Monday, June 02, 2014

The Book of Lamentations

If you have an old enough Bible, Lamentations might be called "The Lamentations
of Jeremiah."  Apparently nobody takes Jeremiah's authorship of the
Lamentations seriously anymore, although as soon as I say that I realize that
there are probably plenty of folks who do.
The Book of Lamentations is entirely true to its title.  Five Chapters long, it consists almost entirely of lamentations.  It is written in first person, with the narrator mourning the fall of Jerusalem specifically and a wide range of ills and terrors generally.  Why is there all this suffering?  The answer is quite plainly stated: Because God is punishing the people.

Some sample lamentation:
He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
    and has broken my bones.
He has besieged me and surrounded me
    with bitterness and hardship.
He has made me dwell in darkness
    like those long dead.
19 “I called to my allies
    but they betrayed me.
My priests and my elders
    perished in the city
while they searched for food
to keep themselves alive. (1)
The tone of the lamentations are not angry or bitter.  “Resigned” is pretty much the mood, and the idea is clearly that all the ills and terrors are justified. 

The second half of Chapter 3 interrupts the lamenting briefly to sound a note of hopefulness.  Here, with a little bit of context, is the moment when the mood changes:
16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
    he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
    I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
    and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.

The hopeful note is not sustained for long, however, and by Chapter 4 we are back in a cataloging of bleak and sometimes macabre misfortunes.  Anyone expecting a triumphal ending will be disappointed, as the piece ends in something of a minor key.  The narrator does not doubt God in the end, but does doubt God’s kindness:
19 You, Lord, reign forever;
    your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
    Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
    renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
    and are angry with us beyond measure.
With its bleak subject matter and focus on God-as-punisher, Lamentations is not a book of the Bible that I would expect many people to find either especially inspiring or especially interesting.  Although it is read aloud annually in Jewish tradition, sketchy available data from online Bible websites suggest that it is among the least-consulted pieces of scripture.  (although having said that, I was charmed to see it listed on one Bible blogger’s “Top Ten Books of theBible” list).

For me, the most interesting thing about Lamentations comes in the footnotes.  Each of the first four chapters is “an acrostic poem, the verses of which begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew Alphabet.”  Why?  Well, who knows?  No attempt is made to replicate the effect in the NIV translation.  I thought about using the format for this post, but then I decided that would be way too hard.

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