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Five Scrolls: Lamentations

This is the second in our series on the Hamesh Megillot, or Five Scrolls from the Hebrew Bible. Check out last week's blog for an introduction and some thoughts on Ecclesiastes. This week is all about Lamentations, and you might like to start with this overview video from The Bible Project.

To get down to basics, Lamentations is a collection of laments, expressing grief and anger and confusion following the fall of Jerusalem to Babylonions. They are a form of protest, crying out against the suffering of the people; a way of processing what has happened, giving voice to Israel’s pain; and a memorial to this time in Israel’s history, making sure it is not forgotten. Each chapter is a self-contained poem written from a slightly different perspective, although the speakers seem to be representative figures rather than historical characters, so there is a sense of these being communal laments. Something that we cannot appreciate in translation is that four of the five poems are acrostics, which means each verse starts with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, so that the poems create an A-Z of suffering and seek to impose order and structure on pain and chaos.

The laments may have been written about specific events, but the deep emotions they express are not unique to that time, and so they have a timelessness to them. Within the Jewish tradition, Lamentations is still read every year on the festival that commemorates fall of temple, with people sitting on floor by candlelight. I can only imagine how powerful an experience that was during the Holocaust, with ancient words giving expression to new grief.

The laments are a howl against suffering and unfairness, and as such they much in common with the Book of Job, but here God doesn’t show up with an answer, which leads us to the question of what we do when God is silent. The passage we heard from chapter three gives one possible answer as the suffering man falls back on what God has said in the past. He recalls God’s mercy and kindness and grace, and that recollection becomes a seed of hope. It is very easy to become mired in our circumstances or to fear to look ahead, but looking back may offer perspective and solace and strength, because as the Rend Collective song Weep With Me has it, what was true in the light is still true in the dark.

Verse 23 from that passage will be familiar to many from the classic hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness, but it is also the source of a traditional Jewish morning prayer which says “I thank you, ever-living King, who has mercifully restored my soul within me; ample is your grace”. How would it shape our days and our responses if we began each day with those words, and carried them with us as a kind of mantra? Perhaps you might like to think on that for a moment, or even take it up as a practice.

Throughout Lamentations, there is a sense that the disasters that have befallen Israel are on account of their sin, that they are divine punishments for their failure to uphold the covenant. This is a theme that is found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, but I think its presentation in Lamentations is interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, the laments suggest that the suffering is disproportionate to the sin - in chapter two, God is accused of acting without pity, of treating Israel worse than he has treated anyone else. We hear something similar in Job’s laments, as he argues that he has done nothing to deserve what has happened to him, and in both books there is a sense that this isn’t how things are meant to be, a refusal to simply accept the way things are, and a willingness to challenge God and demand better. There is also an implicit questioning of the line of thought that says suffering and sin are balanced as if on the scales of divine justice, and perhaps we start to see a crack in the argument.

Second, we start to hear a dissonant voice. Verse 3:32 says that God brings grief but will also show compassion, then the following verse says that God does not willingly bring grief and affliction to anyone. The two verses can be harmonised by arguing that God brings grief only because he has to, not because he wants to, but this idea is difficult because it suggests that God is bound by some law that he would not keep but can not break, and so I wonder if this verse opens up an even wider crack in the idea that suffering is divine punishment for sin

If God does not willingly bring grief and yet the people are suffering an amount of grief disproportionate to any sin they may have committed, perhaps God did not bring that grief and it is not a direct punishment for sin. There are more explicit challenges to the theology of divine punishment elsewhere in scripture, but I think it is interesting to see how Lamentations struggles to maintain it even as these cracks start to show. I wonder if we sometimes hold onto theologies that we have inherited that don’t quite work but we can’t quite let go of. The truth though is that theology is not a rulebook, but language about God, and it is right that such language is not static, but shaped by our experience.

So what theology of suffering has my experience shaped? I believe that God is engaged with the world but does not control the world, that our free will means the world can be chaotic and unfair at times, that sin does have consequences but sometimes those consequences fall in the wrong place and the innocent suffer. I know that is not a very hopeful thing to say, and perhaps there is something comforting in maintaining sovereignty of God even in hardship, in believing that even the bad stuff happens for a reason, but I would rather a loving God who stands with us in solidarity than a legalistic God who stands over us in judgement.

And I do believe the former is the kind of God I have experienced. I have talked and written about my mental health before, and I do not believe that God caused me to suffer from depression, or that my depression was the punishment for some heinous sin I had committed in the first eleven years of my life. I believe that is something that happened outside of God’s control, because sometimes the chemicals in our brain misfire, and sometimes other people make bad decisions that hurt us - but I also believe that God was with me through it, that God heard my laments and sat and wept with me on the floor while I was too weak to do anything else, that God pulled me to my feet when I was ready to stand again. My mental ill health is not a punishment, but it has been an opportunity to see more of God’s mercy and kindness and grace, and as for the voice of Lamentations 3, that has planted the seeds of hope that I return to in my laments.

We experienced a bit of a gear shift with our second reading, which comes from the very end of Lamentations. I thought it was important that we heard those verses because they are perhaps not the ending we expect. We like happy endings and resolutions - we want to at least end with the hope of chapter three - but that is not what we get.

I said earlier that four of the five laments are acrostics, and chapter five is the one which is not. The structure breaks down, as if the grief can be contained or controlled no longer, and whereas we reached a high point of hope in the middle of the book, we now find a slide back into despair. The penultimate verse calls on God for restoration, but the final verse fears that God has chosen rejection, and that tension is never resolved.

It’s jarring but isn’t it so much truer to life? None of us are on a constant upward trajectory, we all have good days and bad days, we all hit peaks and then fall back into troughs, so much of our life is lived with questions and fears and tensions. That the scriptures mirror that is for me an assurance that it is okay to live in that space. It is not good, it is not where God wants to leave us, but it is okay.

I said earlier that what is true in the light is still true in the dark, and what the writer said in chapter three about God not rejecting anyone forever is still true, but in the final verses of chapter five they do not feel that, or perhaps this is a different speaker that does not feel that. Whichever is the case, there is a power and a catharsis in being able to own and give voice to those fears. We don’t need always have to be stoic.

I came across this tweet this week. I had a student once say “if God is real, He is angry & He’s a misogynist.” I was about to respond when I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Don’t. Let him get it out.” That was how I learned that God cared more about this one college student, than defending God’s own character. I think we see the truth of that in Lamentations too, and in the fact that it has become a sacred text. God lets us get it out, because God is more concerned for us than for God’s name

I believe in hope with every fibre of my being, because I believe in the resurrection of Christ, and I believe that his resurrection speaks of life beyond death, joy beyond despair, forgiveness beyond betrayal. But I also believe that sometimes we just need to sit with lament.

Whether we are lamenting the sadnesses of our own lives or the injustices of the world, we need to take time to recognise and express how we feel, to give ourselves permission to do that. At some point we will need to pick ourselves up and put hope into action, especially when it comes to injustice, but we don’t need to be too quick to push our grief aside, as if it were something shameful. Some of you may be familiar with the following poem, which is often used at funerals, but which I think may speak to other forms of grief.

Do not hurry as you walk with grief

It does not help the journey

Walk slowly, pausing often

Do not hurry as you walk with grief

Be not disturbed by memories

that come unbidden

Swiftly forgive and let

Unspoken words, unfinished conversations

be resolved in your memories

Be not disturbed

Be gentle with the one who walks with grief

If it is you, be gentle with yourself

Swiftly forgive, walk slowly

Pause often

Take time

Be gentle as you walk with grief

I also think of Jesus and Martha grieving Lazarus. A number of years ago, I was profoundly moved by a dramatic portrayal of that story in the Riding Lights play Calvary. Martha came running at Jesus, screaming at him, throwing herself at him and beating her hands against his chest - and he let her do it, and then he simply held her. And after he took Martha's rage and her grief, he went to Lazarus’ tomb, and even though he knew his friend was about to walk out again, he still wept because he left the deep sadness of that moment.

You see, hope doesn’t deny lament. It makes a safe space for it, where we can immerse ourselves in grief and anger and confusion, knowing that it is not all and we will not drown in it. And so there may be times when we know in a corner of our mind or the depth of our soul that hope is hovering, but still we need to allow ourselves to feel what we feel, times when we need to speak our words of lament before we can listen to the voice of hope, and that’s okay. It’s not good and it’s not where God wants to leave us, but it’s okay.

When you are in that place, or if you are in that place right now, may you know that God hears your grief and your anger and your confusion, and may you be blessed with others who will sit with you in your lament.

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