Lament and Sadness
During this time of global health crisis when COVID-19 is ravaging many parts of the world, who knows when the end is in sight? We don’t know how many people will be affected. We don’t know how many people will die. We don’t know what will happen to the economy. It’s a time of great uncertainty.
It reminds me of the kinds of experiences that Jeremiah went through in his life. He loved the city of Jerusalem. It was the place, basically, where he was born, and where he had his public ministry. He saw people dying in the streets of that city. There was only one way for him to express that: in the form of lament.
That’s what you have—not surprisingly—in Lamentations. It’s a book of lament. You get the sense that it’s a lament. You know he’s discouraged, you know he’s sad—that’s evident from the opening pages of the book. The more you know about lament and how lament works, the more things really come alive to you in reading Lamentations. This seems so relevant to the suffering that we’re going through right now.
For example, large parts of the book of Lamentations are written as acrostics—going from A to Z (or from א to ת in the Hebrew alphabet). Now, what does it mean when you write a lament in acrostic? It contains all of the woe you could possibly have—nothing more could be said. In order to express the full lament you are feeling, you would have to go from A to Z to express all of it. Even knowing this literary detail and being sensitive to it tells you where Jeremiah’s is. It tells you a lot about what’s happening in the book.
Also, it’s not always customary in lament to have the strong words of hope that Jeremiah gives. When you know how a lament should go, and you can see how Jeremiah is improvising with that literary form, then when you hear him say right in the middle of the book that God’s faithfulness is great and his mercies are new every morning, there’s a message of hope there. This man was going through the greatest suffering, and he also had the greatest hope.
It’s there if you just read the book. You might love those verses and use them somewhere, but when you understand the literary form and how it works, all of the sudden you realize, Oh my goodness. This man was going through the greatest suffering, and he also had the greatest hope. And he wanted to communicate that.
That’s really relevant for understanding the Bible as literature, but it’s also really relevant for the hope that we need in these troubled times.
Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College. He preached at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church from 1995 until his appointment at Wheaton in 2010. Ryken has published more than 50 books, including When Trouble Comes and expository commentaries on Exodus, Ecclesiastes, and Jeremiah. He serves as a board member for the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the Lausanne Movement, and the National Association of Evangelicals.