Listening to Lamentations: Making Space for Silence

A few of my friends have had a hard year. They’ve lost children. They’ve lost their mental health. They’ve lost security in their future…the list could go on and on. This year has been a painful year for many of my friends. As a friend, I want to be present and supportive. As a preacher, I wanted to make sure the pulpit honored the voice of pain in our congregation while also giving glory to God. This desire led me to studying the Book of Lamentations.

Lamentations is not a book that many of us read often. And I must admit I hadn’t read it much prior to this past June. However, over the past few months I have been drinking deeply of this most painful book from the First Testament. In what follows, I hope to share three observations that occurred to me over the course of my time in this book.

The historical setting of the book is sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The remaining survivors sit in the dust of their fallen city and are left with one dark question: What now? The reflection of this question in part leads to the five poems that make up Lamentations. Lamentations is a book of mourning for the community of God left behind. They are survivors but given the state of Jerusalem, one wonders if surviving was meant to be a gift or a curse. So while the historical setting is the fall of Jerusalem, the poetic setting can be considered any place of trauma. If you have ever been in a pit of grief and despair, Lamentations is your book.

First, Lamentations lives within the silence of God. In 1:20-21 Jerusalem (personified as the Daughter Zion) exclaims, “Look, Lord, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, Hear my groaning, there is no one to comfort me. Daughter Zion has no comfort; she is alone in her trauma. This is a major point of the book; not even God comforts Zion….she is utterly abandoned.  God never responds to her in the book. He never speaks words of any kind to her.

God is the missing voice of Lamentations. His silence is so great that in the end, the community of God asks, “Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old 22 unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” Essentially the book ends asking, “Is God done?” Has God washed his hands of this whole thing? This is a question we often ask in trauma but perhaps we are ashamed of this feeling. Isn’t that a lack of faith? Aren’t we supposed to sing and be happy regardless of our situations? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that a book exists where the cry of the trauma survivor rises up and it is anything but happy. Perhaps, Lamentations reminds us there is space to feel lost when in hopeless situations.

Second, God’s silence opens up the space for the community to reflect on itself. Lamentations spends a good amount of time talking and describing the hopeless present situation. Poems one, two, and four are essentially funeral dirges for Israel. Using powerfully vivid images, the poems dive into the deepest despairs of its people. In 3:1, we are introduced to a geber, a strongman, whose job is to defend and protect the people. He must feel like a complete failure as he surveys the fallen Jerusalem. He says in 3:7-9, “He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked.”

The strongman is trapped in his situation. He is blocked on all sides with a heavy weight around his neck. And he will continue to reflect on this suffering until vs. 21, “Yet this I called to mind and therefore I have hope.” In the midst of his grief, something catches his eye and he is able to latch onto it and find hope again (momentarily at least…we’ll get there). It’s as if by talking and processing his experience the strongman is able to find a moment of healing, a brief comfort from the trauma.

Survivors need to have a space to voice their pain; survivors need to be heard. This is how they walk the path of healing….by opening up in a loving context and processing their pain. Pain that is internalized quickly poisons and becomes a bitter bile on the soul. But when it is processed and discussed (in a healthy setting) it can become the springboard for life….even if it just a brief moment of life.

Finally, Lamentations teaches us that hope is a complex experience.  Following vs. 21 we find the most well-known part of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.” We might be tempted to think after this verse the rest of the book would be a hopeful read but it is not. The hope of this poem vanishes as quickly as it arrived. The third poem is not a moment of triumph for the poet but rather a moment of rest from the chaos that surrounds. It comes in, goes away, comes back and then vanishes again.

Perhaps this is more true to our experience than we want to admit but I think there is something healthy in this experience. It doesn’t treat hope like a drug that numbs the pain without actually healing the survivor. Instead, hope becomes one step in the complex discussion of a survivors healing. There are days you feel hopeful and days you don’t. This is true to the human experience. We need not feel the shame of imperfection in these days. Rather we simply sit and acknowledge where we are, when we are there.

Trauma is not easily overcome…it took Israel years to work through their pain and loss. However, the survivors did discover a new identity, a new hope in time, and they did heal. So for those who are weathering the traumas of life may you find a friend in this book, may you share in the voice of Lamentations. And for the rest of us, may we learn to be as silent as God and simply listen to their voice.