Here is another example of why I love studying Hebrew poetry. F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp points out that enjambment (love how that b is jammed in there) expresses meaning in Lamentations through giving “provisional” meaning in the first line of a couplet only to have this “half” meaning counteracted by the second. Here’s an example from Lamentations 2:22. We read:
“He summoned as if a festival day”
And the couplet finishes:
“my terrors on every side”
[Dobbs-Allsopp points out that this provisional expectation and resulting surprise is destroyed, for instance, by the NRSV’s translation: “You invited my enemies from all around / as if for a day of festival.”]
What I find interesting about this particular form of expression is how it reflects the purpose of Lamentations. Lamentations is most basically the expression of shock at brutally overturned expectations of blessing. Yes, the author admits that the sin has precipitated the suffering, but the tonal emphasis of the book is on the suffering. For example, the poet says, “For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater / than the punishment of Sodom” (ESV). As an expression of shock, this use of enjambment exactly parallels the experience of the poet, an expectation of festival overturned by terrors on every side.
But to generalize even a bit more, this is also the universal experience of suffering. We all have a sort of imaginative construal of how things are and how things will be that is dramatically overturned when we encounter suffering. This is why suffering creates such profound mental pain. It involves a temporary split in the imaginative construal of the world. The characteristic orientation of the soul to find meaning in God’s purposes crashes against the present orientation of the soul, the overwhelming and bracing reality of evil. This fixation on present evil overthrows this characteristic sense of meaningfulness. (e.g. Coulehan, 2009)
But this raises the question of whether even this present suffering might be yet overturned by another couplet of experience? Perhaps I have only a “half” meaning at this moment? What if there still exists a possibility of meaningfulness being restored?
Still, while this possibility might exist, we must recognize that lingering in the shock of reversal is exactly what Lamentations enables us to do. Lamentations gives us words to voice this divided soul. On one level it validates our construal; it tells us that all is not right and that we are justified in feeling that the world is chaos, or even feeling that God is our enemy. In this sense, it is just the ordinary case of dealing with the sometimes dreadful particulars human life as we have no other alternative but to take them, in time, moment by moment. I can only taste human experience in the present tense with the full poignancy of the recent past. There is no future experience for humans, only future imaginative projection.
This moment by moment limitation of humanness is precisely what Augustine was complaining about in his Confessions. His thirst for the eternal was at least partially the thirst for seeing everything “as it is”, to experience the eternal, past, present, and future at once. So for the Christian the dramatic grief of suffering is not culpable, as if we just needed to think differently to begin with. Grief is just the response of the human soul coming to terms with particular evil in particular time. And the degree to which we finally judge this particular evil in particular time as irreconcilable with a meaningful whole is the degree to which we tend to deny the existence of meaning, or God himself. Voltaire was a good example of one did this.
Lamentations, however leads us not to this sort of despair, but ultimately to a prayer mingled with a question. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us Why do you forget us forever … why do you forsake us for so many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old–unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.”
This question of rejection, of the loss of all meaningful resolution remains for us all, will the final couplet of things to come alter the provisional meaning of our present experience?
“Remember, O Lord”
Jack Coulehan, “Compassionate Solidarity: Suffering, Poetry, and Medicine,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn 2009), 585-603.