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October 3, 2010
Lamentations 1:1-6 (3:19-26)

The title, Lamentations, reflects the ancient Hebrew name of this book meaning ‘funeral dirges’. Each of the five chapters is a hymn about the fall of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the exile that followed. The chapters were attributed to Jeremiah as the prophet most closely linked to that event, in line with the statement in 2 Chron. 35:25 that Jeremiah uttered a lament for king Josiah following his death in 609 BCE. However, after the exile, Jeremiah soon began to advocate adaptation to Babylonian rule (Jer. 42:7-22) and these laments do not seem to fit this picture of him.

In the Hebrew Bible, this book appears in the third section of the canon, the Writings, thus making no connection with Jeremiah. It is one of six books read at particular festivals of the Jewish year, along with Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Jonah. Lamentations is set to be read in its entirety on the evening of the ninth day of Ab, commemorating the destruction of both the first and the second Temples on that same date.

The number of verses in each chapter in Lamentations corresponds in some way to the number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, 22. The first four chapters have verses beginning in turn with each letter, possibly a memory aid for recitation or a compositional technique. In chapter three there are three verses beginning with each letter. Chapter five has 22 verses but does not follow the rule of each verse beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. These variations suggest a variety of authors.

The content of the chapters also varies. Like chapters 2 and 4, chapter 1 begins with the word ‘How …’ (Heb. eikah), which became the Hebrew name of the book. These chapters lament the fate of the city of Jerusalem and refer to various historical aspects. Chapter 3 is a personal lament, hence its being set in the Christian lectionary each year on the Saturday before Easter. This week, part of chapter 3 is an alternate to the psalm reading. Chapter 5 of Lamentations is a national lament.

The opening dirge of chapter 1, running to verse 11, laments the changed circumstances of the city, once lively with people, now lonely, once an active partner with other local nations, now widowed, its status reduced from that of royalty to that of a servant. The city is cast in the guise of an anonymous woman. She is like a lover spurned, like a friend betrayed and her experience is bitter indeed. Her life among the nations now takes a different form – hard servitude (v. 3). Following the earlier deportation of people from the northern kingdom of Israel, and now the exile of many leaders from Judah itself, traffic on the roads heading to Jerusalem is greatly diminished: far fewer people are attending the festivals.

In v. 5 we find the first theological commentary on these events: ‘Yahweh has made Judah suffer because of her transgressions’. This comment raises challenges for its readers. First, it is apparent from the experience of neighbouring nations, such as Moab, Ammon and Edom, that conquest and deportation were bound to happen anyway, whatever the divine intention may have been. It is important for readers to consider whether God is involved in such devastating events as an agent of judgment, or as a participant in the suffering of his people.

Secondly, despite the pain and suffering of exile, hindsight shows that the dispersal of the Judeans greatly enriched the life of many nations. For this reason it is not surprising that apart from the pessimistic viewpoint of Lamentations, other prophets and the Deuteronomic History, where exile is also treated as divine judgment, we find significantly more positive understandings of the exile in Ezekiel, Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) and the Priestly texts of the Torah. The earlier experience of devastation was mitigated by the growing adjustment of Judean exiles to life in foreign lands, by the prosperity they experienced there, and by the fact that many found ways to maintain not only their culture in foreign places but their faith as well. The decision of the new Persian regime, fifty years later, to allow exiles to return home, a journey of more than 1000kms to an unknown future, also had a backlash effect of making life in exile more attractive and ensured that many Judean groups remained in diaspora.

Even Lamentations contains a more positive outlook, for which reason it is important that alongside the first reading of Lam. 1:1-6, there is set the alternative reading to the Psalm, Lam. 3:19-26. In 3:22-25, the writer defies the sad circumstances and looks to the Lord. Circumstances may change, even because of our sinfulness, but the steadfast love of God is enduring. So the faithful can meet each new day with hope, despite the circumstances. This is the great legacy of Lamentations, made all the clearer by the fact that these few verses shine suddenly out of the darkness of deep lament.

At a time when the Christian church, at least in the West, may lament its loss of strength and the immediate influence it once took for granted, it is important to confirm our daily trust in God rather than in human institutional power and to proclaim the presence of God even in the darkest moment.

Psalm 137

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