Twenty-first century readers of the Scriptures are likely uncomfortable with the book of Lamentations and its stories of weeping, groaning, and grieving. But, the act of lamenting is not unique to biblical Israelites.
Today’s world is full of lament-worthy situations. One need only turn on the nightly news to hear countless stories from places like Detroit, Michigan, and Camden, N.J. – plagued by record foreclosures, abandoned buildings, corrupt government officials, and boarded up businesses – to understand the devastating impact of high unemployment, increased crime, and precarious civic finances that have taken a toll on communities. Further, the country’s working poor earn wages that are so meager they have a hard time providing basic necessities for their families. Many cannot make ends meet without help from public assistance programs, which ultimately leads to feelings of despair and a decreased sense of self-worth.
Modern readers also lament over:
- The stories of Chicago honor student, Hadiya Pendleton, Sandy Hook Elementary School children, and Washington, D,C., Naval Yard employees that recall the horror of death triggered by gun violence in America.
- The circumstances of those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, or the recent flooding in Colorado, which evoke concern for the thousands of people who are devastated by natural disasters each year.
- The chilling statistic that 2.5 million persons, individuals like Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, are victims of kidnapping and/or human trafficking throughout the world.
- The possibility of participating in yet another war, which weighs heavy on the hearts and minds of Americans who have already watched countless mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, spouses, partners, and assorted loved ones march off to serve as part of our military only to return limping on crutches, sitting in wheel chairs, or laying in flag-draped boxes.
It is no surprise the Book of Lamentations is unpopular even among Bible enthusiasts. Its title, authorship, and images are troubling. Few who read the Bible for devotional purposes seek spiritual uplift from laments. The title alone may explain why. In all my years of attending church services, I have yet to experience a sermon built upon the Book of Lamentations. Despite its lack of popularity, Lamentations models the importance of acknowledging dreadful situations in today’s modern society.
Our world is full of lament-worthy circumstances, and this oft-forgotten book highlights a critical element of the lament process: hope. More importantly, the theology of Lamentations affirms the importance of giving voice to our feelings of despair.
Hoping for Help
Despite the atrocities of our modern world, we continue to hope for change. Similarly, I suspect the biblical characters that lived through the Babylonian Exile hoped for change as they lamented their condition. I imagine Babylon’s breach of the Jerusalem wall shook the foundations of their understanding of who they were, who their God was, and who they were in relation to their God. When Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army invaded Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE, burned the palace, destroyed the temple, and left the city in ruins, the people hoped for change, but no help came.
Jerusalemites, whose powerful God had settled them in “the land of milk and honey,” watched as members of its elite class were taken away to captivity leaving them with no community leaders, skilled crafts persons, or cultic leaders.
They hoped for change, but no relief came.
With only a memory of their former glory, the biblical people would have to pay homage, loyalty, and taxes to the ones who pillaged their homes, plundered their riches, and destroyed their place of community worship. In the midst of what could only be described as chaotic despair, perhaps the most disturbing of this story was the reality that their God did not intervene on their behalf.
No help came.
Hope in the Holler
The fact that God did not intervene is a disturbing image, indeed! Also disturbing is the message of chapter one, verse five: “…because the LORD has made her [Jerusalem] suffer.”
What are we to make of a divine being that causes suffering? This deity does not fit nicely with the God we sing about on Sunday mornings! How can the writer of Lamentations lay the responsibility for the people’s suffering at the feet of the same God that heard the cries of the people and came down to deliver them from an oppressive Pharaoh in Egypt?
The theology of Lamentations centers on a God who is in total control of a world in which both the sinner and the righteous suffer and cry out to God. Paul House sums up it up in this way: “Those who suffer because of their own sin may cry out to God as readily as innocent sufferers do” (Paul House Lamentations, 2004, 320).
Lamenting in Uncomfortable Places
Though unpopular, this theology is helpful because there is power in giving voice to lament-worthy situations. When we confess our concerns, we acknowledge the realities that warrant lament. We want to do something more, but what? What follows lamentations?
It might be easy to respond by saying we all should become advocates for the poor and activists for the homeless. However, to be faithful to the despair in Lamentations voices, I will not. Lamentations encourages us to sit in the uncomfortable space, acknowledge that bad things do happen, and experience these atrocities in community.
But, like the biblical characters, we should experience turmoil with hope. Hope in a God who will turn things around. Hope in a people who will not let evil triumph. Hope in a future that is greater than the past. Hope that help will indeed come. Until then, we lament. We cry. We holler. We wail. We try to reason a solution. We moan. We shake with anger, but we always live in hope.
Kimberly Dawn Russaw is a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University studying the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel. She is an active member of both the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, and has presented and published in numerous scholarly and ecclesial contexts.