A reader new to the Hebrew Bible might well be puzzled by just how much of its content seems to rail against God. The prophet Jeremiah and the book of Job are riddled with cries to God from a place of anger. The Book of Psalms which has provided a template for Jewish and Christian prayer over the centuries is made up of a great variety of songs and poems, but by any reckoning at least one third are cries to God. This Hebraic style of calling out to God is often termed Lament. No matter how provocative and desperate this language of lament gets it is always said (or cried) from a stance of faith—these are no cries into the empty void, but they are desperate pleas to a God who can and from the psalmists standpoint, should deliver.
However profound the anger and suffering found in the Psalms of Lament there is a place that goes further still into the depths of dark experience, the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations deals with the horror of events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the immediate aftermath. Its nature, as a collection of distinct literary units means that there is a recapitulation of key themes like abandonment by Yahweh, suffering, judgement and confession. Given the desperate context we might expect that the laments of Lamentations would be crude spontaneous prayers. The truth could not be further away from this, for despite the terrible nature of the event as a whole, and the specific grim details, all of Lamentations is intricately-crafted poetry. It is not only poetic but has all the hallmarks of meticulous care and attention in its design. All five chapters use an acrostic device—in each separate lament each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This device quickly explains why chapters 1,2, 4 and 5 all have 22 verses and why the central chapter 3 has 66, see the table below.
Although there is no over-arching narrative to the book, there is a certain symmetry about its structure, with the larger chapter three lying at its heart. Some scholars hesitate in identifying chapter 5 as an implied acrostic. Recently, however, attention has been drawn to the existence of implied acrostics, or quasi-acrostics, in the Psalter too, see . Although chapter 5 of Lamentations clearly differs from the other chapters—it is not an acrostic, but it has 22 verses and is by association an implied acrostic. Quite why it has been composed free of the normal constraint of an acrostic will probably remain a mystery. Perhaps the book has finally freed itself of the constraint necessary to contain grief?
Why would the author or editors of the book of Lamentations choose such a dominant literary form as the acrostic device? It is perhaps an attempt to bring poetic order to what appears to be so thoroughly disordered. It is as if the poet is trying what is almost impossible, voicing the most profound questions, and in doing so has found that the order imposed by the acrostic device gives a framework to hold on to. The existence of the five literary units highlights the ongoing nature of attempting to ask the right questions whilst dealing with acute pain and grief. It is possible that the constraints of poetry provide a way to structure and shape the work of the poet, to enable processing of the terrors experienced and seen. This type of catharsis is certainly part of the preservation of this text. It is thoroughly human to rehearse tragedy and reiterate injustice. How much more appropriate when events have challenged the very core belief of your people, that Yahweh shows his people irrevocable covenant faithfulness?
- O. Palmer Robertson, ‘The Alphabetic Acrostic in Book I of the Psalms: An Overlooked Element of Psalter Structure’, pp.225-238, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 2015, p.236.