Empty Chairs At Empty Tables

By John W. Nielson

The song Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is one of the truly haunting songs in all of Les Miserable. Marius returns to the place where he and his companions had talked and laughed and sang and planned and debated and dreamed. He is the only survivor of the band of brothers following the devastating slaughter that takes place on the barricade. A gripping phrase begins his song, “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken. There’s a pain goes on and on.” Marius is experiencing traumatic loss, sorrow, both grief and guilt. He faces unimaginable loss. He asks unanswerable questions:

–  Why am I alive and my friends are dead?
–  What was their sacrifice for?
–  Did any of it even matter?
–  What do I do now?

Marius is singing a song of lament. A lament is a cry of sorrow and grief, but it also includes our questions and confusion. Lament is a language of complaint. We ask questions like “why did this happen?”. “How long will this go on?” Lament is a common language of the Bible. It is central to the Book of Psalms where a conservative estimate places the number of lament psalms at 57, or 38%, of the Psalter. When you add in other psalms that, while they are praise oriented, derive from a clear experience of suffering and lament, the total increases to 118 psalms, or 80% of all psalms. Lament is also critical to other of the Wisdom Literature including Job.

It is also central in the Prophets, most notably in the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations.  Lament is a theme in the life of Jesus and in the entire essence of the Christological event. It is present throughout the narrative of Scripture and yet it still remains a virtual foreign language to the narrative of the lives of most Christians.We have lost sight of how to lament, in the biblical tradition of lament. We have certainly forgot how to lament in community. Lament has become, in the words of Michael Card, “a lost language.” Too often we fail to speak the words of lament, the words of sorrow, grief, and loss. Our Scripture passage today is one example of a Psalm of Lament. Hear the Word of the Lord from Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, 
or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed;”
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

— Psalm 13  
(New Revised Standard Version)

The Message of Psalm 13

Psalm 13 begins as most Psalms of lament do, with a complaint. Complaint is central to lament. Lament not only expresses sorrow, but also our questions, doubts, and even anger. Only the God of the Bible allows and even invites us to bring anything and everything that we feel to the very presence of God. In Psalm 13 the complaint has a number of elements. The psalmist cries out to God with a series of statements: It seems like You have forgotten me (verse 1). It seems like my troubles will never end (verse 2). It seems like everyone is against me (verse 2). Implicit in all of the complaint is a feeling of being totally alone. The Psalmist feels like Marius does; “there’s a grief that can’t be spoken. There’s a pain goes on and on.”

Psalm 13 continues with the psalmist crying out to God with specific requests. The call includes three primary requests:

1. Turn to me and answer me. (Verse 3)
2. Give light to my eyes, a request for both direction and life and joy. (Verse 3)
3. Deliver me. (Verse 4)

The Psalm ends as most biblical laments do, with a turn, a commitment to praise God for the answer that is still to come. The psalmist says it this way: I will trust in Your unfailing love, I will rejoice because you have rescued me.” (Verse 5) He also commits to sing to the God who will has been good to him. Even in the midst of the sorrow, there is an assurance that God stands with us and cares about what we are suffering.

We Need to Remember . . .

We can be honest with God. God can handle anything we need to say. God welcomes our full honesty; to share our pain, sorrow, anger, hurt. God already knows all about it.

We must always take our lament to God. One of the most important features of biblical lament is that even the Psalmist expresses anger, he expresses it TO God. True lament is a form of prayer and trust. When we are dealing with sorrow, pain, loss, grief, anger, disappointment, etc., the one place that we CAN take all of that emotion is to God.

We must realize we do not see the whole picture. When we are facing times of darkness and pain, we often can only see the storm. Certainly at the moment of singing this song, Marius was only able to see the loss and sorrow that he had experienced due to the tragic death of his friends. All of that is real, and we should not ignore or deny it, but it is not the whole picture, it is not the end of the story!

The sorrow and pain will not go on forever. While it often feels like the hard things we face will never end, the Gospel proclaims that there is coming a day when all of the pain and sorrow and loss of this world will be swallowed up into the final victory of God.

We must carry our lament into trust and praise. In the Psalms of lament there is always that “turn.” The psalmist expresses his complaint and makes his request, but then he makes a confession of present trust and future praise. Psalm 13 ends with these amazing words, “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

There will be times in life, where we too have cause to lament. We will, like Marius, experience “a grief that can’t be spoken” or a “pain, goes on and on.” We may feel remorse, guilt, sorrow, anger, fear, regret, and even despair. The things that cause us to lament, may continue to be realities that must be faced and endured, but it is never the end of the story. In this fallen world, we will know grief. Jesus told his disciples that sorrow and trouble would be a part of this life, we can count on it. But we can also count that Jesus has overcome the world and that the last word has not been spoken.

Marius would soon find hope and love and a brand new start to his life. While I am sure that the sorrow and loss he experienced at the barricade never full left him, he found joy again. But before he moved forward into that new reality, he needed to express the full depth of his loss and sorrow. He needed to lament. He needed to express his heart and the depth of the emotion that he had experienced. The bridge from the depth of loss to new hope and life is often the gift of lament.

There will be times in all of our lives when we experience sorrow, loss, anger, doubt, or grief. We will often feel like it is something that we can not talk about, not to God, not to others. May we remember that this grief actually must be spoken. We need to speak it to the Everlasting God and we must speak it to the community of faith which God has given to be the physical expression of divine presence and support. When the “pain goes on and on,” call out from the depths to the God who hears, who cares, who understands, and who will walk with us through the darkest night. And as we will soon be reminded, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise!”


1 thought on “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables

  1. Last Monday, I was in WV for the funeral for my Aunt Omajean Smith. At the cemetery, I found the graves of my Aunt Frances and Uncle Warner, Uncle Orvis and Aunt Agnes, and Uncle Mark. Today, I went to Keith Hallowell’s funeral. At the cemetery, I noticed a whole row of tombstones for Lake O people: Tim Kalman, Charles Witte, Carolyn Zell, Bob and Delores Wood. Lots of empty chairs at empty tables!

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