Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Lamentations

This week’s book is just what we all need for those post-Easter back-to-work blues. Last week we talked about Jeremiah’s grief at the destruction of his city of Jerusalem and, deeper than that, the dying of a whole culture, and we noted that, unlike many prophetic books, Jeremiah’s contains several passages in which he pours out the grief of his broken heart. If, as is traditionally assumed, Lamentations is from his pen, we get the full horror of his devastation in these five chapters.

Lament is not something the church has always been good at, at least those more hopeful and upbeat sections of it. But like other kinds of literature in the Bible lament has its form, and its rules. This book uses the form of funeral poems, cast in typical lament structure, and it is a book from which we can learn much.

I am indebted to a very helpful Grove Book called Sowing in Tears by Paul Bradbury[1]. Subtitled ‘How to Lament in a Church of Praise’ it makes the point that charismatic churches can be so focussed on future triumph that present suffering can easily be downplayed or excluded altogether from the church’s worship and spirituality. After all, we should all be walking in faith and victory. He examines ‘Lament form’ and uses it as a framework to contain both sorrow and hope, just as the author of our book does.

Lament

So we begin with an extended description of just what it is that has gone wrong. The city is devastated and deserted; worship has ceased, her enemies have triumphed over her and have plundered her; the few people remaining are close to starvation, and nobody cares. Like the prophet the city is without comfort or help. Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to judge those who have caused all this distress.

In chapter 2 the blame shifts, and there is a recognition that God is actually behind this devastation, which is seen as punishment. The Lord has done exactly what he said he would do. Chapter 3 becomes more personal as the author talks in greater detail about what all this has done to him personally. But then in what is the purple passage of the book hope springs up in 3:21. At least God has not destroyed us altogether: because of his love, mercy and faithfulness hope remains. The appropriate response, therefore is patient submission and waiting. But then the lament theme re-emerges and what looks like Jeremiah’s personal suffering at the hand of those who found his message unacceptable is recounted. Chapter 4 is more of the same, reminding us that even though hope springs up briefly it has not yet fully overcome the need to mourn. The final chapter is a prayer to the endlessly reigning God to restore the people’s fortunes, but the poignant coda adds ‘Unless you have utterly rejected us’.

Lamentations is a powerful book, too little preached on, and too dominated by the church’s love for the short nice bit in chapter 3 with little acknowledgement of the reality of the rest. Paul Bradbury’s advice to us is to use the lament form, which moves from deepest devastation to hope to prayer as a ‘container’ for our griefs and sorrows. Certainly it is appropriate that we resist all attempts to jolly us, or those we stand alongside in their suffering, towards resolution before we have been given the chance fully to lament our woes. Without a full expression of the experience of the pain of suffering and loss, any attempts at rushing people towards hope and joy are very likely to be superficial. Lamentations gives us a good framework: it is a book which needs to be preached and prayed far more than it is.

[1] Grove Worship Series W193 (Cambridge: Grove, 2007)

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Psalms

Clearly we’re not going to be able to do justice to this huge collection of songs and poems in 600 words, so rather than looking too much at the texts, I want to ask about what the Psalms are, and how we might use them. They contain some of the best-loved and most-neglected words of Scripture: Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd’) forms a great contrast with the desire of the author of Psalm 137 who, in an ideal world, would love to see children dashed against rocks. The Anglican tradition used to be that the entire Psalter was prayed once each month, but many churches now neglect the whole book and barely ever use Psalms in worship.

Wiesiołowski David playing the harp.jpg

So what is this book? It has been described as ‘The Hymn Book of the Second Temple’, and that title gives us a great clue as to its nature. With the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which we read about when looking at Ezra and Nehemiah, the Priests began a revival of worship, which probably involved collecting together Hymns Ancient and Modern into a five-volume book. It is certainly not the case that the whole book was written by King David, although some probably were. When the heading of a Psalm says in English ‘Of David’ the Hebrew means ‘To David’, or ‘From a Davidic collection’, so even the great musician-king acted as compiler of a collection without necessarily being the author. You can trace a development in thought, as well as some historical context, in some of the Psalms: Psalm 1, for example, blithely declares that good people will prosper and bad people flounder: The later book of Job gave the lie to that rather naive idea. Psalm 137, to which we have already referred, is clearly written out of the context of exile and slavery, and even tells us about the Israelites in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem. Probably not by David then, that one.

Theologians love to do ‘Form Criticism’ on the Psalms, in other words trying to reconstruct in what setting they may originally have been used. Some is a bit speculative, but there are also some good clues: Psalms 120-133, labelled as ‘Songs of Ascent’ look as though they might have been used in procession as pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem for festivals. Some Psalms belong in the genre of Wisdom Literature, the most notable of which is Psalm 119, a marathon celebration of God’s laws. There are also some delights in form: Psalm 119, again, is an acrostic Psalm, with the eight verses of each stanza all beginning with the same letter (which some versions of the Bible helpfully give us in Hebrew). The subject matter is as varied as it is possible to be: some are the words for an individual while others are corporate or national; there is celebration, lament, teaching, anguished and angry crying out to God for justice, or indeed any action at all on his part, and there is imprecation, the calling down of God’s anger on those who oppress the Jews. And so on …

So what does this collection as a whole teach us? A lot about God, for a start. Psalms like 78, a ‘recital of mighty acts’, rehearses God’s action in the nation’s history, and reminds us of the importance of remembering and counting our blessings. Many explain just why God is worthy of our heartfelt praise. But the book also teaches us about ourselves. In a church culture which is far too often ‘nice’ and which sweeps any kind of negativity under the carpet, it is comforting to know that Israel felt that it was OK, in the context of worship, to weep, lament, get angry, rant à la Stephen Fry against God’s cruelty, as well as to engage in outrageous celebration. Any church which allows us to do less is missing the point, and may well be doing irreparable harm to us too. There will be a Psalm for any mood, for every occasion, and they make great, if at times uncomfortable, spurs into prayer.