The Book of Lamentations contains the thoughts of the people of Judah trying to make sense of their experience of exile after the fall of Jerusalem. Before the exile they believed that God’s presence in the temple on Mount Zion was unconditionally guaranteed. They also believed that there would always be a Davidic descendant on the throne, and that the temple on Mount Zion would exist forever, since it was God’s dwelling-place. With the fall of Jerusalem the temple was destroyed, the king was abducted and God’s presence wasn’t experienced anymore; in fact He acted very differently from the way He did in the past.
The authors of Lamentations tried to explain this catastrophe. They had a number of urgent questions for which they tried to seek answers. Why was Jerusalem conquered? Why do children have to suffer for their parents’ sin? Has God rejected them? Is it possible that He was responsible for the catastrophe? In times of crises, the theodicy question, the question about God’s righteousness, always enjoys pre-eminence.
Exile is not a geographical issue.
The experience of exile is not confined to the pages of the Bible. Exile still happens in our midst. Exile becomes a metaphor to describe a religious state of mind. Although the Jews were geographically displaced, their biggest experience of exile was their loss of the structured, reliable world which provided them with meaning. Exile is thus primarily not a geographical issue, but it is social, moral and cultural; even liturgical and spiritual; an understanding that one is in a hostile, alien situation; it refers to any experience of pain and suffering.
The people of Judah found themselves in circumstances where they felt utterly rejected and deserted by man and God. Their whole world had collapsed around them and therefore they felt vulnerable and helpless. Everything, in which they believed and hoped and trusted in, had been destroyed and they were in a state of utter despair. How did they react to this tragic situation?
The structure of the book enlighten our understanding of it.
When we talk about the significance and meaning of Lamentations, it is important to bear in mind that the structure of the book plays a central role in the process of understanding. The poet(s) of the book used a concentric pattern to emphasize the central message of the book. This concentric structure places the focus of every pericope on the middle section, whilst the concentric pattern of the entire book places the focus on the middle section of chapter 3. For that reason “hope” is the central thought of the book (3:21-38). This concentric pattern expresses the way their thoughts were going around in circles, which is typical of the way all of us think in times of crises. Our thoughts and emotions go round and round, trying to find something we can grab hold of. It expresses our search for a fixed point for a new theology.
This new theology gives the first uncertain steps of an insecure and unstable faith in a quest to find God once again as the centre of our thoughts and existence. This wavering quest emerges from the cry of distress in in Lamentations 3:29: “there may yet be hope”. This is a hope against hope. This is also an indication of people who have come to realise that for them, there are no easy answers and solutions for those who find themselves in the midst of doubt and uncertainty, where they are trying to make sense of a chaotic world of exile.
Making sense of an experience of exile.
Lamentations speak to people who are experiencing intense suffering; people who experience sorrow, grief, pain, despair and desperation. For the Jews life didn’t make sense anymore; their suffering didn’t have any significance or meaning. The questions they were confronted with are true human questions that are always asked in times of crises. Why is there suffering in this life? What is the true meaning and value of suffering? Why do innocent people often suffer? Why does it seem as if God sometimes never intervenes to change suffering into triumph? Why does God, a God of love, allow people (his children included) to go through times of pain and suffering? Why does God often keep quiet in times of crises?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. That is why the authors of Lamentations struggle and in their circling thoughts and emotions cling to God, although He seems to be against them. Despite the fact that they are burdened with the weight of doubt and despair, they still dare to say: “There may yet be hope.” Clinging to God is all we can do, even though it seems as if even God is against us: “There may …yet … be hope …”
Is it possible for you and I to apply the message of Lamentations to our own lives? The book concerns the suffering of a nation, a nation that stood in a very special relationship with God. Suffering however is universal, and therefore it is indeed possible for us to find a message in Lamentations for our times. In times of personal pain and suffering, we may indeed apply the message of the book to our own lives. Our hope is indeed also in God. In times of need, whenever our lives are in chaos, whenever the world around us is on the verge of collapsing, we can also take the first few unstable steps, crying out with uncertain faith –“THERE MAY YET BE HOPE!” Is there hope?
Yes, in Jesus Christ, in Him who is familiar with pain and sorrow, in Him who experienced the most horrible suffering imaginable on the cross; in Him we can find hope.