Lamentations 5

Lamentations 5, like other chapters, has the same number of stanzas, 22, as the Hebrew alphabet. But unlike the other chapters:

Even, it would appear, the toehold of sanity provided by those features has evaporated.

Further, the Hebrew Masoretic text puts a chapter break between verses 18 and 19. Mount Zion, God's dwelling-place and formerly "joy of all the earth" (2:15 and Ps.48:2) is now abandoned, in chaos, like the primordial cosmos before creation. Bleak, indeed.

Yet this chapter, above the others, is the book's prayer. It is preceded by abandonment. It remains in abandonment. But whereas the other litanies of complaint had addressed God mostly en passant, this chapter is framed as a prayer to him. This is the pinnacle: "the lamenting population was shown a way to rebuild their shattered universe by, paradoxically, reaching out to their God who was not there for them anymore".[1]

Many attempts have been made to find something comparable to the acrostic. Not least, this would provide the otherwise missing "seventh acrostic" (the other six being one each in chapters 1, 2 and 4, plus the triple acrostic of chapter 3) which would yield a creation-derived and sabbath-reflecting "six+one" of completion. In the final four verses, taking not only the first but also the final letter of each (an "acrostic-telestic") yields the eight-letter Hebrew phrase "your God is exalted greatly".[2] While initially such praise looks a misfit in the context of devastation it nevertheless resonates well with Job's "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessèd be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).

How might we represent that? Perhaps "Alleluia", itself directly from the Hebrew "Hallelujah" ("Praise the Lord"), might be appropriate.


Recall, O Lord, what befell us,
look; notice our disgrace—[3]


Our heritage given over to strangers,
our homes to occupiers.

Orphans we have become, without fathers;
our mothers as widows.

Our well-water? Extorted for profit;
even our firewood comes at a price.


Up to our necks are we pursued;
we wearied, we found no rest.

We stretched out hands to Egypt;
to Assyria to beg for our bread.


Our ancestors offended and are no more;
now we, we bear their punishment.

Slaves rule over us;
there is no-one to free us from their hand.


Getting bread is at risk of our lives,
exposed to the desert sword.[4]

Our skin burns hot as an oven
from the raging fevers of famine.


Women are raped in Zion;
virgins in the cities of Judah.

Princes are hanged by them;
elders are shown no respect.


Young men have millstones to carry;
lads under woodpiles stagger.

Elders abandoned their city-gate;
young men have stopped their songs.


Joy has abandoned our hearts;
our dancing turned into dirges.

The crown from our head has toppled:
woe now to us; for we have offended.


At all this— our hearts sicken,
for all these our eyes grow dim,

for Mount Zion, lying desolate:
the haunt of hyenas.[5]


And you, Lord, your throne shall endure:
ruling generations eternal;

Long years, why always forget us?
Why forever forsake?

Lead us back, Lord, renew days of old,
let us turn back to you.

Indeed,[6] you have discarded us:
to you we are anathema.[7]

[1]Wielenga, Bob The Suffering Witness: A Missiological Reading of Lamentations, In die Skriflig.

[2]Guillaume, Philippe Lamentations 5: The seventh acrostic, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

[3]There now starts a catalogue of what, in modern-day writing, we would call bullet points, that returns at v.17 "At all this…".

[4]This might mean either the heat of the desert sun or tribes preying on desert refugees.

[5]Originally foxes or jackals, although not the same "jackal" noun as at 4:3. Hyenas are familiar, and this allows the poetic force of alliteration.

[6]The "indeed" translation is supported by both NABRE and Robert Alter. Other versions also have this as statement (KJV: "but thou hast…"; NEB: "but if thou hast…then indeed"). The NIV can't stomach this: a begging "unless you have…".

[7]This is an astonishingly grim ending; we do well to meditate on this closure. Some Jewish traditions conventionally repeat v.21 ("Lead us back… turn back to you") as a coda.