Nestled after Jeremiah and before Ezekiel is a tiny book of poetry that is easily lost between the huge books either side of it. Just five poems long, the book of Lamentations captures the senseless tragedy and horror of seeing a city destroyed by war.
The city is Jerusalem, and the year is 586 BC. After a year-and-a-half long siege, the army of the Babylonian Empire broke through Jerusalem's gates in a mighty flood of sword and fire. This once glorious city now lies in ruins. Her walls have been torn down, the temple destroyed, and every building set alight. Smoke rises from the ashes like a funeral pyre, burnt bodies litter the streets, and packs of jackals prowl the squares. The majority of Jerusalem's inhabitants have been killed or dragged off by the invaders to become slaves. A severe famine leaves survivors wasting away from hunger and wishing they had died by Babylonian sword.
Lamentations is a bleak account. As you bravely-or dutifully-trudge through these five poems, your spirit longs for a glimpse of hope, a word of prophecy, or a small word of comfort from God. But it never comes. God remains silent. Instead, a handful of overlapping voices draw you in to the shocking aftermath of their individual or corporate experiences of Jerusalem's destruction. Verse after verse overflows with their raw pain, uncontrolled sorrow, and sheer unadulterated desperation.
By the end of Lamentations, part of you is glad it is such a short book while the other part of you is left disturbed by God's continued distance. The book ends with the following lines:
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore to us yourself, LORD, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.
Imagine a Broadway show where you know who the lead actor is, but his character is neither seen nor heard for the entire duration of the play. The set has been designed to look like the front fascia of this character's house. As the story progresses, you are given the impression he is home by the way lights inside the house turn on and off at random intervals. The rest of the cast congregate outside in the street. They are dressed in dirty and bloodied rags, with many appearing injured. All of them are starving. Some violent disaster has befallen them before the play began and together they mourn the loss of family, friends, and homes.
The cast obviously feel an attachment to the main character and believe this to be a reciprocal bond, for they spend the next three hours banging on his front door and windows. They speak about him, rage at him, repent to him, praise him, and cry out for his comfort, yet he never opens his door or even looks out a window. He chooses not to join their conversation, answer their accusations, or offer any form of comfort. They are met only with silence and absence.
The play ends with the cast questioning whether they have been abandoned by this lead character and assuming he must be immeasurably angry with them. The curtain falls, but as we walk out of the theatre, we swear we can still hear weeping coming from behind the curtain.
In such a disconcerting story, it's easy to see why we make the following chorus of praise-with its expressions of hope-the traditional focal point of Lamentations:
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him."
However, when we put praise at the heart of Lamentations, we can end up telling each other to respond to trauma with proclamatio