Attributed to Jeremiah’s secretary (apparently, even a prophet under fire could have an income sufficient to hire help), this is a short, strange book of four quite different pieces, including one on Wisdom and a letter supposedly by Jeremiah.
The book is included in the Apocrypha of the Vulgate (Roman Catholic) and the Eastern Orthodox canon but not those of the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles.
Reminds me of those leftovers a writer just can’t quite trash. Stuff you want to find a new home for, somewhere.
These five poems, composed soon after the fall of Jerusalem, blame God as well as the people for the disasters befalling them. The lines are full of deep sorrow, and often intimate. As for repentance? We can ask as well, Why turn to this God?
In the end the poet pleads for God to return and restore their relationship.
In Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Stephen Mitchell places three rabbis in a northern California backyard on an early afternoon in late spring. As they heatedly debate the merits and weaknesses of Lamentations, their argument ranges widely across time and geography. Is the love of Jerusalem idolatrous? Can these poems weep for all cities that have been captured and destroyed or even, provisionally, for the Earth itself? Is it a reflection of a universal homesickness for our original home? Are these poems any good, anyway?
In their animated considerations, one rabbi turns to the opening verses, which he translates as “How solitary she sits,” referring to Jerusalem. Other translations use “deserted” or use “city” in place of the female pronoun. The “she,” though, moves directly into a “widow” and a “princess” who is now forced to labor.
The three men ponder ways women seem to be more open to their feelings and bodies than men are, and then turn to the word “solitary,” which one sees as a necessary stage in order to break free and penetrate “to the place where there is no consolation. Any kind of comfort would distract her. It would take away her pain, but like the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey, she would never arrive home.”
Can sorrow be shared? Or is it ultimately a solitary place where one waits for the I AM to enter?
Raising the prophet’s very name points to the word jeremiad, a prolonged lamentation or mournful complaint — even a dire warning of upcoming devastation.
Encountering him in my straight-through reading, though, I felt something quite different.
First, I was struck by the freshness of a first-person telling. God didn’t write this, though Jeremiah seeks to be faithful to what he’s inspired to bring to light.
What I found was more contemporary and engaging than I’d expected — a clear-eyed, pragmatic truth-teller reporting on the condition of current events, cutting through the advertising and celebrity illusions. This wasn’t the pessimistic voice of woe, the archconservative, but the opposite, the one cutting through any nostalgia for the good old days or social convention. (Oh, how refreshing the lines like, “Look, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen.”) There’s something comforting in cutting through the dross (no pun intended), even if everything’s headed to hell in a handbasket.
Of course, Jeremiah’s not just a reporter, with a duty to the facts alone, but a visionary who must flee for his very life along the way.
As Stanley Kunitz observes in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Jeremiah “is intimate rather than heroic in scale. He is a man of conscience, decent and brave, unconcessive in his passion for social and political reform, vehement in his exposure of corruption and the breakdown of religion, and altogether reckless in the consequences of his zeal.”
Kunitz calls him “one of the most clearly defined characters in the Old Testament” and finds the narrative “invites an exploration of the subtext to see what it reveals.”
Moreover, “In contrast to Isaiah and Ezekiel, whose spiritual transcendence is overwhelming, Jeremiah appears as an accessible human figure, mostly like us, with a touch of the God-intoxicated seer.”
Kunitz notes, “Jeremiah’s book lifts a corner of the veil that covers some of the unspeakable origins of religion, including the ritual eating of children.”
Thus, the prophet’s outrage at the worship of “the ‘Queen of Heaven,’ called Anath, the ancient Semitic deity whose consort was Yahweh, ‘Lord of Heaven.'”
In Jeremiah, especially, I perceive an additional identity of a prophet, one of the relentless reformer — one who still holds a vision of cleansing and renewal, even with all of the destruction ahead.