After chaos has wreaked havoc on our lives—when rubble and destruction are all we have left—we can find refuge in poetry.
Two weeks ago, I was asked to lecture on the book of Lamentations in one of Duke Divinity School’s introductory courses. At first, I confess I was unenthused by the idea of teaching this unfamiliar book to a class of about ninety students. To be perfectly honest, I had made a habit of skipping over Lamentations in my own academic work, and many other scholars have done the same. A quick search through the library stacks quickly reveals the relative dearth of resources on Lamentations vis-à-vis other books in the Hebrew Bible. The more I lingered over the book’s message, however, the more I was captivated by the profound implications the text has for us today. While this text is shared by both Jews and Christians, I would like to briefly address the latter group since that is my own religious tradition.
For those who are less familiar with the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations vividly recounts the aftermath of Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BCE—the most traumatic event in ancient Israel’s history. With brutal and merciless force, Nebuchadnezzar II (ca. 642 BCE – 562 BCE) and his Neo-Babylonian entourage razed Jerusalem and YHWH’s temple to the ground. The destruction of the temple signaled YHWH’s departure from the Israelite people and the collapse of the priestly religious system. Physical suffering was accompanied by spiritual confusion and disarray.
This lesser-known book comprises five poems, and all except the last are written in acrostic form. Some scholars have interpreted the acrostic form as the Poet’s attempt to “[encapsulate] the enormity or totality of the destruction”—or, put differently, to catalog the “A to Z” of suffering (see Hebrew Bible scholar Adele Berlin’s article here). Alternatively, or additionally, the acrostic form may be an attempt to give structure to the chaos of Israel’s collective trauma. Yet by the end of the book, the acrostic breaks down, perhaps signaling that the Poet’s attempt to order chaos has failed. The final verse of the book ends on a somber note, and despite the reader’s desire for closure, there is no certainty hope will return. The jarring ending of Lamentations has been eloquently described by biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor:
"The text expresses the community’s doubt about God’s care and about God’s character. It utters the unthinkable—that God has utterly and permanently rejected them, cast them off in unrelenting anger. The verse is fearsome, a nightmare of abandonment, like a child’s terror that the only ones who can protect her and give her a home have rejected her forever. Such is the ending of this book, and I think it is wonderful.…It is wonderful because it is truthful, because it does not force hope prematurely, because it expresses what many in worlds of trauma and destruction know to be true. Its very unsettledness enables the book to be a house for sorrow, neither denied nor overcome with sentimental wishes, theological escapism, or premature closure. Although Lamentations does not tell the whole story and does not contain all there is to say about God’s relationship to the world, it does tell truth about the human experience of suffering." (O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World, 79).
Lamentations forces the reader to dwell in and wrestle with its uncertainty about Israel’s future. We want closure but we are robbed of it—instead, we must share the Poet’s apprehension. The curtain falls, the room goes dark, and we must wait to see whether this is the end or if there is more to the story. There are no easy answers in Lamentations, only raw emotion.
Why does any of this matter for us today, especially for Christians who all too often ignore the Old Testament? Lamentations is uncensored poetry about death and destruction. Our contemporary Christian ethos finds this text inconvenient, if not offensive—we would rather focus on the positive and uplifting. We look suspiciously at those who find themselves struggling to keep their head above water, as if their faith is deficient in some way. But how quickly we forgot about Lamentations. There, we see the Poet bemoan the destruction of all he once loved. The city of Jerusalem has been razed to the ground, soldiers are strewn across the streets, and the stench of death permeates the city squares where people once rejoiced with jubilant dancing. As flames ascend to the sky, all the Poet can do is take a pen and begin to write. He ends with no certainty about YHWH ever visiting His people again: “Renew our days as of old, unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure” (Lam 5:21b–22). The book ends on a cliff hanger. A question mark. Sometimes, life is uncertain, unsettling, and unresolved.
Perhaps like most people you grew up being told that we should not discuss certain topics at the table. For contemporary Christians in the modern West, suffering is an unbecoming conversation to have at our ecclesial gatherings. It is a sign of weakness, or worse, of distrust. Yet I call this to mind: When Christ gathered His disciples together around the table on that final evening before His passion, there was only one thing He wanted to discuss with them: “This is My body…broken for you.”
Christ’s refusal to circumvent the question of suffering allows us to suffer well. Perhaps since Christ took on the pain of this present age and the Spirit has told us that only through many sufferings can we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22), we can repeat the same phrase back to Him: “Lord, this is my body…broken for You.”
Matthew Arakaky is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program of Religion at Duke University, where he studies the religion and literature of the Hebrew Bible. He previously studied at the University of Virginia, Princeton Seminary, the University of Chicago and the Johns Hopkins University.
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