Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

National tragedies threaten to render communities speechless. The collective grief can be overwhelming.

October 3, 2010

Alternate First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6

National tragedies threaten to render communities speechless. The collective grief can be overwhelming.

In response, people often gather to sing songs, pray, light candles, and mourn together. Poetry and songs, in the context of ritual, become vehicles for humans to express their sorrow. It is in this rehearsal of mourning a community finds its voice in the midst of suffering. Thus, in response to catastrophe, people gather at places of worship, even transforming public squares into sites of prayer. Likewise, in the Christian tradition, communities of faith turn to biblical poems and hymns such as Psalm 23 and Amazing Grace during times of mourning in order express their loss. In the Hebrew Bible this ritual of grief is most profoundly expressed in the lament Psalms and in the book of Lamentations.

In this week’s Hebrew Bible reading, the lectionary departs from the book of Jeremiah and turns to a selection from Lamentations. Traditionally, Lamentations is attributed to Jeremiah; however, firm authorship cannot be confidently established. In the Christian canon this collection of dirge-like poems is located among the prophetic books. In the Jewish scriptures, it is found in the Writings or kethubim with the other megillot or festival scrolls. These five scrolls are associated with specific occasions in the Jewish calendar. The Jewish community reads sepher ‘êkâ (the Hebrew title for Lamentations, literally, “the book of how”) during the Ninth of Ab. This date commemorates five catastrophes in Jewish history, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples by the Babylonians and Romans respectively.

The book of Lamentations shares many features with ancient Mesopotamian city laments, including the personification of the city, the theme of divine abandonment, and the use of multiple speakers throughout the book, each giving particular voice to the devastation. One of the more poignant examples of the interplay of these features is found through the personification of the city in the character of Daughter Zion, who laments her suffering as a victim of trauma (e.g., Lamentations 1:11c–22). Lamentations contains five poems. The first four are acrostics, poems that begin each line with letters from the Hebrew alphabet in succession. The poems are, for the most part, in the qinah meter, a rhythm scheme common in funeral dirges.

Lamentations 1:1–6 is part of a larger block, extending to 1:11b. To understand today’s passage, it is important to see the movement of the whole chapter. In this first section, the primary speaker is an unnamed narrator, with the exception of verse 9c, where Daughter Zion cries out: “O LORD, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed.” In the rest of Chapter 1 (verse 11c–22), the personified city is the primary voice, though the narrator interrupts her in verse 17. Themes overlap between the two voices including: Daughter Zion’s desolation with no one to comfort her (verses 1–2, verse 16); the deceit of her lovers who have now abandoned her (verse 2a, verse 19); and the triumph of her enemies (verse 5, verse 7, verse 21). While the narrator addresses an unidentified audience, Daughter Zion makes her lament first to passersby (verse 12), addressing them directly in verse 18 as “all you peoples.” She ends her complaint by addressing the LORD directly (verses 20–22).

Both voices contribute to an overwhelming tone of sorrow and shame. Both, as well, put the blame squarely on the desolate city herself (verse 8, verse 18). Beyond these similarities, there are significant differences between these two speakers’ perspectives. In today’s selection (verses 1–6), the narrator emphasizes the difference between Daughter Zion’s current desolation and her former glory: “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” (verse 1, cf. verses 6–7). Thus, nostalgia permeates the narrator’s sense of grief. By contrast, Daughter Zion’s cries do not emphasize a past that has been lost, but dwell on her present destitute condition.

Another point of contrast is that the narrator, in this initial chapter, does not assign much agency to the LORD for the city’s present desolation. In fact, the narrator emphasizes Daughter Zion’s sinfulness to explain the situation (verses 8–9). While the personified city takes responsibility for her guilt (verses 18–19), she describes the disaster that she has experienced as having come from the LORD. The LORD is the subject who actively works to bring about judgment and punishment (verses 13–15), afflicting Daughter Zion (verses 12c–13), binding her shame around her neck, and handing her over to her enemies (verse 14). The LORD has rejected those within her walls (verse 15), resulting in her utter abandonment with no one to comfort her (verses 16). For this reason, Daughter Zion ends her speech by directing her lament straightforwardly to God, who has brought about her destruction (verses 20–22).

One can compare and contrast these two initial responses to suffering in Lamentations with the perspective among the characters in the book of Job. While the narrator is hardly likened to Job’s friends, whom Job describes as miserable comforters (Job 16:2), the narrator in Lamentations 1 does place the blame completely on Daughter Zion without addressing the LORD’s active role in the destruction of the city. Similar to Job, Daughter Zion sees that her suffering comes from the hand of the LORD.

The desolate city, however, differs from Job in that she owns her own guilt. More importantly, Lamentations differs from the book of Job in another significant way. In Lamentations 2, the narrator’s perspective aligns with Daughter Zion’s point of view through detailed descriptions of how the LORD brought about the city’s destruction. Thus, the narrator aligns with the Suffering Daughter, even addressing her directly in 2:13ff. The narrator, who appeared more removed from Daughter Zion’s plight in Chapter One, has now born witness to her suffering.