During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts. On March 20, we explored some of the history behind the compositions as well as the poem contained in Lamentations 2 (included in the text of the message below). My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations. Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”. Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work. Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White. Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”. We are trying to learn that.
To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:
As we re-enter the world of Lamentations, let me invite you to recall some of what we said last week about this beautiful little book.
First, we need to recall that this “book” is actually a pamphlet of five complete poems that came out of the experience of those who survived the worst day ever in 6thcentury BC Judah.
In 586 BCE Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar completed his siege and conquest of Jerusalem, laying waste the town, destroying the temple, and taking captive the educated elite of the nation.
Not just a city, but a culture and a people lay in ruins. People do not know how they will survive in the face of the loss, not just of property and life, but of meaning and purpose and, in a very real way, history itself.
You may recall that the “book” of Lamentations is actually a series of five carefully constructed poems. Each of the chapters in our English Bibles contains one of the five poems of Lamentations. Like Lamentations 1, chapter 2 is an acrostic poem – that is to say, it follows a pattern based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The first letter of verse one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – aleph. The first letter of verse two is the second letter: beth. Likewise, the first letter of verse three is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet: gimel.
If you were here last week you’ll recall that Lamentations 1 was divided into two parts. It began with a description of Jerusalem as a woman – a “fallen” woman, if you will – someone who was vulnerable but whose underpinnings had been pulled out from beneath her. She has been violated by, or at least abandoned by those who should have who promised to protect and comfort her. About halfway through the chapter, though, the voice of the poem changes from being adescriptionof suffering to being a personal narrationof suffering. Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to notice the condition of the city – not because anyone expected God to fix it, but rather so that God will not forget to punish anyone else who may have been guilty of the same things that Jerusalem did. It’s kind of like when you punish one child, and while that child does not deny the wrongdoing, the child is eager for you to mete out the same punishment to the other kids.
Let us now turn our attention to the poem in chapter 2. Listen first to the Word as found in verses 1 – 10:
1 Oh, no!
In anger, my Lord put Daughter Zion under a cloud;
he threw Israel’s glory from heaven down to earth.
On that day of wrath, he didn’t consider his own footstool.
2 Showing no compassion, my Lord devoured each of Jacob’s meadows;
in his wrath he tore down the walled cities of Daughter Judah.
The kingdom and its officials, he forced to the ground, shamed.
3 In his burning rage, he cut off each of Israel’s horns;
right in front of the enemy, he withdrew his strong hand;
he burned against Jacob like a flaming fire that ate up everything nearby.
4 He bent his bow as an enemy would; his strong hand was poised like an adversary.
He killed every precious thing in sight;
he poured out his wrath like fire on Daughter Zion’s tent.
5 My Lord has become like an enemy. He devoured Israel;
he devoured all her palaces; he made ruins of her city walls.
In Daughter Judah he multiplied mourning along with more mourning!
6 He wrecked his own booth like a garden; he destroyed his place for festivals.
The Lord made Zion forget both festival and sabbath;
in his fierce rage, he scorned both monarch and priest.
7 My Lord rejected his altar, he abandoned his sanctuary;
he handed Zion’s palace walls over to enemies.
They shouted in the Lord’s own house as if it were a festival day.
8 The Lord planned to destroy Daughter Zion’s wall.
He stretched out a measuring line, didn’t stop himself from devouring.
He made barricades and walls wither—together they wasted away.
9 Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;
her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction!
Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.
10 Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.
They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.
Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.
In some ways, the narration here sounds like the beginning of chapter 1. There is an observation provided by an omniscient narrator – someone is describing what has happened. But note that the tone of this poem is much darker, and much more explicit than the previous work. In chapter 1, there is the suggestion that although Jerusalem has suffered at the hands of her enemies, fundamental cause for the suffering of God’s people is actually the Lord – God’s very own self.
Here in chapter 2, there is no mere suggestion of that. It is an outright statement of fact: The Lord has thrown down, devoured, torn down, cut off, burned, killed… and most personally, perhaps, consider verse 7: the Lord has rejected his own altar; he has abandoned the sanctuary, he has handed over the walls of the palace to the adversary. There is no defense made for God’s behavior here – in fact, there is only a description. “This is what happened” (chapter 1); “God did this” (chapter 2). The hearers are not aware of any reason as to why Jerusalem would be receiving this kind of treatment from the Divine hand.
Another similarity to chapter 1 is that the voice changes in the middle of this poem, too. Just like in the previous chapter, the poem shifts dramatically in the middle. The pronouns shift, and we once again find ourselves hearing first-person testimony. Listen:
11 My eyes are worn out from weeping; my stomach is churning.
My insides are poured on the ground because the daughter of my people is shattered, because children and babies are fainting in the city streets.
12 They say to their mothers, “Where are grain and wine?”
while fainting like the wounded in the city streets,
while their lives are draining away at their own mothers’ breasts.
13 What can I testify about you, Daughter Jerusalem? To what could I compare you?
With what could I equate you? How can I comfort you, young woman Daughter Zion? Your hurt is as vast as the sea. Who can heal you?
In chapter 1, the poet chose the voice of the first person so that we could hear the suffering from the experience of the one who has suffered. Here, however, the first person continues to speak of suffering as though it is happening to someone else. It’s still horrible – but this is not a complaint – it’s a statement about what is being observed.
As I read these verses, and I saw the incredulity in them, I was reminded of the radio news on May 6, 1937 when a WLS broadcaster named Herb Morrison was narrating the momentous arrival of the pride of the German Airfleet, the Hindenburg, to a mooring station in New Jersey. Just as the blimp arrives, there is a deadly accident and the newsman is overcome. I’d like to invite you to watch this short clip, but remember that there was no television news at that time – this is Morrison’s audio matched to a film that was taken on the same day.
Did you hear that? He is a person, narrating what he sees – and he is overcome by it. In a sense, it’s not happening to him – but consider that phrase that has become a part of our culture: “Oh, the humanity!” He says “I have to stop now – I cannot speak…” He cannot believe his own eyes, and yet he is compelled to describe it.
That is the tone, I believe, of the middle part of chapter 2. Someone is walking the reader through an experience for which one does not, and should not, have words. It is horrible. It is the worst.
But still, there is no clue as to why this is happening. That comes to us in the next few verses. Listen:
14 Your prophets gave you worthless and empty visions.
They didn’t reveal your sin so as to prevent your captivity.
Instead, they showed you worthless and incorrect prophecies.
15 All who pass by on the road clap their hands about you;
they whistle, shaking their heads at Daughter Jerusalem:
“Could this be the city called Perfect Beauty, the Joy of All the Earth?”
16 All your enemies open wide their mouths against you;
they whistle, grinding their teeth. They say, “We have devoured!
This is definitely the day we’ve been waiting for. We’ve seen it come to pass.”
17 The Lord did what he had planned. He accomplished the word
that he had commanded long ago. He ripped down, showing no compassion.
He made the enemy rejoice over you; he raised up your adversaries’ horn.
Do you see? The reason for this punishment, according to the theology of Lamentations 2, is that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were paying attention to the wrong things. They listened to the false prophets, and in so doing refused to address – they were unable to address – their real brokenness. God, in God’s wisdom, gave the people brokenness – God gave them what they asked for.
Here is something I have wondered in recent days: why is so much of America fascinated with, and incredibly resentful of, people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlan? I mean, these two celebrities only want what literally everyone else on the planet wants: they want life for their kids to go well. They want the best for their kids. Yeah, they bribed college admissions officers to let their kids in, but hey – they just want these young people to be happy, right? Doesn’t everyone?
And you say, “Sure, Dave – we all want our kids to be happy. But for crying out loud, they broke the rules. They sought an unfair advantage for their children. They chose the wrong narrative for their families, Dave. They listened to false prophets.”
Maybe. But let me push back on that a little bit. And be aware, friends – I’m talking to me, not just you. When people in the United States choose to buy their own homes, what is one of the key factors in that decision: the school district. If you want your kids to do well, you scrimp and you save and you get yourself a place out in Robinson, or even better, Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair. Sure, homes cost a little more there, but that means that the tax base is deeper and that means that the income stream for the schools is more reliable and that means that in addition to better academics, your child will have access to enhanced opportunities like music, athletics, theater and other extra-curriculars. People who canget out to a great school district for their kids do. But what about the rest of the folks? The poor? The renters? By and large, the story in every state in the USA is the same: the folks in the city are stuck with failing public schools and in spite of the fact that they are paying property taxes in one way or another, their best options are often some sort of parochial or charter schools.
This is what I mean: right now, half of America is losing their minds because a few wealthy parents are apparently circumventing the rules of our existing social contract. “Shame, shame, shame!” we cry.
Yet not many of these same people are outraged by a system that fails most of the parents and most of the students most of the time.
What I’m suggesting is that it is not just ancient Jews who have listened to false prophets. We have had truth-tellers who have brought messages to us about racial reconciliation, or the environment, or the public good and politics – but we’ve disliked and therefore disregarded their messages. We’ve chosen – dare I say it – we have chosen “fake news” – because it just helps us sleep better with the people that we’ve become.
Well sooner or later, the dam will burst and all hell will break loose. What do we do when that happens?
Lamentations 2 ends with the first real imperative of either poem. An imperative is an “action” word – a command. Listen:
18 Cry out to my Lord from the heart, you wall of Daughter Zion;
make your tears run down like a flood all day and night.
Don’t relax at all; don’t rest your eyes a moment.
19 Get up and cry out at nighttime, at the start of the night shift; pour out your heart before my Lord like water.
Lift your hands up to him for the life of your children—
the ones who are fainting from hunger on every street corner.
When your world falls apart – cry out! Make your tears run! Get up and cry out! Lift your hands up to him…
In other words – the author of this poem is instructing those of us who have listened to false prophets for too long to, well, engage in a period of lamentation. To utter to God that which is broken. And then the poem concludes with a strategy for that Lamentation:
20 Lord, look and see to whom you have done this!
Should women eat their own offspring, their own beautiful babies?
Should priest and prophet be killed in my Lord’s own sanctuary?
21 Young and old alike lie on the ground in the streets;
my young women and young men fall dead by the sword.
On the day of your anger, you killed; you slaughtered, showing no compassion.
22 You invited—as if to a festival!—terrors from every side.
On the day of the Lord’s anger, no one escaped, not one survived.
The children that I nurtured, that I raised myself, my enemy finished them off.
In modeling lament as a spiritual practice, the poet here implores God’s people to confront God with God’s own behavior, and to ask God to act in a way that is consisted with God’s nature. Don’t pretend that this evil does not exist – rather, turn to God and name it and invite God to bring about a reality that is consistent with his purposes.
This is a hard word for us, because we would rather hear the false prophets – the cheerful news. We love having the ability to change the channel! But when the terror strikes, this Lenten season, my friends, let me encourage you to dwell with the things that are hard for a moment or two longer. And question the things that you hear – the prophecies that “everybody knows” to be true.
Look for the place in your life and in our world that seem to be out of whack with God’s intentions, and lay them before the Lord in a time of lament. Lift up that which some might hesitate to speak, and in so doing, make your lament a prayer.
We mentioned last week that there is not a lot of overt “good news” in the book of Lamentations. This chapter ends with a woman holding her dead children, saying “God did this.” But I want to remind you that Lamentations did not spring up from nowhere – it was crafted by a community who had lived through the worst and survived. They learned in the midst of that survival the strategy of lament – of coming before God and saying, “I know that we have not gotten this right!”
The fact that a community survived – that a community was left to give voice to a communal lament – is in itself good news. That is the thing to which we may cling this evening.
In the name of the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Amen.