Sorrow, Anger, and Hope in Lamentations

The book of Lamentations, sometimes called the “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, is one of the shorter and more deeply sorrowful books of the Hebrew Bible. From the text, we imagine a lonely, existential man crying out to deaf-heaven from the depths. The book moves from a lament of the city as it weeps in despair (Chapter 1), to a condemnation of the city’s transgressions against God (Chapter 2), to a reversal of hope through God’s mercy (Chapter 3), to again condemning the sins of the city (Chapter 4), to finally ending with some hope of redemption in the future from God. The five poems of Jeremiah fluctuate between sorrow, anger, a rebuke of the city, and a lengthy apologia from Jeremiah, decrying his own sins.

Chapter three provides much fruit for consideration. Jeremiah (we shall assume he is the author) begins by noting the wrath of God and accusing Him of turning against Israel: “He hath inclosed my ways with hewn and stone, he hath made my ways crooked” (3:9). In fact, Jeremiah says that he lamented so deeply, that his strength and hope in the Lord had perished. However, at 3:20, Jeremiah turns away from despair. Why does he do so? As a result of his recollection (Platonic knowledge), and this remembrance ultimately brings humility to him. He praises waiting, hoping, and trusting in the Lord. He praises God for His mercy, a nod at the future theology found more in Christianity than in early Hebrew prophets.

Appropriately, the Hebrew title of the text is “Eykhoh” meaning “How”, alluding to the first word of the scroll. Interestingly enough, the Hebrew poems corresponding to chapters 1,2, and 4 are all written as acrostics with 22 lines, with the first letter of each line corresponding to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. The text is written to reflect Jeremiah’s deep despair at the destruction of the city and the temple of Jerusalem in Judah by the Babylonians, a time in which there was a conspiracy against Jeremiah’s life, he was imprisoned, and ultimately thousands of Jews were carried off as slaves throughout the Babylonian empire.

The true beauty in reading the Hebrew Bible is the complex expression of the full range of human life: we find a rich exploration of human nature in Genesis, politics in Exodus and Kings, celebrations in Psalms, wisdom in Proverbs, lust in Song of Songs, despair in Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, dark prophecy in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel, fairy tales and redemption in Jonah and Ruth and Job. The literature of the Bible is a garden of ceaseless harvest.

Here are some of my favorite passages, taken from the King James Version of Lamentations:

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full
of people! How is she become as a widow!
She that was great among the nations, and
princess among provinces, how is she become tributary!” (1:1)

“Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird,
with cause.
They have cut off my life in the dungeon,
and cast a stone upon me.
Waters flowed over mine head; then I said,
I am cut off” (3:52-54).

“I called upon thy name, O Lord, out of the
low dungeon.
Thou has heard my voice: hide not thine
ear at my breathing, at my cry” (3:55-56).

“Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and
we have borne their iniquities” (5:7).

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