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Old Testament: Lamentations

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Eastern HillThe five poems of Lamentations respond to a catastrophe in Judah. Written in third- and first-person voices, the book both acknowledges the present as the consequence of past disobedience and challenges the adequacy of that acknowledgement to account for the current suffering. God has judged; human enemies have attacked. But the extent and relentlessness of the suffering are unbearable. Theological claims about God's mercy and justice are not operating in life as it is currently experienced by the speakers. The content pleads for God to look, see, and act. The book consists of prayers of sufferers, not theology about suffering.

So What?

Lamentations challenges all piety that commends passive, silent suffering. Even if the suffering is just punishment-something not fully conceded-the book articulates the horror endured communally and individually during and in the wake of the destruction of the structures of corporate and individual life. If biblical faith is understood as living in an "already-not yet" tension, Lamentations demands that readers not gloss over the suffering and horror of the "not yet." One form of waiting on God is shouting the laments of this book.

Where Do I Find It?

In the Protestant canon Lamentations is the twenty-fifth book of the Old Testament. It lies between Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Who Wrote It?

In both Jewish and Christian tradition the book is attributed to Jeremiah. That claim has been challenged with reason, but it has not been completely displaced. Current emphasis centers on the function of the book more than on identifying a specific individual author.

When Was It Written?

It is customary to understand the book to have arisen in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem. The expressions in the book are sufficiently general and conventional to fit other periods, but this does not lessen their accuracy or horror. They have continued to be used in liturgies memorializing subsequent moments of horror in Jewish history. There is, however, no compelling reason to imagine an original setting other than shortly after 587 B.C.E. At the very least, the writer asks the reader to imagine a catastrophe and suffering no less extensive than that experienced in the destruction of Jerusalem in 587.

What's It About?

Lamentations articulates the pain experienced in the collapse of Judah and Jerusalem, presumably in 587 B.C.E. Third-person narration both describes and explains the suffering, but the book insistently moves toward direct, first-person articulation of the unbearable pain and devastation and God's responsibility for it. The latter leads to direct address to God to see, to consider, and to restore the speaker(s). The book moves from silent suffering to verbalizing the suffering and, in turn, demanding that God, the source of the suffering, end the suffering. The book refuses to be silent in the face of God's silence.

How Do I Read It?

While it is inevitable that the book be read as a collection of prayers of ancient sufferers grappling with God, the present reader is drawn in to read it now as an act of prayer. The gruesome depiction of suffering does not permit distance. The reader is asked to look, to see, and to act, just as is God in the prayers. Silent distance is not permitted. It would be appropriate for readers to be moved to work to alleviate contemporary suffering, but not without joining the text's petitioners in their prayers against the silence of God. As the theology of 3:22-24 does not silence the voice of the petitioners in the rest of Lamentations, readers should not rush to use other sections of the canon to silence Lamentations. Isaiah 40-55 may well be a response to Lamentations, but it does not silence the book. Both voices are "scripturally" approved.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

1.    No Comfort, No Comforter (Lamentations 1:1-22)
Zion has been devastated and has no comforter because of her rebellion. Zion screams out her plight in the hope that someone, especially God, will notice and act to change her desolate condition. Third-person description is juxtaposed and intertwined with first-person pleading.

2.    Anger and Weeping (Lamentations 2:1-22)

The Lord has destroyed all of Zion's vitality with angry judgment and become like an enemy to Zion. The speakers respond with weeping and relentless petitioning that the Lord not ignore the consequence of the judgment. Weeping shifts to a forceful demand that the Lord acknowledge the terror in which Zion exists.

3.    Not Forgiven (Lamentations 3:1-66)
Through several images of encirclement, the speaker describes his affliction under the wrath of God. Standard confessions of God's steadfast love and acts of deliverance are recalled to bolster hopeful waiting, but recognition of the current absence of God's forgiveness returns the speaker to weeping and renewed calls for the Lord to attend to what is happening.

4.    Affliction upon Affliction (Lamentations 4:1-22)

Without directly addressing God, the description of the depth of the devastation is extended. Sodom was overthrown in a moment. In contrast the speaker's affliction drags on. Leadership has failed and there is no escape.

5.    Restore and Renew! (Lamentations 5:1-22)
Life continues, but it can hardly be called life. Begging, relentless servitude, violence, and hunger persist. The chapter uses the first-person plural, and the reader is now caught up in the "we" and "us" and cannot remain an outside observer. The final plea for restoration and renewal is accompanied by a lingering sense that the devastation might be permanent because God has completely and irreversibly abandoned the community.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

The book is traditionally read in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Prophets such as Jeremiah announced the Babylonian invasion as the judgment of God. Lamentations speaks from within that judgment. Some interpreters have suggested that the specific date for the composition of the book should remain open, not because such a setting is implausible, but to move away from reading the book as a report on the destruction. The book, in their view, assumes such a setting for the prayers it expresses, but the emphasis is on praying, not reporting.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

•    Gender, 1-The voices. Current interpretation shows increasing interest in the gender of the voices in Lamentations. The third-person narration in 1:1-11b is assumed to be a male voice. The first-person voice that enters briefly in 1:9d and fully in 1:11c is the female voice of personified (daughter) Zion. The poet who authors both of these voices is assumed to be male. The third-person voice is no more or less that of a poet than the first-person female voice. The third-person (male) voice is not simply the voice that rationalizes the suffering over against the female voice that will not settle for a rationalization. When the first-person voice switches in chapter 3 to a male voice, the pain is equally acute.

•    Gender, 2-The theological argument. Although sin and punishment is offered as the reason for the destruction, this argument is not sufficient to silence the bitter pleas articulated by the poet in the personified voice of Zion. In an opposite direction, the reasons for silent suffering in hope given in the middle of chapter 3 are not sufficient to silence the cries of the male voice of the narrator that God should see and alter the present reality (3:63-66, if not already starting in v. 56). The depiction of suffering is, admittedly, not the same. The suffering of the female voice is depicted in terms of bereavement and loss of children while that of the male is more a matter of encirclement. Both voices, however, come together in the first-person plural of chapter 5, crying to be remembered and restored. Neither a male nor a female voice is able to articulate a normative explanation for the suffering or a theology of hope that will silence the lament.

•    Gender, 3-The adulterous wife metaphor. The most acute problem for many contemporary readers is the use of the adulterous wife metaphor for describing the disobedience which is seen as the cause of the current suffering in the opening section of the book. Not only does the third-person voice describe prior "lovers" (1:2), but the poet depicts personified Zion as speaking of herself as an adulterous wife. The metaphor is seen by many as perpetuating and justifying male abuse of women; the male is seen as both the hurt one and the avenger of hurt-both prosecutor and judge/executioner. If God is seen as rightfully punishing wife Israel, men are de facto underwritten in their dominance over women. There is no easy way to "redeem" the metaphor. Some have suggested that the metaphor must be abandoned because the potential for misreading is too costly; others argue that the metaphor must be actively resisted.

•    Gender, 4-Lament. In the continued discussion of gender in the lament tradition, it should be noted that there is little warrant in a patriarchal society for the strength of the protesting voices in the lament tradition. It is hard to imagine a social sanction for a female voice (Israel as wife or, as in Lamentations, personified Zion) to hurl the forceful imperatives directed at God in Lamentations in particular and the lament tradition in general. The metaphor of the adulterous wife is likely unusable today, but the metaphor itself may have been broken in the lament tradition which voices Israel's demands to God in a tone that never would have been permitted an adulterous wife in a patriarchal society.

•    Relation to Jeremiah. In the book of Jeremiah the prophet insists against other authoritative voices that the incursion of the Babylonians was the just judgment of God. For example, while joining Hananiah in the desire for a hopeful message, Jeremiah insists in chapter 28 that servitude to the Babylonians was the judgment of God. There was no way to evade it. The early wave of exiles in Babylon was to settle in for a long period. The full destruction of Jerusalem, not an imminent return to it, was the decreed future. Lamentations is commonly read as a petitioning cry from the midst of that destruction and the punishment that it was understood to be. The third-person voice at the beginning of Lamentations can be read as agreeing with Jeremiah's assertion that the Babylonian action was at the same time God's action against Judah. Yet in the latter part of Lamentations 1, personified Zion cries for pity, hearing, visibility, and comfort. The plea moves beyond a sin/punishment rationalization of suffering. As such, Lamentations pushes beyond preexilic prophetic preaching of judgment. Justified or not, the problem for Lamentations is the continued suffering.

•    Relation to other biblical books. Lamentations does not (or only slimly) hold out hope. It is itself lamentation, not an answer to the suffering that is lamented. This has raised the issue of whether or not other biblical books respond to Lamentations. Isaiah 40-55, commonly called Second Isaiah, has figured prominently in such discussions. Isaiah 54:7-8, for example, can be read as conceding the wrath and abandonment expressed in Lamentations, but then moving quickly to assert a restored and everlasting relationship that will transcend anything that had been experienced before the destruction and exile. Many interpreters recognize the echoes of Lamentations in Isaiah 40-55, but they vary in their assessment of how overt or deliberate the echoes are. The oracles of hope in Jeremiah and Ezekiel can also be claimed as responses, but again the connections may not be direct. During the exile and after, there was an ongoing effort to discover and assert an ongoing relationship with God beyond the severance experienced in the destruction of Jerusalem. Undoubtedly the suffering experienced in this severance was expressed in more forms than in the five poems in Lamentations.
Lamentations exists at a midpoint between the actual experience of judgment announced by preexilic prophets and the prophetic promises of a restored and transformed relationship that emerged as the exile worn on.

•    Structure of Lamentations. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are acrostic; the first word of each verse in these chapters begins with the subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3 extends the acrostic by having succeeding sets of three for each letter of the alphabet (hence, twenty-two sets of three for a total of sixty-six verses). Chapter 5 is not acrostic but does consist of twenty-two verses.

•    Translation of Lamentations 3:56-63. Modern Bible translations translate the verbs in these verses in the past tense. As such, the verses extend the statements about God's steadfast love and mercy which are new each day and are thus a basis for future hope (3:22-24). The speaker's own past life would then ratify the received orthodoxy. But the imperatives at the end of the chapter, starting with "look" or "see" in the middle of v. 63, are jarring and nearly inexplicable. Several recent commentaries have understood the perfect Hebrew verb forms in vv. 56-62 not as past tense but as precative perfects, which gives them volitional force consistent with the imperatives in vv. 63-66. The narrative flow would then be the voice of the speaker stating that he had called on the name of the Lord from the depths of the pit in which his enemies had thrown him (3:52-55). The next move was God's. The speaker pleads with God to hear, see, and come-and even to punish the punishers (3:64-66). Present experience is sharply in contrast with God's past faithfulness, which intensifies the petition rather than answers it. Both translations are grammatically defensible. How one understands the overall flow of the book and theological tensions it articulates shapes the interpreter's decision on this point.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

•    An answer to lament? Christian interpreters have often sought to make the middle of chapter 3 function as the answer to the book's laments. Imagining the cries of agony and fervent petitions as a series of concentric circles with 3:22-24 in the center, the steadfast love and mercy of the Lord are lifted up as the basis for hope which should lead to quiet waiting for deliverance from the Lord (3:26). But it seems that in Lamentations as in some psalms (for example, Psalm 44) the received confessions about God only intensify the lament and petition. What God had done in the past is at an end. Partial explanation can be found in the speaker's past disobedience and the positing of justly deserved punishment, but even that rationalization does not hold. God may have punished regretfully (3:33), but that does not warrant God's failure to respond to the affliction articulated in these laments. The widow and orphans (5:3) are not being attended to by God. The possibility that God has permanently rejected the people remains open in these petitions.

•    God's wrath and God's mercies. God's wrath is against me all day long, says Lamentations (3:3); and God's mercies are new every morning (3:23). But God's wrath is not neatly balanced with God's mercy in this book. The depiction of wrath far exceeds the depiction of mercy. In fact, while mercy is briefly asserted as a theological axiom, the book does not finally commend it as a basis for hope that would be sufficient to abate the intensity of the lament over the present suffering or the forcefulness of the imperatives directed to God. Here and there a few glimmers of hope are expressed (for example, "he will keep you in exile no longer," 4:22), but they are soon overwhelmed by the imperatives demanding that God "remember," "look," "see," "restore," and "see" (5:1, 21). The book does not end in doxology as is frequently claimed for the lament psalms. Instead questions persist to the end: "Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?" (5:20). These questions are not answered in the book.

•    Silence. Prophetic proclamation often urged silence in view of the coming judgment it announced. Preexilic examples include Amos 5:13 and 8:3, Habakkuk 2:20, and Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13 provides a postexilic instance. Lamentations starts when the judgment has already commenced, and the end of judgment is nowhere in sight. Human voices do not remain silent; rather, the silence that pervades the book is God's. God is addressed repeatedly, but God does not speak in response. Habakkuk 1:13 asks how God could silently look on at those who act treacherously, and God answers in that book, but not in Lamentations. As in Habakkuk, the chaos in Lamentations is understood to stem from prior disobedience, but neither Habakkuk nor Lamentations regards that accounting as sufficient. The protest is short in Habakkuk, but it is extensive in Lamentations.

•    Voices from scripture. Other parts of the canon may respond to the questions raised in Lamentations. Isaiah 40-55 might be one instance. Prophetic announcements of hope in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets may be others. But the canon leaves the silence in Lamentations to stand on its own. No editorial hand "corrects" the silence. The pleas stand open, but none is directly given. The text does not trivialize the suffering with a trite answer. The openness is uncomfortable for readers, but that discomfort should move the reader to pray again these laments in the context of current suffering that cannot be subsumed under theological formulas.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament