Lesson 5 of 6
In Progress

Theological Themes in Lamentations

An answer to lament? 

Christian interpreters have often sought to make the middle of chapter 3 function as the answer to the book’s laments. Imagining the cries of agony and fervent petitions as a series of concentric circles with 3:22-24 in the center, the steadfast love and mercy of the Lord are lifted up as the basis for hope which should lead to quiet waiting for deliverance from the Lord (3:26). But it seems that in Lamentations as in some psalms (for example, Psalm 44) the received confessions about God only intensify the lament and petition. What God had done in the past is at an end. Partial explanation can be found in the speaker’s past disobedience and the positing of justly deserved punishment, but even that rationalization does not hold. God may have punished regretfully (3:33), but that does not warrant God’s failure to respond to the affliction articulated in these laments. The widow and orphans (5:3) are not being attended to by God. The possibility that God has permanently rejected the people remains open in these petitions.

God’s wrath and God’s mercies

God’s wrath is against me all day long, says Lamentations (3:3); and God’s mercies are new every morning (3:23). But God’s wrath is not neatly balanced with God’s mercy in this book. The depiction of wrath far exceeds the depiction of mercy. In fact, while mercy is briefly asserted as a theological axiom, the book does not finally commend it as a basis for hope that would be sufficient to abate the intensity of the lament over the present suffering or the forcefulness of the imperatives directed to God. Here and there a few glimmers of hope are expressed (for example, “he will keep you in exile no longer,” 4:22), but they are soon overwhelmed by the imperatives demanding that God “remember,” “look,” “see,” “restore,” and “see” (5:1, 21). The book does not end in doxology as is frequently claimed for the lament psalms. Instead questions persist to the end: “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?” (5:20). These questions are not answered in the book.

The silence of God

Prophetic proclamation often urged silence in view of the coming judgment it announced. Preexilic examples include Amos 5:13 and 8:3, Habakkuk 2:20, and Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13 provides a postexilic instance. Lamentations starts when the judgment has already commenced, and the end of judgment is nowhere in sight. Human voices do not remain silent; rather, the silence that pervades the book is God’s. God is addressed repeatedly, but God does not speak in response. Habakkuk 1:13 asks how God could silently look on at those who act treacherously, and God answers in that book, but not in Lamentations. As in Habakkuk, the chaos in Lamentations is understood to stem from prior disobedience, but neither Habakkuk nor Lamentations regards that accounting as sufficient. The protest is short in Habakkuk, but it is extensive in Lamentations.

Voices from scripture

Other parts of the canon may respond to the questions raised in Lamentations. Isaiah 40-55 might be one instance, when personified Zion is remembered and comforted (e.g., Isaiah 49:14-26; 52:1-6). Prophetic announcements of hope in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets may be others. But the canon leaves the silence in Lamentations to stand on its own. No editorial hand “corrects” the silence; the pleas stand open. The text does not trivialize the suffering with a trite answer. The openness is uncomfortable for readers, but that discomfort should move the reader to pray again these laments in the context of current suffering that cannot be subsumed under theological formulas.