Last week’s Hebrew Scripture passage was full of hope. Jeremiah, under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), was planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation. He arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:6–15). He tells the people of Judah that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling the land and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). He demonstrates a firm, unwavering trust in God.
This week, the lectionary turns our attention to the book of Lamentations, which comes immediately after the book of Jeremiah, and which, by tradition, is attributed to Jeremiah, even though these is nothing at all in the text that makes this connection. Jeremiah, remembered for being a gloomy naysayer, seems to be a good match for this depressing text—the loss of hope and the growth of despair amongst the people is evident throughout the five chapters of Lamentations, and nowhere more than in these opening verses (Lam 1:1–6).
The passage sounds notes of mourning, with bitter tears and a sense of betrayal, hard servitude and enduring distress, a sense of suffering and loss of privilege, all contributing to a deep malaise, as the poet has sunk down into the depths of despair. Perhaps the link with Jeremiah can be validated by referring to one of his early pronouncements: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (8:18–22).
God echoes this mournful attitude: “oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1); then later, in an oracle over Judah, “if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (13:17); and still later, in an oracle over Moab, “more than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah” (48:32).
The weeping that Jeremiah and God display is expressed in the poems of lament found in the book of Lamentations; “for these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears”, the author mourns; “for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16). All five chapters of this book express a forlorn hope that the punishment being experienced by the people of Judah might come to an end.
However, that hope remains unfulfilled, from the opening lament, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1); to the final disconsolate prayer, “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure”(5:22).
Lamentations contains beautiful poetry, carefully crafted, skilfully compiled; it is aesthetically powerful, its form conveys a message spoken deep from the depths of human emotions. This opening chapter, like three of the four which follow, is an acrostic poem—each new verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. As there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 has 66 verses; each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter. (The final chapter also has 22 verses, but they are not arranged in any alphabetical order.)
The first four chapters employ a strict rhythmic pattern, known as a qinah rhythm: three stresses followed by two, which F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp describes as “the rhythmic dominance of unbalanced and enjambed lines” (Lamentations, Westminster John Knox, 2002). The pattern is suggestive of the broken, disjointed existence of the people.
In these five chapters, the author reveals much of how he, and the people, are lamenting their situation in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587/586 BCE. Chapter one paints a picture of the deserted, desolate city: “the roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter” (1:4). Chapter four provides a detailed portrayal of the destruction of the temple: “how the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! the sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street” (4:1).
The poems describe the traumatised state of the people in the immediate aftermath of this conquest. They suffer affliction (1:7, 9; 3:1, 19) and captivity (1:18), grief (3:32, 51) and suffering (1:3, 5, 18), hunger (2:19; 4:4, 9) and thirst (4:4). They express lamentation (2:5, 8) and mourning (1:4; 2:5; 5:15), with tears (1:2, 16; 2:18; 3:48), crying (2:12, 16, 18, 19; 3:8, 56), and weeping (1:2, 16; 2:11). As we read through the poems, we hear a constant, depressing cry: why have you let this happen, O Lord? why have you done this to us, O God?
These five poems bear many similarities with the “psalms of communal lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90, and the psalms of individual lament, such as Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142. In the face of God’s seeming inaction and unresponsiveness to pleading prayers, what is there to do, other than to lament?
The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1939–1945 has led many Jewish writers to reflect this attitude. It is not “giving up on God”, but resting in the pain and grief, venting about this to God, and hoping against hope that, in time, there may be a reversal of fortunes—a change of mind by God.
One writer notes that “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: Why did this have to happen? How could you allow it? Where are you in the midst of it? It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.” (Whitney Willard, “Lamentatations: the volatile voice of grief”, https://bibleproject.com/blog/lamentations-voice-of-grief/)
These poetic expressions of lament (the psalms of laments, as well as the “confessions” of Jeremiah and Lamentations itself) also inform some elements of the way that the passion of Jesus is narrated in the canonical Gospels; although these accounts are told with a knowledge of the resurrection, there is grief, sadness, and despair at the fate of Jesus, with perhaps a note of patient lament at some moments in those narratives.
Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, usually in late July or early August), to mourn the destruction of both the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and, on the same day (it is believed) the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE). The book provides a fitting way to remember the two greatest moments of national grief and loss, many centuries later.