Reclaiming Lamentations

There are forgotten books haunting the pages of your Bible, pages of passionate love songs and obscure prophecies and the poetry of people picking through the rubble. These are the books we don’t read, the suspect pages we don’t know what to do with. Lamentations is one of those books.

Around 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put Jerusalem to the sword, dragging most of the population into exile and razing the city to the ground. Lamentations is the songs of those he left behind.

It’s a dark book, a poem of despair and guilt and rage sung among the ruins. If you’re a privileged reader, it may feel alien, oppressive, haunting and bleak, hardly the first place you’d turn for spiritual comfort. If, of course, you’re a privileged reader.

Others may read Lamentations and wish it had a trigger warning. This book of the Bible is a book for those who weren’t rich enough or healthy enough or fast enough to flee, it’s for those who always suffer the most when an invader marches into town and unleashes the inevitable dogs of violence and hate.

Yes, it’s about the fall of ancient Jerusalem, but maybe it’s also about Aleppo and Hiroshima, maybe it’s about London in the Blitz and New York fifteen Septembers ago. Maybe Lamentations echoes in the burning of Alexandria’s library, in the bombing of Bamiyan’s Buddhas.

Lamentations is a book of great relevance, because there are those who’ve lived it, those who’ve seen their homes reduced to dust, those who’ve had to bury their loved ones in the ruins of their city, those who had to run for the border, those who had no choice but to stay behind and try to survive both bombs and scarcity.

Some can read Lamentations and know what those words look like and sound like and smell like because they lived through them. The rest of us can read Lamentations as an act of solidarity, not just with the Jews heading into their great exile, but with the refugees resettled next door and the shell-shocked kids from Syria we see on the news.

The tragedy-stained corners of the Bible challenge us every time we try to read them from a position of power; nowadays my own country is more used to dropping or selling bombs than surviving them, after all. Sometimes we’re not the broken, weeping remnant, we’re the mighty Nebuchadnezzar and frankly we prefer it that way. But not everyone gets to read the Bible from such distance.

So it’s long past time to reclaim Lamentations as a scriptural voice of survival and shock. Maybe in its poetry of grief a measure of healing can be found, maybe understanding can emerge in songs that rise from the debris and ashes. Maybe we need to hear these words in our churches again; maybe we need to see these words in those around us who have lived their own Lamentations.

No-one Ever Preaches on Lamentations (Psalm 137)

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You know one of the best songs ever recorded? ‘Hurt‘ by Johnny Cash. In it you can hear every regret, every mistake, every sin of an old man as they eat away at him. It’s devastating, and it rips your heart out every time, but the world’s better place him having recorded it. Sometimes we need the sad songs. ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing‘ is fine, but Billie Holiday needed to record ‘Strange Fruit‘; the darker shades of human experience need expression too.

So why does no-one ever preach on Lamentations?

I mean, if we need to give voice to our less pleasant circumstances, Lamentations has to be the archetype – Jerusalem destroyed, most of the population dragged into exile, the remainder wracked with survivor’s guilt and driven to cannibalism. As an expression of grief, shock, fear and despair it’s hard to beat. There are slivers of hope in there, but on the whole, things are pretty grim.

And yet there it is, in the Bible. I’ve been going to church all my life and I don’t ever recall hearing a sermon about despair, don’t ever recall singing a sad song that wasn’t about the crucifixion, but here in the Bible are five chapters of people dealing with the fallout of a community torn apart. It’s not spaceship religion, it’s the heart cry of a faithful man witnessing his fellow survivors starving in the streets.

It’s 9-11. It’s the Blitz. It’s the Holocaust.

If faith is to be real it has to be able to confront catastrophe. That’s why Lamentations is important – it gives voice to the things we’re too scared to say out loud. I mean, I haven’t had my hometown invaded, looted and pillaged, but look at the following verse:

“You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.”

I’ve certainly felt like that at times. I bet I’m not the only one. It’s not something we get to say that often, because we think we need to be living the triumphant Christian life, and because sometimes the biggest lie we tell in church is “Yeah, I’m okay”. But the shadow is still there and it needs to be confronted, which can be difficult because sometimes I struggle to confront an overgrown lawn. But I know from experience that bottling things up can be dangerous – better to offer them to God.

Yes, even when God’s the one you’re angry with. He can take it.

That’s why there are frankly messed up passages in the Bible, like Psalm 137 and it’s desire to see the babies of the writer’s enemies smashed against rocks. No-one’s suggesting that this is a good thing – it’s really not – but that’s one of the purposes of art, poetry, to work through the labyrinths of life and find a ‘safe’ way to express them. Here’s a Psalm that starts off as ‘By the Rivers of Babylon‘ and ends up a hardcore metal track. And that’s fine, because sometimes life’s like that.

I heard a quote recently – “All worship bands should have a break-up song”. Because sometimes we need to corporately express sorrow and anger and despair, express them and work through them and find a way to God in the midst of them.

We need more sad songs to help us see the hope behind them.