[K:NWTS 12/3 (Dec 1997) 30-34]

The Lament and the Lamenter

Lamentations 3:1-23

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Kerux 12N3A2

An acrostic in a poem of acrostics. Lamentations 3 is, in fact, the acrostic of acrostics of this poem. You will note chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5 are composed of 22 verses. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. Chapter 5 excepted, the verse sequences is aleph to tau. Chapter 3 perfects the acrostic pattern by the rule of threes—a triadic acrostic; or 3 times 22 equals 66 verses. In fact, chapter three is framed by double chapters of 22 verses each. Chapter three is the structural centerpiece, the keystone of the poem. This third chapter draws the poetic imagery of chapters 1 and 2 into itself, while the poetic imagery of chapters 4 and 5 flows out of chapter 3. A remarkably structured poem, triply so at its midpoint!

This striking composition by the weeping prophet has added a word to the English language—"threnody" from the title of the book in the Septuagint—Threnoi. Threnody or a lachrymose plangency emblematic of the classic Semitic lament. Lamentationes (Latin)—Threnoi (Greek)—eka (Hebrew). A poem of sorrows—an acrostic of grief—a requiem for a city. The book of Lamentations is a plangent rehearsal of the death of a city. "How lonely sits the city"(1:1). Zion, the city of the great kings, has become a widow. For the Lord has swallowed up Jerusalem in his fierce anger. Babylon's Nebuchadnezzar is his instrument, but this ruin is the Lord's doing.

The sensitive reader too weeps with those who weep. Jeremiah's sorrows touch the heart-strings of this century. Images of Hitler's death camps—6 million sorrows. And Stalin's Ukranian famine, Siberian concentration camps, political purges—20 million sorrows. And Pol Pot, architect of Cambodia's killing fields—2 million sorrows. And perhaps the greatest mass murderer of all time, Mao Tse-tung—estimated to have executed more than 60 million people during the Cultural Revolution. Need I mention Rwanda and the Tutsi genocide of recent memory. We are not strangers to sorrow. And yet Auschwitz, Siberia, Phnom Penh, Beijing, Kigali, seem remote. We sorrow without suffering sorrows—we lament without enduring the lamentable.  

Jerusalem too sorrowed without suffering sorrows. Inviolable Zion had withstood the Syro-Ephraimite coalition of Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Samaria, 734-32 B.C. Impregnable Zion had held out against Shalmaneser V, 722 B.C. And when Sennacherib boasted of locking Hezekiah up like a caged bird, 701 B.C., it was 185,000 Assyrians who sorrowed, not the sons and daughters of Jerusalem. Zion survived the parade of Egyptian soldiers under Pharaoh Necho II on his return from that fateful encounter at Carchemish, 609 B.C.—a visit in which he deposed King Jehoahaz and installed his own puppet, Jehoiakim, on the throne. And what of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: two times he had surrounded Jerusalem—605 B.C., when he carried off Daniel, Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego; and 597 B.C., when Ezekiel was captured. But Jerusalem still stood—"the temple of the lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord is here."

But in 586 B.C., the warnings of the sorrowful prophet, Jeremiah, were fulfilled. The invincible Zion theology collapsed as Babylonian siege machines pummeled the walls of Jerusalem, Babylonian archers picked off Jewish soldiers on the walls, and Babylonian battering rams leveled the temple of Solomon. No more sorrow from a distance; sorrow in 586 B.C. Jerusalem became a national existential reality. And on that day—that great day of the Lord—it was as if the last judgment had been anticipated in the smoke and the flames and the shrieks and the wails in that city of destruction.

The singer of Lamentations remembers. He chants sorrow—intones sorrow—rhapsodizes sorrow in acrostic poetry. Jeremiah sings a dirge—a funeral dirge—over the once indestructible city.

The songs of sorrow—Verdi's great Requiem; Chopin's Funeral March; taps. In 1976, the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki composed his 3rd Symphony—the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It contains three movements—the triad—all centered around poetic songs of sorrow: the Virgin Mary for her Son; an 18-year-old girl in a Gestapo prison; a mother's lament for her son killed in war. In a repetitive, tonal plainchant, Gorecki weaves a poignant, plaintive, threefold soprano solo. When the compact disc was released in 1992 with the stunning American soprano Dawn Upshaw, it became the first classical release in the rock and roll era to top the Billboard charts. Gorecki had written a symphony for this century of sorrows.

Jeremiah's composition of sorrowful songs for the 6th century B.C. is even more poignant, plaintive, stunning. Jeremiah weaves concentric patterns around a central focal point. (Interestingly, Gorecki's first movement of his third symphony is itself composed chiastically: ascending strings—soprano solo-descending strings.) Jeremiah's vocabulary duplicates in concentric rings toward the center of each chapter. For example, chapter 1:1 contains the phrase "great among the nations"; vs. 22—contains the phrase "great/many groans"; vs. 2—"none to comfort"; vs. 21—"none to comfort"; and so on to vss. 11 and 12 which contain a precise AB/B'A' chiasm "see and look"/"look and see".  

Chapter 2 continues the concentric pattern: note vs. 1—"day of God's anger"; vs. 22—"day of the Lord's anger"; vs. 4—"poured out"; vs. 19—"poured out"; the crisscross at vss. 11 and 12 "poured out ... faint in the streets". But chapter two adds concatenation to concentrism. Like a chain link fence, each verse contains a word which is repeated in the next verse, while the subsequent verse uses a new word which becomes the link to the following verse. 2:1—"Adonai/Lord" is repeated in 2:2; 2:2 contains the name "Jacob" which appears again in vs. 3; vs. 3 contains the term "fire" which is concatenated with "fire" in vs. 4; and so on throughout the chapter with the exception of vss. 13 and 14. Jeremiah's second poem is not only concentrically constructed, it is constructed to link subsequent concentric layers of concatenation.

The keystone of the book, chapter 3, forms the point of transition in Jeremiah's poem. From the crisscross in vss. 31-33 and 34-36, the poem ascends to chapter five and its emotive prayer. In form, the third chapter is a concentric parallelism in blocks of 3 verses: vss. 1-3 and 64-66 contain the word "hand"; vss. 4-6 and 61-63 contain the phrase "against me" or "on me' and so on to the center where "not Lord/Adonai" is duplicated.

But it is not so much the form or structure of Jeremiah's acrostics which fascinates as the theological and artistic progression of the poetic whole. In chapter one, the poet allows Zion herself to speak. It is the familiar literary poetic device of personification. "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow" (1:12). In chapter two, the poet advances his message by joining his voice to that of the city. This mutual blending of the cry of the city and the cry of Jeremiah deepens the pathos of the passage. "All who pass by clap their hands at you: they hiss and shake their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem, ‘Is this the city of which they said, The perfection of beauty, a joy to all the earth?’" (2:15). But chapter 3 contains a fusion of the poet and the city—the two become one. "I am the man who has seen affliction because of the rod of his wrath. Remember my affliction and my bitterness, the wormwood and the gall" (3:1, 19). The poet embodies the fate of the city in chapter 3. He incorporates—yea incarnates—the death of the city in his own anguish. Personification is not sufficient to penetrate the anguish of this lamentation. Nor is juxtaposition of poet and city sufficient to exhaust the death-throes of Zion. Only the incarnation of the death of the city in the poet; only the incorporation of the sufferings of the city in Jeremiah himself suffices. The poet bears the sufferings of Zion in himself. The singer of Lamentations incarnates his lament.

A singer of sorrows who personifies lamentation; a weeping prophet whose tears reflect the death of a city; a poet whose plangent meter embodies the agony of the city of God. Jeremiah is reprised—yet once more, at the end of the age—an eschatological prophet incarnates the eschatological sorrows—with sighs and tears, he cries, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem." A greater than Jeremiah is here. He incarnates lament and lamenter—the subject and object of lamentation. They gather to weep for him who wept over a dying city. But their tears cannot drown out his lamentation of dereliction, "My God, My God, Why ... ?" The very incarnation of wrath, death, judgment, condemnation. This man of sorrows, this weeping prophet—sings his own dirge—his own lamentation—his own sorrowful symphony.

Sings—for you and for me. Sings that eschatological song of sorrows so that the sorrows of hell will not get hold of you and of me. Weeps those bitter tears with sighs so that your tears and my sighs may pass away. There is a city—no more death! There is a city—no more tears! There is a city—the prophet weeps no more!

Have you heard of the city? The streets are paved with gold! There are twelve gates to the city, Hallelu. Three gates in the east, three gates in the west, three gates in the north, three gates in the south. Twelve gates to the city, twenty-four elders in the city, forty-eight angels in the city—great, big beautiful city—city four-square.1  

And in that city—Jeremiah weeps no more. In that city—the eschatological Jeremiah weeps no more. In that city—those embodied, those incorporated in the eschatological Jeremiah—they weep no more. No more lamentation for the citizens of the new Jerusalem. Hitler—cannot touch them there; Stalin—cannot touch them there; Pol Pot, Mao Tse-tung—cannot touch them there. God himself shall touch them there—he shall wipe away every tear—there shall be no more death, nor crying, nor pain. For the Lamb who wept weeps no more.

Escondido, California

1 Lyrics from "Twelve Gates to the City" found on the Teldec compact disk (D 105671) Where the Sun Will Never Go Down by Chanticleer. Cited here by permission.