It will come as no surprise then that Lamentations is also one of the most neglected books of the Bible. We, particularly us modern westerners, are uncomfortable with grief, suffering, and emotions of this magnitude. We don’t know what to do when faced with it, so we don’t do anything at all. This is unfortunate because Lamentations is a powerful voice we must hear for many reasons, three of which we’ll explore below.
Lamentations Memorializes Israel’s Grief
The fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple was the greatest catastrophe in Israel’s history. After years of unrepentant idolatry, political foolishness, and social oppression, the hammer of God’s wrath fell upon his people bringing unspeakable devastation to every level of human experience—psychological, physical, spiritual, relational, and emotional. Everything Israel believed was irrevocably theirs—the city of Zion, the Davidic throne, Yahweh’s temple, and the promised land—was lost. All of it gone up in flames.
What now? Where does Israel go from here? The only conceivable starting place is lament, which is what our anonymous author sets out to do in these five tear-soaked poems. He takes us on a journey through Israel’s grief, and he does so through a masterful use of Hebrew poetry, forcing us to see and consider the horrors of what took place.
Consider the structure. It doesn’t show up in our English translations, but the first four poems are acrostics. These are Hebrew alphabet poems where every line/verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. It’s like the author is spelling out Israel’s suffering from A to Z. No stone is left unturned as he gives full vent to their grief. Yet the acrostics also serve to bring some sense of order and restraint, adding a gentle dignity to what would otherwise have become chaotic, dehumanizing displays of grief.
There’s also brilliant use of personification. Jerusalem is depicted as “Lady Zion,” a widowed, childless, vulnerable woman who endured rape, exploitation, affliction, and starvation during the siege and capture of the city. The narrator and Lady Zion begin to “dialogue” in chapter one, allowing us to hear her express her pain. She cries to all who pass by her, looking for comfort amidst her affliction, though none is found. She weeps with sorrow, her strength fails, she’s in distress, she groans continually, she cries to God, all to no avail. You can’t help but be moved by her pain and shame, even if it was the result of her sin.
Another powerful rhetorical device is the author’s use of contrasts: male and female, bitter and repentant, individual and corporate, protesting and prophetic, hopeless and hopeful, rich and poor, young and old. It not only conveys the totality of God’s judgment on all, it also gives total expression to the nature of grief. In one moment there’s outrage and bewilderment at God’s judgments, and in the next there’s admission of moral culpability. The narrator wanders from sadness to anger to disbelief to hope and then back to sadness. He’s bitter and then repentant and then bitter again. We see that suffering is never neat and tidy. It’s not always linear, and it’s definitely not pretty.
There’s no doubt that reading Lamentations is painful, but it’s important we remember that unique moment in history where God’s people were swept away in the tidal wave of his judgment and memorialized their grief accordingly. As Christopher Wright comments, “Part of the horror of human suffering is to be unheard, forgotten and nameless, thrown aside…Lamentations is a summons to remember realities endured by real people like ourselves, to bear witness and pay heed to their voice” (The Message of Lamentations). Let’s pay attention to their voices, and when we’ve heard them, let’s consider how they shape our own.