I love this sculpture, Mourning Victory (1908), by American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850−1931). The title references both pain and pleasure, both the suffering and pain of mourning and the relief of inextinguishable hope. It commemorates the Civil War. But permit me a gloss upon its theme; mourning gives way to emerging hope which cannot be finally drowned. The literary equivalent to this work of art is the Old Testament funeral song we call Lamentations, written to give voice to Israel’s exiled misery in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction. To be sure, it was an outcome God warned them of and which they could have avoided. But Israel refused to heed her prophets, and so there the rubble of Jerusalem laid violated and her citizens scattered into exile.
Lamentations is engineered poetry. Each chapter is its own poem. The first four chapters are acrostic poems. Each line of the poem begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first line begins with the letter A, the second line with the letter B, and so forth (if it were English). The fifth chapter is 22 lines as well, but not an acrostic. In addition, Ch 3 is three times longer than the other chapters. Where Chs 1, 2, 4 and 5 are each 22 verses/lines (for the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet), Ch 3 has three lines for each letter, thus 66 verses/lines. The structure is intentionally weighted to emphasize Ch 3 as the defining center of the book.
In addition to this structure, the content itself is arranged to climax in the middle. Chs 1 and 5 form bookends, Ch 1 narrating the events being mourned and Ch 5 closing with a prayer of repentance. More closely parallel are Chs 2 and 4, which each rehearse the tragedy and misery of Jerusalem’s destruction while laying the responsibility for these events squarely at Israel’s feet. This horror could have been avoided, God warned. Israel didn’t listen. They’re to blame.
Ch 3 rests between these double bookends. Instead of reading an introduction at the beginning and finishing with the climax with the final pages, the material is constructed to direct readers to the center, and even further, to the center of Ch. 3. All one gets as one begins the book is a rehearsal of the pain and sorrow of invasion and desolation. And that’s what one meets on the other side of Ch 3. But once into Ch 3, at v. 21 an amazing thing happens. In the heart of this existential black hole, light escapes. The clouds begin to part, and with vv. 22-23 the sun shines through with unambiguous brightness, illuminating something more sure and abiding than Israel’s present shame and exile, namely, God’s faithful love and endless mercy. You won’t appreciate 3.19-24 without slowly reading and feeling the bleakness and misery of the preceding 2 and 1/2 chapters:
19 The thought of my suffering and homelessness
is bitter beyond words.
20 I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
21 Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
22 The faithful love of the LORD never ends!
His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance;
therefore, I will hope in him!”
The reassurances extend down to 3.31:
31 For no one is abandoned
by the Lord forever.
And these reassurances aren’t an alternative that competes with Israel’s pain and mourning. That would be to misunderstand them entirely. They are the context in which Israel suffers. That is, they define the limits within which mourning retains its healing virtue and is prevented from collapsing into despair. They empower mourning. They are (to return to French’s sculpture) “mourning’s victory.” As Chs 2 and 4 make clear, Israel is to blame. But to take responsibility and mourn the consequences of your sin is not to give up on oneself and surrender belief that God loves and desires you and that you yet have a future. True hope is a virtue of the genuinely brokenhearted. Confident people don’t hope. They only fantasize. One only truly hopes if one has truly mourned (biblically speaking). And one only truly mourns as one embraces oneself in one’s pain as loved by God. Otherwise, mourning is just despair, and despair is easier than hope. But to know that one is loved (which one cannot do without loving oneself) when one is made to knowingly suffer the consequences of one’s choices — that is redemptive suffering.
Why the acrostics? Why begin each line in order with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet? Well, one obvious reason is that it aids the memory. One remembers a uniformly structured text more easily than a random one. But beyond that, it facilitates the fullness and intentionality required of true repentance. One must rehearse the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of one’s choices and their effects upon oneself and others. And there’s no abbreviating one’s way in this conversation with God. This is not a Facebook chat one can expedite with OMG, BRB, or SMH. One must use one’s entire alphabet, as it were, the whole of one’s resources—intentionally, painfully—in confessing the whole truth. Step Four of The Twelve Steps is brutal: “To make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” We’d rather be “Sorry.” Such an empty sentiment nowadays. We’re usually sorry we got caught, or we’re sorry we can’t continue to enjoy what we want to enjoy. Or we’re sorry too quickly. Our exposure or judgment may have inconvenienced us, but it did not break us. Such sorrow doesn’t even qualify as “mourning” in the biblical sense. And unless one travels by way of Chs 1 and 2, 4 and 5, one knows nothing of Ch 3’s sustaining reassurances and the redeeming love at the eye of life’s storms.
I feel as though Lamentations is the whole Bible, the whole gospel. For me at least, the life of faith is really just one long dark lament laced with the brilliant light of God’s mercy and love.