Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The small poetic book of Lamentations was composed during the fall of Jerusalem to the invading Babylonian armies in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

June 28, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Lamentations 3:22-33

The small poetic book of Lamentations was composed during the fall of Jerusalem to the invading Babylonian armies in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

Ongoing Jewish tradition enshrines this history by reading the book on the ninth of Ab (July/August), the day on which the final fall of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. is remembered. It is a solemn day, when hopes seem distant and God silent.

The first four chapters are acrostic poems. In other words, each succeeding line or series of lines begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. One can readily imagine that this device was an aid to memory, as the poems were chanted and sung in places of worship.

Still, this strikingly artificial literary strategy has yielded some powerful language and very memorable phrases. More than that, some important ideas about the nature of suffering and the role of God in that suffering also appear.

In its design, chapter three is a classic lament. Like many psalms (see Psalms 22 and 88 for examples), the poem begins with painful and heartfelt statements about the horrors of the author (Lamentations 3:1-20).

At first, the language sounds like the stock vocabulary of the lament psalms: darkness, pains, broken bones, desolation, arrows, etc. All of these may be found in the psalms of lament, the book of Job, and other poetic descriptions of agony throughout the Hebrew Bible.

However, when the poem is connected to the fall of Jerusalem and the apparent end of the nation of Israel, the language is more appropriate than first appears.

Note the use of “besieged,” “walled in,” a way “blocked with stones,” and “arrows shot into the vitals.” These are vivid descriptions of ancient siege warfare, culminating in the destruction of buildings and the slaughter of inhabitants. Such metaphors may be general ones, taking on a life beyond the context of battles. But, when a singer remembers the fall of Zion, such language resonates with stark reality and deepens the anguish of fear and lost hope.

The poem unashamedly ascribes the horrors directly to God.  It begins, “I am the warrior who has seen the woe by means of the anger of God’s rod” (Lamentations 3:1). God has brought Jerusalem’s disaster, and the succeeding nineteen verses find the subject of their actions to be God alone.

However, we modern believers adjudicate that ancient belief. Whether we believe God causes such pains or not, we can agree with the ancients that in life, chaos always threatens the order of things. Death is ever ready to swallow life.

These texts will not help us argue the origins of the world’s agonies, but they will help us reflect on what we can do to face them and live with their reality. This may be the most important lesson we need to learn.

When hopelessness seems complete, the singer cries, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord” (3:18).

But just three verses later, there is an astonishing transformation. “This I call to mind; and therefore I have hope” (3:21). What “this” is becomes the key to the rest of the poem. It stands as the first word of the line rather than the verb that usually begins sentences in Hebrew; therefore, “this” is emphasized.

Our passage for the day fills in the content with words that ring down the ages and provide crucial ideas for living with the agonies of life.

The first word of verse 22 is central. It is the plural form of the Hebrew chesed, a word notoriously difficult to translate. It might be read “unbreakable devotion to the promise.” Chesed best defines the basic nature of God, as that wonderful scene with Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 34:6 makes plain.

But the fact that chesed is in the plural suggests it is not some generalized, unspecified good feeling, but rather actual deeds that reveal the realities of unbreakable devotion. Verse 22 reads, “The steadfast love (chesed) of the Lord never ceases,” although the Hebrew text might better be read “Ah, the steadfast deeds of the Lord! We will never be cut off!”

The parallel line of the verse 22 is: “God’s mercies never come to an end.” Remarkably, the word “mercy” is based on the Hebrew word for “womb.” When the poets reached for a word to best describe the astonishing mercy of God, they fastened on a woman’s womb, imagining God’s love to be like that unique love shared by a woman for her child.

In the midst of life’s certain pains, we must fix our minds on the unbreakable and active womb love of our God. Only in that love will we find hope in our hopelessness, the promise of joy in our sorrows.

Verse 23 reminds us that this unbreakable love, expressed in deeds of mercy, is “new every morning: great is your faithfulness.” The 1923 hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” beautifully captures the wonder of these convictions about God in stirring word and tune.

My hope is in God, because “the Lord is my portion,” sings verse 24. The poet’s history with God has convinced the singer that God is in fact fully present. Even in the deepest despair, faithful waiting is justified. Silence in the face of realities, however difficult, suggests that accepting the situation for what it is can be the first step to wholeness and renewed hope (verses 26-28).

“For the Lord will not reject forever” (verse 31). However dark the night, however deep the fear, however hopeless the situation, we rely on the steadfast love of God and give ourselves over to the One who is always the source of our hope.

Great is God’s faithfulness indeed!