Worship in the Wilderness
God’s presence and hesed*, often translated “lovingkindness,” had always been a given in Eden. But once Adam and Eve were cast out, away from the immediacy of His presence, lament became their language as well as that of all creation (Rom. 8:22). Every lament from Adam’s to ours cries out for comfort in the wilderness of this broken world. You and I were created to wake up in a garden. Instead we open our eyes each morning to a fallen wilderness, a world where our omnipresent God seems disturbingly absent. Before human tears fell in the garden, it was a sovereign sorrow that fell on the world. And as His loving wisdom does with all things, even and especially with our sin, God transforms us and leads us by His grace into a pathway back to His presence. This path is found in the language of lament. When we lack the language to articulate this forsaken, fallen struggle, when we long for the words to cry out our confusion and bewilderment, the Bible provides such a language for us. This is lament.
The lament that began outside the gates of Eden was taken up once more outside Pharaoh’s gates. God’s final word through Moses was, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness” (Exod. 7:16).
Lament is learned only in the wilderness. Adam and Eve began to speak the language of lament when the flaming sword fell behind them. Then Israel, after her painful deliverance from slavery, learned that the path to the worship God had spoken about through Moses was the lament learned in the wildernesses of Shur, Sin, and Paran. In Jeremiah when God’s people limped away from the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem, they were forced to learn lament once more. Jesus learned the language well in the wilderness of His own life. When He walked back to Jerusalem, lament was on His lips. Then as our Passover lamb, He cried out David’s lamenting words from the cross. He invites us to come and worship Him in the wilderness. This is the place of lament.
A Forgotten Language
We North American Christians have forgotten this language. Perhaps it is due to our denial. We stand in the midst of a desert-world overflowing with suffering and yet speak of “prosperity” as the unqualified sign of God’s favor.
We walk through a wilderness and pretend to smell the flowers. Why do so many in developing countries find our message insincere and incomplete? How can we say we follow the Man of Sorrows and yet be so unfamiliar with the world’s suffering or even with our own? How have we forgotten the language Jesus spoke with such fluency?
We need to look again at the Scriptures, only with tear-filled eyes. We need to open our ears to the world’s pain and to the silent, interior cry of our own. With open eyes we must turn back to the world and enter into its suffering. We must learn the forgotten language so that we can take up the biblical, redemptive, worshipful song that is lament.
Open the Bible and you will find the language of lament spoken fluently by everyone from Job to Jesus.
- When Job learned of the enormity of his loss, he fell down and worshiped (Job 1:20). His story would become the greatest novel of lament, a book not about who is right but who is faithful. In spite of his friends’ theological demands that lament was somehow inappropriate (see 15:4), Job faithfully held on to God by means of lament. His suffering became the only offering he had left to give, and in the end God celebrated Job’s faithfulness.
- Again and again when David was lost in the wilderness of his enemies, disease, death, and, most importantly, the painful effect of his own sin, he worshiped using the language of lament. In fact he is the greatest author of lament in the Bible. Lament psalms form the largest category of the Psalter. When David was lost in the desert of his sin with Bathsheba, how did he find his way back? He worshiped (Ps. 51). His worship took the form of a lament of contrition, and through it David found that God had been waiting all along to meet, forgive, and restore him. Through his lament David realized that all he had left was all God ever really wanted: his “broken spirit” and his “contrite heart.”
- When Jeremiah sought to weep his own people’s tears to God and God’s tears before His disobedient people, those tears flowed together in his laments. As he stood over the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem and finally witnessed the unthinkable destruction he had prophetically and repeatedly announced, Jeremiah felt both the sorrow of his forsaken people as well as the wordless grief of the God they had forsaken. The Holy City had become a deserted wasteland. The only pathway out of the ruins of both the city and the spiritual lives of the people was lament.
- Jesus, born in the midst of the laments of Rachel, on at least one occasion was mistaken for Jeremiah because of His weeping over Jerusalem (Matt. 16:14). When He cried out from the cross, Jesus found the language for His unspeakable suffering in lament. When He was forced to wander through the darkest of death shadows, the deep darkness of the sin of the world, it was by means of His cries of lament that He held on to the “joy set before him” (Heb.12:2). Jesus was worshiping on that cross, for there He demonstrated and the world discovered that God alone is worthy. Jesus’ worship took on the only form it could have taken, the form of lament. Through it He offered His confusion and desolation to God as an act of worship. And, as Hebrews 5:7 says, “He was heard.”
A Rediscovered Language
If all this is true, what could it look like if we relearned the language of lament?
- We might begin to recognize the depth of our sin. Our hearts might be newly broken by it. Then our eyes could be opened to the glorious truth that we stand forgiven and are in the presence of the One who has heard our cries with tender and sympathetic ears.
- A new path of worship would be opened to us: the kind of worship we hear from Job’s lips, the healing worship of Psalm 51, and the redemptive suffering of Psalm 22 and Mark 15:34.
- Lament could become a bridge to those who suffer, both in developing countries and in ours. Before we preached to them, we would learn to obey Jesus by weeping with them. How much more intently would they then listen to us and us to them?
- If we were to rediscover the language of lament, how different would our own experience of suffering become? We would learn to hold on to God through the storms of life, and we would discover that all along He has been holding on to us.
Only the Beginning
This is only the beginning of a dialogue between ourselves and God that must take place if we are to move on toward maturity. We all have friends, like Job’s, who are waiting to tell us that such honesty before the throne of God is inappropriate. We all have enemies, like Jesus did, who will tempt us to abandon our embrace of such a Cross of suffering. Ezekiel faced such a dilemma when he was offered a mysterious scroll (Ezek. 2:9–3:3):
“Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.’ So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.”
God is offering us today the bitter scroll of lament. He is inviting us to relearn this lost biblical language. But a sweetness waits for each of us that we can scarcely imagine.
Michael Card is an award-winning musician, performing artist, and songwriter. His many songs include “El Shaddai” and “Immanuel.” He has also written numerous books, including the new release, A Sacred Sorrow. A graduate of Western Kentucky University with a master’s degree in biblical studies, Card is currently at work on a PhD in classical literature.