Our Daily Office readings for the evening continues through the Jeremianic literature with the book of Lamentations. We’ve worked our way through the book of Jeremiah itself already, and touched upon the book of his assistant, Baruch, and are now reading from Lamentations, which is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah’s hand.
An unusual amount of biographical information about Jeremiah himself is preserved in the middle of the book bearing his name; it relates his dicey interaction with the leadership of Jerusalem. He prophesies doom and gloom for Jerusalem, and the leaders of the people generally see this as an act of treason – how can it possibly be God’s will to lead the Gentiles to victory and destroy His own temple? The end of the book of Jeremiah is another historical note about the fall of Jerusalem largely repeating material in 2 Kings 24.
This rather depressing ending sets up for a sort of appendix, which we know as the Lamentations. This is a series of five Hebrew poems, alphabetic acrostics of varying length and elaborateness, each bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem from a different point of view, be it the third-person perspective of an observer, personifying the city itself, and others. Despite the mournful subject of all five laments, some very famous glimmers of hope shine through: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (3:22-23). You may be familiar with a famous hymn inspired by these verses. Perhaps, after reading chapter 3, you may be so moved to sing that hymn as an Evening Prayer Canticle, or an Anthem after the Collects.
Structurally, the book of Lamentations is very simple. Each chapter is its own poem. Apart from the Hebrew acrostics, other elements show up from time to time: there are call-and-response elements pop up, as if some of these poems were used for a liturgical community lament around the wrecked Temple. The varying of perspective, too, enables one to embody the experience of the city itself, or the Temple itself, looking at the destruction and devastation from several angles.
Spiritually, one of the simplest appropriations of this book in a Christ-centered manner is to connect the Old Testament Temple building to the New Testament Temple of Christ’s Body, which was destroyed on that first Good Friday and “rebuilt in three days” as Jesus promised (John 2:21). Indeed, parts of this book will be read again during Holy Week, in which that bewailing of the destruction of all we hold dear is given an explicit Christocentric context.
This time around, perhaps it’s best to try to keep the historical setting of the Lamentations in mind for now; walk with Jeremiah and/or the Hebrew survivors of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586BC, and mourn with them. Come Holy Week, we’ll use some of these words again to mourn with the disciples (and all of faithful humanity) over the even more grievous destruction of the Temple that is Jesus himself.