Robin Parry, Lamentations. Two Horizons Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.)
“We have been robbed of a vocabulary of grief and we suffer for it. The book of Lamentations accosts us by the wayside as a stranger who offers us an unasked-for, unwanted, and yet priceless gift – the poetry of pain. We would be wise to pay attention.”
Indeed. But it is a difficult book. Not only an alien and ancient text, and with its own exegetical conundrums and textual entanglements. But Lamentations is a howl of pain, exposing its readers to the raw brutality and anguished afterlife of disaster that ruins everything; city, worldview, economy, political structures, faith, society of family, neighbourhood and nations. The result is trauma, a disorientation of the soul, a numbing of the mind, and an emotional life blighted from fruitfulness into wilderness by events that were overwhelming. It is well named, Lamentations, a poetry of pain, recited in the desolating loneliness and emotional agony of lives evacuated of meaning.
It is a hard but necessary read. At least it is necessary if faith is to be adequate to the brutal violence and calculated cruelties of war, terror, and destruction unleashed by those called the enemy, whose hatred is implacable and in whom mercy never took root. In a world where drones deliver death by remote control, and suicide and barrel bombs inflict death and terror, the victims and the bereaved utter their own bewildered, despairing laments. Words, the grammar of the voice, enable reality to be named, even if that reality is tragic beyond reason and is experienced as unassuaged grief, fear and rage.
The book of Lamentations was written to be read, and is to be read so as to be heard. It is a warning of the consequences of enmity let loose with weapons, of hatred equipped with imperial power, of all those acts and activities, attitudes and mind-sets, in which the destruction of the means of life, and the taking of life itself, are each seen as not only acceptable, but by twisted logic or toxic faith, are celebrated as offerings to god, or nation, or race.
Reading Lamentations is an exercise in depth explorations, a willing listening to the human spirit articulating its own shattered hopes. Commentary on the text must involve exegetical care, historical discipline and an alert sense of how poetry, image, theology, and faith are straining at the limits of meaning. So there must also be a further step beyond exegesis, historical context and constructive commentary. It is this further step that makes this commentary a quite exceptional treatment of Lamentations.
The Two Horizons Commentary aims at both traditional exegesis, but supplemented and developed by a series of theological reflections which send out new trajectories for further exploration and application of the text in question. That approach is made to work quite brilliantly in the exposition of this book so laden with sadness, so bewildered in its anguish, so vulnerable in its anger and guilt and loss, and yet, and nevertheless, defiant of giving in to ultimate despair.
The Introduction constructs the context, explores the genre of poetic lamentation, and seeks to show the canonical connections. A fine 10 pages looks at modern attempts to identify and explore the theology of Lamentations, and considers in brief essays “Sin and Punishment in Covenant Context” and “Hope in Covenant Context.” The theological oscillation set up between sin and punishment and hope, and these in the context of an unbreakable Covenant broken, takes us to the very heart of the book. Then for 125 pages Parry moves through the text, using his own translation, opening up the interpretive options, and demonstrating the rich tapestry of words woven together into poems and songs of lament, with occasional glimpses of hoped for recovery, restoration, and perhaps renewal of covenant faithfulness. This first horizon of the text is lucid, packed with interaction with secondary scholarship and making intertextual connections with the wider canon of Scripture. In particular, as brought out in two later sections, the relations of Lamentations to Isaiah 40-55 and to the New Testament.
The second section of the book is 76 pages of Theological Horizons which pick up a wide range of themes and connections which further illumine the text. Taken together, the two horizons fuse into a series of essays of varying length and development. One particular highlight for me was the connections made between Lamentations and Second Isaiah, and the significance of Second Isaiah picking up some of the key themes and in some cases the actual text of Lamentations, and showing how they are reversed. The “no one to comfort” of Lamentations, gives way to the call “Comfort, comfort my people”; the children as casualties of war give way to children being born and rejoicing in return. Lamentations as the cry of victims of anti-Semitic violence, Lamentations and political theology, particularly the critique of empire were further well-made implications for contemporary reflection and action.
Three more substantial pieces are on Lamentations and the Rule of Faith, The Place of Lament in Christian Spirituality and Theodicy and Divine Suffering. Together these reflections climb down into the theological crevasses that split across the human experiences that gave rise to Lamentations; and they provide us with profound reflections which compel us to hear those lamentations with 21st Century ears, and to pay attention to the peoples of this world for whom the devastation of their cities, the blowing up of their hopes and the tearing down of their cultural identity are real, and now, and just as unforgiveable.
We are in debt to Robin Parry for a commentary that takes such suffering seriously, and has thought about it deeply. His treatment of divine suffering is theologically nuanced, careful but not constrained by those who would foreclose too early on divine suffering as an aspect of God’s willing love. There are a number of good commentaries on Lamentations, including Paul House in the Word Biblical Commentary (twinned with Duane Garrett on Song of Songs), Dobbs-Allsop in the Interpretation series, Leslie Allen’s Pastoral Commentary, A Liturgy of Grief, and Kathleen O’Connor’s Lamentations and the Tears of the World. I’ve used each of these with considerable profit and learning. But this volume by Parry offers more, and due to the format of exegesis and theologically reflective essays, more that is different. This is a commentary, read alongside one or other of the above, that makes Lamentations not only preachable, but important to preach.