The other Sunday morning I turned up for Breakfast with the Bible and discovered that the passage for the day was the first chapter of Lamentations. Wow! What a challenge for the visiting speaker. Poor man, he had accepted the invitation to speak – and only then discovered what was expected of him! For it is a passage of Scripture which at first sight has no good news at all. Who in their right mind would choose to preach from Lamentations 1?
Lamentations 1 is a chapter of unalleviated woe- it is full of pain and suffering, loss and tragedy. Jerusalem has been destroyed, the cream of the nation has been taken into exile, and all hope has gone. It makes for depressing reading, and all the more because God says nothing. Chris Wright comments: “The God who spectacularly answered Job stays silent in this book. Perhaps we will have to speak on his behalf, especially if we choose to preach the book for what it is now – part of God’s word”. How true that is. As a preacher I want to defend God and to make some sense of the tragedy has unfolded. But as Chris Wright goes on to say: “First we must appreciate ‘the sound of silence’ as God’s intentional restraint. It is because God refuses to interrupt that we hear the voices of the Poet and the personified Lay Zion in all their screaming anguish, groaning remorse and whispered grief. We need to follow God’s example and let their voices be fully heard before we impose our own voice claiming to be his” (The Message of Lamentation, 57, 58).
In some ways Lamentations is a very contemporary book. For today’s world is characterised by overwhelming suffering. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan are just the tip of the iceberg of the horror which pervades so much life today. In a very real way, Lamentations urges us to raise our voices to God, and to lament with those who lament.
And yet, if the truth be told, it is difficult. Most of us in the West live within a context of comfort and ease. Even though we see on the screens of our televisions the pain and violence of this world, we are to a large extent shielded from its reality. However, at Breakfast with the Bible that Sunday we began to experience a sense of loss through a paper exercise. For we were asked to write a list of the ten people or things we most valued in this life. My list included my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my calling, the joy of being alive in God’s world, the Christian hope – as well as the delights of food and drink. We were then asked to pass our list to our neighbour on ours left, and were then instructed to cross out five of the ten most valued people or things on the list before us. Striking out those five was pretty dire – but worse was to come. Our lists were then returned, and then we were asked to pass the list to the person on our right with the instruction that we should remove a further three items from each list, so that only two items were left. I remember that I crossed out not only my neighbour’s health, but also his children. It was a sobering experience of loss.
We went back to Lamentations 1. Our attention was drawn to the fact that here – as also in the other chapters of Lamentations – we have an alphabetic acrostic – every verse starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with 22 consonants used in succession. Here, if you like, we have the ‘A – Z’ of suffering.
We reflected on how as Brits we often have difficulty in facing up to pain and suffering. When we visit the GP and see a friend, more often than not we will greet the friend ‘How are you?’ with the expected answer ‘Very well thank you’ – even although it would be patently clear that if all were well we would not be visiting the doctor! By contrast the Bible – and notably the Book of Lamentations – faces up to the pain of the world.
Here in Lamentations 1 no remedy for the world’s pain is offered – or at least, not as the chapter was originally written. And yet, this side of the Cross, we inevitably link this chapter with the passion of Jesus. For there, within the very middle of this lament, we come across the words: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger?” (Lam 1.12). These words are picked up in Handel’s Messiah, where a tenor sings: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow”, and where the librettist emended the text to create a reference to Jesus, replacing the word “my” for “His” . My mind, however, that morning went to the first verse of Charles Wesley’s great hymn:
All you that pass by,
To Jesus draw nigh;
To you is it nothing that Jesus should die?
Your ransom and peace,
Your surely he is,
Come, see if there ever was sorrow like his
Here we have a reminder that Jesus became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Hebs 2.17) and in so doing knew pain and suffering. Lamentations is not a Christian text – and yet it is, as Robin Parry wrote, “pregnant with potential” for later Christian interpretation (Lamentations 3). On reflection, what is a truly challenging chapter, can actually lends itself to preaching.