O’Connor, Kathleen. “The Book of Lamentations” in the New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI, a bible commentary series, convened by Leander Keck. (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2001)
Kathleen O’Connor p. 1013 “Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.”
What caused the pain? The fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the people being marched off to slavery in Babylon in 586 B.C.E. Some scholars (but not many) think that it’s a mistake to tie this book precisely to one historical event.
The majority of images and metaphors in the book clearly fit the historical event we call the Babylonian Captivity (which lasted 50 years). However – history keeps repeating itself. In our communal life since then similar tragedies occur with regularity. And every life, no matter how blessed, has its share of suffering. Hence, this sacred poetry is worth reading and reflection.
Who wrote this book? O’Connor p. 1016: “Jeremiah is the author of Lamentations in a symbolic sense but probably not in a literal sense. … Despite loose thematic and metaphorical connect5ions between Lamentations and the book of Jeremiah, numerous features of Lamentations argue against his authorship, no the least of which is the fact that many positions in Lamentations appear to contradict Jeremiah’s prophecies.”
This book is read in the synagogues on the “Ninth of Ab”. The rabbis consider this God’s “Day designated for punishment”. Not only was the first temple destroyed on this day but also the second temple (later, by the Romans in 70AD); in 1492 on that day Jews in Spain ordered to convert or leave Spain, on that day WW1 began. (They have a lunar calendar, Ab falls in late July / early August.) According to Jewish tradition and calendars this is the very day in 586 BCE that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and sent the people into exile (or alternatively on the tenth it was destroyed but fires were set on the ninth to begin)
Orthodox Jews observe this as a full fast day with no food or water for 24 hours. The first 8 days of the month they do not eat meat or drink wine. At the synagogue Lamentations is chanted in the midst of the congregation which sits on the floor, the area lit only by candles. The congregation dresses in mourning clothes. Since the creation of the state of Israel many modern Jews use this day more as a day of remembrance than as a day of mourning.
Christians read small parts of the book during Holy Week.
The book’s first 4 poems are ACROSTICs – each verse begins with a sequential letter of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This technique is impossible to re-produce in translations. O’Connor notes on 1018: “Acrostics impose order and organization on shapeless chaos and unmanageable pain, and they imply that the suffering depicted in the poems is total.” (It goes from A to Z.) The rabbis say because they had sinned from A to Z. Each chapter is a separate poem. The fifth one is not acrostic but has 22 verses.
O’Connor p. 1019 “Laments are prayers of protest, complaint, and grief over a disaster, and with great passion they appeal to God for deliverance. They arise from faith in the power and willingness of God to save. They insist that the world is an open system in which divine intervention is always possible.”
The poems of Lamentations shift voices – a narrator, Daughter Zion (Jerusalem), an unidentified man, and the whole exiled community.
Notes below based on O’Connor p. 1026
Poem 1 / Chapter 1 No Comfort
- First section – narrator, She has no one to comfort her
- Second section – Daughter Zion, There is no one to comfort me
It is one thing to suffer loss, it is another to feel utterly abandoned by friends, family, and God. For a community or people – to have all of its order and life upended, to suffer without other nations or peoples acknowledging or assisting.
Poem 2 / Chapter 2 Who Will Heal You?
- First Section – narrator, God’s mighty acts of rage
- Second Section – narrator, Who will heal you?
- Third Section – Daughter Zion, Look and Consider
It is OK to be angry with God in the midst of tragedy, to shout and scream for justice is a measure of the depth of one’s faith.
Poem 3 / Chapter 3 The Strong Man’s Dilemma
This is the center of the book and the longest poem. The first two chapters had 22 verses, each beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This chapter has 66 verses, sets of 3 verses, each beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (i.e. AAA, BBB, CCC etc.)
First Section – unidentified man / strong man / defender, The Strong Man’s First Complaint
- The Enemy’s Rage
- Reasons to expect mercy
- Invitation to Repent
Second Section – unidentified man / strong man / defender, The Strong Man’s Second Complaint
- God has not forgiven
- God has rescued before, will rescue again
- Petition for justice
There is a tentative move in this poem toward hope, with a plea for vengeance against those who were used as God’s instruments of punishment.
O’Connor p. 1057: “Divine anger at human sinfulness is the only explanation available to the strong man to explain his predicament, but he, like Job, finds suffering to be disproportionate to the engulfing pain in which he lives.”
Poem 4 / Chapter 4 The Dimming of the Future
- First Section – narrator, The Dimming of Everything
- Second Section – narrator, Why Everything grows dull
- Third Section – narrator, The Retelling of the Attack
- Fourth Section – narrator, Future reversal
O’Connor p. 1059: “The narrator acts like a traumatized guide to the devastated city. He focuses readers’ attention on the horrifying conditions of the survivors, and his grief is buried under that weight. It is as if the emotions of the first three chapters have reached a pitch and are now spent, although nothing has changed. The poem evokes, suggests, and conveys with great clarity the sense of diminishment, dulling, and devastation that afflicts the city and its populace.”
New Orleans? Baghdad? Dresden?
Poem 5 / Chapter 5 – The Survivor’s Prayer
- First Section – the collective voice of the community,
Appeal to the LORD to look and see
- Second Section – the collective voice of the community,
What the LORD must see
- Third Section – the collective voice of the community,
A qualified plea for restoration
O’Connor p. 1067: “In relation to the previous poems, this one serves as a summation of the pain of the people, the city, the nation, and a final demand that God pay attention to them.”
The rabbinic / synagogue tradition is to recite verse 21 again, after 22, so that the book does not end with a rebuke of God, but something more comforting.
O’Connor p. 1071: “In Lamentations, God is present but hiding. The wonder of this biblical book is its daring, momentous honesty about the One who hides behind clouds, turns away prayers, and will not pay attention. Lamentations articulates a theology of absence and abandonment that is almost contemporary in its longing and emptiness. In the language of Christian mystics, it portrays “the dark night of the soul” of a whole people.”