This post is a part of a Read-Through series where I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature based on a couple of timelines. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts, which give slight historical background, a literary synopsis, and interesting observations for each text.

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Historical Background:

Lamentations is a sorrowful theological reflection on the sufferings that befell the city of Jerusalem. It was written after the fall of the city at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The event was horrific. Lamentations mentions famine and starvation,[1]  mothers cannibalizing their infant children,[2] rape,[3] torture and slaughter.[4] While some believe that Jeremiah the prophet wrote Lamentations there is no proof of this in the text. There are no specific mentions of Jeremiah and, other than a pottery and clay metaphor,[5] there doesn’t seem to be any themes which would reveal an apparent dependency between the books.

Lamentations is a thoroughly theological text struggling to understand how Israel’s god could have allowed such suffering to come upon his own people, in the prophetic vein of Joel, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk. The writer also seems to have gone to Babylon with the captives of Jerusalem and witnesses the continuing suffering of the people of God after the fall of the city.[6] Since Jeremiah did not go to Babylon with the captives, this seems to be the strongest evidence that Lamentations would have been compiled parallel to the text of Jeremiah but not directly by Jeremiah. The writer of Lamentations seeks to make sense of the terrible destruction event from an eyewitness’ perspective. The book, much like Habakkuk, seeks to teach the captive Jews of Babylon to remain faithful because their God is just and good. In fact, it is his goodness and justice that brings punishment against Israel for its unfaithfulness, and it will be his faithfulness to Israel that will bring about his mercy.[7]

Such a theological understanding of Jerusalem’s destruction would grow to give the Jews a socio-religious endurance empowering them to survive their captivity, return to Jerusalem and rebuild, and reject idolatry throughout the Second Temple era.

 

Literary Synopsis:

Lamentations is laid out in three large sections. The first section is dedicated to how the God of Israel is the one who has destroyed Jerusalem.[8] It is clear to the writer no other god or nation was behind the destruction event. God rejected Judah’s armies,[9] brought an end to the kingdom,[10] and razed both the city and his temple.[11] There is even despair that the law given by God has no place to be obeyed any longer.[12]

It is also clear to the writer of Lamentations why Israel’s god would desire to bring about this punishment against Israel. Jerusalem had sinned, leading all Israel to become a defiled nation.[13] The writer sees God’s punishments as just because the people of God have rebelled against the things he spoke to them.[14] More pointedly God has rejected and punished the Davidic kingship, the rulers and elders of the city, and the priests and prophets.[15] These leaders have led the people into sinful relationships with the nations[16] and did not help the people give up their sins.[17]

The second section of Lamentations, the last two thirds of the third chapter,[18] is a shift to give hope to the captives of Jerusalem. The writer offers hope in God not because God desires to end their sufferings but precisely because he is the reason for their sufferings.[19] A theological move as keen as Habakkuk’s.[20] The writer points to God’s faithfulness as a reason to hope. Following Zephaniah, he uses the morning to show that as Creator their God is still providing, even in the midst of judgment.[21] Similar to Habakkuk again, the writer points out the correct posture for the people of God in this judgment is wait for God to act in his authoritative and creative power because he alone is their hope for salvation.[22]

The last section, making up the final two chapters of the book, returns to the reality that it is Israel’s god who has punished his people. There is a quick aside to Edom. A warning against believing they will not be judged. Edom will be punished for its sins just like the people of God.[23] After this aside, the writer spends the last chapter of the book recounting to God the worst sufferings of his people pleading for the mercy of restoration.[24] But in the end the writer accepts that God reigns over all creation and his people will remain in exile until he is no longer angry with them.[25]

 

Observations:

  1. One of the first things that jumps out to the reader is all of the imagery that makes use of the female body. The people of God are often represented as a female, either a woman or a daughter. Jerusalem and Zion are depicted as sexually promiscuous women.[26] There is a transition to this female image being raped by her conquerors in the midst of this promiscuity.[27]
  2. In the midst of this sexualized language of the daughter’s sin, Sodom is used as the comparison. Jerusalem’s sin has been greater than the sin of Sodom, which was also overthrown by God, and such a punishment has been accepted as just.[28] Using Sodom as an example of destruction follows the prophetic judgment language in Zephaniah.[29] Yet, this added sexual element to Sodom’s sinfulness parallels the same move in Jeremiah.[30] The sexualization of Sodom (and Gomorrah), the sin of idolatry as adultery, and God’s direct and just destruction of the city allows a perfect precedent of God’s actions against Jerusalem within the memory of Israel.
  3. The writer of Lamentations follows in the line of all the prophets depicting the nations as beasts in creation.[31] Now these beasts seem to have overrun the temple in Jerusalem and it is a clear sign of the punishing exile of the people of God.[32]
  4. The message of the writer that suffering and destruction has come against Jerusalem on account of her own sins and evils is the blazing central idea of Lamentations.[33] God is justified his actions against Israel for her unfaithfulness. The reality of suffering and destruction is not a simple blame game of power and responsibility for the prophet. Jerusalem has rebelled against God, [34] but it was God who intentionally brought destruction against Israel by removing his presence, which both blessed and protected them.[35] While this suffering is the consequence of Jerusalem’s actions, it is a result of God’s intentional act of allowing them to suffer the consequence they formed against themselves. This theological logic strongly parallels Habakkuk’s eschatology of the nations.
  5. Lastly, the writer’s logic of hope in God would seem to be quite offensive to many in our contemporary world. The writer follows the other prophet’s in the belief that Israel’s god is the Creator god, and therefore all-powerful in his rightful authority over creation. God is also good and so his justice, his demands on how life is lived in his creation, is also good for all creation. This prophetic theological understanding of God means God must be trusted to refine and purify his creation for the good End he so desires in it. Israel must, therefore, find hope for salvation in the God who is purifying her through judgment—no matter how painful, or traumatizing, it may be in the present. In fact, the trauma of this suffering must be used to remain faithful to God until he restores Israel.

 


[1] 1:11, 2:11-12, 19, 3:4, 4:4-5, 8-9, 5:4, 6, 9-10

[2] 2:20, 4:10

[3] 5:11

[4] 2:21, 5:12

[5] Compare 4:2 with Jeremiah 18:1-11.

[6] 1:1, 3, 18, 2:9, 3:7, 4:9, 5:13

[7] 3:31-33.

[8] 1:1-3:20

[9] 1:15, 2:3

[10] 2:2

[11] 2:7-9

[12] 2:9. Similar to Habakkuk 1:4.

[13] 1:8

[14] 1:18

[15] 1:19, 2:2, 6, 14, 4:11-16, 20

[16] 1:19

[17] 2:14

[18] 3:21-66

[19] 3:31-33

[20] Habakkuk 1:12

[21] Compare 3:22-23 with Zephaniah 3:5.

[22] Compare 3:24-27 with Habakkuk 3:16-19.

[23] 4:21-22

[24] 5:1-18

[25] 5:19-22

[26] 1:8-10, 19,

[27] 2:13-15

[28] 4:6

[29] Zephaniah 2:9

[30] Jeremiah 23:14

[31] 4:3

[32] 5:18

[33] passim

[34] 1:18

[35] 2:1-8, particularly 2:3b.

Posted by Justin Gill

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