Why we need Lamentations

The word ‘aftermath’ is so significant. It tells us something of a story that is past, something about where we are now, and hints at what we are yet to face. ‘Aftermath’ communicates that individuals or nations have undergone something tough, and hints at the need for recovery, the need for time to process what has been endured.

The Old Testament book of Lamentations is full to the brim of aftermath, of wreckage and ruin, its words trail in the wake of horrible things. The text was most likely penned around 587BC, directly after Jerusalem as a city and Judah as a nation had fallen to the power of Babylon. Many have been murdered, the Temple precincts have been profaned, and a considerable swathe of the population have been carried into exile. The state has failed, the city has fallen, and hardship is now the daily bread of those who have survived. The book of Lamentations takes stock and gives voice to very real sorrow, and the grave consequences of departure from God. It effectively (and affectively) catalogues the grief of the human heart, the devastating sadness of God’s people.

Despite the inherent worth and the emotional wealth of this text it has been badly neglected. For many Christians, even those who are diligent readers of Scripture, Lamentations practically consists of five verses in chapter three which climax with the word ‘great is thy faithfulness’.

The great pity of this is that this text occupies a space which both church and society have predominantly lost. We are good at complaining, we are experts at seeking to elicit pity from our virtual and real-world friends, but the ability to lament in a constructive, covenantal, and God honouring way, lies largely beyond our ability to achieve. Lamentations, then, is a book of its time and a book for our age, a section of Scripture that we urgently need to recover, to rehearse, and to recite in our darkest of days.

In this post I want to highlight two things about Lamentations which might encourage others to explore it and to learn to embed its message in our lives.

The fact and features of Lamentations
One of the most remarkable things about the book of Lamentations is that it is in our Bibles at all. It is a poetic book, but it is also a pathetic book, in the sense that focuses on feelings, rather than the unfolding of events. It is a text which say extremely tough and touching things.

In terms of genre, lament is a form of literature which is machine tooled and purpose built to lay bare the realities of an anguished heart. Multiple examples arise in Scripture, with Psalms of lament (Ps. 137 for instance), with Jeremiah specialising in the form within his prophecy (and, I believe, in Lamentations also), and Jesus himself could raise laments over the very city that this is the subject of this beautiful book.

As a way of writing and praying and singing, lament gives us leave to lay out our complaint, to state clearly and candidly the pain we are feeling, the problems we are facing, the emotions which we struggle to strip back and understand. Lament is not like an audio recording of weeping, it is not a form of primal scream, but it offers reflective and considered treatments of the most terrible human experiences. The book of Lamentations is not a loose sheaf of loud cries, but a tightly structured book, consisting of five poems. Each poem is carefully composed, ordered, and arranged. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are each acrostics, using all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet to systematise suffering; chapter 3 repeats the ordering of letters in the opening of each verse as a poetic means to tabulating pain and hope.

In short Lamentations presents us with poems that give form to feeling, substance to sentiment, structure to stress, and coherence to confession. A cry of anguish might express the moment of pain, but a poem of lament does the maths of pain, working it through, laying it out in beauty, logic and formal excellence.

In reading this kind of material we can be liberated to lament for ourselves; by engaging with its poetry we can trace the trauma that Jerusalem faced, and in so doing allow our own sorrows to find expression, our own sins to find repentance. Hatty Lalleman notes,

The poems of Lamentations express the totality of disaster, despair, and grief…the book  deserves to be read and reread, in view of the different aspects of suffering contained within it: the distress, the anger, the questions, that speak of hope when remembering God’s covenantal love and faithfulness.

2. The focus of Lamentations
It would be easy to imagine that lament in the Scriptures is an ancient form of pity party, a kind of pooling of misery, a depressing experience, or a sample of how the Bible would read if it were written by Eeyore. Quite the opposite is true, however.

While Lamentations puts words to grief, it doesn’t wallow in grief, while it is steeped in pathos, it not full of self-pity, while it is heartfelt it is far from hopeless. The entire text is structured, so that hope is the heartbeat which powers faith and trust in God, even in the ruins of a rubbled city.

In Western culture we are used to the punchline of a joke, or the denouement of a drama to arrive at the end, or just before the conclusion. This is the arc that we assume when we are watching Netflix, or reading the classics, or passing on our funny stories. Hebrew narrative and poetry does not do things this way. Instead, the central section of the story, or the central poem in a collection, is often the point of crisis or resolution, and this is evident in Lamentations. This book can speak hard things, it can catalogue spiritual redundancy and hard reality, it can question God’s ways, and highlight the physical impact of stress and trauma. These notes are stuck right up to the final poem, which is a desperate cry for God to act and to answer in covenant kindness. At the heart of all this hurt, is the hope of chapter 3 with its confessions of God’s dependability, of his commitment and mercy, even in the midst of a city trampled by pagan feet. The poet can feel the pain, but can also fully rest his trust in the God who has ordained and permitted the blow which the city has sustained. That very faithfulness clears the poet’s throat to speak the pain which is his present preoccupation.

As Christians we want to trace the ultimate arc of Lamentations into the suffering Messiah, into the sorrows his soul endured for sin, the exile that his enduring the cross entailed for him. We can, however, also find voice for our most modern concerns within the pages of this book. When our society is slipping, when sin is spreading, where our cities collapse into violence, where there is atrocity and adversity, hostility and hatred, where we are confused and confounded by what we witness, these poems stand as pillars in the midst of our chaos. For these reasons alone we need to go back to Lamentations, we need to parse its grammar of pain, and translate its account of trauma into our walk with God and our journey homewards through much adversity and painful exile.

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