Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lamentations 5: The Lure of Despair

During the summer, though I’ve been remiss in regularly posting, I’ve been trying to spend some time working through the nooks and crannies of the Bible—those back corners that, rightly or wrongly, don't come up as frequently as I'd like in courses or lectionary and haftorah readings. (And yes, I too ask myself why I don’t just go to the beach like everyone else.)

So I’ve re-read Habakkuk, and the third letter of John, and, with no small joy (ironically), Lamentations. I’m not sure any Biblical book is so utterly bleak as Lamentations—not Job, nor Isaiah in its direst moments, nor a griping minor prophet like Amos. Because so far as I can tell, the author of Lamentations commits the gravest of sins: he despairs.

Lamentations is exactly what it sounds like—a collection of poems bewailing the fraught state of the world. Though it was likely written later, most scholars believe that the Lamentations author’s main purpose is to grieve the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Tradition held that Jeremiah—yes, that Jeremiah—wrote both the book that bears his name and Lamentations. And while this thesis long ago fell by the wayside in scholarly circles, it has a certain logical appeal: an aging Jeremiah, sequestered in a writer’s garret, watches the city he tried to save with his prophecy fall … and despairs. (Many suggest that this story accounts for Lamentations’s placement after Jeremiah in the Christian Bible.)

Why do I make such a big deal of this notion, despair? Well, the poet and professor Geoffrey Hill, in discussing the verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins, makes a distinction between desolation and despair (and argues that the famously depressed Hopkins, even in his worst moods, only engages the former). Desolation, as Hill would say more beautifully than I ever could, is the dark night of the soul; every dark night, however, has a morning. (Wow, I should start writing pop songs.)

Despair, on the other hand, marks the end of hope. And utter hopelessness is sinful (and perhaps utterly sinful) because it marks a lack of faith in the divine covenant: the promise that God will ultimately redeem and lift up his people. Both Marlowe and Goethe play with the notion that Faust’s worst mistake is not selling his soul to the devil, but nearly believing that God cannot or will not win him back.

Now, all the prophets—and Jesus and Paul, for that matter—deal quite readily in desolation. All condemn sinners—be they early Israelites or early Christians—for falling away from the true path and predict terrible, graphic punishments as recompense. And every one knows the unimaginably powerful violence of divine wrath. But to a man, every one also has faith—no matter how briefly expressed—that God will ultimately relent in his anger and deliver on his beautiful promises of salvation.

This is why all the prophets work in a predictable cycle of condemnation, punishment, and consolation. But not, so far as I can tell, the author of Lamentations. For though he plays hope like a child with a toy, he ultimately sees fit to abandon it. (What a terrible metaphor.)

The book as a whole is full of apocalyptic terrors. Which makes a certain amount of sense, given that the fall of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem represented nothing less than the end of the world for early Israelites. A sampling, taken almost at random …

“How the Lord in his anger has humiliated daughter Zion! / He has thrown down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel” (2:1). And “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; / he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:1). And a favorite, vomitous image: “My bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people” (2:11).

Now, I don’t mean to say that the author of Lamentations never feints toward hope; he just always seems to pull back at the last moment: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him […] For the Lord will not reject forever” (3:25; 31). But will he? The brevity of this last line reeks of false confidence; there's more compensation here than consolation.

Thus while the author may posit hope, he does not seem able to sustain it as a real possibility. And I believe he finally rejects it. The book’s end is telling in its pathetic turn, in which the possibility of consolation is both raised and put down: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored, / renew our days as of old— / unless you have utterly rejected us, / and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:21-22).

And that’s it! Lamentations ends with this damning “unless"--with the hitherto unspeakable reality that God could hide his face from us forever if he so chooses. An alternate, more literal translation of this “unless” is the more definitive “instead,” which sits like a tombstone at text’s end.

Thus perhaps the epigraph to Dante’s Inferno is an apt epitaph for Lamentations: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”


  1. Good to see you back after hiatus. I would suggest you are the only blogger in the world to have included the sentence "So I’ve re-read Habakkuk...." Congrats!

  2. Very nice! I was thinking of the Inferno epigraph from the beginning of your post, so it was great to see you end with that.

  3. ...Enter pop sugar:

    Yeah sugar, the times I met you
    Do you remember when I felt I was true,
    And whenever you wished me in the club
    I said (aah) we could be so fine.

    Sing it (aah oh)
    Baby girl,
    Say we were close to you darlin':
    I'd be perfect and I'd be happening.

    Whoa girl, when I held you
    The times I thought I'd be lying,
    And when you knew me somewhere
    I knew (hey) you'd be going wrong.

    Yeah (ooh listen)
    Girl girl,
    I swear I'd be going wrong darlin':
    You'd be crashing down and I'd be lonely.
    (ummm) Cause desolation is the dark night of the soul; every dark night, however, has a morning... ooo girl.

    lol, you're welcome.


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