Who Is To Blame?
In Lamentations, Daughter Zion (a literary personification of the city of Jerusalem) looks for someone to blame for all this suffering. Sometimes the poets place the blame on the nation of Judah for its many sins (1:5, 1:8).
In other passages the poets blame the enemies, the Babylonians who invaded Judah (1:10). The last two verses of chapter 4 even blame Judah’s cousins, the Edomites, who supported the Babylonian invasion rather than lending aid to their distant relatives.
But most often, Lamentations places the blame squarely on YHWH’s shoulders. Consider 2:1-10: YHWH’s barrage against Judah seems to have no end. Even while acknowledging Judah’s sin, the poets ask whether YHWH has gone too far. In 2:20 it says: “Look, YHWH, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?” At the heart of Lamentations is this question of God’s justice in allowing (and even causing) human suffering.
This is a shocking charge to level against God Himself. Is it right to question God’s justice or His sovereignty? Some people would even say that it is proof that the God of the Bible is not loving and good, and so we cannot pretend that He is a God worth worshiping and obeying.
YHWH Himself never speaks in the book of Lamentations; the book ends with an unanswered plea. The reader is left to wonder if the small seed of hope in 3:21-24 will ever bear fruit.
Though Lamentations does not include YHWH’s response to His people, the book becomes a map for Judah’s restoration hopes during the exile and the Persian period. Isaiah 40-55 uses imagery similar to that of Lamentations to describe how low Daughter Zion has fallen—and then reverses that imagery in describing YHWH’s great salvation in store for her.10
Isaiah 49:13-26, for example, answers the crisis in Lamentations.11 This passage speaks of the reversal of the fragmentation of Judah described in Lamentations: reintegrating the exiles (vv 5, 9, 12, 18, 22), those left desolate in the land, (vv 6, 8, 19-20), and the refugees (vv 5, 9, 12, 18, 22).
Daughter Zion rises from the dust in Isaiah 52:1-2, undoing the humiliation she experienced in Lamentations 1-2. The imagery of rape is reversed: the nations formerly entered her “sanctuary” (Lam 1:10), but she no longer experiences such violation.12 Zion’s sins created a yoke on her neck (Lam 1:14); she now looses the bonds about her neck. Though Zion was a desolate woman, she is now to be clothed in beautiful garments, the raiment of a virginal bride or an honored wife.
Inward Reflection, Outward Witness
Paradoxically, Lamentations is simultaneously the word of man in complaint against God, and the Word of God to man. Lamentations spoke for and to the community of true faith in YHWH during the Babylonian exile. It continues to speak for and to us today as a timeless expression of inexpressible earthly pain and suffering before the God of heaven.
Laments have the potential to deepen our liturgy and personal piety. There are times when we must complain to God, vigorously and emotionally, about suffering and injustice. In prayer we hold God accountable for His own promises declared to us in Jesus Christ. God shares our weariness, pain and anger in a sin-marred world. When we appeal to His covenant promises, we faithfully anticipate the consummation of His eternal kingdom.
Lamentations provides us with one facet of a rich and complex answer to the problem of evil. Together with Lamentations, books like Job and Ecclesiastes form a deep tradition of philosophical consideration that defies simplistic answers.
God has given us His ultimate answer in Jesus Christ. Lamentations points us toward such an answer: I cannot explain suffering, but I trust the God who can. I trust the God who became a man, looked evil straight in the eye and said, “Do your worst,” taking pain, suffering, death and misery upon Himself. Even if we cannot fathom how a loving God could permit suffering, we can trust that He has experienced it all. Rather than destroying them, “Our griefs He Himself bore.”13 God’s justice, and His faithfulness to His promises, and His love, and His sovereignty, are all proven at the cross.
For an audio recording of Mr. Giffone’s Agora Conference session on this topic, visit pbu.edu/agora.
[framed_box]Benjamin Giffone has been an adjunct faculty member at PBU since 2010. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com. A graduate of PBU’s B.S. and M.S. in Bible programs, Benj is pursuing a D.Th. at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. Portions of this essay were published previously by the author at EverydayLiturgy.com.
1Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” JSOT 36 (1986): 57-71.
2Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” 60.
3Cf. James Rachels, “God and Moral Autonomy,” in Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds., The Impossibility of God (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2003).
4Gary A. Anderson, A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance: The Expression of Grief and Joy in Israelite Religion (The Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, 1991), 8.
5Mark E. Cohen, The Canonical Lamentations of Ancient Mesopotamia (Potomac, Md.: Capital Decisions Ltd., 1988).
6Xuan Huong Thi Pham, Mourning in the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999); Tod Linafelt, Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
7Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” 62.
8M.W. Green, “The Uruk Lament,” JAOS 104 (1984): 253; Nancy C. Lee, Singers of Lamentations: Cities Under Seige, From Ur to Jerusalem to Sarajevo (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 22.
9Mark E. Cohen, The Canonical Lamentations of Ancient Mesopotamia, vol. 2 (Potomac, Md.: Capital Decisions Ltd., 1988), 14.
10Patricia Tull Willey, Remember the Former Things: The Recollection of Previous Texts in Second Isaiah (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997).
11Linafelt, Surviving Lamentations, 72-78.
12See F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp and Tod Linafelt, “The Rape of Zion in Thr 1,10,” ZAW 113 (2001): 77–81.