P E relates how, as a white American, getting to know black people in Chicago laid the foundation for understanding what a person from a minority background in Asia feels like, particularly when majority-culture Christians share the gospel with them. His study of biblical lament helped solidify these understandings. It further revealed the need for the majority-culture church to serve minorities in complete humility and to extend deep roots into their culture and language.
P E and his wife serve with OMF International in East Asia where they work with a minority people group. They are passionate about all types of racial reconciliation and how that is part and parcel of the advance of the gospel and God’s kingdom being established among unreached peoples.
The Language of Lament in Reconciliation and the Global Church
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2020): 34-41
I first heard of a particular minority people in 2003 when my wife-to-be and I served for a year in a large East Asian city. Previously, we didn’t know that there was a group of people who didn’t speak the majority language as their main language. A couple on our team was burdened for these people and often prayed for them and talked about them. On campus, I came to know a young man from this minority group with whom I hung out a few times. But our friendship didn’t go far because his English wasn’t great and I was a little intimidated by his religious beliefs, though I thought they were interesting. By the end of my year, God had taken my general interest in this people and turned it into a burden.
After we got married, my wife and I settled in Chicago. By helping a refugee family from Somalia, we developed a burden for justice issues and saw the need for holistic ministry. God united this with the love we already had for East Asia to enhance our concern for the minority people we had encountered in our time there. Two-and-a-half years ago, God led us to return to serve these people.
Throughout my life, I never had much experience with lament. It didn’t seem to have any relevance until recently when we started thinking more about how minority people have to find ways to grieve and deal with tragedy in their lives. I have discovered that lament has more relevance to these people than I had ever known, even as it has much to teach us about reconciliation. This article will examine the language of lament as it addresses reconciliation and how that effects the global church.
Introduction to Lamentations
Lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. And though the Bible says much more about lament than that, the one who laments is passionate, grieving, and sorrowful. In due course, we will look at this in more detail, but the greatest difference between the way the world views lament and the Bible’s understanding is faith. An old negro spiritual can help us bridge this gap. The song “Bye and Bye” says,
O. Bye and bye, bye and bye
I’m goin’ to lay down my heavy load
I know my robe’s gon’ to fit me well
I’m goin’ to lay down my heavy load
I tried it on at the gates of hell
I’m goin’ to lay down my heavy load
Though they could try on the robes of Christ in the hell of slavery, they express hope that the burden will be laid down in the Bye and Bye. That is exactly what lament is. It is an honest recognition of the horrific realities of life that sets its hope in eternity.
The book of Lamentations is a funeral dirge for Jerusalem. Lamentations 1:1 says: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow she has become.” The book is a response to the destruction of Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity. Judah’s understanding of lament flowed from this historical reality. So should ours. The Hebrew title for the book ʾêykâ—the first word in verse 1—literally means “how?”. The same word repeats itself in chapter 2:1 and 4:1. The question raised is likened to other expressions of grief, such as those found in the psalms that ask, “How long, O Lord?” It has much in common with our response when confronted with tragedy: “How could this happen?”
People Mourn over the Ruins of Jerusalem (Lam 1:1–5) by Gustave Doré (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
The book of Lamentations comprises five poems that (with the exception of chapter 5) are written in an acrostic form using all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to begin each metered stanza. Some commentators have conjectured that perhaps Lamentations was written in acrostic form because the poet wanted to bring some order into a chaotic situation. Whether this is true or not, expressions of grief in the book of Lamentations alternate from way down and then way up and then down again like a roller coaster. This is the reality of grief. My wife reminds me that grieving is not a linear process. One who deals with great pain and ongoing loss often finds himself all over the map. For this reason, working with an intensely oppressed people who constantly grieve over their situation is messy and difficult.
Lamentations makes it clear that lament has several components. First, it can be understood as a funeral dirge or eulogy. But it’s not just any eulogy. Typically, in the twenty-first century when people attend funerals, we often call the “eulogy” a celebration of life. However, in Lamentations, this eulogy speaks to the loss of a country that has been taken by force. This is by no means a celebration of the life of Jerusalem, but a deep groaning and expression of pain and loss, not unlike how parents who have to bury their own child feel.
Second, as seen throughout the book, but particularly in chapter 5, lament is an honest expression of pain and sorrow. We will look into this below. Third, according to Lamentations 5, lament often includes an honest confession of sin and broken relationship or broken covenant with God. Fourth, lament includes recognition of God’s sovereign reign and ultimate goodness. Fifth, and finally, lament also includes assurances of hope in the midst of great pain. A conclusion we can draw from these five things is that lament is an act of faith. It’s an honest prayer to God about the brutal realities of life. Lament can only be truly made by one who is in a covenant relationship with God. The one who laments knows that God hears his prayer and, therefore, deliberately turns to him in faith while making his complaint.
Lamentations was written for liturgical use. During worship in the Second Temple, after the Israelites returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile, they would have read portions of this book to remind them of what happened to their city and people. The graphic depictions of their plight along with the expressions of great grief and sorrow were intended to produce hope in a holy, unchanging God whose compassions are “new every morning” (Lam 3:23). The Lord is the One who will remain faithful to keep his promises in spite of his covenant people’s faithlessness. The pain and sorrow are just as real and graphic as the restorative hope in God. The lament in chapter 5 points ultimately toward restoration and has much to teach us about the plight of minority peoples. We will condense the teaching of this chapter to three main points: the tragic reality, the confession of sin, and the hidden hope.
The tragic reality
First, we should pay attention to the pronouns the poet uses in Lamentation 5:1. He writes, “Remember O Lord what has befallen us … see our disgrace”. The way the author uses pronouns is very intentional. If you were to read the entire book and take note of all the pronoun changes you would find a deliberate and complex shifting from one pronoun to another. By and large, in chapters 1–4, the author gives his personal perspective, written from the first-person point of view to express his own afflictions and observations of the terrors of the exile. But in chapter 5, a dramatic shift to plural pronouns takes place, and the author raises a deliberate corporate appeal to God. Judah—as a nation and people—raise their lament and express their desire to turn back to God. This is important as we think about an entire people who were stricken but also hope for a ray of light that will lead to restoration. And yet, lament is an act of faith by one who is in a covenant relationship with Yahweh. Israel was God’s covenant people. Even so, what we learn here, because of the corporate nature and graphic description of the nation’s loss, can be used to highlight the plight of and agony felt by many minority peoples.
The second thing I want to point out from verse 1 is that the poet, on behalf of the whole nation, calls on God to “remember”. “Remember O Lord what has befallen us … look and see our disgrace.” This calling on God to remember is common in the OT. However, it’s not as if the author thinks God needs to be reminded or has somehow forgotten about their situation. The one who laments only feels that God has forgotten them. We see this specifically in Lamentations 5:20, where the poet writes, “why do you forget us forever? why do you forsake us?” When we grieve, we may feel like God has forgotten us and that we are forsaken—which is an extremely bitter feeling. In reality, calling God to remember is not a statement that he is unaware of our situation, but a call for him to take action.
For instance, in Exodus 2:23–25, God remembers his people in Egypt.
During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.
In Exodus, God took action to rescue his people. In 1 Samuel 1:19, God remembered Hannah and she became pregnant with Samuel. In Psalm 106:45 we read, “For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” God being called on to remember is always bound up with his covenant faithfulness and steadfast love. It is vitally important that we understand that the God who makes promises will always keep them because he never changes and his deliberate love never changes, even if he must exercise discipline along the way to a people who are often disobedient. The foundations laid here will help us as we consider the tragic reality faced by Judah that is revealed in a few key verses from the chapter.
In Lamentations 5:3, Judah calls God into action as they cry out, “We have become orphans, fatherless, our mothers are like widows.” Yahweh is the Lord of his people. And though he is their Father and they are his children, the exile has left them as orphans and widows—those whose fathers or husbands are dead. Orphans and widows are the weakest and most vulnerable in any society, and the whole of society is now reckoned as orphans and widows. Their king is dead and they feel like God has abandoned them. In a similar fashion, thousands of people today have seen their societies upended by more powerful peoples. Families either flee or are sent into exile. Parents are sent away from home or are housed in reeducation camps and their children placed into orphanages. One young woman we know who has three little children has lost her husband and is left with hardly any money. Despite her desperate situation, landlords by the dozen have refused to rent to her, simply because of the ethnic group to which she belongs. They regard her as a criminal, thief, or terrorist. Similar to Judah’s experience in Babylon, the weakest and most vulnerable are discriminated against. And even if they choose to identify with the locals, they are often treated as foreigners in their own country.
The Akkadian cuneiform inscription on this clay tablet lists certain rations, and mentions the Babylonian captivity and the name of Jeconiah (Jehoiachin), King of Judah. Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Similarities can also be found as we compare Judah as described in Lamentations 5:11–12 with many modern situations. “Women are raped in Zion, young women in the towns of Judah. Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders.” This lament brings an honest and graphic expression of pain and suffering, as it not only describes different types of suffering but also the shame that goes along with it. Rape is as shameful as it is torturous. The Babylonians not only show disrespect to elderly Israelites, they openly shame them in public. In many places, minority people are subjected to rape, torture, and the shame that accompanies them in an attempt to turn them into submissive members of society. When that fails, they may be imprisoned or even killed.
The dislocation of the exile produces the grief expressed in Lamentations 5:14: “The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music.” All meaning and joy in life is gone. No social positions or pleasures remain to identify them as a unique culture, people, and society. Indeed, they could say that “The joy of our hearts has ceased, our dancing has been turned to mourning.” Their identity as a people is gone. All they have left is grief and loss.
A few years ago, my wife and I spent ten days in a large Asian city where we visited the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar today looks nothing like it used to, but has been completely transformed and commercialized to become a tourist spot. It now looks like a massive food court in Disneyland that features ethnic food. It’s like entering a museum exhibit designed to resemble something that was once real. The result is that it feels fake. Although some of the local people were dancing in the bazaar, it felt as though they were only dancing in an attempt to cling the best they could to what they still have as a people. And yet, in their dancing, they were grieving what once was.
Where does all this lead? Lamentations was written to be read as a means for God’s people to turn to him in their loss and pain. Israel’s experience was real. The experience of loss and pain is equally real to many today. By deliberately and graphically recounting their story, the exiles were moved to repent of their sins