The first chapter of Lamentations was the passage of the day during a recent Sunday morning “Breakfast with the Bible” session at our church.
What a challenge for the visiting speaker who had accepted the invitation to speak and only then discovered what was expected of him.
This passage at first sight has no good news at all. Lamentations 1 is a chapter of unalleviated woe; it is full of pain and suffering, loss and tragedy.
Jerusalem has been destroyed, the cream of the nation has been taken into exile, and all hope has gone. It makes for depressing reading, and all the more because God says nothing.
In some ways, Lamentations is a very contemporary book. For today’s world is characterized by overwhelming suffering. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan are just the tip of the iceberg of the horror that pervades so much life today.
In a very real way, Lamentations urges us to raise our voices to God and to lament with those who lament. And yet, if the truth be told, it is difficult.
Most of us in the West live within a context of comfort and ease. Even though we see on the screens of our televisions the pain and violence of this world, we are, to a large extent, shielded from its reality.
However, at Breakfast with the Bible that Sunday we began to experience a sense of loss through a paper exercise.
We were asked to write a list of the 10 people or things we most valued in this life.
My list included my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my calling, the joy of being alive in God’s world, the Christian hope – as well as the delights of food and drink.
We were then asked to pass our list to our neighbor on our left, and were then instructed to cross out five of the 10 most valued people or things on the list before us. Striking out those five was pretty dire, but worse was to come.
Our lists were then returned, and then we were asked to pass the list to the person on our right with the instruction that we should remove a further three items from each list, so that only two items were left.
I remember that I crossed out not only my neighbor’s health, but also his children. It was a sobering experience of loss.
We went back to Lamentations 1. Our attention was drawn to the fact that here – as also in the other chapters of Lamentations – we have an alphabetic acrostic: Every verse starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with 22 consonants used in succession. Here, if you like, we have the “A-to-Z” of suffering.
We reflected on how we often have difficulty in facing up to pain and suffering.
When we visit our general practitioner and see a friend, more often than not we will greet the friend, “How are you?” with the expected answer, “Very well thank you” – even although it would be patently clear that we would not be visiting the doctor if all were well.
By contrast, the Bible – and notably the Book of Lamentations – faces up to the pain of the world.
Here in Lamentations 1 no remedy for the world’s pain is offered – or at least, not as the chapter was originally written. And yet, this side of the cross, we inevitably link this chapter with the passion of Jesus.
For there, within the very middle of this lament, we come across the words: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger?” (Lamentations 1:12).
These words are picked up in Handel’s Messiah, where a tenor sings, “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow,” and where the librettist emended the text to create a reference to Jesus, replacing the word “my” for “His.”
My mind, however, that morning went to the first verse of Charles Wesley’s great hymn: “All you that pass by, / To Jesus draw nigh; /To you is it nothing that Jesus should die? / Your ransom and peace, / Your surety he is, / Come, see if there ever was sorrow like his.”
Here we have a reminder that Jesus became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17) and in so doing knew pain and suffering.
Lamentations is not a Christian text – and yet it is, as Robin Parry wrote, “pregnant with potential” for later Christian interpretation (Lamentations 3).
On reflection, what is a truly challenging chapter can actually lend itself to preaching.
Paul Beasley-Murray retired after 21 years of ministry as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church in Chelmsford in the United Kingdom. He is currently serving as the chairman and general editor of Ministry Today U.K. and as the chairman of the College of Baptist Ministers. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including “Living Out the Call,” a four-volume series on pastoral ministry. His writings can be found at PaulBeasleyMurray.com, where readers can register to receive his weekly blog post. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.
Paul Beasley-Murray retired after 21 years of ministry as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church in Chelmsford in the United Kingdom. He is currently serving as the chairman and general editor of Ministry Today U.K. and as the chairman of the College of Baptist Ministers. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including “Living Out the Call,” a four-volume series on pastoral ministry.