Every year on the 9th day of Av (July-August time period), the Hebrew ear is fed with the mournful strains of a book in the Hebrew scriptures called Ekah when they assembled in the synagogue to commemorate the temple’s destruction. The Hebrew people named the books of the scriptures from the first word of the book. Ekah means “how” which came to represent the meaning of this book. How could God’s city, Jerusalem, and God’s temple be destroyed? How could it be that God, Israel’s redeemer, has turned his back and allowed the temple to be destroyed? How can the city that was full of people now be left empty and desolate? This “how” declaration opens the first verse of chapters 1,2, and 4. The first temple was destroyed on the 9th day of Av in 586 BC. The second temple was destroyed on the 9th day of Av in 70 AD. For centuries, even continuing today for the orthodox Jews, this book is read on the 9th day of Av. Our English scriptures call this book, Lamentations.
The book of Lamentations has been generally ignored in Christian teaching, likely because it was written under the painful circumstances of the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BC. Archaeological evidence suggests about 80% of the towns and villages of Judah were destroyed or abandoned during the final siege by the Babylonians. The destruction of Judah was massive. Jeremiah 52 records its destruction during the 18 month siege that was endured. Those who survived the starvation and slaughter were marched off on a 1000 mile journey by foot into exile, leaving only a few poor survivors scattered through the land. The temple of God was defiled, looted, and burned. It is hard for us to grasp the severity of this event because we do not have anything like this in our history. I think the closest we can get to understanding this pain in recent times is the fall of the World Trade Center Towers. September 11, 2001 was a time of fear, pain, and grief. It was a time of great sorrow and every year there is a memorial held for that dark day in our nation’s history. Yet this pales in comparison to the pain of the fall of the temple of God. Not only was the capital of Judah destroyed, not only was the freedom of the nation lost, not only were the majority of the people slaughtered or removed from the land, but the temple was destroyed. God had forsaken his people. God was no longer with them. The religious and spiritual impact was immeasurable. God had allowed his people to be conquered and killed. Read Lamentations 2:20-22 to get a sense of this horror.
20 Look, O Lord, and see! With whom have you dealt thus? Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? 21 In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity. 22 You summoned as if to a festival day my terrors on every side, and on the day of the anger of the Lord no one escaped or survived; those whom I held and raised my enemy destroyed. (Lamentations 2:20–22 ESV)
Purpose of Lamentations
But this cannot be just a book about the sadness of the people when they lost their city and the temple. Why is this book preserved for future generations? Why was this book breathed out by God and kept as the abiding word of the Lord? There must be value to this book beyond a simple record of one author’s cry. It appears that even Israel had a sense of this as it was used and continues to be annually as a memorial of the fall of the temple of God. This is not merely a eulogy to pay tribute to the past. This book addresses the needs of those who survived as they struggled to deal with their intense grief and pain. Think about the Babylonian exiles and the survivors in the land of Judah who would deeply need this book.
While it is a forgotten book, the book of Lamentations is very useful for us today because it is God’s book about pain and grief. The name of the book is appropriate for what it is about. A lament is a cry uttered when life falls apart. The psalms are filled with laments. Laments are cries and prayers to God in which the speakers describe how their lives have become disoriented and often challenge God on that basis. Do you relate to this? Are there times in your life when you were in great despair? Have you been through times when life was falling apart? The feelings you will read are feelings you will be able to connect to in your time of grief and despair. The placement of this book also encourages this understanding for using this book this way. The book of Lamentations was not originally placed next to Jeremiah. While it is useful for Lamentations to sit in the scriptures next to Jeremiah because it was likely written by Jeremiah and was written after the events recorded in Jeremiah, the book of Lamentations is not a prophetic book. The book of Lamentations in the Hebrew scriptures was located in the Writings section (along with Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther) and was moved next to Jeremiah when the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) was made.
Structure of Lamentations
The structure of the book of Lamentations also reveals that this book is a model for handling times of great grief and pain. First, the book of Lamentations is unique in that it is five individual poems that are thematically tied around the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s temple. Each of the five poems (correctly separated by the chapter divisions) is a stand alone poem, yet the structure is like a mountain with chapter 3 as the peak. Each poem grows with intensity till chapter 3 and then we go down the other side of the mountain until we come to the author’s prayer in chapter 5.
You may notice another part of the structure of these poems in Lamentations. Notice that the first poem (chapter 1) has 22 lines (marked by the 22 verses). The second poem (chapter 2) also has 22 lines. The fourth poem has 22 lines and the fifth poem has 22 lines. Only chapter 3 does not have 22 lines. It has 66 lines. So you notice the symmetry and again the implied intensity of the third poem (chapter 3).
But there is something more that is amazing that is completely obscured by our English translation. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters in it. In the first poem, each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet until all the letters are used. Since there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 lines, each line starting with the next letter of the alphabet. In poetry this is called an acrostic. You may practiced this in school at some point where you had to a write a poem where each line begins with the next letter of our alphabet. If you remember, you had trouble when it came to the letter x. How do you start a line of poetry with the letter x? It was very difficult.
Understanding the nature of the acrostic, notice the beauty of the book of Lamentations. The first poem (chapter 1) has 22 lines each beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The second poem (chapter 2) has 22 lines each beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The third poem (chapter 3) has 66 lines. In this poem the first three lines all begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second set of three lines all begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet and so on until there are 66 lines. The fourth poem (chapter 4) has 22 lines each beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Finally, the fifth poem (chapter 5) has 22 lines. But the author throws a curve ball. It looks like an acrostic because of the 22 lines, but it does not follow the pattern of the other poem and is not an acrostic. The HCSB and NET translations include the Hebrew letters so you can see that these poems are acrostics.
Why is this book on pain and grief placed in an acrostic? I believe this again gives us another picture to the purpose of this book to help us handle grief and pain. In our language this is the A to Z book on grief. More than this, the author is taking us on a journey through grief. He is not wallowing in grief or self-pity. The poems have a purpose and take us on a journey. Further, these poems as acrostics shows orderly thought even in great grief. We see a process for grief before God.
This is really important for us as Christians. A common way to deal with another’s pain and grief is to make light of it, gloss over it, and attempt shortcuts through it. You will see this at funerals where people will try to manufacture ways to quickly get over the grief they are feeling. People will say that God needed another angel or God took the person for a reason. People will say the person is in a better place no matter how the person has lived their life. People will say all kinds of things and do strange things, thinking that they can bypass this grief. Because the event is so painful we try to get to the other side quickly. We even can be terrible comforters to those who are in grief by saying trite things like, “It could be worse” or some other thing to try to make light of what is happening. Lamentations has no interest in this. This book pulls no punches. It does not offer easy answers, inspiring techniques, or some multistep formula to overcoming. The structure of the book shows that it is not in a hurry to get through grief. Further, when you read the book you will see that it does not offer trite answers or false sayings that do not help.
But here is where the great value of Lamentations comes to us. The book of Lamentations shows a person directing his despair toward God not away from him as we may feel we should do and many often do. We often think that we cannot direct our pain to God. As Christians we may think that we are to put on a happy face over the pain we are experiencing. But God wants our pain and grief directed toward him. Does a parent want to hear the pain his or her child is experiencing? Of course! I want to know when my children hurt and I want to know the reason why. I want to hear how they are handling the pain. God wants this from us and the book of Lamentations shows us to take our grief and pain to God. Suffering and despair do not naturally lead us into a deeper relationship with God. Often grief and pain more naturally pulls us away from God. We will read in this book how our grief can bring us to God. Where there is pain, grief, and hurt, there is God.
We will end the lesson by reading these poems. As you read, consider how these poems are instructing us to handle grief. Notice how the author’s grief is given a voice before God. You will notice as you read that God never speaks in this book. This book is very applicable for us today because God is not going to directly speak to us beyond the word of God. This book is not like the book of Job where Job has God speak directly to him. This is the inspired word of God taking us on the journey of grief through the eyes and pain of this author, likely Jeremiah, who has suffered extreme loss when Jerusalem fell. Friends and family are dead. The city is burning. Hope is gone. God has left. What will you do when you go through great grief? This book gives a voice on how to move through grief from A to Z, instructing us on how and what to pray, and placing our focus on the faithfulness of God.
Finally, this book helps us look forward to God wiping our tears from our eyes (cf. Revelation 21:4). Only God can truly comfort. Only God can truly help. Only God can answer our cries.