Recently, I was asked by Student Christian Movement to lead a Bible study on The Book of Lamentations. As a community, we have been meeting online to offer each other support and fellowship in what is a frightening and isolating time for so many. Given the present circumstances, it feels so right that we explore expressions of grief and pain in the Bible, and the Book of Lamentations is certainly a book for our times.
Written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE , Lamentations expresses the grief of a community reeling from the most horrific catastrophe in its history so far. It acts as a memorial to the pain and confusion of the exiled Israelites as they try to come to terms with the new world order they find themselves in. The book is bleak and raw, its images vicerally describing the suffering of a displaced people.
We too are reeling from the sudden changes in society and our lives as a result of COVID-19. Entire nations have been placed in lockdown, forcing people to work from home or be furloughed from their jobs, closing public places once bustling with life, fundamentally changing the way we interact with one another, and requiring us to reconsider the ways we run our institutions. In a way, we are living in an exile of isolation, and we don’t have to work hard to picture the opening lines of Lamentations:
How lonely sits the city that was once 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 (NRSV)
The first poem explores the psychological trauma that the city’s destruction brought to its inhabitants through images of a funeral and the death of a loved one. It speaks of mourning and grieving, groaning and weeping, as well as desolation, isolation, and suffering. We too are collectively grappling with loss and pain. Thousands around the world are mourning the loss of loved ones, as well as the sudden loss of our freedoms and the upheaval to our way of living, with scientists and politicians saying that life after the pandemic cannot simply go back to normal. We are living through a period of seismic change that will be felt for years to come.
Collective experiences of loneliness and grief are expressed in the third poem, where the poet speaks as a representative of God’s people. There are some crushing images in this poem: the author speaks of being chained in darkness, walled in and torn to pieces. In spite of all this, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Better days are coming – this too shall pass. The author reminds us:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’Lamentations 3:22-24
The poet examines the visible changes to society as a result of destruction and exile in the fourth poem. Those who once “feasted on delicacies perish in the streets” (4:5), people wear the visible signs of destruction on their faces (4:7-8), and people have become more selfish and greedy (4:2-4). In our own society, panic-stricken shoppers have emptied supermarket shelves of essential items, leaving those most in need with nothing. Foodbanks are worried that stocks will completely run out if they can’t get extra help to gather donations. And in financial markets, once lucrative investments are plummeting in value, with economists agreeing that a recession will follow. The pandemic does not discriminate between rich and poor; our whole society is affected by the destruction it’s causing.
The final poem is an explosion of grief. The structural form of previous poems is gone as the poet takes in the chaos around them. It’s a prayer for mercy, begging God not to ignore their suffering or abandon them. It’s a candid outpouring of deep pain and raw emotion, and it ends with the tenison unresolved. There’s no nice, neat conclusion, no easy answer to what is going on around them, just as we have no simple answers as to when we can be with our loved ones again, when our world will feel safer again, when things might feel remotely normal again. Life just doesn’t have simple resolutions.
Biblical poems of lament are important parts of scripture. They remind us that life is not always easy and that our anger and grief is valid and holy. They are forms of protest, drawing attention to awful things that shouldn’t be tolerated. They are a way of processig emotion, venting anger and putting a voice to confusion. Most importantly, they give sacred dignity to human suffering. They are words of grief addressed to God, and by being part of scripture they become God’s word to us.
Lamentations has so many lessons that we can apply to our lives.
- In the midst of chaos, we should take control of what we can. The first four poems of Lamentations are written as acrostics, and ordered, linear structure that allows pain to be explored A-Z. It contrasts the disorder of the pain, grief, and suffering explored in the poems. In the same way, we can try to find structures in our lives to help us navigate the chaos. Building routines into our lives to give order to our days can help us avoid being swallowed up into the darkness around us.
- Your painful emotions are valid and holy. I’ve said that a few times in this article, but I don’t think it can be said enough. Far too often, the narrative in Christian culture is that we should always be joyful and that if we pray hard enough we’ll feel better. This runs completely counter to what we find in the Bible. Expressing our anger, pain, and grief is not sinful; it is holy. Our wrestling with God is holy, healthy, and helpful. Bottling up our emotions and forcing ourselves to act happy is not.
- Art can be cathartic. The whole book of Lamentations is poetry, an artistic expression of pain. We too can use art to explore and express our emotions, whatever medium we may choose to do that through. As Carrie Fisher once said, “take your broken heart and make it into art.”
- It’s okay not to have all the answers. Awful things happen. Life is full of pain and grief. As humans we are constantly asking “why”, and get increasingly angry and crushed when we can’t answer that question. Lamentations teaches us that there aren’t easy answers, and that you don’t need to have them. To navigate the chaos we need to keep going, and trying to find answers to questions that can’t be answered will only hold us back.
May you know that your pain is valid, your anger is holy, and that your cries are heard by God. May you find sanctuary from the chaos storm around us, and may you know that God is always with you, even in the depths of darkness.
God of compassion,
be close to those who are ill, afraid or in isolation.
In their loneliness, be their consolation;
in their anxiety, be their hope;
in their darkness, be their light;
through him who suffered alone on the cross,
but reigns with you in glory,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.The Church of England
If you want to find out more about Lamentations, this video is really insightful, and I am indebted to it for many of the ideas I have explored in this post.