Thursday, October 17, 2013

Lamentations 101 (Lamentations 1:1)

What book begins “How lonely sits the city that was full of people?” Lamentations

The Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and its citizens’ subsequent deportation represents a watershed moment in biblical history. This military loss not only marks a horrifying political defeat but also carries profound sociological and theological overtones. Jerusalem is far more than a mere city to its residents; it connotes the nation’s religious core and is viewed as the very residence of the divine presence. As such, when the blow is struck not only is the disaster itself felt but also the seeming indifference of God. The magnitude of the crippling loss cannot be underestimated.

Paul Joyce (b. 1954) assesses:

Israel’s entire symbol system had been torn away, and the people had experienced a complete loss of meaning. That structure of belief was centred on divine election, and, pressing the image of the bereaved widow [Lamentations 1:1c], we could even say that Israel had lost her “husband,” God himself. (Joyce, “Lamentations and the Grief Process: A Psychological Reading”, Biblical Interpretation, 1 (3), 310)
Lamentations is a response to this catastrophe. The book is a compilation of five poems which correspond to its five chapter divisions. The anonymous anthology is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah (presumably based upon II Chronicles 35:25). The first four entries are acrostics formatted around the Hebrew alphabet as if to chronicle the nation’s pain from A to Z. This arrangement also lends itself to corporate worship.

Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) recaps:

The lament...goes through the disaster, over and over, five distinct times, line by line in excruciating detail: rape, humiliation, mockery, sacrilege, starvation, and worst of all, cannibalism (mothers boiling the their babies for supper!)...The lament continues to be chanted still in the prayers of the Jewish community in August of each year (Ninth of Ab in the Hebrew calendar) on the anniversary of the terrible event. (Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way, 151)
Naturally, the tone of the book is grim. God is silent, the degree of suffering is presented as unwarranted and the prospects of redemption are kept at a minimum. The desolation seems complete.

The chronology of Lamentations’ entries is unknown though R.B. Salters suspects:

We do not know which of the five poems was the first to be written, but chapter 1 is, perhaps, the most striking, and it may be for this reason that it is placed at the beginning of the group. (Salters, Lamentations: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 30)
This opening stanza is divided evenly into two parts (Lamentations 1:1-11, 12-22). Paul W. Ferris, Jr. (b. 1944) delineates:
Lamentations 1:1-11 ...[is] as a subunit of the twenty-two verse poem by the prevalent use of the third-person feminine singular, referring to the shamed, devastated, and abandoned city. Jerusalem is personified as a widowed queen [Lamentations 1:1] and an unfaithful spouse now bereft of her children [Lamentations 1:2]. This subunit of the lament is presented by a third party, an observer, until the last clause, which transitions to the first person. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Jeremiah~Ezekiel (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 585)
Hetty Lalleman understands:
In Lamentations 1:1-11 the poet speaks about Jerusalem and laments her fate. In Lamentations 1:12-22 Jerusalem is speaking, and me and my refer to the city. However, these two voices merge and we cannot tell one apart from the other. Throughout the whole chapter someone is voicing the disaster and distress that has come to the fallen city. (Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 335)
Robert Martin-Achard (1919-1989) analyzes:
We can observe in this poem a certain psychological progress. It moves from an objective, external form to a subjective one, because the poet changes his attitude from that of a sympathetic onlooker to being the voice of Zion herself. Even throughout the first part of the narrative there breaks forth in an ejaculatory prayer a deep feeling of distress; ‘O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed (Lamentations 1:9c) and then, ‘Look, O Lord, and behold, for I am despised’ [Lamentations 1:11]. This prayer contains, as it were, a silent reproach to the Almighty: ‘Lord, how could you permit such a terrible thing to happen?!’(Martin-Achard and S. Paul Re’emi, Amos & Lamentations: God’s People in Crisis (International Theological Commentary), 83)
John Guest (b. 1936) infers:
Judging from his passion and the richness of his detail, we can assume that the writer was an eyewitness to the fall of Jerusalem and was most likely recording his impressions within a reasonable time frame of the actual event. He watches the city from the perspective of the third person for the first half of the dirge and then performs a literary stoke of genius by switching the perspective to the second person in the last half of the work. The shift carries with it a powerful intimacy that invites a personal response from the reader or the listener. (Guest, Jeremiah/Lamentations (Mastering the Old Testament), 356-57)
The dirge’s initial verse relays the city’s plight (Lamentations 1:1).
How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
She has become like a widow
Who was once great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
Has become a forced laborer!(Lamentations 1:1 NASB)
Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) summarizes:
In Lamentations 1:1 Jeremiah speaks of the city of Jerusalem: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!” Jerusalem, a city which used to be close to God, has been changed by the choice of significant men. They have turned away from Him when they knew Him, and now their city is under siege. There is death in the city. (Schaeffer, Death in the City, 35)
The opening verse establishes the book’s tone. F.B. Huey, Jr. (b. 1925) discloses:
Lamentations begins on a mournful note that is sustained throughout the book. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The once-thriving nation’s commercial and religious center was now devastated and largely deserted. (Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentationshe (The New American Commentary), 450)
The verse is well conceived. Delbert R. Hillers (1932-1999) praises:
The opening stanza (Lamentations 1:1) is one of the most carefully worked out in the book from a formal point of view. The three lines are parallel to each other (so-called “external parallelism”). The first two are linked by repetition of rabbātī...and the third is closely joined to them by the parallel word śārātī...This formal elaborateness marks the importance of the themes introduced. (Hillers, Lamentations (Anchor Bible), 80-81)
Lamentations begins with a discussion of the emptiness of an anonymous city (Lamentations 1:1). The once prosperous locale is deserted, a ghost town as empty as the morale of its former inhabitants. Though names and dates are lacking, it is a thinly veiled reference to the Babylonian exile. There is no doubt that the city in question is Jerusalem.

Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) declares:

The poet does not name Jerusalem at the start, but simply speaks of the city. The name of the city does not have to be spoken; poet and readers would know the identity of the now deserted city of Jerusalem. As today there is no doubt when a New Yorker refers to “the city,” so there is no secret concerning the identity of the city among Judeans. This once bustling place (a city “closely compacted together” [Psalm 122:3]) is now eerily deserted. (Longman, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))
Though much has changed since the writing of Lamentations, some things in Jerusalem have remained constant. Harvey Cox (b. 1929) notes the irony:
Today, paradoxically, Jerusalem is hardly lonely, and she may now have too many lovers. In fact, her sadness is that so many people “love her to death.”...Today, as in the era of Jeremiah, it is not easy to separate the religious from the political conflicts that fuel disagreements about Jerusalem...The “Jerusalem question” has exasperated the international community for nearly a century...Today Jerusalem’s political status is still in question. (Cox and Stephanie Paulsell [b. 1962], Lamentations and the Song of Songs (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible), 152-54)
This city will remain a focal point throughout book. Erhard S. Gerstenberger (b. 1932) sketches:
[A] phenomenon in Lamentations, except for chapter 3, is the focus on Jerusalem and Zion, with frequent female personifications of the city, so that her lamenting and pleading voice is quoted directly. The ancients quite easily gave voice and character to various entities...Cities...were incorporated symbols of the people living within the walls. In the ancient Near East they were governed and represented by the main deity of the settlement, often a goddess, like Inanna of Ur, or Ishtar or Isin. Some scholars suppose that personification of Jerusalem also has to do with divine representation. A few Akkadian laments are put into the mouth of the city-goddess, who has to flee and see her temple in shambles. In a similar way Jerusalem mourns the death and suffering of her inhabitants and the destruction of her edifices. (Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part 2 and Lamentations (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 472)
The unit’s form is no more unique than its impetus. It fits within a genre known as city lament. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) situates:
Lamentations is best understood as a corporate lament bemoaning the destruction of a city, that is, a “city lament.” As such, the book does not exist in a generic vacuum. There is a well-established genre of city laments known in particular from five compositions that derive from the period of the destruction of the Ur III dynasty (ca. 2100-2000 B.C.) at the hands of invaders from the east and the west. This destruction had a catastrophic effect on the minds of those who survived it. The highly developed and civilized kingdom was the result of a Sumerian renaissance after a period of Akkadian rule that may have considered itself impregnable from attack from the outside world. Ibbi-Sin, the last ruler of the dynasty (ca. 2028-2004 B.C.), actually started his reign in a relatively strong position, but soon he was under siege and was perhaps explanted by Ishbi-Irra of Mari...The destruction of Ur, its temples, and surrounding cities worked deep into the psyche of those who witnessed it. Indeed, five compositions survive that lament the fall of the city. (Longman, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))
John H. Walton (b. 1952), Victor H. Matthews (b. 1950) and Mark W. Chavalas (b. 1954) add:
As the fall of Jerusalem became a pivotal point in the history, theology and literature of Israel, the fall of Ur (to an army from the east) at the end of the Ur III Dynasty (about the year 2000) served in the ancient Near East as an illustration of the divine abandonment of a city, resulting in its destruction. The lamentations that memorialize the weeping and the theological reflection on those two great falls are preserved in their respective literatures. Two separate works lament the fall of Ur (known as The Lament over the Destruction of Ur and The Lament over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur). Other city laments exist for Nippur, Uruk, Eridu and Ekimar (though the last three of these are fragmentary). These date to the twentieth century B.C. Unlike biblical lamentations, each of the ancient Near Eastern works includes a decision of the gods to restore the city. Literarily they played a role in the attempts to legitimize a new dynasty...The major theme of these works is that the gods have abandoned the city, thus exposing it to destruction at the hands of the enemy. In poetic detail the distress of the population is described...This despair is reflected in the wondering questions of why they have been treated in this way by the gods and how long their condition will persist. When explanations are offered, the fall of the city is not blamed on offense but simply reflects the fact that change and the shifting of political power is inevitable. (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 686)
J. Andrew Dearman (b. 1951) compares:
There are city limits in ancient Near Eastern literature, which are also related to the book of Lamentations...In some of them a prominent place is given to the patron goddess of the city, who mourns the fall of her city. Since there is no counterpart to the patron goddess in Judah (at least not among the circles responsible for the Old Testament), it is possible that the prominence given to personified Jerusalem as “Daughter...Zion” and the symbolic mother of the faithful is the Israelite counterpart to the broader ancient Near Eastern tradition of patron goddesses. Recognition of Jerusalem’s voice and personification is crucial to an adequate grasp of the book’s style and its message. (Dearman, Jeremiah, Lamentations (The NIV Application Commentary))
Lamentations’ personification of the city as a female is normative. Adele Berlin (b. 1943) informs:
The personification of a city as a woman is a common image in prophetic literature, with possible antecedents in Mesopotamian literature and successors in Greek literature—but nowhere is it developed more effectively than in the personification of Jerusalem in this chapter. Here a kaleidoscope of images turns quickly from a lonely widow, to a degraded princess, to a whore, to a rape victim, to a betrayed lover, to an abandoned wife. (Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 47)
This analogy complies with its Hebrew grammar. Paul M. Joyce (b. 1954) and Diana Lipton relate:
The personification of Zion as a woman characterizes the first two chapters of the book. It is a feature facilitated by the fact that ir (the Hebrew word for city) is feminine, and is a motif shared with some other biblical books (cf. J.F.A. Sawyer [b. 1938] 1989 on Isaiah). Parallels to the presentation of Jerusalem as a widowed city are to be found in other ancient Near Eastern literature (Chayim Cohen 1973). (Joyce and Lipton, Lamentations Through the Centuries, 27)
The transition is smooth. Adele Berlin (b. 1943) tracks:
Lamentations 1:1-11...[is] a portrait of Jerusalem, destroyed, shamed, and dejected. The picture opens with the unnamed city, sitting empty and alone, in contrast to the thriving metropolis she once was. The image of the city as widow leads to the idea of mourning and abandonment, and it evokes pity. But almost immediately a different set of associations impinges: this apparently pitiful woman had taken lovers, she had acted immorally, and she deserved her punishment. These ideas are not contradictory, but they generate a cognitive and emotional tension that is in play throughout the chapter. (Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 49)

Not surprisingly given its condition, the city assumes the posture of mourning. Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) relates:

In the first line, sits describes a mourning posture. A parallel comes from the experience of Nehemiah who likewise “sat down and wept. For some days I mourned” (Nehemiah 1:4). (Allen, A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations, 35)
R.B. Salters parses this verb:
ישבה...Qal perfect 3rd feminine singular because ‘city’ is feminine. The perfect is to be understood in the sense of the present...The contrasting dirge-like images which follow make it probable that the poet here contrasts the present state of affairs (or at least, the image he wishes to convey) with the past. The verb can have the meaning ‘dwell’ (Psalm 133:1) or ‘remain’ (Genesis 24:55)—and according to the Syrohexapla margin, Symmachus [Second century] understood it as ‘remain’ (ἔμεινεν)—but the poet goes on to paint a picture of a grieving female figure; and sitting (on the ground) characterized ancient mourners (cf. Isaiah 47:1; Ezekiel 26:16). (Salters, Lamentations: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 35-36)
The city finds itself isolated (Lamentations 1:1). It is characterized as “lonely”(ESV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), “deserted” (CEV, NLT), “solitary” (ASV, KJV), “alone” (HCSB) or “empty” (MSG).

Fred Wood (1921-2010) and Ross McLaren (b. 1952) research:

The word translated deserted (Lamentations 1:1) comes from a Hebrew verb meaning “to be separate, solitary.” In this verse it is an adverb meaning “alone.” Looking at the barren and forsaken city, Jeremiah saw it as isolated, abandoned, and forgotten. His mind turned to a woman whose husband had died and left her alone in the world. (Wood and McLaren, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 360)
R.B. Salters considers:
Although a noun meaning ‘isolation’, it is in the adverbial accusative position...The word is construed with ישב in Leviticus 13:46; Jeremiah 15:17; Lamentations 3:28. Rashi [1040-1105] interprets ‘bereft of inhabitants’. It may go a bit too far in that the poet later makes reference to priests and maidens on the scene (Lamentations 1:4), but his aim may have been to conjure up an image of desolateness (cf. Isaiah 27:10 regarding the isolation of a besieged city) in contrast with the grandiose past which he goes on to describe. This is the first of several examples of the poet’s tendency to exaggerate. (Salters, Lamentations: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 36)
Abraham Ahuviah argues that this Hebrew term, bâdâd, is commonly associated with betach (“secure”) and carries a similar meaning. Thus, he argues that the opening verse of Lamentations should be rendered: “The city that was full of people, that dwelt securely, how like a widow has she become.” (Ahuviah, “How Lonely Sits the City that was Full of People,” Lam 1:1. Beth Mikra, 1979, 24(79), 423-425).

Xuan Huong Thi Pham (b. 1973) counters:

In the context of mourning, the word בדד in Lamentations 1:1a, with the following imagery of widowhood in Lamentations 1:1b, depicts loneliness and desertion rather than solitary security as suggested by Abraham Ahuviah. (Pham, Mourning in the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible, 193)
Robin A. Parry (b. 1969) contextualizes:
The contrast between sitting alone and once being full of people suggests that “alone” here means that her many children (her citizens) are gone. She is childless! The fleeting image of the widow is not pressed, but it could possibly indicate the idea that her husband, YWHH, having abandoned her is like a dead husband. She is now in a very vulnerable position as she has no one who can act as her legal protector. The narrator is seeking to elicit the pity of the audience right from the start. (Perry, Lamentations (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary), 43)
Though counterintuitive, corporate loneliness is a real possibility. Kamila Blessing (b. 1948) reveals:
A whole people can be alone. The term badad (“be alone”) enters forcefully into descriptions of Israel “alone” in an abandoned land. The people of Jerusalem were described thus during the Babylonian captivity, when most of the people had been deported. For example, Lamentations 1:1 begins, “How alone lies the city that was so great with people, how like a widow...she who had been a princess” (author’s translation). Israel in Babylon was alone in a related sense. (Blessing, Families of the Bible: A New Perspective, 140)
The desolation is accentuated all the more when compared to the city’s past glory, having been “full of people” (Lamentations 1:1b). Glory has passed and its vision and memory are fading quickly.

Kathleen M. O’Connor (b. 1942) asserts:

The city, once “great with people,” swollen with life like a pregnant woman is now alone like a widow (Lamentations 1:1b). The widow in ancient Israel was truly alone. (O’Connor, Lamentations & the Tears of the World, 20)
Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012) probes:
The expression rbty ‘m has traditionally been taken to mean “full of people” and been compared to rbt bnym ’mllh (I Samuel 2:5)...It has been argued that rbty must be taken as the familiar epithet rbt “lady, mistress” (Thomas F. McDaniel [b. 1931] 1968:29-31). The correspondence with rbt bgwym and especially śrty bmdynwt requires this understanding of rbty in my opinion, but I see no reason to exclude a play on alternate idiomatic meanings of rbt in the second colon. (Carol L. Meyers [b. 1942] and Michael Patrick O’Connor [1950-2007], “Studies in the Structure of Hebrew Verse: The Prosody of Lamentations 1:1-22), The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman [1922-2008] in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday, 136)
The wasted potential makes the blow all the more harsh. There is a sense that it did not have to be this way.

For Lamentations, the glass is not merely half empty but completely empty. And to make matters worse the glass remains to taunt its former fullness. It is like viewing an old family photo of a house decimated by deaths. Jerusalem finds itself the subject of dramatic, tragic before-and-after photos.

John M. Bracke (b. 1947) correlates:

The scene of reversal, of stunning loss, that these verses lay out is not unfamiliar to us. We know of the reality of which these verses speak. Television has brought into our living rooms poignant pictures of victims of tragedies revisiting what had once been sacred space for them. We have seen those who have survived a tornado or hurricane sifting through the scattered debris with anguish on their faces at the site that was once home for them. We have witnessed persons whose churches have been burned recounting with tears streaming down their cheeks how the smoldering rubble behind them was the place where marriages were celebrated, where infants were received into the church through baptism, and where precious dead were remembered. We have seen war refugees fleeing burning cities in long lines with what few possessions they could salvage strapped on their backs. In these scenes we have ourselves seen the great reversal of fortune described in these initial verses in Lamentations. The joy and glory of the former days are quickly lost and become fond memories of what will never be again. (Bracke, Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (Westminster Bible Companion), 193)
Though on some levels the contemporary reader can relate, there are few analogies that capture the magnitude of pain felt by this one pummeling.

The bleakness of the city’s situation is no more apparent than in its opening exclamation (Lamentations 1:1a). The interjection is consistently rendered “how” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NJV, NRSV, RSV) or is omitted (CEV, NLT). The prevailing translation does not capture the force of the Hebrew, better reflected in the Message’s paraphrase, “Oh oh oh”.

Hetty Lalleman corrects:

The first verse opens with a cry of lament that can be translated as ‘Alas!’ TNIV, NRSV and NKJV translate as How, but the Hebrew word is more powerful: ‘Alas! She sits alone – the city.’ (Lalleman, Jeremiah and Lamentations (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 336)
The book’s first word engages the reader and sets the tone for the entire work. The word is typical in elegies. Adele Berlin (b. 1943) scrutinizes:
The first word of the chapter, ’êkâ, signals the discourse of lament, as it does also in chapters 2 and 4 [Lamentations 2:1, 4:1]. It is an exclamation of despair that marks a sudden change from a glorious past to the degraded present (cf. Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 48:17; Ezekiel 26:17), and the nature of that change is described in the rest of Lamentations 1:1. The pāsēq in the Masoertic Text after ’êkâ, indicating a slight pause, suggests that the word stands slightly apart from what follows it. In that sense, ’êkâ introduces the chapter as a whole. (Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 49)
R.B. Salters responds:
The word with which the poet begins is generally thought to be an emphatic form of איך and is found elsewhere at Deuteronomy 1:12, 7:17; Isaiah 1:21 (1QIs reads איך); Jeremiah 48:18 etc., and in this book (Lamentations 1:1, 2:1, 4:1, 2). Hedwig Jahnow [1879-1944] (1923, 136) argues that it conveys desperation and may have been a common beginning to a lament. However, many laments do not begin this way, hence it may just have seemed particularly appropriate to this poet to begin to express the horror which follows. While the word can have an interrogative force (Deuteronomy 12:30; Jeremiah 8:8), it probably has more of an exclamatory function here—Alas! Although not repeated with each line, the force of איכה continues throughout the verse (cf. John Calvin [1509-1564]). H. Wheeler Robinson [1872-1945] (1936, 37-40; cf. BHK, BHS) argues that איכה is unstressed and stands separate from the first stitch, but in this he is not normally followed (cf. Claus Westermann [1909-2000] 1994, 112; Biblia Hebraica Quinta). (Salters, Lamentations: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 35)
The word does protrude from the rest of the text as evidenced by its exclusion from the lament’s metrical structure (R.K. Harrison [1920-1993], Jeremiah & Lamentations (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 207).

The term is multi-faceted and conveys a number of sentiments. Kathleen M. O’Connor (b. 1942) elucidates:

With the alarming cry of a funeral dirge the narrator demands our attention in the poem’s opening verse. “How (’ēkāh) lonely sits the city once great with people!” (Lamentations 1:1a). The “how” is a bitter declaration that death has occurred, but as Naomi Seidman [b. 1960] (283) observes, it also implies interrogation—“How could this happen to beloved Zion?” “How is it possible even to speak of this destruction?” To convey the breath-stopping shock of the catastrophe, Seidman proposes the opening ’ēkāh “be pronounced with a catch in the throat.” Tragedy threatens to overcome speech, sobs interfere with words, and trauma pounds back expression as the book’s voices hover in tension between life-denying silence and the life-giving urge to speak. (O’Connor, Lamentations & the Tears of the World, 19-20)
In one word, Lamentations effectively relates the hopelessness and emotions of its historical setting. In fact, one of the book’s traditional titles is its first word. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) surveys:
In antiquity, the book was referred to by its opening word ’eka (“how?”). The rabbis referred to the book as qinot, the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) entitled the book Threni, and the Vulgate referred to it as Lamenta—all meaning “Lamentations.” (Longman, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))
Upon reflection, its opening exclamation is a fitting title for the book of Lamentations.

What historical catastrophes most closely parallel the significance of the fall of Jerusalem to its residents? Whose sustained greater loss, Job or Jerusalem’s inhabitants during the Babylonian invasion? What books are titled by their opening lines? How important is your city of residence to you? Have you ever frequented a ghost town? What institutions or places do you know who have seen better days? When has a song fully captured the tone of a momentous event? What do you lament? When has corporate lament been practiced in modern times? What are the advantages of public lament?

Lamentations is not typically a favorite text among preachers. The book is a brutally honest complaint or appeal to God that is told by people too broken to mitigate anything. Light is not easily found amidst the sea of Lamentations’ darkness.

Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) confesses:

We are uncomfortable with tears and lamenting aren’t we? If someone breaks into tears, we try our best to get her to stop crying and to smile again...We do not like sorrow. We either try to avoid it or attempt to do away with it...The scriptures, however, know better...The authors of the Bible make a wide place in their writings for the sorrows and sufferings and pains of human life, because they know that those are part of our daily living and that there is a word from God about those experiences too. (Achtemeier, “Lamentations 1:1-6”, Preaching and Reading the Old Testament Lessons: With an Eye to the New, Cycle C, 213)
As delicate as the subject is and though it is easier to ignore, abject loss must be addressed. Adele Berlin (b. 1943) notices:
The image of the city-woman in her abject state elicits both revulsion and pity. As we watch her, and the poet forces us to watch her, we are torn between ambivalent urges: we cannot bear to look but we cannot turn our eyes away. The more we look, the more we shame her by seeing that which should not be seen. But we must look, for the poet calls upon us to see what has happened to the city and to partake in her suffering. We becomes actors in the “drama” of this chapter. This chapter is a poetic reenactment of the rites of mourning, and we become mourners along with Jerusalem. (Berlin, Lamentations: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 48)
Lamentations’ opening line is a picture of giving voice to suffering and a window into the book’s intent. Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) deduces:
The first word, ekhah in Hebrew, traditionally belonged to the funeral dirge and introduced a contrast between a grim present and a good past, a chasm that bereavement had created. Here too it introduces such contrasts. It is a shriek, a scream, “not the kind of scream that comes from fright, but the kind that comes from the deepest grief imaginable. It is a scream that comes when there are no words to express what you feel...It is a scream that rails against logic and fate and everything there is” (Ann Hood [b. 1956], 2008, 139). The Hebrew word is generally translated “how” but is better expanded into How terrible that...! in order to express its emotional intensity. In this case it tells us that the liturgy reader, who here has the role of reporter, is not like a television or radio reporter sent to cover a story and soon to speed away from the scene. He is a member of the mourning community and immersed in the story he tells. His task is to pastorally lead the congregation in giving expression to an overwhelming grief that is equally his own. (Allen, A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations, 35)
In its shift from cry to analogy in its opening line, the book scores a significant achievement. F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp (b. 1962) demonstrates:
The movement from the sequence’s opening primordial scream of “Eikhaaah!” (which is as much a token of glossolalia or pure sound—the kind of preferential ejaculation to which language is so often reduced by extreme suffering—as a semantically weighted word [NRSV’s “How”]) to the articulate speech of the rest of the poetry (“lonely sits the city...”) similarly well symbolizes these poems’ reclamation of language from the wordless garble of anguished speech (cf. Lamentations 2:1, 4:1). And the regaining of voice is fictively and spectacularly enacted in the figure of personified Zion, whom readers literally witness coming to voice over the course of the first two poems, at first slowly and fitfully in abrupt eruptions of entreaty (Lamentations 1:9c, 11c), but eventually with more assurance and fortitude emblematic of her reemergent vitality (Lamentations 1:12-22, 2:20-22). (Dobbs-Allsopp, Lamentations (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 33)
In attaching intelligible words to a horrible predicament, Lamentations provides a pastoral service.

While the suffering is unmitigated within the context of the passage, the text itself is embedded in a larger tradition which celebrates the faithfulness and mercy of God. Lamentations fits within the biblical corpus because it exhibits trust in a deity who permits humans the freedom to honestly grieve and expose the depths of their sorrow. In its venting, the book clings to God as the only hope its readers have left (Job 13:15) and trusting in God’s power rather than human strength is always appropriate.

There is a difference between grief and lament as lament assumes an audience. Lamentations’ underlying presumption is that God is listening. And this assumption is correct.

What topics would you rather ignore than address? What situations have you experienced that were too bleak to sugar coat? Who has given voice to your concerns? To whose suffering can you give voice? Do you have faith that God is listening to your lamentations?

“Healing must always seek to give voice to suffering, and the greater the range of words and meanings we have at our disposal, the clearer the voice becomes.” - Iona Heath in British Medical Journal, 2000 January 8; 320(7227), p. 125