The Book of Lamentations
I am sure I had read Lamentations before I opted for this essay – but I couldn’t really remember anything much about it. I knew it was a ‘depressing’ book, perhaps written by “weeping Jeremiah”, and that it was hard work.
How WRONG I WAS. The more I studied it, the more I fell in love with this book. It is so exquisitely put together, and the language is so brutally honest that I simply could not get enough. Its an anguished cry from the heart, and nothing is left unsaid. Such a short essay as this cannot begin to do justice to the structure, let along the content.
I studied for it by a pool in the Canary Islands! At the same time Isis (IS etc) where rampaging their way through the Yazadi and Christian minority groups in Iraq. You couldn’t get a sharper conflict of situations, nor perhaps a more compelling reason to meditate upon the words of Lamentations.
Explain the argument of the book of Lamentations, with a concluding paragraph on its contemporary theological significance.
In 587 BC the Babylonian army, under Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed Jerusalem, notably along with the temple. Berlin describes this as an ‘event without precedent’ which ‘would become a turning point in Jewish religious development.’ Lamentations was written not only to express the ‘suffering and grief’ that resulted, but also to act as a ‘memorialization of that suffering and grief.’
Lamentations consists of five responses to these events, written using various types of acrostic poems or laments, which articulate the ‘psychological and spiritual anguish’ of the people to God’s abandonment and hostility towards them. It is undecided as to whether it was used privately or in a corporate setting. Either way, Lamentations captures the utter despair of discovering that God was behind the destruction and devastation.
Whilst there is much debate as to exactly how many voices there are speaking within the poems, people can be heard talking issues over as they consider the horrors that have befallen them. The writer of Lamentations makes use of literary figures to describe the events that have occurred to the whole people. Thus we find the nation described as an abandoned woman (1:1-3) and as a persecuted man (3:1-3). The individual suffering has been transferred to the collective, and these ‘figures make vivid and graphic the suffering of the survivors of Judah.’
This suffering is further underlined by the use of very strong, shocking descriptions of violence. God is described as having ‘sent fire into my bones’ (1:13), trampled the young girls as in a winepress (1:15), torn men to pieces as a wild animal (3:10,11) and broken people’s teeth with gravel (3:11). We are left in no doubt that the author thinks the destruction has come from God himself.
Lamentations clearly does contain theology – for example the suffering of the people is a result of their sin (1:5, 5:16), and that God has acted in his anger towards them (2:1-3). Dobbs-Allsopp suggests that these, and other glimpses of theology are nowhere developed into a full, detailed argument, and because of this it is hard to outline and summarize the theology of Lamentations.
What is very clear however is that the writer sees the catastrophe as being directly attributable to the actions of God. He nowhere mentions the Babylonians, their army or deity, but repeatedly affirms that it is God who has bought, and indeed acted out the devastation upon Judah. But why would the God who has chosen them, loved them, nurtured them and fought for them turn his face as a warrior so violently and decisively against them?
The reason for God’s punishment of Judah appears to be obvious. Verses such as 1:5, 3:39, 4:6 and 5:16 all state that God has inflicted punishment on them for their sins, and indeed national disasters were commonly explained in this way within the culture of the Ancient Near East at this time. In 4:13 the poet is apportioning more blame to the ‘prophets and priests’ – the spiritual leaders. Judah repeatedly broke the Deuteronomic covenant, over a period of time, despite recurring warnings, and this is why God inflicts the promised punishment. (Deut. 28) Berlin expands by saying that it was idolatry, the rejection of God, that led to this most ‘colossal break in the entire relationship between God and Israel since its beginning.’ By describing the pursuers as ‘swifter than the eagles of the heavens’ (4:19) the poet links back to Deut. 28:49 where the nation that God will use to judge the Israelites is described as being like an eagle.
Provan reminds us that within Lamentations we do find the orthodox view that sin results in punishment, and the correct response of humility before God. However, this view is not entirely taken on by the author of the poems, and there are questions expressed by the different voices. Has God been fair in what he has done? Does the punishment fit the crime or is God repaying too heavily? Is any hope for the future utterly misplaced? (1:22, 2:20, 5:22) Provan even goes as far to suggests that the writer is reproaching God in 2:22, and perhaps less convincingly in 5:2-3,5. Again, we can see echoes of this reproach in 4:6.
Despite these questions, the main focus of the poems is not so much to explain what has happened but to express that it did, and to ‘move God to intercede for and restore his people.’ Over and again sickening, terrifying images of destruction and violence are piled up as the poet focuses on recreating the disaster and its effects in all their intensity. At times, this expression is targeted directly towards God, as the author reminds him of his promises, voices a sense of abandonment, reproaches God and questions his actions. The poet is trying to ‘provoke a response’ from God.
In 3:19-39 the poet reminds God of his previous faithfulness and active care towards Judah in an attempt to ‘provoke the reactivation’ of God’s favour towards them. Despite this, the one voice missing from the poems is that of God, who remains silent throughout. The challenge in 3:19-39, along with this silence acts to underline that God is no longer accessible and refuses to give comfort or aid.
Some have seen chapter 3 as the high point of hope and faith within the book. Whilst 3:22 is true, because the author and audience are indeed alive, the continuing statements seem somewhat out of keeping with the rest of the book. Provan is surely correct when he says ‘chapter 3 is really a mixture of hope and despair’ and that you do not get an impression of great hope if you read it, or indeed the whole book.
Berlin interestingly reminds us that the most ‘central theme of lamentations is mourning.’ Since the temple is now destroyed, and the people are removed from it, they no longer have access to the presence of God, thereby leading not only a political death, but to a religious one as well. Berlin, referencing the psalms, suggests that the mourner is not able to ‘praise God in their time of trouble; rather he hopes to be able to praise God in the future, after he has been delivered from trouble.’ Looking forward to such deliverance, with the inherent rebuilding of the temple that it implies, is a very remote theme within Lamentations and there is little if any looking forward to future praise. Berlin concludes that the Laments offer no promise of future comfort, and that presence of God remains distant.
Contemporary Theological Significance
Lamentations is a superbly relevant book, which has a great deal to offer theologically. As the recent dreadful violence and destruction aimed at the Yazadi and Christian minority groups in Iraq shows only too plainly, the earth is still ‘filled with violence,’ and the voice of Lamentations resonates all to clearly down the centuries. The poet has much to say to us about how we approach God in times of ‘national’ disaster, giving us permission to voice anger, abandonment, questions and pain. The author of Lamentations appears to clearly believe that the presence of God can be oppressive and violent, but still recalls times when it was anything but. In this way he can hold these two seeming opposites in tension, without attempting to offer any answers, which suggests that we should seek a theology which does the same. The fact that these laments were written at all suggests that the author wanted to bring God into every single aspect of the national life of Judah, even the disasters. Within this of course is a theology that says that God is not defeated and that his presence can be restored to the nations. This is why the poet can write
Why do you forsake us forever, and forsake us for so long a time. Restore us to yourself, O Lord that we may be restored.’ (Lam. 5:20,21)
Lament seems to have disappeared from our theology, especially corporately, but it clearly has a place. Lamentations could help us recover it.
Berlin, Adele. Lamentations; A Commentary. London: Westminister John Know Press, 2002.
Dobbs-Allsopp, F.W. Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lamentations. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2012.
Longman III, Tremper, and Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Provan, Iain. The New Century Bible Commentary: Lamentations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.
 Adele Berlin, Lamentations; A Commentary (London: Westminister John Know Press, 2002), 1.
 Ibid., 1.
 Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 345.
 Iain Provan, The New Century Bible Commentary: Lamentations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 20.
 Longman III and Dillard, Old Testament, 351.
 Provan, Lamentations, 21.
 F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lamentations (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2012), 24.
 Ibid., 29.
 Berlin, Lamentations, 28.
 Provan, Lamentations, 23.
 Ibid., 23.
 Berlin, Lamentations, 18.
 Longman III and Dillard, Old Testament, 351.
 Berlin, Lamentations, 9.
 Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 31.
 Provan, Lamentations, 23.
 Berlin, Lamentations, 15.
 Ibid., 16.