If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.
21 August. Lamentations chapters 4-5
In chapter 4 the focus turns from the loss of community identity and shared experience that defined the people of Jerusalem, to the present suffering of its inhabitants. The symptoms of malnutrition are, sadly, familiar to us today as we regularly see pictures of drought in parts of Africa – shrivelled skin, protruding bones, children begging in vain for food. But again, it is not mere physical pain that afflicts them. From living in a thriving economy city in a rich nation, they are now living from hand to mouth and experiencing the humiliation of being insignificant in the world. Poetically, “the precious children of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, are reckoned as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands!” (4:2)
The writer poses a dilemma (4:6-9) – which would be worse, to die suddenly in an “act of God” such as the sulphurous destruction of Sodom or by an enemy’s sword – or to cling on to life in the misery of hunger and disease? Both forms of suffering still afflict the world. Some religious traditions would say it is better to cling on to life whatever happens. Others would support the natural human reaction that says that those who die suddenly have suffered for only a short time and therefore less, adding that they will experience God’s presence all the sooner. But can we really compare the duration of earthly suffering with the timeless existence of the soul like that? There is no easy answer.
In chapter 5 the voice changes from that of the city itself to that of the people within it. They cry out to God with a catalogue of their sufferings, which once again are not all physical, but communal: “The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning” (5:14-15). The cry at the end of the book (5:19-22) is not for wealth but for God to restore them to a relationship with him. But this is not a happy ending like that of the story of Job: the book of Lamentations, like Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and with their prayers of Jerusalem unanswered.