How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the cities
has become a vassal. -Lamentations 1:1
In 589 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem for the second time in ten years. His troops surrounded the city, starving those trapped inside. The inhabitants became desperate. “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lam. 4:10). After months of war and starvation, the Babylonians entered the city. King Zedekiah watched the slaughter of his sons before he himself was blinded and imprisoned. Almost all the inhabitants were deported, leaving only a few peasants to tend the desolate land. The walls were broken. The Temple was destroyed.
The Lamentations of Jeremiah, a traditional topic of Lenten reflection, capture the desolation both on the earth and in the hearts of faithful Israelites. “Look and see If there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (1:12). What is God’s chosen people to make of their situation when God has chosen against them?
In the midst of this outcry, they begin to answer that question, “The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (1:18). Judah has been unfaithful. The people inherited the ancient sin of their fathers, idolatry. Abandoning the God of love who called them his own, they worshipped foreign gods that cannot save. In their abandon, they took advantage of the most vulnerable in society: the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. Yet they still frequented the Temple and offered sacrifice as if they had a right relationship with God. The religious authorities neglected their duty to redress the wrong:
“Your prophets have seen for you
false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
false and misleading” (2:14).
In the face of tragedy, there is certainly need for practical discussions and response. But the Lamentations express not a merely practical but a religious mindset. They lift up the horror and suffering, and in so doing find God at work, attempting to redress evils where the religious leaders failed. There follows a question and a challenge to the God who has always shown the strength of his name by his fidelity and his wondrous works. Despite faith in God, his plan of salvation appears so far away.
“Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old!
Or hast thou utterly rejected us?
Art thou exceedingly angry with us?” (5:21-22)
The lamentor renders everything, even the greatest imaginable suffering, to God, the beginning and end of human history. He understands the situation in the light of God’s plan for his chosen people. Judah has been punished, but somehow, despite the horror of the situation, God will again visit his people, if only they return to their Lord. But this is not a complacent realization. The urgency remains. Why? When will he answer? How will he turn to us? Has God forgotten us? To pray is not to forget or to become numb. The frustration remains.
St. Paul instructs us to pray constantly (1 Th. 5:17). St. Thomas Aquinas calls prayer “the raising of the mind to God.” These instructions urge us to search constantly for God in the events of our own lives and never to hide even our greatest sorrows from him. In times of joy, our prayer will become one of praise and thanksgiving. In times of suffering, it will become one of ardent petition, as in the Lamentations. Such a prayer will not only beseech favor from God, but also express the depths of the injustice and desolation that lead to the outcry. We are called, like the exiles of Jerusalem, to give to God not only our hopes and joys, but our suffering and desolation. No God of love would accept our joys while ignoring our sorrows.
But no matter the desolation and destruction, there is always hope in him who again bestows favor upon Jerusalem. In the midst of it all, the people remember, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, His mercies never come to an end” (3:22).
The eventual return of the exiles to Jerusalem was only a figure of the coming glory. What can we fail to hope for from the God who, having taken on human flesh and having tasted death, conquered even the grave?
Image: Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem