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    9th November 2007


    I love letting the readers in on what I’ve been doing as of recent, and so I must say that this last week I have been writing. I have written and turned in 40 pages over the last two weeks. Now I’m not sure how much my school and my professors would like this, but I have reproduced below here the paper that I wrote for a class on the books of the Prophets today. Because a quarter of my paper length was in footnotes, and I don’t know how to add footnotes here on WordPress, I simply added them to the spots in the paper where they referred to, and then put them in parentheses and italicized them. Additionally, I have tried to italicize most un-designated scripture quotations (which are from the NRSV) as well as the few Hebrew words (some of which are bolded) that appear in the paper.

    Now, without further ado, here is my first and only draft – perhaps you will give me a critique?


    The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies shall never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

    These words, along with Edith McNeill’s melody became a popular church song in the mid-1970s – they are new every morning, new every morning… great is your faithfulness, oh Lord; great is your faithfulness. The song is still used occasionally in some church traditions, and it is a beautiful song full of hope – but how hopeful is the context from which it came, the third chapter of Lamentations? By examining the immediately preceding context to these verses, an attempt will be made to show both the profound depth of the trust in God as well as the unapologetic anger and frustration displayed by the writer of Lam. 3. An ancillary question that will be briefly addressed in the conclusion of this paper concerns the role of lament in corporate Christian worship.

    The perspective of Lam. 3 is that of a male – a “strongman” (Hebrew geber) – who has also experienced firsthand the fall of Jerusalem. (Chapter 1 of Lamentations is a poem from the perspective of the city where Zion is personified as a woman. The second chapter is from the point of view of a narrator who has knowledge of God’s part in the destruction of Jerusalem and has also been an eyewitness to the suffering within the city.) He was traditionally identified as Jeremiah (as the book of Lamentations was attributed to that prophet), but has also been thought of as Jehoiachin or Zedekiah – or even the prophet Isaiah. Recent commentators generally do not identify the author as a specific historical figure, but instead have characterized him as “a surviving soldier (Lanahan and Owens), a defeated strongman (K. O’Connor), a collective voice of the people (Albrektson, Gordis), a prominent resident of Jerusalem (Renkema) or Everyman (Hillers).” (Adele Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 84; Berlin herself identifies the author as “the personified voice of the exile… the male voice is a counterpart to the female voice of the city in chapter 1 (84).”) Whoever this speaker is, he is a survivor of the destruction. (Tod Linafelt characterizes the whole book as “literature of survival”, especially in light of what he sees as similar work produced in the aftermath of 20th Century catastrophes like the Holocaust. I appreciate also the perspective of Pamela Owens, who calls the “I” of this chapter “every man who failed utterly in his effort to defend Jerusalem and his loved ones there.”)

    While ch.1 relates the distresses of the destruction from the perspective of the city, and ch.2 speaks of the distress that other people have gone through, the first 20 verses of ch.3 tells the story of the personal suffering of the new narrator – the survivor. Vv.1-17 describe the many atrocities that “he” has done to the survivor, and though we assume that this refers to God, “he” is not named as such until v.18. Westermann says of this section, “Parallels to such a concentration of accusations against God are hard to find except in Lam 2:2-8 and the Book of Job.” (Claus Westermann, Lamentations: Issues and Interpretations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 171.) And though Westermann also believes that this section (1-17) is a collection of verses “without intrinsic connection to one another,” the verses may be grouped using a number of metaphors used to describe “his” (God’s) actions toward the survivor:

    In vv.1-9, God is the bad shepherd, the antithesis of the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. Where in Ps. 23:4, God’s rod and staff are a comfort to the sheep, the survivor is one who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath (3:1). Where the sheep of the Good Shepherd walks through the darkest valley and fears no evil, the sheep of the bad shepherd has been driven into darkness without any light (3:2) where the shepherd turns his hand again and again all day long (referring to abuse). The Good Shepherd brings his sheep to green pastures and quiet waters and then prepares a table for them. The bad shepherd of Lam. 3 makes his sheep’s flesh and skin to waste away (3:4), envelops him in bitterness and poison, walls him in and binds him with chains – and where the sheep of Ps. 23 cans say, “You lead me in right paths;” the sheep of Lam. 3 must lament: “He has made my paths crooked (3:9).”

    The metaphor switches somewhat in v.9, though the narrator might still be thought of as a sheep. Now God is a wild animal who will attack and tear the survivor to pieces (3:10-11) and a hunter who has his bow set to launch a fatal arrow (12-13). Verses 14-17 employ imagery related to the mouth (laughingstock; taunt-songs; the eating of bitterness and wormwood; teeth grinding on gravel and face to the dust) as well as to the humiliation suffered by those who were taken captive in the ancient world.

    Particularly distressing are vv.6, 8, and 17. The survivor compares himself to the dead (6), calls to God who shuts out (his) prayer (8), and relates that he has no peace and has forgotten what happiness is (17). When he begins to reflect on his situation, it is little surprise that he says, “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall (19)!”

    Yet as the author begins to think and remember his affliction, he can not help but also remember something else – something hopeful. (Lam. 3 is an acrostic poem, using each of the 22 Hebrew letters to start three consecutive verses (the first three verses begin with aleph, the next three bet, etc.) so that there are 66 verses total. The verses in this section begin with zayin, which is the first letter of the Hebrew verb zkr – to remember.) The steadfast love (hesed) of the Yahweh has a sense of being bound up in the covenants that he has made with his people. God must be faithful – he has said that he will be – so that even though the lamenter has been through a living hell and is currently seeing no tangible signs of improvement, he is confident that ultimately God will make right: “What happens here is that recollection of a formal avowal of trust becomes the stimulus for expression of praise.” (Westermann, 174.)

    Lamentations 3 is the only chapter with any concrete sense of hope in a book filled with despair, leading most commentators to judge this chapter to be the theological heart of the book. For such thinkers, lament that only describes the suffering without searching for meaning has no meaning in and of itself. Several recent commentaries have questioned whether this is right. Linafelt argues that at times there are no words of praise and that the only thing that one can offer to God is the truth of how one has experienced a situation. This is in itself a prayer if we grieve over the things that God grieves.

    Lamentations seems to allow for both sides. Perhaps there is a time to rail against God. He can take it. You cannot tell him anything he does not know. Yet in Lam. 3, the poet – the survivor – seems unsure that this should be done without qualification. In 3:1-17, the name of God is absent. Owens comments on this:

    I suggest that the poet personifies God as an anonymous enemy, first of all, in order to reflect his own profound sense of God’s absence during persecution… Yet in 3:22-42, the same poet had affirmed his belief that the Lord does know what he is doing. The poet has encountered first-hand the problem of the existence of evil… In the theology of Israel the believer is not allowed to propose two gods, one punishing, the other forgiving. In poetry, however, it is possible to speak of a cruelly punishing God as though he were someone other than YHWH… once the terrible suffering and the guilt of the failed defenders has had its outlet, the poet can turn slowly to the affirmations about the Lord. (Owens, 83-84.)

    In many churches today there is a stigma against anyone who speaks negatively about their situation in life. Such negative circumstances are “not how God sees them”. Why spend time complaining about the bad things going on, they ask, when you could focus on the good things that God has promised you? There are no songs of lament, only of praise (despite the fact that 60-some of the Psalms are psalms of lament). Kathleen O’Connor points out that in the United States we live in denial of our despair. We cover our depression over with our wealth, and despair “is not even allowed to the level of consciousness.” She continues: “To bring our despair into consciousness would reveal our exhausted spirits, our broken communities, and our violent relationships at home and abroad.” (Kathleen M. O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 4.) Surely these are things worthy of lament, over which God grieves also.

    On the other hand, if we are the people of God, having known God’s goodness, our reflection on our suffering ought to at some point lead us to the remembrance of God’s faithfulness – his steadfast love. For those who are in a season of lament, the words of praise may not come easily. Perhaps they will come in the form of remembering past praise – as in Psalm 42, in which the lamenter remembers going with the people to praise in the house of God – and praying that God would allow that praise to flow once again. Given this perspective we would be misguided to chastise Christians who are “unable” to praise God in difficult circumstance. Perhaps it would be better to help them to give words to the grief they are feeling and then pray that they would eventually remember the hope that they have in God.

    The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies shall never come to an end; they are new every morning, new every morning; great is your faithfulness, oh Lord; great is your faithfulness.

    1 comment

    One Response to “Lamentations”

    1. Praaz says:

      “The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him.”To God be the glory! Looking forward to His reutrn. Hugs to you my dear friend!

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    Copyright 2005 by Daryl Holmlund - All rights reserved.