THE MESSAGE OF LAMENTATIONS, by Christopher J. H. Wright

Published on December 18, 2015 by Todd Scacewater

IVP Academic, 2015 | 170 pages

Reviewed by May Young

The Message of Lamentations by Christopher J. H. Wright provides insightful contemplation on the themes, imagery, as well as theology in this complex poetic book of the Old Testament. This volume is part of the “Bible Speaks Today” series, which seeks to “hear what the Spirit is saying to Christians through his ancient – yet ever modern – Word.”  With this intention in mind, Wright introduces the commentary by simultaneously touting the relevance of this book, while mourning its neglect in the modern church. He seeks to give voice to the sufferers and sufferings expressed in this book through exposition, while also discussing the relevance for the church as he wrestles thoughtfully with its theological issues and themes.

The introduction provides a brief discussion on the historical circumstances that gave rise to the book of Lamentations, namely the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. It also considers the issues of authorship and the poetic nature of this work. Although Wright does not explicitly attribute authorship to the prophet Jeremiah, he also does not discount its plausibility. He simply refers to the author as ‘the Poet’ and adopts this throughout the book.

His stance on the unity of the book is reflected in the following words, “The book is an intricate composition by a single mind, working out a profound and battle-scarred theology in the mist of appalling suffering” (pg 28). The artistry and function of the book as well as its function in the canon are then briefly examined. Wright concludes the introduction by arguing for the relevance of Lamentations for the Christian church today, namely that it calls the church to hear the voice of the suffering and also provides a language for lament, which when practiced can engender hope in God.

The chapters in the commentary mirror the chapters in the book of Lamentations. Each chapter draws attention to the prominent features and themes in the corresponding chapter of the biblical text and then expounds on the text according to its major, as well as, secondary subdivisions. Although the chapters are brief, Wright succinctly discusses significant imagery, repetition of words, themes, and structural divisions. Additionally, the author ends each chapter with a “Reflections” section which offers thoughtful questions that bridge the content in the book with relevant application.

In chapter 1, Wright focuses on the theme of reversal presented in the first chapter of Lamentations, as well as the unbearable, but not innocent sufferings of Daughter Zion. He rightly divides the chapter in half with the Poet primarily speaking in the first half and Daughter Zion in the latter half.

Chapter 2 discusses the ‘conversion’ of the poet from his judgmental stance to one of a sympathetic companion who enters into the suffering of Daughter Zion. Wright also rightly challenges the stance of scholars who take an extreme view on the Poet’s accusation against God. He points out that this extreme rendering of the narrator’s charge against God gives very little attention to the depth of canonical resonances in the chapter which reflect the covenant curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-28.  While Wright does not discount tones of angry protest, he finds no basis of blame and guilt that God’s action in the destruction of Jerusalem was an unjustified act of wanton malice.

The imagery of downward motion and destruction of the country and its defenses are emphasized in first half of the chapter, while intolerable images of dying children, and pleading with Daughter Zion to cry out to God are highlighted in the latter half of the chapter. The chapter ends with Daughter Zion pleading with God who remains silent.

In his third chapter, Wright argues that the Poet is the voice of ‘the Man.’ He describes it as a merging of the voice of a character. In this central chapter, Wright  observes a sandwich structure with the outer layers of the chapter wrapped in wrath and extreme suffering, while the center holds words of affirmation and hope (vv. 22-24, 31-33).  He argues that the ‘sandwich’ effect is both emotionally and theologically significant. They indicate the vacillation of the poet himself between the realities of human suffering and evil and divine compassion and goodness. Holding these two realities in tension is critical for one contemplating these vast extremes. Additionally, Wright highlights imagery and themes that are weaved throughout this chapter, e.g., a rogue shepherd, hunting, deep despair, truth remembered and hope.

In chapter 4, Wright appropriately points out that while lament is not yet exhausted, “the intensity of the anger, protest, hope and theological wrestling of chapter 3 is left behind.” The shortening of the lines from the triple-line stanzas in chapters 1-3 to two-line descriptions seem to mirror this exhaustion. Significant imagery of famine and its effects, as well as transgressions are discussed. The chapter ends in hope, albeit briefly.

Wright’s last chapter presents the prayer-filled chapter 5 as one in which the Poet leads the people in prayer.  More specifically, the chapter opens with the plea that was spoken to God earlier by Daughter Zion to look and see, e.g., 1: 11, 2: 20. While this chapter is a corporate prayer, images of suffering still permeate this book. Wright indicates that this last chapter climaxes in a leap of faith across the chasm of defeat, destruction and death (5:19). Nevertheless, this leap does not sustain confident hope.

The chapter, and therefore the book of Lamentations, ends with a question of God’s remembrance of His people.  Yet even with this tentative conclusion, Wright appropriately suggests that the direct address to God assumes some continuing relationship with Yahweh as their covenant God. “It is not necessary, then, to interpret the ending of Lamentations so negatively as to assume that it dashes all hope, as some do in order to honour the genuine reality of seemingly unending suffering.”

Although this commentary is not comprehensive in its coverage, Wright puts forth a commendable effort to succinctly cover the essential and significant themes and issues raised. His theological discussions are especially insightful and the work offers helpful ways to understand this Old Testament book as a modern day Christian.

Perhaps the weakest point in his commentary is his treatment of the voices and characters in the book. I found his discussion of the merging of the voice of a character in chapter 3 to be vague and unconvincing. For instance, he argues that chapter 3 is the same person who narrates chapters 1 and 2 but “the key difference is that, whereas in those chapters he has described the suffering of the city of Jerusalem objectively either in the third person or sometimes in the second person, when addressing Lady Zion herself here (in chapter 3) he makes it first person singular.” (p 101)

This is contradictory to his discussion of 2:11, 14.  Clearly the use of first person was present in those earlier verses. This was particularly true of v.14, which was undoubtedly directed to Lady Zion. Perhaps considering the change in voice in terms of persona and/or offering other options for the ways scholars have accounted for the shift in voices might be beneficial. It seems as if Wright’s view on the unity of authorship has limited his handling of this aspect of the book. Offering a more comprehensive discussion on the use of persona and shift in voice may allow the multiplicity of voices greater leeway to speak for themselves.

May Young is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Taylor University, Indiana.

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The Message of Lamentations

IVP Academic, 2015 | 170 pages

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