Is complaint against God a valid form of prayer? This seems to be a valid reading of Psalm 142. Bernhard W. Anderson classifies Psalm 142 as one of the Psalms of "individual lament" (223). This distinguishes it from those psalms which express collective lament, a sense of communal complaint to God on the part of the Jews. But in Psalm 142, the lament is by one man only, David. An exegetical close reading of Psalm 142 will demonstrate that David's lament here indicates that prayer need not be a form of unqualified praise of God only: complaint to God, or complaint against God, is in itself a valid form of worship. The paradox of prayer is that it may contain doubt.
We must begin with the descriptive heading for Psalm 142: "A maskil of David. When he was in the cave. A prayer." The specific Hebrew term "maskil" may give us pause, but Oesterley rather usefully illuminates the different aspects of the term itself"
In some contexts it means to 'ponder' (e.g. Isa.xli); elsewhere to 'have insight' (e.g. Jer.ix:23) and to 'give insight' (e.g. I Chron.xxviii: 9; Ps.xxxii:8), to 'show skill' (e.g. 2 Chron xxx:22) and to 'have success' (e.g. Isa.lii:13, Jer.X:21). When the contents of the psalms which have Maskil in their titles are examined, it is seen that they are not all of the same character, which suggests that either Maskil was understood in very different senses, or else that in one or two cases it has been erroneously or thoughtlessly added in the title…The most probably meaning of the term would seem to be 'instruction'; that, if not too rigorously applied, would suit most of the psalms with this inscription. (88)
As an individualized cry of the heart, the "Maskil" of Psalm 142 may definitely indicate a "pondering" of David's situation here, and certainly can be shown to have "insight." The ideas of "skill" or "success," however, are less obvious: the situation described in the Psalm's text is one where David's skill and success seem to have departed altogether. And the meaning that seems to suit Psalm 142 least obviously is the generalized term that Oesterley offers, of "instruction." The instruction in this Psalm would have to be implicit, from a reading of what David said under specific circumstances. We are, however, given those circumstances specifically: this Psalm is sung by David "When he was in the cave." This quite clearly refers to David's situation in I Samuel 21-22. At this point David has been rejected by King Saul with seemingly the same completeness that Saul has been rejected by God. Saul's jealousy and paranoia have now turned into an active desire to see David dead, and David is forced to part from his beloved Jonathan and flee as little better than a refugee. Indeed, in finding himself in the realm of Achish, King of Gath, David must defend his own life by pretending to be a madman, drooling and sketching incomprehensible writings on the gate (I Samuel 21:13). This saves him from Achish, but it leads him to the situation in I Samuel 22:1-2 -- having departed Gath, David finds himself hiding alone in the cave of Adullam. This is the background, then, of the lament uttered in Psalm 142 -- although it is designated as a "prayer." In this case, we must examine the text closely to determine what sort of prayer it is.
Verse 1 begins with a statement of David's own situation in composing this Psalm in the cave of Adullam. "I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy." (142:1) The parallel constructions that are often observed in the Psalms, and in Hebrew poetry more generally, are matched by the double address to the Lord in both halves of the verse: the only real difference is that the second phrase of the verse indicates a plea "for mercy." This implies, of course, that the adversity suffered by David at this point is in some way imposed by God. It also implies, perhaps, that the actual act of singing the Psalm -- making the complaint audible with "cry aloud" and "lift up my voice" -- indicates a sort of turning point. The solitude in the cave is David at his lowest, but it is also the point at which silence ends and audible prayer begins. It is in Verse 2, however, that David classifies this "prayer" as an actual "complaint": "I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble." Verse 2 matches point for point the parallel construction of Verse 1: in both halves of Verse 2, there are only three elements necessary to summarize the character of the Psalm that will follow. There is the individual voice, there is the God that will hear that voice, and there is the substance of the prayer: which is a "complaint," which is an expression of personal "trouble," and which is also apparently a plea for God's "mercy." The first two verses set the stage for the situation that will be described in the rest of the text.
In Verse 3, David now expresses his own situation, but ironically it is not one in which trial has strengthened his faith in God. Instead, David seems to be expressing the idea that in adversity faith may be tested, so therefore God's supervision is most attentive. This would seem to make sense -- after all, if adversity is in some ways a test of God's faith, then God's attention would naturally focus on the moment when that faith might conceivably be abandoned. David does not abandon his faith, but he expresses a sense of inner weakness as a result of his trials, which nonetheless is there for God to see:
When my spirit grows faint within me, ?
it is you who watch over my way.
In the path where I walk ?
people have hidden a snare for me. (142:3)
We can see in the second phrase of Verse 3, however, the complaint is no longer directed against God but instead against David's enemies, who are setting a trap for him. Yet if David's "path" here is one that include a hidden "snare," this is naturally something that -- like David's own inner spiritual weakness ("my spirit grows faint") -- would be evident to God. God may "watch over [his] way," David seems to be saying, but God himself can see the "hidden…snare" even when David cannot. The complaint against the human enemies is, implicitly, a complaint against David's omniscient patron, who knows what these enemies are plotting but leaves David to fight against them utterly alone. And in the cave of Adullam, it is no wonder that David might feel he is losing this fight. Patrick Miller notes that in some ways there is a distinct avoidance of getting too specific about the situation: in contrast to the marvelous specificity of the account in I Samuel 21 (where David fakes madness by drooling down his beard and writing nonsense on the gate) the language David himself uses to describe his foes is almost allegorically abstract, Miller implies:
The individual laments are in many ways strongly stereotypical. That is, in moving from one lament to the other, one can encounter much of the same structure and content repeated, with some variation in the images and primary metaphors used. The enemies themselves are talked about in very typical stereotyped language. Cliches of all sorts are used throughout the psalms. The opponents are described in stark terms, usually with strong language and negative imagery. This stereotypical language should suggest caution in assuming that there is a single referent for the enemies or evildoers. (50)
Indeed, the imagery in the second half of Verse 3 here can be found virtually throughout the other Psalms -- in Psalm 9:15, for example, the idea of hidden traps set by evildoers is recast in the opposite direction, and the very act of laying hidden traps is something that, in a thanksgiving Psalm expressing victory or triumph, naturally comes back to haunt the evildoer, like the machinations of Haman in the Book of Esther. But in the desolation of Psalm 142, the hidden traps laid by evildoers are generalized -- we are not meant to assume that either Saul or Achish is meant here, but instead following Miller we should exercise "caution in assuming that there is a single referent for the enemies."
In fact, the intense solitude of Psalm 142 suggests an almost painfully direct communication between David and God -- to some extent the specificity of evildoers is irrelevant. Verse 4, after all, specifies this total isolation:
Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me.
I have no refuge;
no one cares for my life. (142:4)
The anxious underlying logic here suggests that if God's own chosen David can feel this isolated, perhaps God might feel this…