Where Are the Songs of Sadness?

Adapted from Dr. Allen’s workshop at the 2014 National Worship Leader Conference entitled “…What about the Laments?” Find out how to join us in 2015 here.

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]emember the hymnals? You know, hymnals are those lovely books we used to use to sing from in our church services. If you can recall these books, hopefully you can also remember some of the diversity found within them. Themes range from adoration and praise to Christian living to the church year and beyond. As well, hymnals seemed to have a similar understanding of the human life in the way that they also included songs of sadness. Now, think about the new songs used in your church today. How many of them are songs of despair?

Likely none.

In the Book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture, more than one third of the 150 psalms are laments. This is an amazing fact. Our Western hymnals present what I call “Songs of Christian Triumphalism.” “Lead on O King Eternal” captures this spirit wonderfully. Christ is king, the gospel is spreading, peace is coming—“Joy to the World!” And our praise songs? They are wonderfully developed songs of trust and dependence—“Shout to the Lord.” These are expressions of joy and praise—well intentioned and powerful means of uniting the congregation in the worship of the Lord, for “Our God Is an Awesome God.”

Lost Treasure
But where are the laments? Where are the musical vehicles for the expression of pain, sorrow, loss, devastation?

Music in the public square has always had songs of sadness. From the melancholy of Rodolfo mourning Mimi in Verdi’s La Boheme to the plaintive chords of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” from the country singer whose girl is gone, dog is lost, and truck don’t run to sophisticated blues riffs in New Orleans, songs of sadness are a part of the musical world of real people.

But these sad songs seem to be lost among God’s people. The exception is the tradition of the Negro Spiritual where the experience of slavery shaped expressions of devotion to God: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen / Nobody knows but Jesus.” Observe the sadness and confidence in these marvelous words!

Getting Real
The biblical psalms did not include songs of lament in order to make the worship of God a downer; they were a part of the singing of believers in ancient Israel because they gave expression to the sense of sadness and loss that are common to man. People of faith who trusted in the kindness and mercy of God were more sorrowful than others; they expected better and felt loss more deeply.

And so do we!

The laments in the Bible follow a rich pattern. These laments sprang from the lives of real people with real hurts in real time—and they were the faithful people of God. Not every song to God needs to be triumphant. Not every hymn sung to the Lord needs to be confident praise. Sometimes we need a song of sadness that is layered on a solid bedrock of trust—just like the psalms of lament.

One might say, the expression of pain in music is so “Old Testament.” But pain and loss and sorrow and hurt were not the experiences of people in olden days alone. We also hurt. We also suffer loss.

Range of Emotion
The same Apostle Paul that wrote so powerfully on rejoicing in the midst of trial (The Book of Philippians) also wrote plaintively of sadness, brokenness, and pain in Second Corinthians. Jesus not only laughed and encouraged hurting people; he also wept.

Songs of pain and sadness in the Bible were not intended to prolong the sadness. They were not self-pitying, tearfully sentimental, the maudlin rants of a broken drunk. They were designed as powerful tools to help people express sadness and to rebuild their confidence in Yahweh.

So, where are the songs of sadness in the Church today?

Ronald B. Allen, Th.D., is senior professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary. He also teaches and preaches in many contexts: academic, congregational and at conferences. The author of numerous books, including Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel, he was also a senior editor for The New King James Version, Old Testament, and was the Old Testament editor for both The Nelson Study Bible (aka The NKJV Study Bible) and The Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. His ongoing research interests are in the worship of God and in studies of the grace of God in Hebrew Scripture.

Adapted from Dr. Allen’s workshop at the 2014 National Worship Leader Conference entitled “…What about the Laments?” Find out how to join us in 2015 here.

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An Excerpt from Glenn Packiam’s New Book “Worship and the World To Come”

Glenn Packiam (Doctor of Theology and Ministry, Durham) is the associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the songwriter of more than fifty worship songs, including “Your Name” and “Mystery of Faith,” and the author of several books, including Blessed Broken Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus and Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing. He is also a visiting fellow at St. John’s College at Durham University and an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary.
Packiam preaches at conferences for pastors and worship leaders and has spoken at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University, Biola University, Asbury Seminary, Calvin College, and Trinity School for Ministry. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his wife, Holly, and their four children.