Depression and Lament

by Timothy Shorey
March 6, 2020

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.”

 (Psalm 137:12)

Depression is a complex condition that no single formula can heal—and we should not pretend that any can. I have too much personal and pastoral experience in trying to help the depressed, to offer glib counsel now. Depression’s causes and cures are so multi-layered, affecting both body and soul, that we do harm when we apply simplistic uni-layered treatments to address it. So please do not read what follows as a naïve remedy for a sad condition that ultimately, only God and grace can heal.

That being said, we do not help people in their battles with depression when we fail to join them in their lament. Depression is at root—no matter what its varied causes in each person’s experience—a midnight moonless sadness in the spirit. To be sure, it is often very much more than sadness, but it is never less. And when such sadness beclouds both mind and heart, it is best that lament—preferably shared with others—be expressed.

Nothing Shall Be Left

Isaiah 40 is where I most often turn when darkness settles over my soul. If you’re not familiar with it, I’d encourage you to pause and read the whole chapter now (but be sure to start in Isaiah 39:5).

Isaiah 39:5-7 provides context for Isaiah 40. Chapter 40 proclaims the being of God for his people’s comfort, because chapter 39 predicted the judgment of God over his people’s sins; judgment in the horrific form of exile. This is not to suggest that suffering is always—or even usually—a result of human sin, just that in Israel’s case, it was.

And what a judgment it was. It’s likely that while many of us have gone through seasons of acute grief in life, we’ve never experienced what Israel faced. You and I have probably had seasons in which we’ve lost much, but I doubt we’ve ever had to say: “Nothing is left” (39:6).

Exile takes everything. When exile’s dust settles, nothing but dust remains.  Israel’s banishment into Babylon involved the destruction of homes, the pillaging of possessions, the loss of land and jobs, the obliteration of familiar institutions, the ripping up of cultural and traditional roots, the raping of daughters and wives, the rending of families, the relocation of a population, the loss of national identity, the enslavement of the able-bodied, and a near-complete loss of freedom—all at the hands of a Hitler-like despot. Nothing was left.

By the Waters of Babylon

No wonder the exiled Israelites sat beside the waters of Babylon and wept (Psalm 137:1-6). There was no song in their hearts, for they wanted only, to cry—and they had every right to do so. Psalm 137 memorializes their grief in the book of Psalms, the inspired hymnbook of the saints, being but one of around 50 psalms that either include lament or might be described as laments. Apparently God’s people cry a lot.

Many Christians think this denies Christian hope. They misread Paul’s exhortation “not to grieve as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) as a repudiation of grief itself. But Paul isn’t telling us not to grieve. He is telling us not to grieve as others grieve; in hopeless despair.

Which explains why Paul “groaned” in life (Romans 8:23) even though he knew that every sorrow works out for good (Romans 8:28). It explains why—had Epaphroditus died—he would have felt “sorrow upon sorrow” (Philippians 2:27). It explains the early church’s “great lamentation” when Stephen was martyred (Acts 8:2), and why perfected people in heaven are plaintively crying for God to avenge the blood of saints who have been slain (Revelation 6:910).  It even explains why Jesus wept over the death of a friend even though he knew he was going to raise him a few minutes later (John 11). The waters of Babylon surround the people of God in every age, and it is okay not to feel like singing.

Friends: severed relationships, childhood abuse, broken marriages, shattered dreams, fractured families, disappointed hopes, diseased loved ones, unmarried loneliness, unrealized aspirations, social injustice, racial oppression and tensions between black, brown, white, and blue, anti-Semitism, fatherless children, immigrants and refugees, living far from home—all these are real sorrows and valid griefs over which we may, and we must weep. And if others are weeping for any of these reasons (or for no apparent reason at all) we need to join them in their tears.

Letting Ourselves Cry

Let me put it plainly: a lot of us need a good cry—with no need for an apology. Life hurts. So we’re allowed, even encouraged to cry. And when others are weeping, we are encouraged to join them (Romans 12:15). Lament is good; we need more of it—to heal our wounded hearts, to comfort our weeping friends, and to align our emotions with God’s as he weeps over a world gone very wrong.

Through the years, I have tried—not always successfully—to find ways to help my congregations learn how to cry together. One attempt has been to put the lament psalms to music. By matching sad psalms with sad tunes and having congregations sing them, we have felt the healing help of lament. It’s been good for us, and I think it might help you, too.

To that end, here are three songs of lament which you can “try-out”. Two of them are laments faintly seasoned with hope. The third expresses quiet hope while facing the painful and inscrutable acts of God. These won’t fully dispel anyone’s depression. But they may help to express it—which is good for the soul. And if you are not depressed, might I encourage you to sing these in solidarity (if not proximity) with those who are?

Down by the Waters: Psalm 137[1]

(Tune: Be Thou My Vision)

  1. Down by the waters of exile we wept

Here we are captured, from Zion are kept

We hang our harps, how silent the string

Though captors mock us and tell us to sing.


  1. How shall we sing a glad song to the Lord

When neither freedom nor right is restored?

We are a people in Babylon land;

How can we sing here with harp in the hand?


  1. Yet this our song in the dark of the night

Remember Lord when they put us to flight

O Lord repay, bring justice at last

Into your hand Lord our rights are now cast.


  1. Soon shall the waters of justice flow down

Soon shall the Great King ride, wearing the Crown

Soon shall the Lamb for sinners once slain

Come for his people, and righteously reign.


O Lord, Do Not Be Angry? (Psalm 6; Revelation 6:10)[2]

(Tune: O Sacred Head Now Wounded)


  1. O LORD do be not angry, nor your displeasure vent;

Be gracious in your mercy for we are sorely spent;

We, in our trouble languish; o heal the weary soul!

Down in our bones we anguish; how long ‘til you make whole?


  1. O LORD return, deliver, and save in steadfast love;

Lest we cannot remember, or praise your name above

How weary is our moaning, we flood our bed with tears!

How long will we be groaning, with endless wasting fears?


  1. All evil-doers leave us, the LORD has heard our tears;

And he will soon receive us, our cries have reached his ears;

All enemies will vanish and soon will bear their blame;

He will the wicked banish and put them all to shame.


  1. Lord Jesus come to rescue from all our woe and pain!

How long o LORD until you avenge the wrongly slain?

O sovereign LORD most holy whose word is ever true,

We trust your promise fully, and wait in hope for you.



O LORD I Guard My Heart: Psalm 131

(Tune: O Come, O Come, Immanuel)


  1. O LORD, I guard my heart from lifted pride

I do not let my eyes be raised too high

I do not probe the mystery

Of things too great and marvelous for me


Hope in the LORD, O Israel

From this time forth and evermore.


  1. But I have calmed and stilled my soul

Like a weaned child with mother

My soul within is fed, is full

Well-nourished by Another


Hope in the LORD, o Israel

From this time and evermore.


  1. O LORD, keep us from lifted pride

Don’t let our eyes be raised too high

Keep, lest we probe the mystery

Of things we cannot know, or ever see


And be our Hope, Emmanuel

From this time forth and evermore.

[1] © 2018 Tim Shorey

[2] ã2018, Tim Shorey

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