Lamentations is a soliloquy. There is no word from God, although there are words about God. The structure of the book, apart from the final chapter, is a set of acrostics (not obvious in English translations). Its genre is lament. Several traditions, such as the sin-punishment nexus, inform the book. The setting is the historical crisis of a destroyed city, Jerusalem. The speaker is both a spectator and victim of the tragedy. A dominant personality within the monologue is God; human agents such as Babylon (unnamed) and Edom also come into view. The language is laced with metaphor. It is with an eye to the form, genre, traditions, situation, and characters that a theology of the book can best be laid bare.
The Pathos of Suffering. The perspective in the book is initially this-wordly. The tragedy of Jerusalem, now devastated by the Babylonians (587 b.c.), and of a people in exile, is faced head on ( 1:3 ; 2:8-9 ). The citizenry is humiliated and in desperate straits ( 1:1-21a ; 5:1-18 ). The calamity and pathos of suffering is a central theme ( 3:1-20 ). Poetry, rather than prose, is the vehicle of pathos. The funeral dirges set the tone (chaps. 1, 2, 4). Four of the five chapters are in acrostic form utilizing the Hebrew alphabet, perhaps as a way of reaching for a total expression of grief. The vocabulary and metaphors describing the suffering are graphic and earthy. The once proud city is now like a widow, a queen become a slave ( 1:1 ). Zion theology, which stressed the indestructability of the city and the temple ( Psalm 48 ; 132:13 ; Jer 7:4 ), has been shown to be bankrupt. The good life of joy, feasting, treasures, and prosperity is gone ( 1:7 ; 3:17 ). Once elegant and bedecked with finery, the leaders are now blacker than soot, with their skin shriveled ( 4:8 ; cf. 1:6 ). Women have been ravished ( 5:11 ). Children cry for food ( 2:12 ). There is no one to comfort Zion ( 1:17 ). The harsh reality is described, not denied. The grief is not muted or misrepresented even though it raises large questions about God. Grief, for therapeutic reasons, as for Job, must be brought to speech.
Out of such pain God is addressed on the understanding that he attends to suffering people. A first step, then, is to face him with the grief. The devastation of property, the stress of losing virtually everything, and the deep despondency are vividly pictured so that God will take notice! Famine is the focus ( 2:20 ; 4:10 ), perhaps because of the tradition of God working his purposes through famine ( Gen 12:10 ; Ruth; Jer 14 ). Arising out of the suffering is the cry for rehabilitation and restoration ( 5:21-22 ).
An Interventionist God. The series of poems represents description but also an analysis on which past tradition is brought to bear. That tradition includes a belief about the nexus between sin and suffering. Job, likely written earlier than Lamentations, makes clear that the theory that all suffering is inevitably the result of wrongdoing is reductionistic. Still, that sin results in punitive measures is an understanding dating from the transgression in Eden.
In Lamentations that connection between sin and suffering is at once made explicit: "The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins" ( 1:5 ). Sin is a breach in the relationship. Israel, to resort to metaphor, has been under a heavy yoke, and so her strength has been sapped ( 1:14 ). God, so says the sufferer, has dragged him "from the path and mangled [him] and left [him] without help" ( 3:11 ). Israel explains her circumstances in light of the tradition: "We have sinned and rebelled we have suffered ruin and destruction" ( Lamentations 3:42 Lamentations 3:47 ). Each of the five poems identifies sin as the reason for the disaster ( 1:8 ; 2:14 ; 3:42 ; 4:13 ; 5:7 ).
Her sin, while not to be excused, can be better understood in the light of another tradition: the ministry expected from prophets. Leaders are to blame ( 4:12-13 ). Israel's wound, now deep as the sea, came because the prophets failed to expose her sin and so failed to ward off her captivity ( 2:14 ). Back of this charge is the conviction that one of the functions of the prophets was to identify the shape of evil in the society (cf. Jer 7:1-15 ). The reference in 2:14 to prophets whose oracles were false may well be to those who announced peace to a sinning people, and with whom Jeremiah so vigorously debated ( 23:16-18 ).
Another tradition transparent in Lamentations is that of God fighting against his people. Isaiah states succinctly: "So he [God] turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them" ( 63:10 ; cf. Num 14:39-45 ). That statement, echoed in "The Lord is like an enemy" ( 2:5 ), now explains the tragedy of 587 b.c. but at another level. The devastation is ultimately attributed to God's action ( 3:38 ). "He [God] has laid waste his dwelling like a garden; he has destroyed his place of meeting" ( Lamentations 2:6 Lamentations 2:17 ; cf. 1:12 ; 2:1 ; 3:1 ).
God is ruler ( 5:19 ). He is also Savior, and so the hope for redemption, grounded in God's faithfulness, remains alive. The imprecations against the enemies ( 1:21-22 ; 3:59-66 ; 4:21-22 ), and a litany of repentance ( 3:40-41 ) are two facets of that hope.
God: Righteous, Angry, Compassionate. The character of God is assumed to be both daunting and appealing. The righteousness of God is affirmed ( 1:18 ). Given the evil of his people, however, more is said in Lamentations about God's anger than about his righteousness. Wrath, idiomatically described as "hot of nose, " is expressive of God's righteousness. Each acrostic, but especially the second, includes mention of his anger ( 1:12 ; Lamentations 2:1 Lamentations 2:2 Lamentations 2:3 Lamentations 2:4 Lamentations 2:21 Lamentations 2:22 ; 3:43 ; 4:11 ). God's anger, speaking metaphorically, is poured out like fire ( 2:4 ; cf. 4:11 ) with the result that the strongholds of Judah have been torn down (2:2), king and priest have been spurned ( 2:6 ), and young and old have been slain ( 2:21 ). Jeremiah and other prophets before him warned Israel of the severity of God's anger should it be unleashed ( 30:23-24 ; Amos 1:3-5 Amos 1:6 Amos 1:10 Amos 1:11 ).
No attempt is made to reconcile God's anger and God's compassion, but compassion is no less characteristic of God than is anger. The tradition of God as resolutely compassionate and gentle, yet just in retribution, persists. The main section of the third acrostic, roughly the central section of the book, describes God's faithfulness as great and resilient ( 3:23 ). The flood of emotion, building in the two previous acrostics, is reined in by sound theology. God's compassion and love do not fail ( Lamentations 3:22 Lamentations 3:32 ). God is fundamentally unwilling to bring about grief ( 3:33 ). The belief in God as compassionate gives an intimation of hope to this suffering city, its inhabitants, and its exiles ( 3:21 ).
God: Experienced as Distant. The lament genre both individual lament (chap. 3) and communal lament (chap. 5)colors the book. Central to the lament is the complaint, which can take various shapes (cf. Pss. 6, 13). Basic to the complaint in Lamentations is God's perceived absence, inaccessibility, and even abandonment. Again, metaphors come into play. God has barred the petitioner's way as "with blocks of stone" ( 3:9 ). God has covered himself with a cloud so "no prayer can get through" ( 3:44 ).
Yet prayer continues. As Moses not only stated petitions but urged reasons for God to respond ( Exod 32:11-14 ), so here the poet "motivates" God by noting the taunt and mockery of the enemies ( 3:61-63 ). Another incentive is the sheer helplessness and distress of the victim ( 1:20 ; cf. Amos 7:2 ). Still another is God's former intervention: God was once near and reassuring ( 3:55-57 ). The complaint builds on the understanding that God is a God who, even if experienced as absent, is a God whose concern is for victims, and whose actions are initiated, as at the exodus, by cries for help. Hence the persistent cry, "Look, O Lord" ( Lamentations 1:9 Lamentations 1:11 ; 3:63 ; 5:19-21 ). In the end God will hear.
Elmer A. Martens
Bibliography. B. Albrektson, Studies in the Text and Theology of the Book of Lamentations; R. B. Chisholm, Jr., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 359-63; N. K. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations; B. Johnson, ZAW 97/1(1985):58-73.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Lamentations, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".