How to Read Lamentations Theologically
What does the poet who composed the book of Lamentations think about God and his community’s relationship with him? In other words, what is the theology of Lamentations?
Lamentations is a book composed of five separate poems written in response to a horrific community tragedy. That tragedy is never specified in the book, but very likely the poet is responding to the horrific consequences of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem that initiated what today we refer to as “the exile” in 587 BC. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone, probably not even close to a majority of the people were forcibly deported to Babylon and our poet was one of those left behind in the desolated city. Tradition identifies Jeremiah as the composer of the book, though most scholars today think that is unlikely, and the speculation that Jeremiah is the composer is certainly not necessary or even helpful for us as we read the book to see what we can learn about the unnamed poet’s thoughts and attitudes about and toward God.
The five poems themselves have an interesting structure, playing with what scholars today call an acrostic, in particular an abecedary. This type of acrostic begins each successive unit of a poem with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet that begins with aleph and ends with taw. Acrostics are thought to communicate completion and give a sense of resolution by covering the bases from A to Z. Thus, there is a poetic reason why chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 have twenty-two verses each and chapter 3 has sixty-six verses, a multiple of twenty-two. But when we dig a bit deeper, we are surprised to find that while chapters 1-4 are actual acrostics, with the middle chapter drawing attention to itself by having each verse of three verse units begin with the same letter, chapter 5 is not an acrostic even though it has twenty-two verses. We will comment on the significance of this faux acrostic a little later. For now we turn to our question: What does the poet who produced this book think about God and his community’s relationship with him?
God Attacked Us “As Our Enemy”
As mentioned, the Babylonians are never specifically mentioned in the book of Lamentations. We learn that they were the ones who destroyed Jerusalem from the historical books and the prophets (2 Kings 25:1-26; 2 Chron. 36:15-21; Jeremiah 39, 52 ). Our poet rails against those who destroyed the city as evil people who themselves deserve God’s judgment, but the poet also knows who is ultimately responsible for the destruction and death—God himself.
God is the one who attacked the city “as an enemy,” that is the dominating subject of the second poem:
Like an enemy he has strung his bow;
his right hand is ready.
Like a foe he has slain
all who were pleasing to the eye;
He has poured out his wrath like fire
on the tent of Daughter Zion. (Lam. 2:4)
From the time of the Exodus, God had revealed himself to his people as a warrior, who would come and save them from those who wanted to destroy them. In the aftermath of the crossing of the Sea that destroyed the Egyptian army that was attacking them, Moses sang:
The Lord is a warrior,
the Lord is his name. (Exod. 15:3)
But God’s people had been warned (for example Deut. 28:xx-xx) that if they rebelled against him, God would treat them like he treated the Egyptians and others who resisted him and oppressed others.
We Deserved It
And the poet of Lamentations understood that the tragedy in Jerusalem was a divine response to their long-standing sin. While found throughout the book, we encounter this admission right from the first poem. Personifying Jerusalem as a widow, alone and weeping, the poet announces:
The Lord has brought her grief
because of her many sins. (1:5b)
Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean. (1:8a)
The widow herself acknowledges:
The Lord is righteous,
yet I rebelled against his command. (1:18a)
The poet understands that God is a God who judges sin, but that is not the full story. He is also a God of mercy and compassion. The poet understands that God is a God who judges sin, but that is not the full story. He is also a God of mercy and compassion. Click To Tweet
His Compassions Never Fail
Suffering and pain permeate the book of Lamentations. Deep sadness at the profound horror of the destruction of Jerusalem overwhelms the poet. He knew that God was the ultimate cause of the death and desolation that surrounded him. But in the middle of the middle chapter, which by its length attracts the reader’s attention, we observe a momentary glimmer of hope. The words are those of a speaker who identifies himself simply as “the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath” (3:1). Like the widow of the first poem, the man of affliction personifies the suffering city. In the first twenty verses of the chapter, he describes his suffering in language familiar to that used by Job to express his suffering, but then suddenly, he shifts tone:
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore have hope.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (3:22-23b)
The man of affliction then advises that it is good to wait hopefully in the midst of suffering for “the salvation of the Lord” (3:26). In another similarity to Job, this time to Job’s final submission to God in the midst of his suffering, the man of affliction states that the person who suffers should “sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him” (3:28).
But, Really God, Enough is Enough; Restore Us!
Nonetheless, the book does not end with such a patient attitude. Throughout the book, the poet has been describing the tremendous suffering of God’s people. Yes, we deserved it, he seems to be saying, but enough is enough. People—women and children—are dying in the streets. Our enemies gloat. “God, see what is happening and come save us!” The book’s ending issues a final challenge to God:
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself,
Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lam. 5:20-22)
What Do We Learn about God from Lamentations?
In Lamentations, we learn about a God who judges sin, but who is also compassionate and merciful. In other words, we have a portrait of God that is consistent with the rest of Scripture, both Old (Exod. 34:6-7) and New. God’s judgment and mercy meet at the cross, where Jesus is the ultimate expression of a “man of affliction,” whose suffering and death lead to the resurrection and is God’s fullest expression of his “great love” and faithful “compassion.”