Henry Co See Cho Associate Professor (Biblical Studies)
Translated by Belinda Chan
Pain cannot be expressed in words.1 When we are entangled with pain, it is never easy to accurately describe the details of it. The people around us can only guess by imagination at best, but never understand the true feelings of our suffering.
For this very reason, suffering sets people apart.
However, the Jews set the ninth day of the month of Abib every year commemorating the two destructions of the Jerusalem Temple, and choose to read the Book of Lamentations to relive the loneliness of suffering in their community. The five lamentations depict the sufferings of the nation in misfortunes. In a calm and compassionate style, they embody the painful wounds of the subjugated people. The poets of the lamentations share the same sorrows as his people, but his words are not hysterical catharsis. The format of the acrostic psalms compels the poet to examine the pain from the perspective of faith in the most selfdisciplined and non-indulgent way, without empty words, true to their feelings, and profoundly soul-searching.
Right off the bat, the first lamentation fleshes out an eyewitness report of the capital of Judah after her defeat. Let us listen to how the first six verses depict Jerusalem’s pain in detail.
Judah is the focus of verse 1 as the queen of the fallen city. She lost her people, and her husband, now widowed.2 Once a queen, now enslaved. All the men in the family may have been killed. She lost her entire family, along with her identity and status. The first sign of suffering is “loss.” Verse 4 reiterates her “loss”. The roads to Zion mourn for no one comes to her appointed feasts. Gone are the temple and the feasts, leaving the priests in laments. Did the young women lose their joy because they lost all the young people during the war? They are now grieving over their “loss”.
Judah weeps all night with tears streaming down. One can assume that there should have been many loved ones and friends beside her, but when she is in distress, there is no one to accompany her and offer comfort. It was the custom of ancient Israel that a “comforter” was indispensable for a bereaved family. Without a “comforter”, the mourners could only deal alone with the unspeakable sorrow that was too deep to unwind. In verse 2, Judah weeps alone through the long and lonely night, and let her loneliness excruciates her pain. In verse 5, Zion does not seem to be alone anymore, but now she is surrounded by enemies. They may once be her servants, but now overlord her, driving her children into exile without the slightest dint of mercy. The Lord who is always a comforter (Psalm 23:4; Isaiah 40:1) does not offer any consolation because of his people’s evil.
In verse 3, Judah no longer dwells alone in exile. Now she dwells among the nations, but cannot find a “resting place”. The same word was also used when Naomi planned to find a “home” for her daughter-in-law in Ruth 3:1. Women in ancient times secured their livelihood by marriage. While Judah is surrounded by many people, there is no one to offer her rest. Faced with soldiers chasing after her, Judah has to flee hastily. The leaders of Zion also face the same “restlessness” (Lamentations 1:6). The scripture compares them to noble stags. Deer are plant eaters. They pick young leaves instead of stems to eat. As it takes time to regurgitate, they can only eat at ease in a peaceful wild place. However, while fleeing, they would be too scared to stop and eat, leaving them weak and exhausted. “Restlessness" and pain are just like twins, inseparable from each other.
“Loss”, “Loneliness” and “Restlessness” - The Lamentations painstakingly outline the profile of pain.
The effects of pain are deeper and broader than these. Under God’s eternal covenant made with David’s family, Jerusalem was supposed to last through generations (as stated in Psalm 46 or 48), but it fell in dismay. Similarly, the temple and the feasts, the quintessential symbols of the Israelite religion, also perished. Their suffering has completely shattered the foundation of their “faith”. They are betrayed by their relatives and abandoned by friends alike. With only their adversaries in sight, any traces of “love” have completed vanished. They seek, but cannot find a secure place to rest. There is no food around to restore their energy, and hope for future restoration grows far beyond reach. Pain has slowly and gradually eroded their “faith”, “love” and “hope”. Seeing Pain Lamentations bespeaks of borne by Jerusalem centuries ago. Yet her experience of pain is strangely familiar to what our city suffers here and now. The unnameable “loss”, the harrowing “loneliness” flared up by torn relationships, and the disquieting “restlessness” has become no stranger to those living here. All sorts of tingling memories make a staunch belief in “faith”, “love” and “hope” hardly tenable under the weight of the pain. The Book of Lamentations carefully compiles an illustrated book of pain, as it is the deep conviction of the author that pain is to be seen. The city of Jerusalem asks the Lord to “see” her pain in the Lamentations 1 three times (verses 9, 11, 20), and twice calls on others to “see” her suffering (verses 12, 18). Although the lament song does not deny that the city of Jerusalem has sinned gravely, the author does not hurl a curt retort at her with a “You deserve it”, and denies her the right to plead for her pain to be seen. The Jews gather together every 9th of the month of Abib to gaze upon the reality of pain once again. They can sympathize with those who are also living under pain, even though they are brutally blood-thirsty and morbidly immoral. This reminds me of what Dr. Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, tries to argue: True justice done may not be a matter about the wrongdoers punished, but the injury of the victims seen and heard. In this way, a society fractured by disputes can begin to embark on the road of restoration.3 Pain is indescribable. But it is incumbent on us to see it and hear it.