The third ode breaks our format a little, giving three verses (though only two lines each) per letter. It’s also unusual in that, this time, the whole is given in the first person, with the speaker apparently a personification of the Israelite people.
It continues the “God as enemy” theme that we had in the second ode, with the whole of the first 20 verses devoted to it. The ode leaps right out of the gate with:
I am the man who has seen affliction
under the rod of his wrath (Lam. 3:1)
And so we see the dual themes of suffering and of God as the active agent in that suffering.
We find, again, the idea that Israel has become an object of ridicule: “I have become the laughingstock of all peoples” (Lam. 3:14). That this complaint comes up again and again, right alongside the idea that women are forced to eat their own babies in starvation, illustrates just how deeply the Israelite pride was wounded – or, at least, the pride of the literate class.
Strangely, this portion of the ode also tells us that, though the narrator has cried out for help, God “shuts out my prayer” (Lam. 3:8). This is in sharp contrast to the “it’s never too late” messages of Chronicles, and even to latter on in the very same odd (such as Lam. 3:25). The verse stands out in its strangeness. I suspect that the point is just that God hasn’t listened yet, that the suffering is still ongoing, but it still seems odd.
I won’t bother going into the rest of this portion because it stands well enough on its own. There’s a lot of very poetic imagery, as well as a fair amount of melodrama. The only other verse I want to comment on is Lam. 3:6: “He has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago.” I was intrigued first by what it says about how the author seems to imagine some kind of afterlife, but also by the idea that the situation has changed. Does this tell us that Israelite burial practices were changed during the exile? Or is it a historicizing of an evolving conception of the afterlife?
Despite the bleak beginning, the narrator still holds on to hope. When things are at their darkest, “this I call to mind […] The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:21-22).
It is in this section, covered in Lam. 3:21-36, that we hear of God’s mercies and the value of steadfast loyalty: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him” (Lam. 3:25).
Despite the focus elsewhere on God’s agency, this section tell us that God “does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men” (Lam. 3:33). I can see two readings of this, which may depend on English connotations. Rather than saying that human sin forces God to act in a certain way (which would remove God’s agency and be contrary to so much of what we’ve been reading), this line could mean that God doesn’t inflict suffering happily or capriciously. That would make the phrase an equivalent of something like “with a heavy heart.”
In fact, we must take the verse in that second way if we are to see any consistency with Lam.37-39, where the narrator makes clear that God is directly responsible for the current suffering:
Who has commanded and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has ordained it? (Lam. 3:37)
The next line reminded me of Exodus, where everything, even the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, was attributed to God:
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and evil come? (Lam. 3:38)
This is followed by a call for repentance in Lam. 3:40-42.
Can You See?
From this point on, the narrator turns to address directly. In Lam. 3:43-54, he asks – again and again – if God can see the horror of the punishment he has rained down on the Israelites.
It is here, finally, that we see the evoking of the female figure, and we get it twice in relatively quick succession. First, the narrator’s eyes flow with tears “because of the destruction of the daughter of my people” (Lam. 3:48), and then his eyes cause him grief “at the fat of all the maidens of my city” (Lam. 3:51).
After asking God if he can see the suffering, the narrator affirms in Lam. 3:55-63 that, yes, God can see. And, again, we see God’s comforting presence even while the situation is so bleak:
Thou didst come near when I called on thee;
thou didst say, ‘Do not fear!’ (Lam. 3:57)
Brant Clements points to the positioning of this Ode in the centre of the book as possibly significant. He draws on the Chiasmus form to propose that Lam. 3 is placed in the centre precisely for this message of hope:
If you are looking for hope in the book of Lamentations, it is only to be found in the central verses of chapter 3, the central chapter. Whether this is intended to emphasize the message of hope, I’m not in a position to say. The rest of the book may frame this expression of hope or, alternatively, they may bury it.
And if the ode ended here, it would be fantastic. The form is clearly intentional, as it moves back and forth between despair and hope. But, of course, it doesn’t end there. No, we still have Lam. 3:64-66, where the narrator ends the ode by hoping that God will destroy Israel’s enemies:
Thou wilt pursue them in anger and destroy them from under thy heavens, O Lord” (Lam. 3:66).
That’s nice, dear.