How does one process trauma? Be it as the result of a natural disaster, an accident or war. The book of Lamentations is an attempt to give voice to this process.
The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative states that scholars working on the connection of literature, narrative, and trauma have made important connections between an individual’s ability to maintain a coherent sense of self (a personal narrative) and their own psychological and social well-being. Some literary expressions from traumatic circumstances, therefore, can be read as individual attempts to repair personal narratives. The biblical book of Lamentations may well be such an exercise in narrative repair.
Lamentations is raw and unfashionable – both to read and preach or write about (indeed I had to create a category tag for Lamentations in this blog as no one had previously done so). Like any war zone, it is a place we would rather flee from and want to visit.
(This powerful image of a man and his daughter wandering the devastation in the city of Mosul, Iraq gives us some insight into the grief and bewilderment felt by the author of Lamentations)
In the Hebrew Old Testament, the book is entitled ekah, meaning “how” or “alas,” taken from the first verse. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) there is a brief notation to the effect that these are the writings (laments – crying aloud) of the priest and prophet Jeremiah when he went up on the hillside and sat overlooking the desolate city.
Lamentations consists of five separate poems, each in the literary form called an acrostic. Each verse begins, in alphabetical order, with a letter from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (sadly something lost in translation from Hebrew to English). Each chapter stresses and develops a particular aspect of sorrow.
Lamentations pictures a man of God puzzling over the results of evil and suffering in the world. Suddenly the greatness of Jerusalem is gone. The city and Holy temple has been destroyed, thousands have been taken into captivity and many more have died. Why had God allowed this calamity to fall upon his once great Holy city ? Whereas Job dealt with unexplained evil, the writer laments a tragedy entirely of Jerusalem’s making stating categorically that God had rejected His people because of their continuing rebellion against Him. There is no specific mention of the invading Babylonians.
“The book expresses with pathetic tenderness the prophet’s grief for the desolation of the city and Temple of Jerusalem, the captivity of the people, the miseries of famine, the cessation of public worship, and the other calamities with which his countrymen had been visited for their sins. The leading object was to teach the suffering Jews neither to despise ‘the chastening of the Lord,’ nor to ‘faint’ when ‘rebuked of Him,’ but to turn to God with deep repentance, to confess their sins, and humbly look to Him alone for pardon and deliverance” – Joseph Angus, The Bible Handbook
The imagery in Lamentations 1 is confronting, it gives us a description of the utter depths of sorrow, the desolation of spirit that sorrow makes upon the human heart, the sense of abandonment, of complete loneliness. Here we can see how vividly the prophet has captured this feeling as he pours out the feelings of his own heart.
Jeremiah remembers the greatness and weeps for the desolation. He was there to see it all. He warned them ahead of time, but they did not listen. People from many nations had come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. Now, there is no temple for anyone to worship in. whereas New Jerusalem is described as a bride; Jerusalem destroyed is like a widow and her “lovers” the lands they had made alliances with, such as Egypt.
The people have been vanquished and taken into captivity; the city has been set on fire and totally destroyed. Verse 16:
“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”
Lamentations provides us all with a hard but brutally honest template to consider when we are faced with traumatic events in our lives.
I guess it would be remiss of me not to include a link to the Lamentation Blues which was used to introduce a recent preaching series on Lamentations.