Lamentations

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Introduction

There is an old Negro spiritual titled “I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray.” The words are simple:

I didn’t hear nobody pray
Oh, I didn’t hear nobody pray,
way down yonder by myself,
and I didn’t hear nobody pray.

This “sorrow song” could serve well as a thematic refrain for the biblical book of Lamentations, a book of anguish and inescapable grief, a book dissonant with feel-good religion that admits to no doubt, confusion, insecurity, or pain. Lamentations is a collection of five sorrow songs from ancient Israel. The songs were originally sung, and they were passed from generation to generation as oral compositions before they were written down in the form in which we see them today.

Relevance

Most of the poems in the book of Lamentations reflect on the aftermath of war, and the experience of living in exile or suffering in the midst of a destroyed city where basic needs cannot be met. The mass of internal and external refugees in the world today, who have fled war, economic deprivation, political, gang, and domestic violence, and climate change, only to land in places where they may not be welcomed because of differences in ethnic background, religion, or race, can relate to the voices in the poems that express feelings of uncertainty: “she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place” (Lam 1:3). Even those who never left home, may feel that the world is changing so dramatically around them due to technological advancement and social change that they no longer recognize their home communities. They may think that they followed all the rules or at least tried to, but now the rules themselves are changing. They may wonder where God is, in the midst of a confusing and troubled time in their lives.

Although Lamentations is a stand-alone book, it must be read in the context of Israel’s history. Israel, having escaped enslavement in Egypt, enters the land of Canaan and takes it partially by war (Joshua) and partially by peaceful settlement (Judges). Years later, the Israelite kingdoms come to an end, also by war (2 Kings). In the long run, war never produces the desired long-term outcome. Land taken by war is lost by war. But even when people are at fault or the fault of others causes them to suffer, there is hope because “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lam 3:22).

Date, Setting, Author

Scholars believe that most of these poems were written after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army in 587–586 BCE. They are set in the city of Jerusalem, which itself is barely habitable because of the war. No author’s name is associated with any of the poems. Tradition, however, assigned the book to the prophet Jeremiah because he was in Jerusalem when it fell (Jer 37–43), and he was known to have written laments (2 Chron 35:25).

In the Hebrew canon, Lamentations is located in the third division known as the Writings. It is one of the subgroup of five books known as the Megilloth (the other four are Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Esther). It is read on the Ninth of Ab, commemorating the destruction of the temple. In the Christian Old Testament, the book is located between Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Form and Rhetoric

Four of the five chapters of Lamentations are written in the form of acrostic poetry based on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The exception is the last poem in chapter five. Although it has twenty-two verses, it is not in the form of an acrostic. It has been suggested that the use of the acrostic structure limits outward expressions of grief. At some point, the alphabet ends, and the mourner must return to everyday life. A number of different voices are heard in the poem, including that of a personified Zion (Lam 1:11c-16, 18-22), children (2:12), a prominent man (chap. 3), and a narrator. The poems appeal to God for respite and sometimes retribution.

Scholars have identified many examples in the ancient Mesopotamian world of laments over the destruction of cities. Elements common with the poems of Lamentations include a common subject matter (the destruction of a city), a somber mood, a similar structure and use of poetic devices, a theme of divine abandonment, the assignment of responsibility to gods, the god as the agent of destruction, the use of stock images, statements about the disruption in the life of the community, the lament itself, and a statement of restoration.

Toni Craven, building on the work of the form critics Hermann Gunkel and Claus Westermann, identifies a sixfold structure that is characteristic of a lament. It begins with an address to God, followed by a complaint, confession of trust, petition, words of assurance, and a vow of praise. Some or all of the six are present in each of the poems in Lamentations.

These poems are not to be understood narrowly as historical accounts. They are poems, and as poems they are meant to stir the emotions—to cause the reader or hearer to connect with the pain so keenly felt by those left in the devastated city of Jerusalem. With the possible exception of chapter 3, the book of Lamentations does not reflect personal grief. No individuals are named, and no individual experiences are recounted. The book expresses collective grief for a community now gone, a way of life that perished, a loss of innocence, a crisis of faith.

Summary and Comment

Chapter 1

The first poem is structured as an alphabetic acrostic reflecting the twenty-two consonantal letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse has three lines, except verse 7 which has four. The poem contains a lot of female imagery, for example, a widow, a princess (1:1), daughter Zion (1:6). These figures are metaphors for a city of Jerusalem that has been bereft, degraded and left destitute. God is blamed for the destruction of the city (1:5, 12, 17). Zion (Jerusalem) confesses that it is indeed guilty of sin (1:8) and boldly asks for comfort, succor, and understanding in spite of it. The poem ends with a call for vengeance to be taken against the enemies. The use of female imagery and that of violence and suffering indicates that the poem hopes to elicit sympathy from the reader.

Chapter 2

The second poem is also an alphabetic acrostic with three lines for each verse, except verse19 which has four. This poem presents a very negative image of God. God is “like an enemy” (2:5). God is angry. God destroys palaces and the temple (2:5-6). God has killed adults outright, and children die of hunger (2:4, 11-12). The royal family has been sent into exile (2:9). Neighbors mock Israel in its downfall (2:15). False prophets have led Israel astray (2:14). Zion protests that God has acted unjustly in that God has destroyed the innocent with the guilty (2:20-21). Verse 19 asks Zion to petition God for help indicating that in the theology of ancient Israel, it is never too late for God to act in one’s favor.

Chapter 3

The third poem has more verses than any other chapter in the book, but each verse has only one line (or two colons in Hebrew). It has sixty-six verses instead of twenty-two because each of the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet is repeated three times. Several voices are heard in the poem, each of which is trying to understand God’s role in suffering. They do not agree with each other. The opening voice is that of a geber (a prominent man, strong man) who has an entirely negative opinion of the way God has treated him. God has been like a bear or a lion waiting to attack him. God does attack by shooting him with arrows (3:13), besieging him, slapping him (3:3), causing his flesh to waste away (3:4), shutting out his prayers (3:8), and depriving him of peace (3:17). After the listing of grievances, the tone changes. A voice reminds him that the love of God never ends (3:22). God is faithful (3:23). God is merciful (3:22). God is good (3:25). God sees injustice and will remedy it (3:34-36). The geber and the readers are called to examine their ways and return to God (3:40-42). The latter part of the chapter returns to complaint about the current situation. But in this section there is more hope that God will act in the petitioner’s favor.

Chapter 4

Although this chapter is also an alphabetic acrostic, it is shorter than the first three poems having only two lines each and fewer words. This chapter’s poem exposes a hidden truth about war. A lot of the suffering occurs among noncombatants, especially women and children. Starvation is one of the aftermaths of war. Women and children have no food and no way to get it. People who were privileged are now reduced to poverty (4:5, 7-8). It is better to be instantly killed by the sword than to slowly starve (4:9). In Lamentations, priests and prophets are blamed for having failed the people more so than kings or the people in general (4:12-13). This poem ends with a call for punishment against the Edomites, a people who occupied a territory south and east of Israel. The Edomites did not destroy Jerusalem, but they perhaps bear some guilt for not offering assistance.

Chapter 5

This poem differs from the other four in that it is not structured as an alphabetic acrostic, though it does have twenty two verses. This poem is also shorter: each verse is only one line (2 colons) in Hebrew. The content is a list of grievances that resulted from the conquest of the land. The social order has been disrupted so that those who had been enslaved now rule over them (5:8). They have to pay for things that used to be free, such as water and wood (5:4). Working outside exposes them to danger (5:9). Women are raped (5:11). Young men and boys are carrying wood and grinding (work associated with lower class women) (5:13). Elders are not respected (5:12). This particular chapter reveals a concern that the elite are displaced and forced to do the work that lower class people do every day. Water and wood are free for the elite because they own the land that contains those resources. The working conditions of the poor expose them to more danger from the work itself and predators that might be lurking in the shadows. Perhaps the elite are realizing what poor people go through every day. The poem and therefore the book ends with an appeal to God for restoration.

Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition

These poems were written to help the ancient Israelites work through grief caused by the multiple losses they experienced when the city of Jerusalem, their political and religious capital, was invaded and destroyed. They model a method of mourning that encouraged the articulation of feelings of sorrow, anger, betrayal and grief. They question whether sins, whatever they may be, merited the total upending of lives, including the lives of the innocent (children). They ask whether God was, in fact, the cause of their suffering. The questions raised in the book are meant for reflection. They do not get answered directly, but there are assurances that God is to be understood as the one who loves and can heal and restore. So it is appropriate to appeal to God even if the petitioner thinks he or she is at fault or believes that God may be the punishing agent. No superhero emerges to set everything in order in an instant. Trauma cannot be remedied in an instant. Reflection and a reordering of life toward the Eternal is a segment of the journey toward comfort and healing.

Recommended Essays in the Commentary

Capture and Destruction of Jerusalem
Communal Lament
Dirge
The Elite
Evil Spirits
Hebrew Poetry
Zion Theology

Bibliography

  • Bailey, Wilma Ann. Lamentations. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2015.
  • Berlin, Adele. Lamentations: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
  • Craven, Toni. The Book of Psalms. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992.
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, Frederick William. Weep, O Daughter of Zion: A Study of the City-Lament Genre in the Hebrew Bible. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1993.
  • Kushner, Harold. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Schocken, 1981.
  • Lee, Nancy C. The Singers of Lamentations: Cities under Siege, from Ur to Jerusalem to Sarajevo. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002.

Invitation to Comment

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Wilma Ann Bailey