible. It has provided comfort and hope for millions of believers throughout the centuries, as well as inspiration to give our highest praise to God, no matter what circumstances we may be facing. The Psalms were originally used for public Jewish worship. It was their song book for their public gatherings and festivals. Only centuries after they were first composed and sung did they begin to be used in private devotional settings, one of the most common uses of the Psalms today. As we open the book of Psalms and read from its collection of 150 songs, we take our place amongst a crowd of thousands and thousands of believers who have sung and experienced these psalms for almost three thousand years.

There are three primary categories of psalms: praise, lament and thanksgiving. *Praise psalms contain an appeal to praise God along with numerous descriptions of God’s great acts, attributes and character. There is little or no hint of life presenting any difficulties or challenges. Examples include Psalms 146-150.

By contrast, the lament psalms direct their appeal to God himself, seeking deliverance from trouble and distress. The world of the lamenting psalmist is fully aware of the possibilities and realities of suffering, sin, and oppression that are part of living in the world. They experience God as distant (or even hostile, as in Psalm 88) and like Job muster arguments to motivate him to act in their behalf. As you read through these Psalms there is a sense of sadness, longing, frustration, anger and even desire for vengeance. Examples of laments include Psalm 22, 74, 88 and 130.

Thanksgiving psalms occupy a territory somewhere between praise and lament. Like the laments, thanksgiving songs are only too well aware of the reality of pain and difficulty. The distinction that sets these psalms apart from the lament psalms is one of time. For the lament, suffering describes the present and continuing experience of the psalmist, while in thanksgiving psalms the suffering and pain described lie in the past. Examples of thanksgiving psalms include Psalms 104, 107, 116 and 136.

Psalm 3 

This is the first psalm with a heading, the first psalm attributed to David, the first psalm with a description of a historical setting that occasioned the writing of the psalm, the first use of the rather enigmatic word ‘selah’ (this word is generally thought to indicate a pause in the musical presentation of the psalm, or perhaps an instrumental interlude) and the first ‘lament’ to appear in the Psalter. We’ll use it as an example of this type of psalm so that we can draw some application for our life from both this psalm, and similar ones. Most psalms of these types begin with an ‘introduction’, continue with a ‘body’, and then draw a ‘conclusion’. What is different is the specific content of each of these sections.

[Introduction] – “Surrounded by the Enemy” (vs.1-2) 

Ps.3:1-2. O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, "God will not deliver him." Selah

You can almost feel a sense of panic as this psalm starts. Which ever way you turn there only seems to be a multitude of enemies pressing in ready to attack. The enemy is not only numerous but constantly multiplying. They are rising to confront David in order to strike him down. In addition they are saying that deliverance or help will not come to him.

This is a common way in which psalms of lament begin. The distressed person calls on God directly to hear and respond by sending help (see Ps.5:1-2). This cry frequently includes questions directed to God (see Ps.13:1-2; 22:1) or requests for divine action (see Ps.35:1-2). Even when there seems to be no hope, the psalmists continue their conversation with God – because there is no other who is a mighty God to save.

[Body] – “A Shield around Me” (vs.3-4) 

Ps.3:3-4. But you are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. To the LORD I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill. Selah

David refuses to be intimidated or come under the threat of the enemy. He does not run and he does not keep silent. He responds with a cry of his own – directed to God himself. David declares God as a ‘shield’ around him, as one who gives ‘glory’ and who ‘lifts up his head’. He believed that the Lord would protect his dignity and honour in the midst of attack. The Lord was supporting him and holding him up.

Notice that experience of suffering and distance from God drives the psalmist toward God rather than away from him. David seeks to draw God’s attention to his need and to hasten his sending of help. He is relying on past experience of God’s help to provide a foundation for his confidence for the present. We can learn to trust God in present challenges by remembering his faithfulness in times gone by.

[Conclusion] - The Realisation of Deliverance (vs.5-8) 

Ps.3:5-8. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side. Arise, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked. From the LORD comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people. Selah NIV

In a situation where the enemy is trying to intimidate with fear, David is unshaken. He calls on God to intervene like a champion warrior, “striking the jaw” and “breaking the teeth” of the enemy. In the last verse, David affirms for the whole community of faith, based on his own experience, that “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” He is the only hope source of hope and ‘blessing’ for those who are called his people.

Conclusion 

We can draw a number of lessons for our lives today from this psalm of lament (and ones like it):

  1. Bad things do happen to good people. Life is not always easy and there will be times of pain and suffering for all of us (for various reasons). 
  2. It is okay to have and feel negative emotions. They are indicators of what is taking place in our inner world. Like a flashing red light on the dash board of your car, don’t smash them but attend to what they’re trying to tell you. A great way to process these emotions is to bring them to God (Ps.62:8). There is something therapeutic in the very act of talking about how we feel and what is going on deep inside of us. 
  3. Though God seems distant he is actually near to us when we’re going through difficult times and willing to help us when we call on him (see Ps.145:18; 34:17-19). 
  4. We serve a God of hope (Rom.15:13). Jesus is familiar with suffering and grief. He gives us hope for today and for the future. Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom.8:38-39). 

Whatever your situation and whatever negative emotions you may be grappling with, bring them to God. Call out to him. Place your hope and trust in his faithfulness to help you through. There is a future and a hope that he has for you … today!

Sampler Discussion Questions 

  1. Share about a difficult time that you went through that you ‘survived’. How did it feel at the time? How did God help? What have you learned from this situation? 
  2. What are some ways that we can constructively deal with our anger towards people who have hurt or offended us? How can we really ‘love our enemies’ (Mt.5:44)? 
  3. Discuss other negative emotions (such as worry, fear, hatred, bitterness and grief). What are they indicating about our inner world and how can we handle them in a positive manner? 
  4. Have a time of prayer for anyone who is going through a difficult time right now and seek to support them. 

* From Gerald Wilson in his commentary on Psalms (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 2002), p.65f.
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