Reflections from the book of Lamentations
by Lynn Jost
Does God speak to you?
Lucretia’s bubbly faith overflows with testimony to God’s direct communication. Lucretia testifies that God will wake her at midnight when Child Services is about to bring more abandoned children to her short-term orphanage ministry. No baby formula? No worries. God will speak with news of a milk delivery.
Or is your experience more like that of the veteran pastor who says that after a lifetime of preaching about God’s restoring voice of hope, he himself has never heard from God. Daylong retreats? Weeks of fasting? God has never spoken.
Which vignette matches your experience? Does God’s silence in the book of Lamentations sound uncharacteristically bleak or reassuringly mysterious? Using a variety of voices, Lamentations addresses God from Jerusalem’s chaotic exile. Unlike Job or Psalms, in Lamentations God remains silent. God does not respond. God offers no word of cheer.
Poem One: A cry of grief
The first highly stylized poem of Lamentations 1 opens with “How lonely sits the city once full of people.” The first voice describes the crushing, oft-prophesied loss (1:1-11a), mourning for the former princess Jerusalem, now a widow whose children have been enslaved. The destruction is all the worse because “the Lord has made her suffer” (1:5). A grieving mother, “Jerusalem remembers . . . all the precious things” (1:7).
The description of Jerusalem’s travail shifts to a first-person cry of grief midway through the poem (1:11b-22). Jerusalem weeps, lamenting the loss of children and abandonment by leaders and priests (1:11b-19). She addresses the author of her devastation, “O Lord, how distressed I am; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me. . .My groans are many and my heart faints” (1:20-22).
An acrostic, each of the 22 verses of the poem, begins with a successive letter of the alphabet connoting that all the destruction of the world, the evil from A-to Z, has been Israel’s experience. Sixty-six lines of the poem put into words the loneliness of those to whom God no longer speaks.
Poems Two to Four: The cry intensifies
Lamentations 2 uses a similar form. Like the first, the second poem is a 66-line acrostic. The tone shifts to angry protest against God’s devastation (2:1-12): “The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel” (2:5). In verse 13 the poem addresses Jerusalem directly: “What can I say for you, O daughter Jerusalem, O virgin daughter Zion? Who can heal you?” Too exhausted to speak, Jerusalem breaks silence only in the final verses of Poem Two. As if speaking to one too callous to care, she cries, “Look, Lord and consider! To whom have you done this?” (2:20).
Poem Three intensifies the acrostic (each Hebrew letter begins three consecutive poetic lines). A new voice, a sort of G.I. Joe, speaks. The “mighty-man” poet uses violent images to describe God’s judgment (3:1-20). This valiant warrior tries to make sense out of nonsense by speaking faithful words about God: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (3:21-22). Won’t good theology trump existential heartache? “His mercies are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness!” (3:23-24). The strong man stoops to the burden, accepts the well-deserved abuse (“give one’s cheek to the smiter”), plays the part of the strong, silent type (“sit alone in silence,” 3:27-30).
But even the valiant spiritual athlete is overcome. “Does not the Lord see it?” he asks (3:36). As if tortured by a modern superpower, the poet reports being pursued by a drone-like opponent—“My enemies have hunted me like a bird” (3:52)—and tortured by waterboarding sadists— “Water closed over my head” (3:54). “I am lost,” he says.
After this failed attempt at orthodox lamentation (all but two of the psalms of lament match complaint with a word of hope), the poet turns to Poem Four. The acrostic form is retained, but the fourth poem has but 44 lines. The third-person lament describes cannibalism (mothers in Jerusalem eat their own children in 4:10), attributes the trouble to the Lord (4:11,16) and blames the leaders’ sin (4:13). The closing verses again switch voices: “Our eyes have failed, ever watching vainly for help; we were watching” (4:17).
Poem Five: Chaos overwhelms
Poem Five demonstrates utter collapse in poetic form, in message and in experience. Reduced to just 22 lines, the poem no longer follows the acrostic form. As “chaos speech,” the poem abandons logic, jumping from one complaint to another. “Remember, Lord," the poem begins (5:1-2). “We have become orphans. Our mothers are widows” (5:3). “Our ancestors sinned, but we bear the iniquities” (5:7). We have been raped (5:11), tortured and dishonored (5:12) and enslaved (5:13).
One last plaintive cry for help escapes the poet’s lips: “You, O Lord, reign forever. . . . Restore us to yourself, O Lord” (5:19-21), only to deteriorate into a whimper, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22).
Through it all God remains silent. The city is devastated, but the God who has issued nonstop warnings throughout the prophets utters not a word. The people of God ask for the slightest acknowledgement that God is aware, but there is nothing. God is silent in the time of deepest need.
God’s inspired silence
Lamentations, for all its melancholy, guides us to solidarity with those devastated by pain. In a society where one in six is medicated for anxiety and depression, here is new therapy. Though silence alone may not be enough, deep listening gives pastoral care.
In bright, up-tempo weekly worship, lament is a lost art. How might Christian worship incorporate plaintive cries of pain? Congregational prayers often include pleas for failing health. On specially designated days, we pray, too, for the persecuted church.
God’s sacred silence also instructs pastoral care. Reflecting on Lamentations, I have gotten in touch with my own personal grief. When as a 16 year old I lost my dad to death, I felt the need to plan a funeral service to emulate King David’s reaction to the death of his infant son. 2 Samuel records that David rose from fasting, anointed his face, worshiped God and ate and drank. Now I wonder: Where was the wise soul to offer the wisdom of Lamentations? To help me recognize the comfort of God’s silence in that moment of loss?
We know people who live with “chaos stories” akin to exiled Jerusalem. Their lives have been disrupted. They cannot speak in ways that make sense. Broken by abuse, the violence of war or unsought divorce, they need someone who will listen to their story. And yet, they also need the sound of silence. May we learn from the sacred silence of God to extend both a listening ear and patient presence.
Learning from Lamentations, may we structure grieving into our worship patterns. May we allow intense loss to “have its say” when we prefer to speak comforting “God-words.” May we extend grace to those communicating in “chaos speech.” Let’s remember that the sound of silence is an act of true faith in the night of the soul.
Lynn Jost is professor of Old Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and plans and leads Sunday worship gatherings at College Community Church MB in Clovis, Calif.