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 now abandoned us.

But is it really so barren? Or may that, itself, be a point? Might there be something else in that loss and barrenness that drives us, like the original writers and hearers, deeper?

Many attempts have been made to find something comparable to the acrostic. 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".[1] Although at first sight this praise looks a misfit in the context of devastation it nevertheless resonates well with the book of Job and its "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessèd be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21).

Further, this provides the otherwise missing "seventh acrostic" (the other six being one each in chapters 1, 2 and 4, plus the triple acrostic of chapter 3) and yielding that creation-derived and sabbath-reflecting "six+one" of completion.

How might we represent that? It strikes me that the well-known eight-letter word "Alleluia", itself directly from the Hebrew "Hallelujah" ("Praise the Lord"), resonates well.


Recall, O Lord, what befell us,
look; behold our disgrace—[2]


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

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

We're extorted to buy our own water,
our own tumbleweed comes at a price.


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

We stretched hands to Egypt and Assyria
to satisfy our need for bread.


Our ancestors offended and are no more,
and now 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.[3]

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


Women are ravished 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,
and young men have stopped their songs.


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

The crown from our head has toppled:
woe 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.[4]


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,[5] you have rejected us:
to you we are anathema.[6]

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

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

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

[4]Originally "jackals", but hyenas are more familiar, and this allows the poetic force of alliteration.

[5]This is an astonishingly grim ending; we do well to meditate on this closure. 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...".

[6]In Jewish tradition, there is a convention of then repeating v.21 ("Lead us back... turn back to you") as a coda.