[K:NWTS 11/2 (Sep 1996) 32-37]

Lamentations: A Review

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Kerux V11N2A4

Claus Westermann, Lamentations: Issues and Interpretation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994, 252 pp., paper, $14.00. ISBN: 0-8006-2743-1.

Like the New Testament book of Jude, the Old Testament book of Lamentations has suffered from neglect. It was 1954 when Norman Gottwald published Studies in the Book of Lamentations (Studies in Biblical Theology series) that interest in this book of sorrowful songs was rekindled. Westermann's volume is the latest product of this school of liberal-critical fundamentalism. The rigid critical scholasticism of this approach to Scripture is, by now, familiar to all students of the Old Testament: (1) whatever the Judaeo-Christian tradition or the particular book of the Bible itself claims about authorship cannot be credible (as all truly "scientific" critics acknowledge); (2) the book of the Bible in question is a construct of diverse religious interests reflecting various and sundry Jewish stages of national self-awareness; (3) the particular book in question has been assembled like a patchwork quilt, i.e., from various authors (usually unknown), in various stages of literary and thematic harmony (usually called redactors or editors), with various and often contradictory theological emphases. With respect to the book of Lamentations, this higher critical fundamentalism concludes: (1) Jeremiah is certainly not the author; (2) the book is the compilation of several distinct poems assembled by a redactor following the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.); (3) there is virtually no theological aspect to the book save the lament over divine judgment.

Westermann has fallen lockstep into line with this liberal-critical agenda: (1) Jeremiah is not the author ("the traditional view of Jeremianic authorship has for all intents and purposes been abandoned," p. 58); (2) the book is a compilation of several poetic forms—dirge, plaintive lament, communal lament, even prayer (pp. 8, 61)—all of which may be identified and isolated by the skilled form critic; (3) theologically, Lamentations is a book of negation—a therapeutic catharsis of guilt (p. 91). It is "not even theological literature" (p.86) because it does not transcend the immediate "concrete situation" (Sitzim-Leben) of the razing of Jerusalem. Hence Westermann takes 235 pages to reduce the book of Lamentations to an expression of sorrow over the death of a city. Surely, we knew that already simply by reading the text! Did we need to lay down $14.00 to learn the obvious?

But perhaps I have been too cavalier with Westermann. After all, he is the doyen of modern Old Testament form critics. His reputation is already assured through his massive three-volume commentary on Genesis (1505 pages for $123.00). And yet even his commentary on Genesis displays this scholastic Old Testament critical approach to the Word of God (that, however, is another story!). Westermann's work on Lamentations has five chapters (clever! the book of Lamentations itself has five chapters). The initial chapter discusses "dirge" as a literary critical phenomenon. Chapter two provides a brief history of the interpretation of Lamentations from Karl Budde (1882) through Hermann Gunkel ("father" of modern form criticism) to Bo Johnson (1985). In other words, a truly scientific and critical approach to Lamentations awaited the illumination of liberal higher criticism from the halcyon days of German idealism to the present post-existentialist era. A notable feature of this survey of the history of interpretation (pp. 24-85) is the failure to list genuinely conservative commentaries and articles. Absent is R. K. Harrison's Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (1973); Walter Kaiser's, A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering (1982); Francis Schaeffer's Death in the City (1969—though this is more a typical Schaefferian Kulturkritik than a commentary); W. H. Shea, "The qinah Structure of the Book of Lamentations," Biblica 60/1 (1979): 103-7; D. A. Dorsey, "Lamentations: Communicating Meaning Through Structure," Evangelical Journal 6 (1988): 83-90. A history of interpretation of Lamentations which omits these conservative reflections!—how is that a "scientific" history of interpretation. In fact, Westermann's bibliography is a typical liberal history of interpretation—biased, selective, arrogant, closed-minded.

Chapter three provides an overview of interpretation focusing on (surprise!) how to interpret a lament!! Chapter four is a verse by verse exegesis of Lamentations in predictable form critical style, i. e., textual notes (heavy with suggestions of emending = changing the Hebrew text), suggestions on structure, comments on the form and interpretation. Very little theological reflection is found in this material. Chapter five attempts to redeem that which has been omitted from the previous 220 pages—"The Theological Significance of Lamentations." But Westermann has no theology to advance—only a lament for a charred city. His vision rises no higher than his liberal form critical horizons.

I have been very hard on Westermann. Perhaps my reader will think I have been too hard on him. But what my reader must realize is that old things are passing away and new things are emerging—even in contemporary Old Testament studies. Westermann's form critical fundamentalism is part of a rigid liberal-scholastic past. The fresh winds that are blowing over Old Testament texts are narrative studies, literary studies, studies in poetic technique, studies in the Old Testament as canon, etc. Westermann's form criticism is passé—essentially a thing of the modern pre-scientific past (i.e., before 1980). While we may yet witness the dying gasps of form critical method (as represented by the volume under review), the body is, in fact, a corpse. The field of Old Testament studies has moved beyond form criticism (see James Muilenburg's stunning obituary "Form Criticism and Beyond," Journal of Biblical Literature 88[1969]: 1-18 and Meir Sternberg's trenchant critique The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading [1985]).

The damning evidence for my previous paragraph is found in Westermann's reflections on the structure of Lamentations and his bibliography. As we carefully examine his structural approach to Jeremiah's lament and search his bibliography, we are aware of a significant lack of perception with respect to the Hebrew text (his form critical methodology makes it impossible for him to correctly assess the intricate structure of the poem) and a singular omission from his bibliography (he did not do his homework). Why is this a fatal flaw in Westermann's study? Originally published in German in 1990, Westermann's bibliography contains no reference to the most important study of Lamentations in the last century. Johan Renkema issued "The Literary Structure of Lamentations" in 1988 as his contribution to the volume The Structural Analysis of Biblical and Canaanite Poetry (Sheffield Academic Press), edited by Willem van der Meer and Johannes C. de Moor (see also I.G.P. Gous, "A Survey of Research on the Book of Lamentations," Old Testament Essays 5[1992]: 184-205). We may be baffled about the omission of such a seminal work from a work in the very same subject area by the doyen of Old Testament form criticism. In fact, the answer is not that obscure. Renkema's work makes Westermann's form criticism ludicrous, sophomoric, vacuous. Westermann has imposed his methodological agenda on the text of Lamentations and then shaped his exegesis and interpretation to that wax nose. Renkema has (more or less successfully) allowed the Masoretic text to speak for itself, deriving his interpretation from the Hebrew structure of the poetic book.

All scholars have noted the acrostic feature of the book of Lamentations. Each of the first four chapters uses the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet seriatim as a structuring pattern (ayin and pay are reversed in chapters 2, 3, and 4). Each verse begins with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph - tau), i. e., verse one begins with an aleph-word, verse two begins with a beth-word, etc. to verse twenty-two which begins with a tau-word. Chapter three is a triple acrostic—it contains sixty-six verses (3 x 22). In this keystone chapter, the acrostic feature is maintained in three-verse blocks, i.e., verses 1-3 begin with aleph-words, verses 4-6 begin with beth-words, etc. to verses 64-66 which begin with tau-words. As if to prove the rule, chapter five has no apparent structural form; it is not an acrostic, though it too contains twenty-two verses.

Renkema's studies are an attempt to explain the acrostic feature of the book by combining interpretation with structure. While he is not always successful in the latter (theologically speaking), he appears to have found a key to the author's acrostic style. He points out that each of the first four chapters contains an essentially concentric pattern. For example, verses 11 and 12 of chapters one and two reflect parallel vocabulary; 1:11 ("see"... "and look") with 1:12 ("look"... and see"); 2:11 ("poured out"... "faint"... "in the streets") with 2:12 ("faint"... "in the streets"... "poured out"). Working back from the center of the poems, verse 10 parallels verse 13 (1:10 -"stretched"/1:13 - "spread," i.e., stretched; 2:10 - "daughter of Zion"... "virgins"/2:13 - "daughter of Zion"..."virgin"), verse 9 parallels verse 14 (1:9 -"Yahweh"/1:14 - "Adonai"; 2:9 - "prophets"... "vision"/ 2:14 - "prophets"... "vision"), and so on to verses 1 and 22 (1:1 - "great"/1:22 - "many," i.e., great; 2:1 - "day of [God's] anger"/2:22 - "day of the Lord's anger").

The parallel pattern becomes a mirror of lament descending to the center (verses 11 and 12) in which the poetic climax is reached. This concentric or chiastic structure draws the reader into the pathos and poignancy of the central feature of the book (as it were, chapter by chapter—Jerusalem is destroyed! Her glory is dust and ashes!! While much more work remains to be done on the theological dimension of this inspired poetic structure, we may begin with the assurance that we have discovered the structural key to the poet's words. While Westermann pays no attention whatever to the acrostic feature (save to observe its presence), Renkema enables us to explore the mind, purpose and theology of the poet. Nor should we shrink from reverent doxology at the work of the Holy Spirit in the poet's mind, heart and pen.

Chapter three follows the concentric pattern, only now the parallels are grouped in blocks of three verses each, i.e., verses 31-33 are parallel to verses 34-36 (note the repeated "not Lord"). Verses 28-30 contain the word "mouth" as do verses 37-39. Verses 1-3 and 64-66 both share the word "hand(s)". Chapter four contains an irregular parallelism: 1, 2 with 21, 22 ("Zion"); 3-5 with 18-20 ("in the wilderness"); 6 with 17 ("not"); 7-9 with 14-16 ("not... in the streets"); 10, 11 with 12, 13 ("poured out" with "shed," i.e., poured out).

Chapter five contains no acrostic pattern. In fact, it seems to have only a partial parallel arrangement. Verses 9 and 10 contains "because"; verses 13 and 14 have "young man"; verses 17 and 18 have "because" again; verses 19 and 20 have "forever"; verses 21 and 22 have double emphatics ("restore... restored," v. 21; "reject... rejected" = "utterly rejected," v. 22).

The unique astructuralism of chapter five may be related to its unique message—is it a prayer? Is it a renewed declaration of trust in God? Or is it a concluding severe antithesis confirming the negation of earthly Zion? Has Jeremiah anticipated the transition from the Zion which will pass away to the Zion which is eternal in the heavens? Notice that the themes of chapter five virtually beg for eschatological reversal and fullness: a city of dispossession (5:2-4) in contrast to a city rich with the inheritance of the saints in light; a city of no rest (5:5) in contrast to a city of everlasting rest: a city fatherless (i.e., no fathers, 5:7) in contrast with a city of the patriarchs and fathers in Israel; a city with no deliverer (5:8) in contrast to the city where the Savior is the center; a city joyless (5:15) in contrast to a city of never-ending joy.

Lamentations contains a poetic structure designed to graphically portray the death of a city. That lament of death is taken upon the lips of the prophet of the end of the (former) age—the age of Jerusalem's monarchical splendor. The prophet-poet is himself affected by the death of the city. In fact, it is as if the death of the nation is his death and he personifies himself in the imagery of destruction and judgment. The only reversal (eschatological "chiasm") sufficient for the Christian reader of Lamentations is another city of death where the eschatological prophet-poet laments once and for all the approaching close of the ages (Luke 19:41-44). For this prophet-poet will incarnate death, judgment, destruction in himself; he will lead captivity captive entering into a Jerusalem which can never be destroyed. The Lord Jesus Christ will take up the lament for the Jerusalem which is below and transform that dirge into a poem of everlasting joy in the Jerusalem which is above. Beyond the Jerusalem of 586 B.C. is a new and better Jerusalem; beyond the weeping prophet of 586 B.C. is a prophet who wipes away all tears. In its poignancy, the book of Lamentations compells us to look unto Jesus—"Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow!"

Westermann misses all this rich Christological and eschatological imagery. His form critical fundamentalism reduces the book to a patchwork of disparate dirges with nought but funereal overtones. If joy slips into the text, it is due to some hapless redactor. Westermann's book is the tragedy—well might we sing a lamentation over this tome which leaves us Christless and hopeless. "For we have here no enduring city ...." And that, after all, is the issue in interpreting Jeremiah's great lament. We take up Jeremiah's lament with sighs and tears; we put it down with tears of joy because of Jesus and the new Jerusalem.