Why Should a Man Complain?

Syntax, Poetry, and Meaning in Lamentations 3:40–66

April 27, 2015Filed under theology#m. div.#papers#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Heath A. Thomas's Hebrew Syntax and Exegesis class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Author’s Translation

Nun נ

  1. Let us search out our ways and examine them thoroughly and let us return to Yahweh.
  2. Let us lift our hearts with our hands to God in heaven.
  3. “We have transgressed and rebelled—you have not forgiven!

Samech ס

  1. “You have shrouded yourself with anger, and you have pursued us; you have slain; you have not spared!
  2. “You have shrouded yourself in a cloud so no prayer can pass through.
  3. “You have made us refuse and waste in the midst of the peoples.

Pe פ

  1. “They have opened their mouths against us—all who are our enemies.
  2. “Dread and death have come to us—devastation and ruination.”
  3. Channels of water run down from my eyes because of the ruination of the daughter of my people.

Ayin ע

  1. My eyes flow and do not cease; my eyes without respite,
  2. Until he looks down and sees: Yahweh from heaven.
  3. My eyes grieve my soul—from the state of all the daughters of my city.

Tsade צ

  1. Surely they hunted me like a bird—those who hated me for no reason.
  2. They put an end to my life—in the pit!—and they cast stones at me.
  3. Waters flowed over my head; I said, “I am destroyed.”

Qof ק

  1. I cried out your name, oh Yahweh, from the deepest pit.
  2. My voice you heard; you did not cover your ears to my relief—to my cry for help.
  3. You came on the day I cried out to you; you said, “Do not be afraid!”

Resh ר

  1. You strove, Lord—strove even for my soul; you redeemed my life.
  2. You see, oh Yahweh, the injustice done to me; judge my case!
  3. You saw all their vengeance, all their conniving against me.

Sin/Shin ש

  1. You heard their reproach, oh Yahweh, all their conniving against me:
  2. The speech of those who rise against me, and their plots against me every day.
  3. Look at their sitting down and their rising up: I am their mockery-song.

Tav ת

  1. Bring back against them their due, oh Yahweh, according to the work of their hands.
  2. Give them obstinate hearts; your curse be against them.
  3. You pursue in anger, and you destroy them from beneath Yahweh’s heavens.

Introduction

This essay will demonstrate that the concluding section of Lamentations 3, running from v. 40 to v. 66, constitutes an open-ended, multivocal answer to the question posed in Lamentations 3:39: “Why should a person complain, / a living man concerning his sins?” The poet did not believe Yahweh demanded silence of his people, even in the face of his judgment. Rather, his people were to trust him deeply enough to call out to him, even when all evidence suggested he would not answer. The point will be demonstrated by a close analysis of the structure, verbs, and poetic devices employed throughout the text.

Outline

  1. We repent but God has not forgiven us (40–51)
    1. Let us repent! (40–42a)
    2. God is still hidden (42b–44)
    3. We are devastated by our enemies (45–47)
    4. Sight and salvation (48–51)
  2. Deliver Me From My Enemies! (52–66)
    1. My enemies! Despair and pleading (52–55)
    2. Yahweh hears/May Yahweh hear (56–58)
    3. May Yahweh judge the enemies (59–66)

Authorship

Lamentations has traditionally been attributed to Jeremiah, but the poems themselves make no claim to authorship whatsoever.1 Jeremianic authorship is possible, and a few commentators continue to argue for it as a reasonable assumption.2 However, while there are commonalities in style and vocabulary between the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations,3 and no outright contradictions between the two books,4 there are also significant differences between them. Jeremiah predicted the destruction of the city and the temple while the author of Lamentations seems surprised by it, and Jeremiah strongly emphasizes the sins of the people while the author of Lamentations hardly mentions them.5 These differences in perspective might be the result of the prophet’s experience of the fall of Jerusalem as opposed to merely the anticipation thereof, but more likely whoever composed the book “was familiar with the book of Jeremiah, but had his own vocabulary to express grief over the fall of Jerusalem.”6

Some commentators argue not only against Jeremianic authorship but for multiple authorship.7 Such a reading is hardly required, however. The suggestion that variation in perspective or even poetic style can only be explained by multiple authorship badly underestimates the range of human artistry.8 Poetic voice is not the same as authorial voice;9 the multiple voices which appear throughout the book are “poetic vehicles through which the poet speaks throughout”10 rather than multiple authors arguing for differing theologies. Even if Lamentations is the product of multiple poets, the poems ultimately represent continuity of thought and theology, both individually and collectively.11 Together, they present a multivocal but coherent expression of grief in the face of horrific tragedy.

Context

Geographical and Cultural

Lamentations was composed in response to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the deportation of Judean leadership in 595–587 B.C. However, it is not clear how long after the fall of Jerusalem the poems were composed, nor whether they were composed simultaneously or with some gaps between them. The book was probably composed prior to the rebuilding of the temple in 515 B.C., since the text includes no hint of such a hopeful turn of events,12 but the author’s imaginative and lyrical skill count for more than his proximity to the events he describes.13 In any case, the date of composition is largely irrelevant to the interpretation of the text.14

Like the rest of the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations adopts from but freely adapts genres from the surrounding cultures. Accordingly, it includes elements of Ancient Near East city laments, communal laments, and communal dirges.15 Records of city laments in the greater Mesopotamian region date to the beginning of the second millennium B.C., and the author of Lamentations joined various prophetic writers in the Old Testament in repurposing the form for his theological purposes.16 Whereas most city-laments appear to have been created for rededications of temples and thus include the imagery of a god’s return to the temple, Yahweh is conspicuously absent and his temple in ruins throughout Lamentations.17 Moreover, the theology of Lamentations differs significantly from the city-laments. Though the poet gives full voice to doubt and anger towards Yahweh throughout the book, he ultimately places moral responsibility not on Yahweh but on the sinning people of Jerusalem, very much unlike the anti-theodic bent of other city laments.18 The text mingles “penitence and protest, confession and lament.”19

Literary

The book consists of five poems, each sharing the same basic acrostic structure. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 each have twenty-two multi-line verses, each beginning with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.20 Chapter 3 changes the pattern, devoting three single-line verses to each letter. Finally, chapter 5 consists of another twenty-two verses of poetry, but does not include the acrostic lettering scheme. The acrostics draw the reader forward through the text21 and express a sense of completion at their conclusion: grief has been fully sounded and emotional and theological catharsis experienced.22 The poet imposes order on a world in chaos by choosing to “express the inexpressible… [in poems] whose controlling structural device is the very letters that signify and give shape to language.”23 Moreover, the repetition of letters, as of words and ideas throughout the poem, “introduces the indispensable element of time: reflection and re-reflection on the meaning of the aesthetic message.”24 At the same time, the frequent use of enjambment both works with the acrostic to propel the reader forward through the text25 and undermines the poetry’s regularity, allowing the poet to control the pace of the poem “without relying on emplottment [sic] or even strong characterization.”26 These large-scale poetic devices together shape not only the structure but also the message of the poetry: lines give different senses when read alone than when read in their acrostic strophe, and different again when read in the full sequence.27 They ultimately “draw the reader into a variety of responses… [not] one particular response.”28

Lamentations 3 is the theological and poetic center of the book.29 Although some modern commentators hesitate to affirm the centrality of the chapter because of a tendency to downplay the lament elsewhere in the book,30 there are good reasons to take this view. Structurally, the center is often important to Hebrew poetry, and while that importance can be overstated, the placement of the poem here should not be ignored—especially when its poetry and content differ from the others in such a notable way.31 The increased repetition heightens the effect and draws attention to the content of the poetry.32 The shorter lines are visually and aurally arresting. The chapter includes theodic content and, at times, a hopeful tone—kinds of content absent in the rest of the poems. It is also the only poem in which words are attributed to Yahweh.33 The literary and theological emphasis the poet placed on this chapter is not a reason to ignore the message of the other chapters, but neither should it be ignored in interpreting them.

The chapter has three major sections, though commentators divide them in slightly different ways; the exegesis below analysis assumes the following division. In the first section (vv. 1–18), “the man who has seen affliction” (3:1) laments his individual suffering at God’s hands. The second section (vv. 19–39) emphasizes Yahweh’s covenant love, trustworthy character, and hatred of injustice; it is the most hopeful and theodic passage in the book. In the third section (vv. 40–66), the speaker responds to the theodic ideas outlined in the second with a complex mix of complaint, lament, hope, and imprecation. This concluding turn has led some commentators to suggest the speaker ultimately could not believe the ethical/theodic message,34 or that he was angrily determined to “speak in the face of Yahweh’s silence;”35 it has led others to suggest competing authors (see above). But “[the] speaker is not schizophrenic.”36 The same person may simultaneously recognize his own sinful responsibility, trust God, and yet remain long for deliverance from and be troubled by his suffering.37 Though all of these themes appear scattered throughout the book, Lamentations 3 alone draws them together in a single poem.

The final section begins in v. 40. Although there are later topical and vocal shifts (especially in v. 42; see below), none are as strong as the one leading the נ-strophe, which is doubly marked. The speaker shifts from general statements about Yahweh to exhortation of the listening community precisely at the transition from the מ-strophe to the נ-strophe. Indeed, given the enjambment across strophe boundaries typical of the final section of the poem,38 the alignment here clearly indicates a major transition in the poem.

Exegesis

We Repent but God Has Not Forgiven Us (40–51)

The speaker has finished his discourse on who Yahweh is and how he acts; now it is time to respond. In light of the preceding declaration of Yahweh’s covenant love and justice, and its “emphasis on confession and penitence”39 the speaker urges his people to turn and repent. He turns almost immediately to a lengthy lament, however: God has not forgiven. Indeed, the divine warrior has struck down his own people.40 Things seems hopeless.

Let us repent! (40–42a)

If Yahweh’s covenant love may be trusted and he judges rightly, and if his people have sinned, they ought to repent. The speaker employs the language of (especially Jeremianic) prophetic exhortation, calling the people to search out and examine their ways and return to Yahweh.41 Unlike in Jeremiah, though, the speaker includes himself in the call to repentance. The opening verbs of the section are not imperatives but cohortatives (נַחְפְּשָׂ֤ה, נַחְקֹ֔רָה, נָשׁ֖וּבָה). The speaker thus affirms that his and his people’s sin has led to their current condition; they must repent. The imperfect that follows (נִשָּׂ֤א) picks up the force of the preceding cohortatives and continues the exhortation. The language of “hearts with hands” reminds the reader that the repentance required is an act of the whole person: neither merely internal nor merely external.42 The reference to “God in heaven” does double duty: it marks his authority to forgive, but it also suggests his absence from Zion.

God is still hidden (42b–44)

In the following verses, the author begins by confessing sin, then addresses Yahweh, who has not forgiven his people, and who has instead opposed them and hidden himself from their prayers. Israel’s divine warrior-God has now become her enemy.43 The God whose presence with his people was so often manifest as a cloud44 has now removed his presence from them with a cloud.45 The people may confess, but unless Yahweh hears their prayers and answers them, they will remain destitute and hopeless.46 In light of the speaker’s confession and the hope expressed in the preceding major section, that Yahweh has not forgiven comes as a surprise, and one intensified dramatically by the poetry.

In fact, the poetry here is enjambed twice, making it one of the more prominent of the many instances of the poetic device throughout this section of the poem.47 First, the poet introduces the address to Yahweh at the end of the נ-strophe instead of at beginning of the ס-strophe. Second, the poet splits the line itself. The first verset continues the thought of the preceding two lines: the people’s repentance before God, in the form of confession: “we have transgressed and rebelled.” The second verset indicates God’s response: “—you have not forgiven!” There is no transition, not even a disjunctive-ו to mark the shift—just a terse pair of statements. Indeed, the effect is so jarring, especially as it leads into the next strophe, that it is tempting to read the entire rest of the poem as accusation against and anger against God.48 Understandable as this reading is—especially as a backlash against the inappropriate suppression of lament among Christians—it is mistaken, as will become clear.49 The speaker does complain here and in what follows, but that is not all he does.

Because of the tonal shift between v. 42a and v. 42b, it is possible to read this as the break between the second and third major sections of the book. As noted above, the major discourse boundary is between vv. 39 and 40 instead, where the speaker transitions from exposition to response. There is a segue here, as the speaker turns his attention from his community to Yahweh, and begins a speech section that runs through v. 47, but this transition is within rather than between sections—from one kind of response to another.

We are devastated by our enemies (45–47)

Once again, the poet employs enjambment to drive the reader into the speaker’s experience of suffering. The transition between the ס- and פ-strophes occurs in v. 46, but already in v. 45 the speaker returns to a theme expressed in the beginning of the chapter as well as in the preceding poems: enemies attacking the people of God. Not only is Yahweh absent from Zion, but he has made her like refuse and waste50 in the midst of the peoples. The tribes he had chosen to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:3; 18:17–19) and set apart as a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6; Deut. 17:18) were defilement—things to be thrown out of the camp (cf. Exod. 29:14). Moreover, rather than delivering from enemies, God has brought them against his people.51 They have “opened their mouths” against God’s people, an image used in the Wisdom literature both of speaking against someone and of devouring them (Job 29:23; Ps. 5:9; 22:13; 35:21). The climax of the quotation comes in verse 47, a chiasm on two pairs of words which rhyme almost completely.52 “Dread and death, devastation and ruination”—this is what Yahweh has accomplished in bringing these enemies against his people.

This judgment may not have been unexpected—everything that happened to Jerusalem was expressly the result of a covenant curse—but the circumstances were no less horrific for that. That the judgment was deserved did not lessen the urgency of the speaker’s cry for relief.53 The speaker’s complaint raises the poem’s tension by pitting this lament against the theodic material which precedes it.54 The speaker may not be shaking his fist at the heavens, but he is certainly complaining loudly and questioning insistently. If Yahweh is loving, faithful, and just, is this judgment not too harsh? At this point, the ethical vision expressed in vv. 19–39 seems lost. Indeed, Miriam Bier and F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp both suggest that the poet wants to embrace the ethical vision, but that this and the section following demonstrate his inability to do so.55 Were this the final note of the poem, this analysis would be basically correct. It is not, but things get worse before they get better.

Sight and salvation (48–51)

The speaker echoes the end of v. 47 at the end of v. 48, tying the two together, but shifts in person (from “we” to “I”).56 The identity of the speaker shifts slightly as a result: he spoke first for himself alone, then exhorted his community, and now stands in solidarity with the community of Zion.57 The poet connects these verses, from the last line of the פ-strophe through the whole ע-strophe, with the idea of eyes and sight. The poet’s eyes pour out channels of water and flow without ceasing or respite, until Yahweh looks and sees. The poet and his people desperately need Yahweh’s deliverance—and Yahweh remains enthroned in heaven. The poet carefully reiterates the idea suggested in the נ-strophe, delaying the subject of v. 50 to the second half of the line to match the structure of v. 41. The inclusio emphasizes both Yahweh’s sovereignty and his distance from his people.

Until Yahweh sees—until he stops shrouding himself from his people’s prayers and hears their cries as he did in Exodus 1—the poet’s eyes continue to torment him because of the sad state of the women of the city (v. 51). The final line is curiously expressive: the speaker’s eyes are harsh to his soul—a phrase that has been taken to mean that his eyes literally ache from his crying and that the things he sees torment him.58 In fact, the terse language suggests both: in the immediate context, the speaker’s weeping wears him out; more broadly, soul-distressing suffering is nearly omnipresent in these poems. Although he clearly hopes for change, he is no longer addressing Yahweh as of v. 48. He simply states how things are and will remain until God acts: these horrors demand grief. And perhaps Yahweh will hear these tears, even if he seems to have heard nothing else (though nothing in the context or language here suggests these tears are meant to manipulate God into responding).59 The section closes without any such response, though; all hope seems lost.

Deliver me from my enemies! (52–66)

The concluding section is like an individual psalm of lament.60 It continues the shift begun in v. 19. The chapter (as well as the book) opens with the image of God as a divine warrior fighting against his people, but it concludes with a plea for God to act in line with his character.61 The speaker hopes that Yahweh will restore his people to covenant unity with him and defend them from their enemies, but refuses to collapse the tension between hope and lament that characterizes the whole poem.

Excursus: Verb Tense and Meaning in Poetry

The verb tense throughout the final section of the poem is a subject of much debate. Commentators differ especially on how to take the mix of perfects and imperfects in vv. 56–58, but significant differences appear beginning as early as v. 52. Some take the verbs to be a mix of past statement and present need or imperative,62 but this does not account for the ongoing nature of the speaker’s distress (as indicated by the imperatives in the following section).63 Others read both the perfects and imperfects as a series of present-tense declarations of faith.64 This view rightly captures the sense of present distress, but does not account for the perfect-imperfect alternation and has no basis for distinguishing between these “present-tense” perfects and the ordinary past-tense perfects that precede them. Thus, some suggest that the perfects carry a precative sense, with the imperfects then naturally reading as more imperatives.65 In addition to being an unusual and debated syntactical stance, however, this also fails to answer why the poet did not use simple imperatives (as in vv. 59, 63). Even if these verbs simply represent the poet shifting to the perfect-imperfect alternation common to poetry,66 this is the only place in the entire final section of the poem where the pattern appears. At the least, it marks the sequence by distinction with the surrounding verses. Thus, none of the proposals satisfactorily account for all the features of the text, though perfect-as-precative is not unreasonable.

It is possible, of course, that this ambiguity is a function only of modern scholars’ relative ignorance of the language—that native speakers readily took in the meaning of the poetry when Lamentations was written. It is equally plausible, however, that the poet intended the meaning to remain elusive. This is one of the functions of poetry: to push the boundaries of what language can express and thereby convey feeling and sense beyond the merely literal. The poet in Lamentations employs a wide array of tools to this end in this final section of the poem, including structure (the acrostic), enjambment, rhythm, rhyme and assonance, ellipsis, and allusion. Perhaps the poet wanted audience to wonder: has Yahweh delivered already, spoken already, judged the enemies already—or is the speaker still waiting for Yahweh to hear his prayers? In the world of faith, the answer may be both: the believer may be fully confident that Yahweh’s answer is assured, and still feel no less keenly the fact that experience does not yet bear out that answer. The text is open; it not only allows for but actively invites both readings.67 “[Both] past and future signify the ongoing present. The suffering in Lamentations is timeless, and the expression of timelessness seems to have been one of the poet’s goals.”68

My enemies! Despair and pleading (52–55)

The צ-strophe opens with a stereotyped image of the beleaguered servant of God: the person hunted like a bird (cf. Prov. 6:5; Pss. 11:1, 124:7, 140:5) by those who hated him for no reason (cf. 1 Sam. 19:15, 25:31; Ps. 35:7, 69:5). The strophe continues with a description of the enemies’ depredations. The circuitous language (literally, they put an end to his life, with the action occurring in a pit) conveys the idea of people seeking to end his life by throwing him into a pit and hurling stones at him (cf. Pss. 18:41, 73:27, 94:23).69 The image is not a dry pit like the ones Joseph and Jeremiah were thrown into (Gen. 38:24; Jer. 38:6). Instead, water went up over the speaker’s head (cf. Ps: 69:1–2). Besides being yet more stock lament imagery,70 the water language connects this sequence back to the preceding one, even as the focus has changed. So likewise with the “pit” language, whose implied metaphorical use as a substitute for death or the grave71 is heightened by proximity to v. 47, where it is used precisely that way. The poetry is also enjambed again much as it was at the end of the נ-strophe. The first half of the line in v. 54 continues the complaint theme of the preceding verses, but the latter half begins a recitation of speech to and interaction with Yahweh. The poet carries this theme further as he begins the ק-strophe (v. 55) with the speaker’s having cried out Yahweh’s name from the “deepest pit,” a phrase suggestive of Sheol.72

Nothing about these verses is particularly striking or unusual next to other laments in the Old Testament, and this is in its own way significant. The speaker has made a small but meaningful change in his language and tone: Yahweh is no longer the enemy but instead the one who might deliver from the enemies.73 The turn to traditional, even stereotyped, language of lament and petition signals the speaker’s self-conscious identification with Israel’s history of trusting Yahweh for deliverance. This does not mark the resolution of the trial, but it does undercut the idea that the end of the poem is unrelentingly pessimistic—especially when coupled with the verses that follow.

Yahweh hears/May Yahweh hear (56–58)

The next sequence (continuing the ק-strophe and running into the first line of the ר-strophe) is a striking sequence and is key to understanding the poet’s intent in the final section of the poem. The speaker proclaims Yahweh’s response to his call for help from the edge of death. Per the discussion above, this section is best read as holding together the tensions of past-and-future, actual-and-desired: “you heard my voice” and “hear my voice” (v. 56); “you came on the day I called” and “come on the day I call,” “you said to me” and “say to me” (v. 57); “you strove for my life” and “strive for my life” (v. 58). This is the climax of the final section, the place where the poet’s pleas climax and, more significantly, the only place in the entire book where Yahweh speaks. The words the poet attributes to Yahweh are simple—אַל־תִּירָֽא, “do not fear”—but pack depths into their brief syllables. For the canonically attentive reader, these words immediately call to mind all the places Yahweh tells his people not to fear, and where he inevitably promised his presence and his aid to his people against their enemies.74 Yet the poet elides the second part.

It is impossible to take the poet’s intended sense without paying attention to “the way in which the sequence as a whole coheres and interacts, and even to how the poet articulates theological interests.”75 This allusion grounds the final segment of the poem in a measure of hope. At the same time, by leaving the promise of Yahweh’s presence merely an allusion, rather than stating it straight out, the poet carefully sustains the tension between already and not-yet that drives the conclusion of the poem. Turn the phrases one way, and the speaker is pleading for God to comfort his people by making his presence known; turn them the other and the speaker is proclaiming that this is precisely what God has already done. Both perspectives affirm the community’s need for deliverance and for Yahweh’s presence to return; but the poetry hangs between the two, unresolved. The poet has left both readings possible, perhaps even necessary. Complaint remains,76 yet Israel’s hope that Yahweh was and would be with them remains, too.77

May Yahweh judge the enemies (59–66)

The poem concludes with the resumption of the speaker’s complaint about the enemies, followed by an imprecatory prayer against them; both the complaint and the imprecation echo the imprecatory psalms.78 The only two imperatives proper in vv. 40–66 appear here: the speaker pleads with God to judge his case (v. 59) and to observe his enemies’ actions (v. 63). In the complaint, which takes up the final line of the ר-strophe and the entire ש-strophe, he lists out his enemies’ offenses. They sought (unwarranted) vengeance on, connived against, reproached, rose up against, slandered, plotted against, and made a mockery of him (cf. 14:16–17, 23:7).79 The lines are terse and elliptical, with verbs few and far between; the result reads like a list of charges in a court case, crying out for a verdict.80

The imprecatory prayer comprises the ת-strophe, where a series of imperfects take up an imperatival force. The only unusual item in the list is the phrase translated “obstinate hearts,” מְגִנַּת, a hapax which appears only here and may be derived from מָגֵן, “shield.” Literally, the speaker asks for Yahweh to give them something like “covering-of-heart”—the idea seems to be hard-heartedness (thus “obstinate”)—so that the enemies will receive the judgment they are due (cf. Exo. 7:3,13).81 These imprecations are not merely selfish requests for personal vengeance. Rather, they are a plea for Yahweh to execute divine justice, in line with his character as speaker described it in the middle section of the poem.82 It is not that the poet thinks that his proclamation of faith resolved everything. Instead, echoing both the Psalms and Jeremiah,83 the speaker implores Yahweh for deliverance, confident that God can help but desperately needing that ability to become action.84

Conclusion

The poem ends on an unresolved note, unlike most of the psalms of imprecation or lament (notable exceptions including Pss. 44, 60).85 But this is appropriate to the poet’s aims. He presents not a cheery resolve to act as though everything is better in light of the ethical and theodic vision presented in vv. 19–39, but rather an attempt to apply that vision when circumstances remain unchanged.86 The result is closure, but not resolution. The acrostic is complete, and the speaker’s grief has been expiated to a degree—but until things are right again, pleading and lament remain. Yahweh may be good and his judgments righteous, but that does not require his people’s silence when he punishes them. To the contrary, it allows them to express their grief and anger in the hope of a merciful and gracious response from their covenant God.

This reading makes sense of the shape of the poem as a whole. Because of the brighter notes sounded in vv. 19–39, a few commentators take this poem as ending positively.87 Others take the final 26 verses as a negative response to the (apparently) rhetorical questions posed in vv. 36–39.88 Neither of these readings does justice to the tension of the poetry. Instead, the poet has played the enjambment card again, at a yet larger level. The final (originally rhetorical) question of the middle section actually received an answer: Why should a man complain about the punishment of his sins? Because even when the judgment was deserved, Yahweh may yet answer, silence the enemy, and draw near to his people. In one sense, he already has; in another, his people are still waiting—and the poet leaves it at that.

Application

In recent decades, scholars have applied Lamentations to everything from Freudian grief models89 to massive national tragedies.90 The Freudian model of grief has some serious deficiencies—but applications of Lamentations 3 in that context do help people both to articulate their grief and to respond to loss.91 Application to national tragedies is even more appropriate. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen horrific loss of life; even in largely untouched America, community has disintegrated over the same period. Thus, “the unrelenting relevance of this poetry cries out to be heard and understood.”92 Reading Lamentations more frequently and deeply will help Western Christians understand the trials of fellow believers enduring persecution for the name of Christ. It will also provide a framework for sympathizing with peoples around the world facing ethnic cleansing or other such horrors.

These realities are painful, but they are realities nonetheless. With some of the Psalms, Lamentations addresses human suffering head-on as few other places in Scripture do, pointing the way to a deep, rich, honest, and trusting response to tragedy. The concluding section of chapter 3 is particularly helpful: God sometimes delays his deliverance; repentance does not always lead immediately to restoration; and the enemies of God’s people go on harassing them far longer than seems right. In those moments, people and their pastors have a model to follow: crying out to God as long as his answer remains already-but-not-yet. Believers ought to spend time reading, meditating on, and praying through these words. Pastors should acquaint themselves with the book deeply so they can minister to their congregants facing trials, and they should preach on it more often to equip their congregations for those trials.

Lamentations 3:40–66 represents an invitation to cry out to God even in the midst of judgment—to believe that he may yet hear. In their hesitation to voice this kind of lament at in the face of life’s travails, many Christians reveal that they do not know their God as well as they ought. “The suffering is, as it were, an affirmation that God is still there and still concerned with the fate of Israel. He may hide his face, but he has not ceased to be Israel’s God.”93 If even God’s judgment on Israel was a painful picture of his faithfulness, how much more when he has shared our griefs, borne our sufferings in his own flesh, and been judged to the point of crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And so he remains open to his people’s cries—for, until suffering ends, lament remains.


Works Cited

  • Bier, Miriam. “‘We have sinned and rebelled; you have not forgiven’: the dialogic interaction between authoritative and internally persuasive discourse in Lamentations 3.” Biblical Interpretation 22, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 146-167. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO_host_ (accessed April 18, 2015).

  • Berlin, Adele. Lamentations: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W. Lamentations. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002.

  • –––. “The effects of enjambment in Lamentations. (part 2).” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 113, no. 3 (January 1, 2001): 370-385. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO_host_ (accessed April 14, 2015).

  • –––. “The enjambing line in Lamentations: a taxonomy. (Part 1).” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 113, no. 2 (January 1, 2001): 219-239. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO_host_ (accessed April 14, 2015).

  • –––. “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology in the Book of Lamentations.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 74 (June 1, 1997): 29-60. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO_host_ (accessed April 14, 2015).

  • Gottwald, Norman K. Studies in the Book of Lamentations. Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1954.

  • Houck-Loomis, Tiffany. “Good God?!? Lamentations as a model for mourning the loss of the good God.” Journal of Religion and Health 51, no. 3 (September 1, 2012): 701-708. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO_host_ (accessed April 18, 2015).

  • House, Paul. “Lamentations.” In Song of Songs / Lamentations. Vol. 23B of Word Biblical Commentary, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and John D. W. Watts. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.

  • Huey, F. B. Jeremiah, Lamentations. Vol. 16 of The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993.

  • Lalleman, Hetty. Jeremiah and Lamentations. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

  • Lee, Nancy C. The Singers of Lamentations: Cities Under Siege, from Ur to Jerusalem to Sarajevo…. Vol. 60 of Biblical Interpretation Series. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

  • Linafelt, Tod. Suriving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

  • Longman, Tremper, III. Jeremiah, Lamentations. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.

  • Provan, Iain. Lamentations. New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991.

  • –––. “Past, present and future in Lamentations 3:52–66 : the case for a precative perfect re-examined.” Vetus Testamentum 41, no. 2 (April 1, 1991): 164–175. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO_host_ (accessed April 26, 2015).

  • Renkema, Johan. Lamentations. Translated by Brian Doyle. Historical Commentary on the Old Testament. Leuven: Peeters, 1998.

  • Thomas, Heath A. Poetry and Theology in the Book of Lamentations: The Aesthetics of an Open Text. Hebrew Bible Monographs, 47. Sheffield: Sheffield Pheonix Press, 2013.


  1. Paul House, “Lamentations,” in Song of Songs / Lamentations, vol. 23B of Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 284; F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), 4; Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 328.

  2. So F. B. Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, vol. 16 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 442–443, who acknowledges no biblical truth is at stake in the affirmation.

  3. House, 286; Hetty Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 320-–321.

  4. Rightly, House, 289.

  5. Adele Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 31–32.

  6. Lalleman, 322.

  7. So Nancy C. Lee, The Singers of Lamentations: Cities Under Siege, from Ur to Jerusalem to Sarajevo…, vol. 60 of Biblical Interpretation Series (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 11, 48–49, 51; and see Heath A. Thomas, Poetry and Theology in the Book of Lamentations, Hebrew Bible Monographs, 47 (Sheffield: Sheffield Pheonix Press, 2013), 10–11 and House, 295 for summaries of and responses to suggested redactive possibilities.

  8. Rightly, Iain Provan, Lamentations, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 16; Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 5.

  9. Provan, Lamentations, 18.

  10. Longman, 329.

  11. Norman K. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations (Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1954), 20–21.

  12. Thomas, 8–9.

  13. Rightly, Provan, Lamentations, 12.

  14. Longman, 330.

  15. Thomas, 79.

  16. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 9.

  17. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 10–12, 29.

  18. House, 310–314; Lalleman, 325-326.

  19. Thomas, 3; emphasis original.

  20. Save that the order of פ and ע are flipped in chs. 2–4 (Gottwald, 24).

  21. Gottwald, 28–29; Thomas, 82.

  22. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology in the Book of Lamentations,” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament no. 74 (June 1, 1997), 58; Gottwald, 28–30.

  23. Berlin, 5.

  24. Thomas, 84 (emphasis original).

  25. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “The enjambing line in Lamentations: a taxonomy. (Part 1),” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 113, no. 2 (January 1, 2001), 221–223; ibid. “The effects of enjambment in Lamentations. (part 2),” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 113, no. 3 (January 1, 2001), 370–371; cf. Berlin, 5; House, 428.

  26. Dobbs-Allsopp, “The effects of enjambment (part 2),” 373.

  27. ibid., 383–384.

  28. Thomas, 3.

  29. ibid., 5.

  30. So Miriam Bier, “‘We have sinned and rebelled; you have not forgiven’: the dialogic interaction between authoritative and internally persuasive discourse in Lamentations 3,” Biblical Interpretation 22, no. 2 (January 1, 2014), 148–149; Dobbs-Allsopp, “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 37; Tod Linafelt, Suriving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 3,9,10.

  31. Longman, 340.

  32. Gottwald, 30; Lalleman, 353; Thomas, 83.

  33. Lalleman, 362. How to take Yahweh’s speech is an open question; see below.

  34. So Bier, 162–163;

  35. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 55–56.

  36. House, 430.

  37. ibid.

  38. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, “The effects of enjambment (part 2),” 374.

  39. Thomas, 194.

  40. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 30, 123; Longman, 336.

  41. Cf. Jer. 2:23, 3:12, 6:16, 15:19.

  42. House, 421.

  43. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 38; ibid., Lamentations, 30; Longman, 336.

  44. Cf. Exo. 13:21; 14:20,24; 19:9,16; 24:15–18; 33:9–10; 34:5; 40:34–38; Num. 9:15–22; 1 Ki. 8:10–11.

  45. Berlin, 96; Longman, 373.

  46. Berlin, 96.

  47. See Dobbs-Allsopp, “The enjambing line (part 1)” and ibid., “The effects of enjambment (part 2)” for a partial list.

  48. So Bier, 162–163; Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 123; ibid., “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 48; Provan, Lamentations, 84.

  49. So, rightly, Longman, 339.

  50. The word translated “waste” here is a hapax; BDB gives “scum,” but the other versions (LXX, Syriac, etc.) differ (Provan, Lamentations, 100–101).

  51. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 123–124; ibid., “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 38.

  52. Berlin, 3; she rightly notes that most English translations exchange the rhyme for alliteration, which is a distinct poetic technique with a very different effect.

  53. Berlin, 18–19. On the covenant curses and Lamentations, see also Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 41; Gottwald, 47; Lalleman, 329; Longman, 337–338.

  54. Thomas, 195–196.

  55. Bier, 146–147, 153–154, 162–163; Dobbs-Allsopp, “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 48–49.

  56. Dobbs-Allsopp, “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 41.

  57. Thomas, 196, 198.

  58. Provan, Lamentations, 103.

  59. So, rightly, Longman, 374; Provan, Lamentations, 82; contra Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 125; Gottwald, 93.

  60. House, 425; Lalleman, 361.

  61. Thomas, 197.

  62. So House, 426; Provan, Lamentations, 83.

  63. Lalleman, 362; Thomas, 200–201.

  64. Lalleman, 361, following Renkema, 451–452.

  65. Berlin, 97; Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 126; Longman, 375–376; Provan, Lamentations, 105–106; ibid., “Past, present and future in Lamentations 3:52-66 : the case for a precative perfect re-examined,” Vetus Testamentum 41, no. 2 (April 1, 1991): 164-175. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO_host_ (accessed April 26, 2015); Thomas, 198.

  66. As suggested by Berlin, 3.

  67. See Thomas, 200–202, 210–211.

  68. Berlin, 3.

  69. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 126; Thomas, 197.

  70. On the lament imagery used throughout the section, see Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 126; Lalleman, 362; Longman, 375; Provan, Lamentations, 105.

  71. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 127; Thomas, 197.

  72. Cf. Ps. 86:13, where תַּחְתִּיּֽוֹת is used in an identical construction with שְּׁא֥וֹל substituted for בּ֖וֹר.

  73. Thomas, 197, 203.

  74. See Gen. 26:24, 46:3–4; Num. 21:34; Deut. 1:21; Jsh. 8:1, 10:8, 11:6; Jdg. 6:23; 2 Kng. 19:6–7; Isa. 41:10,14, 43:1,5; Jer. 1:8, 30:10–11, 46:27–28; and cf. Gen. 15:1; 2 Kng. 6:16; Isa. 7:4, 10:24–27, 37:6, 44:2.

  75. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 6.

  76. So, rightly, Thomas, 200–202.

  77. So rightly, Thomas, 210; cf. also Berlin, 18–19.

  78. See Lalleman, 363; Provan, Lamentations, 108.

  79. Gottwald, 79–80.

  80. Berlin, 97; Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 127.

  81. See Longman, 378; Provan, Lamentations, 109.

  82. Berlin, 98–99; Lalleman, 363.

  83. See Lalleman, 363.

  84. Berlin, 97–98; House, 429.

  85. Longman, 331.

  86. Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, 127, steps partway in this direction; cf. Thomas, 203.

  87. See especially Gottwald, 30, 99.

  88. See e.g. Bier, 162–163; Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations, ; ibid., “Tragedy, Tradition, and Theology,” 34–38; Linafelt, 3–9.

  89. See e.g. Tiffany Houck-Loomis, “Good God?!? Lamentations as a model for mourning the loss of the good God,” Journal Of Religion And Health 51, no. 3 (September 1, 2012): 701–708.

  90. See e.g. the application to the Bosnian conflict in Lee, or the application to the Holocast in Linafelt.

  91. Rightly, Houck-Loumis, 702–703, though much of the rest of her analysis must be discarded.

  92. Lee, 3.

  93. Berlin, 19.