This is a chapter for Commentary 2000, edited by J.W. Rogerson and J.D.W. Dunn, due to be published in 2000.
This text was posted on the Web on 30 May 2000.
What is Lamentations?
The book of Lamentations has been badly served by the title it carries in our English versions. For it is not a collection of breast-beating self-pitying poems, a mere lamenting of the sorry state of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. It is rather the record of a Hebrew poet's coping with crisis, a deeply reflected proposal for the handling of grief.
Its theological position is quite subtle: it does not take just one perspective and it does not recommend a single solution. It begins with the reality of disaster and it concludes neither with cheap grace nor with easy hope but with the bitter possibility that the people of God may now have become the ex-people of God, that God may indeed have this time finally rejected Israel (5:22). And yet, despite its unwillingness to affirm blandly that all manner of thing will be well, at its end it does not leave its readers at the same point of despair with which it opened; for at its very midpoint (3:22-33) it has expressed the confidence that the mercies of Yahweh never come to an end, they are new every morning.
The Five Poems
The book of Lamentations consists of five distinct poems corresponding to the five chapters of the book. Each of the five poems may be called an alphabetical poem, the first four being acrostic poems. Chapters 1, 2 and 4 each have 22 verses, the first verse beginning with aleph, the second with beth, and so on through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In chapter 3 there are 66 verses, three to each of the letters in turn. In chapter 5 there is no planned sequence to the initial letters of the verses, but there are just 22 verses in the poem all the same, so that it too might rightly be called an alphabetical poem.
Such parameters impose a severe and apparently artificial restriction upon the poet, but not a greater one than many poets in other literatures have willingly adopted (e.g. the sonnet form), with no attenuation of the artistic quality or integrity of their work. It might even be suggested that this very self-restriction represents a kind of containment of the grief it depicts, as if without the closure required by the poetic form the grief might be in danger of becoming limitless and all-pervasive.
The Historical Setting
The historical situation supposed by the poems is the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the subsequent destruction of the city, deportation of its leading inhabitants, and abject condition of those that were left behind. But the poet is not a reporter, and the poetry intends us to reconstruct not the historical actuality but, in imagination, the psychological state of those who were experiencing disaster. It would be wrong to read the poems as a transcript of reality: the poem would then, for example, be asserting both that the city had been deserted by its inhabitants (1:3) and that its citizens still remained (1:11); it might be called in evidence for cannibalism (2:20; 4:10), murders by priests and prophets (4:13), the necessity for payment for drinking water (5:40), and the total absence of music in Jerusalem (5:14).
Assuming that the historical setting of the poem is after the final fall of the city in 587 (some think chapter 1 has the situation of 597 in mind), one important historical fact attested by the poem is that despite the destruction of the temple, the royal and other palaces and the city wall by the Babylonians, and despite the exile of leading citizens (as reported in 2 Kings 24:14; but cf. 25:11), the city remained inhabited throughout the period of the exile and sustained many of the normal functions of a regional centre as a Babylonian dependency.
Though the realities of life in a conquered city are graphically described there is no reason to think that the poet was necessarily a member of the Jerusalem community of that time, and was not, for example, a poet of a much later age imaginatively reconstructing the situation of exilic Jerusalem as a vehicle for theological reflection.
The authorship of Lamentations has traditionally been ascribed to Jeremiah, probably on the ground of the reference in 2 Chron. 35:25 to a lament on the death of King Josiah spoken by Jeremiah. But there is no reference in Lamentations to Josiah, and no reason therefore to connect the book with Jeremiah. In English Bibles it is placed after the prophecy of Jeremiah, but in Hebrew Bibles with the Writings.
Lamentations as a Theological Resource
Lamentations may properly be regarded as a work of art, whose quality and force do not depend upon the rightness of its ideas. One need not be a religious believer to find its pathos realistic and affecting. And yet, set within the context of the scriptural canon as it is, it is inevitable that many of its readers will find its principal value in its theological ideas, which are indeed very rich and creative. In the following ways at least, the book of Lamentations may serve as a theological resource:
1. These poems are a resource for times of crisis. They legitimate grief that is intricately reflected and self-regarding, and they do not encourage sufferers to a hasty confidence in the goodness of God. They do not urge that the horror of disaster should be experienced only shallowly.
2. The poet is not shy of holding God accountable for the disaster. Even when it is obvious that Jerusalem has been overwhelmed by an army of Babylonians, the poet regards God as the first cause of the disaster. And even though he acknowledges that his people have deserved what has happened to them, God has still had some choice over whether he would act at this time and in this way.
3. The moment of hope arises from a recollection of the past experience of God's goodness, not from the misery of the present or from the cry of despair of the moment. The cry to God for deliverance may be a motive for God to act, but it offers no kind of guarantee that he will.
4. Repentance is not seen as a way to persuade God to be gracious, since God is free to be gracious or not as he chooses. Repentance is understood in the book of Lamentations to be a proper accompaniment of thanksgiving for restoration.
5. In the end, the possibility must be reckoned with that God has come to the end of a road with his people, and may not again deliver them. Otherwise, if God has no freedom, if God is utterly predictable, God is a tool of humans.
Poem 1 (Lamentations 1): The Widowed Jerusalem
The scene depicted here is Jerusalem
after its fall to the Babylonians in 587 BCE.
In this first of the five distinct poems in the book of Lamentations, there are two different speakers. In vv. 1-11, it is the poet who speaks, as an external observer of the plight of the sacked city of Jerusalem. The poet pictures Jerusalem as a widowed and abused woman. In the second half of the poem (vv. 12-22), it is Jerusalem itself that speaks, as this sorrowful and comfortless women. The change from one speaker to the other is not just a change of perspective, but a dynamic movement, which invites the reader first to observe the city's distress externally and then to experience it at a deeper level, from within the feelings of distress.
The overt purpose of this affecting and sensitively realized text is apparently to urge God to bring upon the conquerors of Jerusalem the same fate as it itself has suffered ('deal with them as you have dealt with me', v. 22). The purpose of the text cannot however be wholly expressed in terms of the overt; from the point of view of its readers or hearers, its purpose is to persuade its readers of certain ideas, or to reinforce in their minds ideas they already believe. It is an ideological text. Its key ideas are these: (1) The destruction of the city is essentially the doing of the Lord, Yahweh (v. 5). (2) Jerusalem's destruction is deserved: it has disobeyed Yahweh and is being punished for its 'rebellion' (v. 18). (3) Although the Babylonians have acted at the bidding of Yahweh in destroying Jerusalem, they are themselves also wicked, and should be punished just as Jerusalem has been.
The rhetoric and the feeling of the poem persuade readers to accept such ideas, but readers should also ask (1) how the destruction of the city can be Yahweh's doing, when it is plainly the work of the Babylonians, (2) whether it is right to think of God as destroying people because they have done wrong, and (3) whether there is any ethical problem in God's punishing the Babylonians for carrying out his will.
1:1-11 The Widowed Jerusalem
There is no introduction or scene-setting; we are immediately presented with a visual image of a bereaved and mourning woman, who is the city of Jerusalem. The language is that of the dirge or mourning poem such as we find in Amos 5:2 and Ezek. 26:17-18; the opening word 'how' ('aikâ) expresses the enormity of the tragedy (as also in 2:1; 4:1; 2 Sam. 1:19; Isa. 1:21; Jer. 4:17). This widow was once a powerful princess surrounded by friends and allies (vv. 1-2), but is now bereft of her husband, which is to say, her people, and vulnerable like any woman in a patriarchal society deprived of male protection.
In more prosaic language, the people of Judah have been forcibly ('by oppression') taken into exile (v. 3), and the city of Jerusalem is deserted, without pilgrims for the festivals. Perhaps the city is not entirely empty, since there still seem to be priests in it, and young women, who often play a role at festivals (e.g. Judg. 21:19-21; Jer. 31:13; Psa. 68:25 ) (v. 4). But the city has indeed been conquered (v. 5) and its citizens deported (v. 3).
This sorrowful state is not however just an unfortunate tragedy. It is a punishment visited upon Jerusalem by God for the sins of the people: it is for its transgressions that its citizens ('children') have been exiled (v. 5), it is for Jerusalem's sins that it has become despised and ashamed (v. 8). And what Jerusalem has suffered in the loss of its 'precious things' (vv. 7, 10, perhaps the temple treasures plundered by the Babylonians according to 2 Kgs 23:13-17) and in its dishonouring is depicted in the gross language of a woman whom men have humiliated by exposing her nakedness in her menstrual period. Women, who had little honour in the male world of the Bible, could nevertheless be easily dishonoured, and their natural bodily functions, which rendered them 'unclean' or 'filthy', were evidently an object of disgust to males.
Perhaps continuing the metaphor of the sexually assaulted woman, the poet now envisages the enemies of the city as woman 'stretching out their hands over her precious things' and 'invading her sanctuary' (v. 10), with an allusion to the prohibition of foreigners from entering the Jerusalem temple (cf. Ezek. 44:9). Its citizens are compelled to trade what is precious to them, perhaps their children (as the same word in Hos. 9:16 signifies), for food (v. 12). As at the end of v. 9, the pathos is heightened in v. 11 as the poet's voice is interrupted by the city as woman crying out to God for his attention; the implication is that the suffering is so severe that it needs a mere look from God for him to feel compelled to act.
1:12-22 Jerusalem's Appeal
Now readers are invited to experience the disaster from the inside. Jerusalem feels its tragedy and dishonour as searing pain ('fire in the bones'), menstrual cramp and weakness (v. 13; cf. also Lev. 15:33) and emotional turmoil (v. 20). Its eyes flow with tears (v. 16); it groans (v. 21) and is in distress (v. 20). It feels that there cannot be 'any sorrow like unto my sorrow' (v. 12 KJV). Travellers who pass by devastated cities typically hiss and shake their heads or their fists as an apotropaic rite (e.g. 2:15; 1 Kgs 9:8; Jer. 49:17); the destruction of Jerusalem will be the most appalling sight they will ever see.
The poet is clear that the Babylonians are the originators of the disaster, but what Jerusalem experiences is not their assault but that of God. Yahweh's anger is the cause: it is he who has inflicted Jerusalem's sorrow upon it (v. 12), sending the fire of pain from on high like a lightning bolt, tripping it up in a net (v. 13), imposing a yoke upon its neck (v. 14), summoning a festival assembly not for celebration but for assault, treading it down like grapes in a wine press (v. 15). Some of the metaphors are traditional, being found in the psalms of appeal and prophetic texts modelled upon them (e.g. Psa. 35:7-8; Jer. 20:9)
Yahweh's anger is not groundless: though the focus is definitely upon the pain of its experience, Jerusalem does not fail to acknowledge that Yahweh is in the right because it has rebelled against his word (v. 18) and that it has received the just reward for its transgressions (v. 22). Interestingly, there is no word of repentance. It is enough at this moment to acknowledge guilt; there is no future in view in which amendment of life may be possible.
Another emotion supervenes upon Jerusalem's grief: that of revenge. May Yahweh's day of judgment (the 'day of the Lord' in prophetic language) come upon Jerusalem's enemies, may they suffer the same fate as Jerusalem (vv. 21-22). In the end, the focus of the poem seems a little confused; is it upon the realities of Jerusalem's sorry state, upon its emotions in reaction, upon its acknowledgment of guilt, or upon its desire for revenge upon its enemies? Perhaps the literary confusion is expressive of the city's confusion in its suffering, and the point to which the whole poem resiles is the dominant note: 'my groans are many and my heart is faint' (v. 22).
Poem 2 (Lamentations 2): Yahweh's Anger and the Impossibility of Comfort
In this second poem, the poet speaks
not as a detached observer of the fate of Jerusalem and its inhabitants,
but as a sympathetic participant in their grief. The poet is personally
in distress, with eyes blinded by tears (v. 11); the poetic imagination
is unable to summon up any comparable tragedy that could perhaps
serve as a comfort to the citizens (v. 13).
The dynamic of the poem comes to the surface in the changes that occur in vv. 11 and 18. Up to v. 10 the poet speaks in the same voice as in 1:1-11, objectively, if also passionately, about the punishments of Jerusalem at the hand of Yahweh. But at that point the poet begins to speak in a voice of personal grief, addressing the city as 'you' and bewailing incapacity for giving any comfort to the suffering people. The tone changes again at v. 18, where, with a sequence of imperative verbs, the poet begins to encourage the citizens to begin a movement towards healing. They should not simply be lamenting their unhappy lot but actively crying out to Yahweh to spare their lives and the lives of their children from the famine that is following the destruction of the city (vv. 18-19).
The theme that binds this poem together is that all that has happened to Jerusalem is Yahweh's doing. He has been a pitiless warrior, attacking the buildings and the leaders and the people. Whether he has been justified in behaving like this is beside the point; the fact is that he has acted in anger, turning himself into Israel's enemy, and disowning his own sanctuary, according to his long established design (v. 17). There is not a word in this poem of Jerusalem deserving what has happened to it, for the poet is experiencing the people's grief, not sitting in judgment over them.
2:1-10 Yahweh's Anger against Jerusalem
Much more strongly than in chapter 1, the poet emphasizes that it is Yahweh's anger that is responsible for the fall of Jerusalem. In six outbursts of anger he has taken these actions: he has set Jerusalem under a cloud, forgotten that it is his seat of government (v. 1), broken down its strongholds (v. 2), cut down its 'horn' or might (v. 2), poured out his fury like fire (v. 4), spurned its king and priests (v. 6). He has been pitiless in his destruction of Judah's pastures (as the word translated 'habitations' in v. 2 should read), he has attacked Jerusalem like an invader (vv. 4-5), he has betrayed the city to its enemies (v. 7), he has consumed it like a fire (v. 3), he has dishonoured the city, scorned his own altar, disowned his sanctuary (v. 7), and brought to an end sacred rituals (v. 6) and the practice of law and prophecy (v. 9). Above all, he has brought this destruction into being according to a deliberate plan he has long harboured, measuring the city out by line for demolition, in a bitter reversal of a programme of building works (v. 8).
Here the poet's vision is very focused: there is no word of how justified Yahweh has been in all of this destruction, for in this, the Guernica of the Old Testament, the overwhelming divine anger fills the whole canvas.
2:11-17 The Poet's Incapacity to
For the first time, the poet speaks in a personal voice: 'My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult'; in 1:20 this was the language of the stricken city, but here it is that of the observer of its suffering. Though the poet is obviously drawing on conventional rhetorical language for describing the hearing of bad news (cf. e.g. Jer. 49:23; Ezek. 21:7), the drama of the poem is unmistakably heightened once the purely descriptive mood has given way to the more emotional and the reader is implicitly invited to adopt the subject position of the poet.
Foremost in the poet's vision is the fate of the children in the conquered city, dying of starvation in their mothers' arms (vv. 11-12; it is strange however that they are crying out for bread and wine). There are other elements too: (1) the miserable contrast between the present and the former state of the city as 'the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth' (v. 15), (2) the allegation that the fall of the city is due in some measure to the prophets, who have either misled the people with false optimism about the future or have not adequately demanded its repentance (v. 14), and (3) the conviction that the destruction has long ago been determined upon by Yahweh (v. 17)-and therefore could not have been averted (which conflicts somewhat with the responsibility of the prophets).
2:18-22 Cry out for God's Mercy on
The poet does not advise acquiescence, even though the state of affairs is the will of God. Even the ruthless destroyer of his people may perhaps be prevailed upon to spare the children, who are in danger of being eaten by their starving mothers (v. 20). The poet proffers words to the city that it might use in its appeal to its angry (v. 22) God: 'Look, O Lord, and see! Those whom I dandled and reared my enemy destroyed' (vv. 20-22). Not so affecting, perhaps, is the sight of priest and prophet slain in the temple (v. 20), since priest and prophet alike bear a share of the responsibility for what has happened to Jerusalem (cf. v. 14; 4:13).
Poem 3 (Lamentations 3): When the Mood Changes
In this third and central poem, treble the length of the others, the poet becomes so totally identified with the experience of the nation that the suffering citizens of Jerusalem disappear from sight altogether and we are confronted solely with the image of a man assailed by God: 'I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath' (v. 1). So caught up in the inner experience of suffering is the poet that we find virtually no reference either to the nation or to the external realities of the catastrophe; we see only the inner emotions of the poet who speaks on behalf of the people, we hear only how it feels to be suffering at God's hands.
3:1-21 A Man Who Has Seen Affliction
under the Rod of God's Wrath
The speaker is now not the city of Jerusalem depicted as a woman, but the poet represented as one of its citizens, encapsulating in his own experience that of the whole city and its inhabitants. In a hail of metaphor the speaker expresses the sense that God has misled him, destroyed his health, besieged him like a city, thrown him away like a corpse, blocked his way, savaged him like a wild animal, made him his target for shooting practice (many of these images are found also in Job 16:7-14). The question of whether perhaps the suffering is deserved is not being raised; the issue here is the feeling itself, and that cannot be brushed to one side by the more intellectual problem of whether the feeling may be deserved.
3:22-33 Yet Yahweh's Mercies Never
Just as in the book of Job, it is when the lamenter decides that the issue is not his own guilt but the fact that it is God who is responsible for what is happening that the mood begins to change. There has been no hope at all in chapters 1 and 2, but here, once the poet has focused his mind upon God's part in the suffering, he becomes able to hope. For God is not only an avenging God who can punish cruelly (v. 32), he is also a God of enduring love whose mercies are never spent (v. 22). And therefore the word 'good', which has not before been spoken in this book, can begin each of the three verses 25-27: Good is the Lord and if one is patient one will see his salvation. There is no denying that God causes grief, but it is 'not from his heart' (RSV, NEB 'willingly') that he afflicts humankind (v. 33). Justice is his strange work, but mercy his darling attribute.
A more judgmental reader might be inclined to say that the people of Jerusalem deserved everything that happened to them, and that instead of blaming God and appealing to his mercy they should have been repenting of their wickedness. To the poet of Lamentations that would be to miss the point; a truly religious view of suffering may be more properly said to be one that does not seek to cast blame. It is one that sees God as the cause and as the cure for suffering.
3:34-66 What of Repentance?
The poem now takes a strange path, reiterating several conventional moral principles such as 'to trample underfoot any prisoner in the land ... the Lord does not approve' (vv. 34-36). It is perhaps being suggested that such are the sins for which the city of Jerusalem is now being judged, with punishments against which no one can reasonably complain (v. 39). But it may be better to read these principles as the ideals by which God himself lives, the moral standards against which he himself will not offend. That is to say, once Jerusalem's inhabitants have become like prisoners or oppressed people pleading for deliverance it is against the grain for God to take no notice, to stand back while deserved punishment runs its inexorable course.
A watershed has been passed in the hopeful thoughts of vv. 22-33. Now the lamenter begins to speak no longer in his own voice alone, but as a member, a representative, and a leader of his people. And now, once he has gained in confidence in God by reflecting on God's mercies that are ever fresh, now is the moment for the theme of repentance to be raised. Of great consequence is the fact that repentance is not viewed here as a human initiative that persuades God to take pity; rather, repentance is a response to the assurance of God's forgiveness (vv. 40-42).
And even so, repentance is a quite marginal element in the movement from despair to deliverance. No one is denying that Jerusalem deserves its suffering, but the emphasis in vv. 46-66 is very firmly on its sorry state and the surprising salvation of the Lord. Now when the poet reverts to the 'I'-language (v. 48), he is no longer speaking of himself and his own emotions alone, but offering his fellow-citizens words of address to God. He composes for them a psalm in the style of the songs of thanksgiving (e.g. Psa. 18). Out of unceasing tears, hunted like a bird, crying from the depths of a pit, the lamenting people now have the words in their mouth that will be fit for praising God: 'you pled my cause, you ransomed my life' (v. 58). No matter that the deliverance has not yet happened; if they do not already know the words for gratitude and rejoicing, how will they know when the moment for the words has arrived, how will they know how to speak to the moment? Even the violent curses against their enemies (vv. 64-66) can be seen, in this connection, as a sign of returning confidence in God rather than as simple vindictiveness.
Poem 4 (Lamentations 4): Casting the Blame
It cannot be accidental that in this
fourth poem the tone reverts to that of the first two. In a remarkable
reversion from chapter 3, there is no hope here, no expectation
of God's deliverance, but simply a report of the catastrophe.
The poet speaks with pathos, indeed, but with a certain distance
from the events; only in vv. 17-20 does the speaker even identify
himself with the people of the city. The point must be that even
the most 'blessed assurance', such as stood at the central point
of the book (3:22-33), can be put out of mind by the insistent
realities confronting poet and people. All that remains of the
confident spirit of chapter 3 is the conviction that Jerusalem's
enemies like the Edomites, who are today gloating over its downfall,
will find the cup of God's anger passing to them too (v. 21).
It is small comfort that Jerusalem will never again be carried
into exile (v. 22 NEB; not 'keep you in exile no longer', RSV),
since that can only mean that those who remain in the city are
not worth anyone's trouble to plunder or exile.
In this poem, the ideological stance is that there are two causes for the calamity. One is the anger of the Lord, giving full vent to his wrath (v. 11). The other is the sins of religious leaders, prophets and priests; by disregarding justice they have 'shed the blood of the righteous' (v. 13), a sin of omission rather than commission, one supposes. And what is the relation between these two causes? The logic must be that it is the sin of Jerusalem's leaders that has inflamed the anger of Yahweh. But the speaker is not very interested in saying that; his concern is rather with laying blame-for he is suffering and he wants to hit out in whatever direction blame may lie, whether it is God or the national leaders. Perhaps he is right not to lay all the blame on his countrymen. Though their sin may be the ultimate cause, has God not also some responsibility? Did he have no choice at all about whether to respond to human sin with anger, about whether he should be angry in this way, a way that destroyed so much of what was precious to him?
Most distinctive about this poem is the way it depicts the effect of the fall of Jerusalem upon various classes of Jerusalem society: there are first the children starving to death (vv. 2-4; cf. 2:19-20), then the previously well-fed wealthy people and the nobles wasting away from lack of nourishment (vv. 5, 7-8), the priests and the elders rejected from their positions of authority (v. 16), and the king, the anointed of the Lord, taken into exile (v. 20). From the children, at the bottom of the social pyramid, to the king at its apex, no group has escaped. The dynamic of this poem is its movement through the classes in turn.
4:1-11 Jerusalem's Inhabitants
The visual impact in this part of the poem is created by a series of contrasts between then and now: the citizens of Jerusalem, once worth their weight in gold, are now on the level of earthen pots (v. 2), those brought up in purple and used to luxury now 'embrace' ash heaps, living on the margins of society (v. 5), the young nobles with fair complexions from delicate indoor living are now sunburnt and wasted from hard work in the open air (v. 8). Those who were killed in battles for the city are better off than those who survived the fighting but have gradually become weaker and weaker from lack of food (v. 9).
The underlying contrast is between the former belief of the inhabitants of Jerusalem that their city was inviolable and the simple reality that it has now been conquered. It is a belief that is here attributed to the kings of the earth, but it is much more likely that this was the governing certitude of the citizens of Jerusalem, that no enemy could enter the gates of their city (v. 12).
4:12-16 Jerusalem's Priests and Prophets
The priests and prophets of the people are its religious leadership, who bear the blame for much of the sin of Jerusalem. By not upholding the law and ensuring that justice was properly dispensed, they effectively 'shed the blood of the righteous' (v. 13). That blood defiled their clothes and made them into moral lepers shunned by society (vv. 14-15).
4:17-20 Jerusalem's King
The metaphor here (at least in vv. 18-20) is of the hunt, in which the whole people are pursued for blood sport, with the king being the main target of the chase. The outcome has been that the king, Yahweh's anointed one, who is regarded as vital for the life of the nation, has been captured in pits such as are set for wild animals (cf. Psa. 57:6 ).
4:21-22 Jerusalem's Enemies
The only enemies of Jerusalem mentioned in the book are, curiously enough, the Edomites. Their involvement in the downfall of Jerusalem is not attested in any historical source in the Old Testament, but is frequently alluded to in prophetic texts (e.g. Jer. 49:7-22; Ezek. 35; Obad.; cf. Psa. 137:7-9). There can be little doubt that it was the Babylonians who were chiefly responsible for the destruction of the city, but perhaps the Edomites are specially referred to because of their historical kinship with Israel which should have made of them allies rather than enemies.
The invitation to them to rejoice must be ironic, since the poet envisages them drinking from the cup of God's wrath (cf. Psa. 75:8 ). Though the RSV has it that 'the punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished' (v. 22), it seems unlikely that Jerusalem is here being promised a release from exile; at best, the poet may be saying that whereas the punishment of Jerusalem may some day come to an end, all that Edom has to look forward to is devastation (v. 22).
Poem 5 (Lamentations 5): Expectations of God
This final poem differs from the
others in being an address to God, in the name of the people.
It is cast in the form of one of the psalms of the Appeals of
the Community (e.g. Pss. 44, 60), but unlike the examples in the
book of Psalms, this one has comparatively little appeal to God,
and comparatively much description of the disaster. So in that
respect it resembles the other poems of this book.
The previous addresses to God have been brief and embedded in poems of description (1:9, 20-22; 2:20-22; 3:19, 42-45, 55-56). It can only be deliberate that the poet has chosen to complete his book of 'Appeals' or 'Lamentations' with a fully-fledged prayer to God. But what precisely does he ask for? In v. 1 he asks only in a very general way that God should 'remember' the community, which means that he should pay attention to them, or not ignore them (as in v. 20). It is only in v. 21 that he says at all exactly what he desires: 'Turn us back to thyself and we will come back'. Does that mean 'cause us to repent', as the verb 'to make return' so often does in Jeremiah (e.g. 31:18)? Or does it mean 'restore our city and return our exiles to us', which it could equally well mean? Considering the rather minor role that repentance plays in this book, that can hardly be the one thing that the poet desires. And yet he wants more than a simple return to the land; what is important for him is a unitedness between God and people, a turning of God to people and of people to God. Perhaps it is untrue to the poet's spirit to seek in his words a more explicit request than this longing for divinehuman reciprocity.
With pathos and a tender delicacy the poet resists any attempt to force God's hand, or to revert at the close of his poem to the confidence of chapter 3. In the end, God will be God and no appeal will change his mind, no human expressions of confidence in him will make him do other than what he has determined. The last sentence is a refusal to predict what God's mind may be; perhaps indeed God has now utterly rejected his people. The poet presumes nothing, but accepts that he and his people are shut up to the divine will, whether for mercy or for anger.
Albrektson, Bertil. Studies in
the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations. Studia
Theologica Lundensia, 21. Lund: C.W.K. Gleerup, 1963.
Gottwald, Norman K. Studies in the Book of Lamentations. Studies in Biblical Theology, 14. London: SCM Press, revised edn, 1962.
Hillers, Delbert R. Lamentations: Introduction, Translation and Notes. Anchor Bible, 7A. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.
Joyce, Paul. 'Lamentations and the Grief Process: A Psychological Reading.' Biblical Interpretation 1 (1993), pp. 304-20.
Kra¡ovec, Joe. 'The Source of Hope in the Book of Lamentations.' Vetus Testamentum 42 (1992), pp. 223-33
Landy, Francis. 'Lamentations.' In The Literary Guide to the Bible. Ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, pp. 329-34. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.
O'Connor, Kathleen M. 'Lamentations.' In The Women's Bible Commentary. Ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, pp. 178-82. London: SPCK, 1992.
Provan, Iain W. Lamentations. New Century Bible. London: Marshall Pickering, 1991.
Salters, Robert B. Jonah and Lamentations. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994.
Westermann, Claus. Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation. Translated by Charles Muenchow. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.