The Key of Lamentation
Years ago, I remember looking in an older work on the Psalms for some way to understand the concluding words of Psalm 137. The author said that the expression was not a Christian one, and it was a surprise to me that such should be the conclusion of a conservative. Can we set aside certain portions of the Old Testament that way? I didn’t think then that we could.
The problem of the imprecatory Psalms is one that generates diverse views. There are those who see the expression as vindictive and find this unacceptable. We are no longer to love our friends and hate our enemies, but to love both. I don’t think, however, most of us find that a reassuring approach.
C.S. Lewis reflects on the Psalms and grants that the sentiments expressed sometimes seem barbaric to modern sensibilities. However, he says that it is unwise for us to disassociate ourselves from the Psalms. He argues that the Psalms obviously molded the piety of the human mother of our Lord, and even more obviously shaped the thinking and teaching of Christ. Mary’s Magnificat is a psalm and it is clearly in continuity with the themes and longings of the more ancient Psalms. What is even more interesting, it recycles a lot of the warlike expressions first heard on the lips of Hannah.
Lewis actually thinks the predominant and prevailing thirst for justice in the Psalms is not wrong. He posits a ‘dark night of the flesh’ as the occasion for OT imprecations. The dark night of the flesh is when a society turns on someone the way children in a playground may turn on one among them, or as a group is scapegoated as the Jews were by Nazis, or intellectuals by Soviets, etc. Lewis believes that the mode of imprecation may still be understood and appreciated. That complaint of abandon and isolation dehumanizes.
I think what Lewis says is true enough, and ingeniously (as usual) argued—though I’ve perhaps oversimplified his argument. But I wonder if we can’t do better. I think he sets us on our way: that justice has to have something to do with it, but I also think that he doesn’t quite settle the matter. The book of Lamentations I think gets me a more satisfactory conclusion.
Lamentations consists of five poems. There is an acrostic pattern set up in the first two poems, each of which has 22 verses – one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I don’t think the purpose is to aid memory but rather to create a pattern. That pattern is established in the first two poems, and then it is varied in the third: you have 66 verses – three for each letter of the alphabet. It highlights the importance of what is said there, where in all the Lamentation the note of hope which has been missing, finally sounds.
Once the note of hope is sounded in that emphatic and central poem, the fourth poem varies the pattern by having abbreviated verses, as if the lamentation is dwindling. What remains, however, is the note of hope. In the last poem, then, there is no acrostic. There are simply 22 statements with no particular acrostic ordering. It has the least words since the verses are even shorter than before. I believe the point of the dwindling of the poetry to a bare echo of 22 lines signifies that the lamentation itself is dwindling. The constant, as a result, is the residue of hope which carries through from chapter 3. This is the message of Lamentations.
One other thing is significant in what the poet of Lamentations is doing. In his poems, even those without the note of hope, you still have the note of justice. Being punished for its sins, Jerusalem still longs for punishment on those who oppress and sadden her. It is the same imprecatory note sounded in the Psalms, very similar with the concluding desire of the 137th. What is interesting in Lamentations is that it is prior to the note of hope. Also, it does not dwindle with the lamentation.
In fact, I want to argue that it is the germ of the note of hope: its precursor and harbinger. Why does Jeremiah in describing the misery that the just and faithful punishment God has brought upon his people sound the note of justice? Because if there is no justice, all our suffering is meaningless. It is the ultimate degradation, and one God will not permit. Our suffering cannot be meaningless. The only way it can be kept from being meaningless is for there to be justice: oppression is wrong, injustice cannot be tolerated, and misery at least means that. And that is why the miserable desire justice so ardently in Scripture. They desire it to such an extent that they trouble us; but they are right. It is decidedly in the note of hope to believe that the suffering of the lowest and even of the deserving is not meaningless, that though they suffer there is still something greater to give it meaning: justice.