Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Theologically speaking, the book of Lamentations covers a lot of ground.

Luke 17:5
"Increase our faith!" Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

October 6, 2019

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6

Theologically speaking, the book of Lamentations covers a lot of ground.

And for communities that have suffered debasement, displacement, and destruction, it can teach us to give voice to the soul-wrenching questions and cries of our shared grief. But the book’s first six verses have a simpler end in view, one first step. They bring us to the scene of devastation. They draw us across the distance we have constructed to hide from view the enormity of situations we do not know how to set right. Groaning and weeping burst through the hermetic seal of a silence that shields us from uncomfortable complaints. Before we are called to make theological judgments, and even before we give voice to our own laments, the poet demands that we see and hear.

The book’s opening adverb, ‘eka, “How,” often introduces a question (Deuteronomy 1:12; 7:17; 12:30; 18:21; 32:20; Judges 20:3; 2 Kings 6:15; Ps 73:11; Song of Songs 1:7; Jeremiah 8:8). In Lamentations, however, it introduces an exclamation (Lamentations 1:1; 2:1; 4:1, 2; see Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 48:17). It does not ask for an explanation or an answer. It asks the audience to register the shocking degree and manner of Judah’s devastation. This “how” asks us to take the measure, appreciate, and reckon with the length, breadth, and depth of all that has changed.

Our attention is first brought to the city: “How she sits.” Personifying the city foregrounds the relation between people and place. It humanizes history and makes a moral claim upon the audience. The manner of her sitting is portrayed with a single, adverbial noun: “isolation.” The city is a woman who sits alone, shunned and abased.

The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah used similar personification and language to portray a city’s devastation:

“Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter Babylon! Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate” (Isaiah 47:1 NRSV);

“Come down from glory and sit on the parched ground, enthroned daughter Dibon! For the destroyer of Moab has come up against you; he has destroyed your strongholds” (Jeremiah 48:18 NRSV).

For Babylon and Dibon, sitting on the ground contrasted with sitting on a throne (see Jonah 3:6), and thus symbolized the end of their sovereignty. The end of Judah’s monarchy is similarly in view for the poet of Lamentations (2:2, 6), yet the posture of sitting here has a further affective dimension.

In a later verse, the poet describes the embodied practices of lament undertaken by the people of Jerusalem: “The elders of daughter Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lamentations 2:10; see also Job 2:8, 13; Psalm 137:1; Isaiah 3:26). This shared work of mourning is portrayed as an occasion for the community to come together across divisions of age, class, and gender. Words take a backseat to presence on the ground, humility at the site of devastation, and solidarity that renounces the privileges of status and comfort. But Lamentations’ opening verse insists that the city yet sits alone, implicitly inviting the audience to sit on the ground beside her.

The city’s isolation comes into fuller view in the contrast between her former and present state. Her greatness was manifest in the multitude of people that thronged the city. Now she is like a widow (1:1). Widows, like orphans, were socially and economically vulnerable (see Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; 2 Samuel 14:5; 1 Kings 17:12; Job 22:9; 24:3; Psalm 94:6; Isaiah 10:12), in part because they lost access to social networks of support and protection. The Hebrew scriptures emphasize the importance of defending the legal rights of widows (see Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; Isaiah 1:23). Comparing Jerusalem to a widow highlights the dissolution of social structures that had previously helped to ensure equitable distribution of needed resources and protections throughout the community.

The loss of family, networks, and infrastructure is paired with loss of status, freedom, and economic self-determination. The city had once been of royal status, internationally recognized and honored. Now she has been reduced to “forced labor” (mas Lamentations 1:1). The Hebrew term mas emphasizes compulsion: it refers to compulsory labor (e.g., 1 Kings 9:21), including enslavement (Exodus 1:11). It was also understood by a Greek translator as referring to imposed tribute more broadly (phoron LXX), which might also include levies of food, raw materials, and crafted goods. The term highlights not only the status of servitude and the immediate conditions of harsh labor, but also a broader, imperial system of despoliation that robbed native peoples of resources and autonomy while imposing ongoing financial and social burdens that were knit into the new fabric of a subjugated society.

Those burdens have emptied Jerusalem of its people and brought its daily life to a halt. And so, the city who sobs through the night (1:2) is joined by roads that weep, because pilgrims no longer travel on them to worship, commemorate, and celebrate (1:4). The streets are a site of communal memory. They linked Jerusalem to a network of peoples and places that has now been cut off. The lifeblood of the city no longer pulses through its arteries.

If you preach on this passage, summon your community to the site of its devastation, to combat isolation and witness together the breadth and depth of collective trauma. This witnessing is not about voyeurism or missionary tourism. It is about drawing on the shared strength of community to face reality together. Pay attention to the place itself, sit on its ground, mark and mourn its transformations and listen to the story of its streets. Preach also the history revealed in the present. Show the systemic causes of degradation. Preach the way of a people who are grieving (1:4), captive (1:5), hungry, hunted, and exhausted (1:6). Help your people to see and hear.