By Mary Coin
If you have ever sung the old hymn ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ you have uttered words from an ancient book of mourning called Lamentations. Several years ago I read the whole book in one sitting. Its content is grim but its poetry and imagery are brilliant. Subsequently I did some research about Lamentations and this is what I found:
- It is widely accepted that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. While the book of Jeremiah offers the facts about the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 and the exile of her dwellers, Lamentations delivers the emotions.
- The Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations is ‘ekah’ which means ‘How!’ a typical expression of lament. This word begins chapters 1,2 and 4.
- Lamentations is still read out each week by Jewish people at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
- It is also read by Orthodox Jews on the 9th day of Ab (mid-July) when they mourn the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 as well as the destruction of Herod’s Temple in AD 70.
- Lamentations is an acrostic poem divided into 7 parts each containing 22 verses. The number 7 symbolises wholeness/completion. 22 is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse begins with a Hebrew letter in alphabetical order. Sadly this is lost on anyone reading it in English.
Lamentations could be regarded as rather depressing, however it accurately describes the horror of those times. We only need to consider current global events to know that similar horror continues to occur. Unlike our discouraging news bulletins, the book of Lamentations contains a clear beacon of light in the centre of its pages. In Lamentations 3:21-26 we find remarkable words of hope:
“Yet I call this to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
Knowing what we do about Jerusalem from Jeremiah’s account, we have to assume these words were not directed at innocent victims of circumstance (although they too may have found comfort). These were words for a people weathering the grim consequences of their rebellion against God.
In Lamentations 3:39-42, confession and repentance are outlined as the right responses to the suffering that follows rebelliousness. Through Lamentations a progression of themes is evident, moving from sin to suffering to sorrow to repentance to prayer to hope to faith, and finally, to restoration. This is the path of the prodigal. This is the way home.Lamentations ends with a plea to God for restoration. Echoes of this prayer are found in Psalm 80:3 and in Jeremiah 31:18: ‘Restore us, O Lord’.
Lamentations demonstrates that suffering is not the centre of human experience. Just as God’s hope is found at the centre of Lamentations, he can be found at the centre of every situation, no matter how bleak. God is loving, faithful, generous, good and compassionate. In a derailed world, God offers hope to each of us: ‘to the one who seeks him’. Rebels and victims alike can find him in the midst of grief and despair.