The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him”– Lam 3:22-24 (NIV)
Some of the most notable laments are found outside the Psalms. The Book of Lamentations, 2 Sam 1:17ff, and Isa. 14 are examples.
The Book of Lamentations consists of five highly structured laments (traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah) concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the neo-Babylonian empire in 586 BC. These poems evoke images of that national disaster and express the mental and religious anguish of its survivors. They reflect the same lament idioms of Psalms, Job, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. Apart from scripture, archaeology provides evidence of five other city dirges: (1) Ur, (2) Nippur, (3) Uruk, (4) Uruk and Ur, and (5) Sumer and Ur.
The Greek title of Lamentations means lament or dirge. The Hebrew title is translated “how,” a word that signals a funeral dirge. In Rabbinic writings, the title signifies the characteristic “limping meter” (3/2) of dirges. (Amos 5:1 conveys this meter even in English)
Lamentations breaks down as follows:
- Chap 1: describes the present distress of Jerusalem– cf. Rev 18
- Chap 2: deals with God’s fierce anger as the source of destruction
- Chap 3: contains a personal lament, hope for restoration, and a call for repentance
- Chap 4: describes the siege and just punishment
- Chap 5: contains a prayer for mercy
All of the laments in Lamentations are acrostics based on the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition to Lamentations, other OT acrostics include Ps 9-10 (actually one psalm), 25, 34, 37, 11, 112, 119, 145, Prov 31:10-31 (the “virtuous woman”), and Nahum 1 (a broken acrostic).
Why acrostics? Possible answers include
- the mystical significance of the Hebrew alphabet,
- ease of memorization,
- to structure grief, and
- to signify completeness (“A-to-Z”).
II Sam 1:17ff preserves David’s funeral dirge over Saul and Jonathan. The typical elements of a dirge are
- one or more “how” statements,
- the remembrance of past glory, deeds, beauty, etc.
- comparisons with the present situation, destruction, etc. and
- command or recognition of mourning.
David’s dirge is interesting for many reasons: It is unique in being for two people– David addresses Saul first, then Saul and Jonathan twice, then Jonathan. David describes nature itself as mourning– cf. the way Moses called heaven and earth as witnesses to God’s covenant with Israel. Also, David’s psalm is not a royal dirge like Isa 14, but is instead a dirge for common men. Thus his intent may have been to gain favor with North Israel while ignoring Saul’s status as king.
Recognition of dirges enriches our understanding of the OT. Most important, the OT dirges teach us how to mourn in ways that have served God’s people for thousands of years.