Commentary on Lamentations 3:22-33
Spring is the time when elementary school children learn about the life-cycle of the butterfly.
Our son, seven-years old, was excited to report on the daily progress of a collection of Painted Lady butterflies stored in a classroom aquarium. The class studied the different stages of metamorphosis, from larva to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly. Finally, the day had arrived: the butterflies had emerged from their cocoons, their wings were dry and fully extended.
It was time to “graduate” this class of flying insects in the playground area of our downtown school. While we were not there to enjoy the moment, the pictures showed the children almost radiant with excitement, looking as if they felt something like awe in the presence of this dazzling insect perched on wrist or finger, watching as it prepared to launch itself into an emergent, still awakening world. A world not unlike their own…
How inexpressible those pictures!
How wondrously beautiful!
How fleeting the beauty of the butterfly and the innocence of the child, how!
In truth, those were not my thoughts as I looked at the pictures. They were my wife’s thoughts as we drove through an intersection near our house. It is not spring there. It always feels like winter. It is not a place where people are being born into wonder. Instead, this is one of the places where people with opioid addictions walk to-and-fro, the barely living, confined to slender medians, their peripatetic journeys regulated by stop-lights and traffic patterns; their bodies wasted, their eyes dimmed by the relentless demand of a chemical dependency; they ask for food, for money, for anything. Often, they carry a sign made out of cardboard, that speaks in the absence (or inadequacy) of speech: “Homeless. Anything helps. Bless you.”
As we passed through this intersection, she was reminded of the pictures of elementary school children, participating in a rite of spring, how different and yet still someone’s daughter, someone’s brother: “They were children once,” she said. “They were children who would laugh and be thrilled with something as simple as a butterfly … it’s heartbreaking to think about it.” But today, how different, how barren the reality of addiction to the experience of freedom and joy … and perhaps how strange: “To what can I liken you? … For vast as the sea is your ruin, who can heal you?” (Lamentations 2:13b)
In the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations has the title, “How.” This is the first word of the poem: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal!” (Lamentations 1:1).
As a title, the word “how” vocalizes the sharp stab of grief evoked by this poem. The writer mourns not only what has become of Jerusalem, but, perhaps, especially, the beauty that it was, the joy that it signified, the future that it promised. The poet grieves not only for a lost past but for a lost future. And perhaps, especially, the poet grieves the God who now seems like a stranger.
While the text assigned for the lectionary speaks of the beginning of hope, it represents an interruption of this long poem of grief. Indeed, it is a strategic, even decisive interruption of this poem, as it declares that God’s mercy is renewed every morning (Lamentations 2:22-24). But it begs the question, “What sort of book is Lamentations?”
As a poem, Lamentations negotiates catastrophic loss for which there are no adequate words. The writer employs the biblical language of lament, often found in the psalmist. The writer also employs acrostic, not simply as a literary device, but perhaps also as a way of mediating what is otherwise inexpressibly chaotic in ordinary language. Together, as it recalls the ancient vocabulary of lament through the restraint of an acrostic form, the poet supplies its readers with a literary strategy for navigating catastrophic loss.
The text assigned by the lectionary marks a break from the collective and corporate loss of hope to a more personal and, to that extent, reflective exercise which suggests the birth of hope amid suffering and loss. Its location in the middle of these poems of lament is not insignificant; maybe it functions as a “sign” to the reader that while this rejection feels complete, it is not. Indeed, God’s steadfast love still quickens the heart and the mind seeking wholeness.
The immediate context of these verses is shocking. Delbert R. Hillers detects a reversal of Psalm 23. God’s rod (and staff) is a source of affliction not a shepherd’s tool for guidance/defense (Lamentations 3:1, 7). Instead of bringing the “I” of chapter three into green pastures and alongside still waters, God has “driven” the speaker “into darkness without any light” (Lamentations 3:2), using language that sometimes signifies prison.
Instead of the goodness of the Lord following the speaker all the days of his life, the speaker knows only God’s judgment; God has turned the divine hand against the speaker (Lamentations 3:3). Hillers also notes similar language being used in the story of the wilderness journey in Exodus and in Second Isaiah, only this time reversed to show judgment rather than God’s grace.
Interestingly, hope emerges in a quiet place, still not quite hope but not quite complete despair, either. Hillers underlines a linguistic formula sometimes employed to suggest the beginning of a change: “So I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord’” (Lamentations 3:18). Jonah uses similar language in his psalm-prayer in the belly of the whale: “Then I said, I am driven away from your sight” (Jonah 2:4). Similarly, in Psalm 31: “I had said in my alarm” (Psalm 31:22a). Or in Isaiah: “But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isaiah 49:4a).
Something similar occurs in Luke’s account of the Prodigal Son, who, as he “comes to himself” amid starvation and deep shame, asks himself, “How many of the servants in my father’s house have plenty to eat?” (Luke 15:17). The introduction of introspection, or thought about the thought of the speaker, especially her or his loss, intimates their “return” to hope and trust in God’s steadfast love. Steadfast love is not a passing phase in God but rather a foundational part of God’s character.
Michael visits our church from time to time. One Sunday, during prayers, he announced that he was clean and sober. A couple of weeks ago, he came to our adult forum, which is currently working through the Gospel of Mark. His head had been bloodied. Assaulted, he told us, while at a shelter. “I can’t live this way no more,” he cried. “Nobody is supposed to live this way.” It was strange, really, perhaps providential. Our text that day included Mark’s use of narrative “interpolation” — the practice of beginning one story and then interrupting it with another story before returning to the original story. Together, the stories provide insight rather than only a story, even a good story … or a tragic one.
I wonder if there isn’t a clue in Michael’s way of being with us that Sunday, an interruption or an eruption, suggesting the way God uses our gatherings (choreographed) to bring to speech that which we cannot or would not otherwise speak.
- Delbert R. Hillers, Lamentations: Introduction, Translation, and Notes in The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1972), 69.
- Hillers, 70.