Wright, Christopher J. H. The Message of Lamentations. The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2015. 166 pp. Pb; $16.00. Link to IVP
Wright has already written the volumes on Jeremiah and Ezekiel for The Bible Speaks Today series as well as the excellent Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Intervarsity, 2011) and The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Intervarsity, 2006). His brief commentary on Lamentations is a welcome contribution to the study of this obscure book. Often commentaries on Lamentations are something of an appendix to Jeremiah (with the exception of the strange paring of Lamentations and Song of Songs in the Word Biblical Commentary series). Recently, however, several commentaries Lamentations have appeared: Adele Berlin’s commentary in the OTL series (Fortress, 2002), Dobbs-Allsopp in the Interpretation series (WJK, 2002), and Robin Parry’s commentary in the Two Horizons series (Eerdmans, 2010).
Wright’s thirty-five page introduction to the book of argues “Lamentations is a book for today” (21). This is true despite the fact the book is rarely the subject of preaching and few Christians would think to “lament” as part of Christian worship. Yet there is a great deal which is worthy of lament in the modern world, horrors which are in many ways resonant with the context of Lamentations.
Wright begins by setting lamentations in the context of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., “unquestionably the most traumatic moment in the whole history of the Old Testament” (25). With respect to authorship, there is nothing in the book that could not be written by Jeremiah and the book “sounds like Jeremiah” (27). Yet the author has chosen to remain anonymous, so Wright simply calls him “the poet” throughout the book. Wright offers a short introduction to the poetry of the book, including the acrostic structure and the form of dirge/lament.
Perhaps the most valuable section of the introduction to the book is Wright’s view how a lament functions. In some ways it is a memorial to the horrors of the fall of Jerusalem, but a memorial gives voice to those who have suffered and cannot cry out for themselves. But there is something more in this lament. Jerusalem suffered greatly because of their sin, but was God’s wrath on this people just? Lamentations can be read as a struggle to find the justice of God in the face of extreme suffering. In this sense, it is a protest against what God has done—but it is a protest that ultimately accepts both God’s sovereignty and his righteous wrath (39). Meditating on Psalm 56:8, Wright suggests Lamentations is something of a bottle for the tears of God’s people. The book is a place where outrage and sorrow can be honestly and safely expressed.
The final two sections of the introduction offers a reading of Lamentations as part of the whole canon of Scripture. In order to connect this book to the rest of the canon, Wright briefly explores the silence of God in Lamentations and the rest of Scripture. But how does a book like Lamentations “fit” into the overall drama of Scripture? He suggests reading Lamentations is like “hitting the pause button, freezing the action of the drama, memorializing that moment in the story when it did indeed seem like the drama was coming to an end” (47). He cites numerous verbal connections between Lamentations and Isaiah 40-55 to suggest the Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is at least theologically linked to Lamentations. But this reading does mean we “jump straight to Jesus” and make Lamentations all about the Cross (52). There is a sense in which God’ is silent in both cases, but his silence in the crucifixion anticipates resurrection and salvation.
The commentary itself proceeds by paragraph, commenting on the English text of the book of Lamentations. Since The Bible Speaks Today series is intentionally brief and aimed at the layperson, there is no Hebrew in the text or notes. The style used for the commentary is very readable and at times convicting. While Wright is offering an accurate exposition of the text, he also wants to challenge his readers with the content of this disturbing book. For example, while discussing the horrors of children dying in the streets of Jerusalem (Lam 2:11-19), he refers to a report from the United Nations Relief and Work Agency which detailed the aftermath of the July 2014 shelling of Gaza by the Israeli Defense Force. The spokesperson for the Agency wanted to show there is a human being with a heart behind the people killed. Likewise, Lamentations seeks to “humanizes the statistics” of Jerusalem’s disaster by graphically describing the death of children in the street. This juxtaposition of current events and the distant history of Lamentations brings the text alive for the modern reader.
This commentary is very friendly toward the non-professional reader. It is not an exegetical commentary nor does it intend to deal with all of the complex issues the book of Lamentations raises. While Wright occasionally interacts with other significant commentaries, the bulk of this is relegated to the notes so a layperson will have no trouble reading this book. Each chapter ends with a few “reflections” on the text. These are questions to prompt further discussion, perhaps as a part of a small group or Bible study.
NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Published on September 5, 2015 on Reading Acts.