One of the reasons the Old Testament Israelites were able to endure so many calamities was they knew how to lament. When their crops failed or they were defeated in a war, they would gather together to grieve. That is why there are so many laments in the Bible, including more than a third of the 150 psalms. There is even a whole book called “Lamentations.”
The only part of the book of Lamentations many Christians know is the chorus of the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” It is based on these words from Lamentations 3:22–23:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Unfortunately, these are the only words from Lamentations incorporated into the song. It is as if Lamentations is all about assurance and blessings, rather than being a heartbroken response to the destruction of Jerusalem.
The writer of the hymn has ignored a key principle in interpreting the Bible (and composing songs based on a biblical text, which is a form of interpretation). He has not considered the context. Lamentations 3:22–23, “have been wrenched from their context, made the basis of a popular hymn and thus forced to justify a spirituality overflowing with joy, confidence and the untroubled assurance that the world is exactly as it should be.” (David Smith, Stumbling Toward Zion, pg. 21)
We may enjoy the lovely words of the third stanza of the hymn:
Pardon for Sin, and peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside
But I have to agree with the Scottish theologian David Smith:
“When read without reference to the source of its opening lines, this is surely a dreadful misuse of Scripture, distorting the text from Lamentations by compelling it to serve an understanding of the life of faith completely at odds with the message of the book in which it is embedded.”
What we include in a song is important, but so is what we exclude. The Book of Lamentations is more than a declaration of God’s faithfulness. It is also about the grieving of God’s people, the pain of isolation, the reality of hunger, questions, and uncertainties. These are our realities today, and that is why we need to go to the book of Lamentations if we are to learn how to survive the pandemic.
The Importance of Weeping
The very first word in Lamentations is a great cry—“eicha.” This is a cry of mourning, a funeral cry, similar to the Ilokano funeral cry (dung-aw) “Ay!” It sets the tone for the whole book, declaring that it is about grieving, mourning, and weeping.
A pandemic is not a time for rejoicing; it is a time for mourning. Those who quote Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” need to be reminded that the Apostle Paul also said, “Mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). You may not be grieving one of your relatives, but as I write this, 12 doctors in the Philippines have died of COVID-19, and thousands around the world are mourning loved ones.
Lamentations gives space to weeping and crying:
Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks. (Lam 1:2)
My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within. (Lam 2:11)
Streams of tears flow from my eyes
because my people are destroyed. (Lam 3:48)
My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief,
until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees. (Lam 3:49-50)
For those who are unable to give their loved ones a proper funeral because of the pandemic, the words of Lamentations provide much-needed space to express their pain and suffering.
The author of Lamentations tells us:
Arise, cry out in the night,
as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
in the presence of the LORD. (Lam 2:19)
The last words of that verse are very important—“in the presence of the Lord.” Lament is part of prayer. Weeping is not unspiritual and a sign of weakness when it is done “in the presence of the Lord.”
One of the most difficult consequences of COVID-19 for Filipinos (and many others) is isolation. Even introverts need some social interaction. We love to be with our friends and family. Some of us find it hard to live a day without going out. But now we are confined to our homes, and the roads are empty.
The book of Lamentations too portrays a city that is deserted. Crowded roads are now empty. We can identify with the author as he laments,
How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people! (Lam 1:1)
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to her appointed festivals.
All her gateways are desolate… (Lam 1:4)
Some of us cheerfully sing the lines
All I have needed thy hand hath provided
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!
because we still have rice and food for the next month. But what about those who don’t?
How can we sing the song “10,000 Reasons?” Are we so heartless that we ignore the hungry, or so insensitive that we expect them to declare with us:
Sing like never before,
Oh my soul
I’ll worship Your Holy name
A friend posted on Facebook about asking poor families whether they had received any help from the government. Only three out of 12 families said “yes.” And they had been given only 2 to 3 kilos of rice and a few canned goods—barely enough to feed a family for a week. Mothers were desperately trying to make that food last: “One said that she allows her kids to sleep longer through the day so they only need to eat twice instead of the usual three meals a day, and that she is now preparing porridge instead of the regular rice meal with a simple viand.”
In Lamentations the poet weeps for the hungry children:
My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
…because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms. (Lam 2:11-12)
Because of thirst the infant’s tongue
sticks to the roof of its mouth;
the children beg for bread,
but no one gives it to them. (Lam 4:4)
A pastor wrote that the people in his poor community are more likely to die of hunger than of the deadly virus. We see something similar in Lamentations:
Those killed by the sword are better off
than those who die of famine;
racked with hunger,
they waste away for lack of food. (Lam 4:9)
An old man cried on social media: “I would rather die of COVID-19 than of hunger!”
In Lamentations, we see the most tragic thing of all: mothers eating the flesh of their own children:
With their own hands compassionate women
have cooked their own children,
who became their food
when my people were destroyed. (Lam 4:10)
Thus the question, “why?”
The people in Lamentations did not deny that their sins were one reason for their suffering. But this did not stop them from asking God “why?”:
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long? (Lam 5:20)
I cannot overemphasize the importance of the question “why?” during this time. When people who are suffering ask “why?” they are not really seeking an answer or an explanation. They are expressing their agony and pain. It is a mistake to think that we always need to supply an answer to this question. Often, we do not know the answer, and the best we can do is be quiet and listen.
God never speaks in Lamentations. There is no word from the Lord. God is silent from the beginning of the book to the end. It may be that He allows His people to pour out their hearts and listens to their cries, rather than speaking. We don’t really know why He is silent. Lamentations forces us to embrace this uncertainty.
Lamentations ends with no answer. The last three verses of the book are a question, a petition, and a note of uncertainty:
- Question: “Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?” (Lam 5:20)
- Petition: “Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may be restored.” (Lam 5:21)
- Uncertainty: “unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lam 5:22)
How we long to know when the pandemic will end or how long the lockdown will last. With the coming Holy Week, we at least know that Easter is coming. But that is almost the only thing we can be certain of.
This is where the Book of Lamentations becomes a gracious companion. It allows for the expression of our uncertainties. The ending of any book is not merely a trailing off; it is a very important statement. By ending on this note, Lamentations creates space for our own uncertainties. Nothing—even uncertainty—is outside of God.
When we are not able to grieve because we cannot be with our loved ones, we can weep in the presence of the Lord. We know that Jesus will be with us, weeping as He did when His friend Lazarus died. Jesus weeps for every doctor dying. Jesus weeps with every family member who loses a loved one.
In our isolation, we are not alone. Jesus too was abandoned by His friends. He felt abandoned even by God when He was on the cross. We do not have to deny our feelings of isolation. Rather, let us try to turn them into a means of intimacy with Christ. With Christ, we can cry, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
The hunger in Lamentations is also a reality today. Many are struggling, especially day workers. This should prompt us not only to pray but to help as we are able. It should also lead us to ask our leaders what they are doing.
Human leaders do not like lament. They want to silence all questioning and dissent. But the fact that these questions are preserved in the Holy Scriptures means that they are also there for our edification. They are there for our growth.
Lament is there for our growth—but not just for our growth as individuals. Lament is also given to teach the church to be actively engaged in society. Lament is also political (but this will be the topic of another paper).
See how much we miss when we only sing “Great is Thy faithfulness!”