My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms. (Lam 2:11-12)
No one was spared at the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy City. God vent his anger on Judah. Blame lay with the princes, priests, and false prophets, who had encouraged pagan practices and rejection of the one God. But all suffered, even women, infants, and the elderly.
All her people groan as they search for bread …(1:11)
Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets …(2:20)
In this short book of five personal and communal laments, we have anonymous eyewitness accounts of defeat by the Babylonians, deportation, and desolation. We come away certain of their truth. And we realize that the Old Testament comprises real stories of real people. God was at work in the events of that time, and he is at work in the events of our time.
Lamentations reveals how a devastated people worked through their painful reality, remained faithful to Yahweh, and sought some meaning of the suffering. God did not rejoice in their affliction. He had forgiven his people before. There was hope that he would do so again.
Tradition once held that Jeremiah authored Lamentations, but later scholars determined it was written over several decades. While passionate in tone, expressing chaos and suffering, loneliness, fear, shame, sickness, and grief, these laments were highly structured. Three are acrostics, with each verse beginning with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. They differ in style and rhythm. It is possible they were sung in liturgical setting; it is certain they were later used in annual rituals to remember the destruction of Jerusalem.
“Out of the controlled literary form,” writes scholar James A. Fischer, “comes a theological insight. God can be faced and prayed to in all the divine anger and stony silence. Grief and bitterness can be surmounted to arrive at repentance and acceptance. When history has become unendurable, faith still endures.” (Collegeville Commentary, 804).
Christians associate Lamentations with the passion of Christ and read from the book during Holy Week’s Liturgy of the Hours.