About 13-14 years ago, at the Church I ministered in just East of Johannesburg, we did a preaching series called “Songs that Speak”. In it we reflected on the words of a variety of popular secular songs and how perhaps God could speak to us through the lyrics of those songs. One of the songs we reflected on was the 1993 REM hit song called Every Body hurts. The lyrics are really simple:
When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well hang on
'Cause everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Don't throw your hand, oh no
Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone
No, no, no, you are not alone
If you're on your own in this life
The days and nights are long
When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on
Well, everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on
No, no, no, no you are not alone
Over the past 28 years since the song was released it has proved enormously popular. It has been covered by a number of other singers and bands, like Joe Cocker, The Corrs, and even a Catholic Priest, Father Ray Kelly from Old-Castle in County Meath when he sang it at his opening appearance on Britain's Got Talent.
What makes it so popular and perhaps also so powerful is that it captures a universal human experience of pain and suffering. It is a song that almost everyone can relate to because it helps us to get in touch with our own pain, our own suffering, those times when we have felt like giving up, those times when we have had to hold on, those times when we have felt alone and when the day has felt like night to us.
I believe that one of the reasons for the enduring power of the Bible is very similar to the enduring popularity of REM’s song ‘Everybody Hurts”. Like REM’s song, a large part of the Bible’s power is that it captures universal human experiences. Through most of its pages, the Bible describes ordinary people, in familiar situations of conflict, situations of pain, of trials, temptations, and situations of deceit and betrayal. And so the Bible is a bit like a mirror, through which we see ourselves.
One of the things that the Bible does is remind us in a powerful way that (in the words of Jesus) in this life you will have tribulations. We live in a world where suffering is an ever-present reality. It is one of the inescapable facts of living in this world. No-one is exempt from the suffering of this world. Even Jesus, who Christians refer to as God’s Son was not exempt from suffering.
And so it seems quite symbolic that in the heart of the Bible, almost near it’s centre we find a short books of 5 poems called the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a book that has sometimes been ascribed to the Prophet Jeremiah, but most scholars suggest that the author is unknown.
The Book of Lamentations consists of five poems of lament. Poems of weeping and wailing, written as a response to the most catastrophic and devastating experiences in the life of the Jewish nation up to that point. After 500 years of living in the land of Israel or Palestine and establishing themselves in the land, after a two year siege, in the summer of 587 BC, the Babylonian Army stormed Jerusalem, the capital city, destroying it completely, along with it’s temple. It was all decimated. Gone. And large portions of the Jewish population shipped off to live as exiles a foreign land, amongst a foreign people, who spoke a foreign language.
It would have been a little bit like if Nazi Germany having invaded Northern Ireland, decimating the city of Belfast and its central places of worship, uprooting people from their homes and ancestral lands and deporting large portions of the population to live somewhere in new Nazi Reich, being treated as foreigners and outsiders and being forced to learn and communicate in German. If we can begin to imagine that, then you have an inkling of how devastating this must have been for them. They had lost everything.
In response to this devastating upheaval, an anonymous Jewish poet wrote five poems of lament to express the devastating sense of grief, anguish and distress that they had experienced in the Babylonian invasion.
Tim Mackie makes the point that the design of these five poems is very intentional. Each of the first four poems in written as alphabet poems. This means that each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. And thus it is as though the poet is expressing the full extent, the A-Z, of the suffering of the people of Israel. He also suggests that the ordered and linear structure of the poems stands in stark contrast to the disordered pain and confused grief of the people of Israel. The poet is seeking to express in words, emotions and feelings which are ultimately inexpressible.
The first poem focusses on the grief and shame of the city of Jerusalem which is personified as a widow called ‘Lady Zion’ and also referred to as the ‘Daughter of Zion’. She grieves alone. She has lost everything. No-one comes to comfort her.
The second poem focusses on the fall of Jerusalem. The poet interprets the fall of Jerusalem as God’s punishment due to the people’s sin. In a world view in which God was understood as being responsible for all the events of life, this was a natural thing to do. But it is an interpretation that raises a number of questions. Does God really punish people using foreign invading armies who come in, pillaging, raping and murdering, even little babies? As much as this was the sincere interpretation of the author of the poem, it is an interpretation that I would struggle with.
I have a sense from reflecting on the life of Jesus, who we call the son of God, that living in the way of God is no guarantee against suffering and certainly does not mean that God will protect one from invading armies. The Book of Job reminds us that even the righteous suffer. In fact Jesus seems to suggest in places that those who are faithful to God may in fact suffer even more than others as a result of their faithfulness.
The third poem is the longest poem in the book. Instead of having just one verse per letter of the alphabet, this poem has three verses per letter. The central character in this poem is a suffering man, who stands as a representative of the people and who speaks out their grief and suffering. In this section of the book, the author has drawn language from other parts of the Bible, from the book of Job, from some of the Psalms as well as from the Suffering Servant poems of Isaiah. In the midst of the pain of lament and grief, this poem offers the only words of hope in the whole of the book of Lamentations: “Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassion's never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22-23)
Even in the midst of this great and devastating suffering, the poet continues to believe that at the heart of life there is an essential goodness that will not abandon them forever. And so he writes: “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
In a verse that Jesus quotes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, the poet writes: “Let them offer their cheeks to the one who would strike them...for the people are not cast off by the Lord forever, though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” (3:30-32).
The fourth poem is a description of the two year seige that lead to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem. In this poem, the poet contrasts the glories and blessings of the past with how terrible things became during the siege of Jerusalem.
As Tim Mackie summarises: “The children used to laugh and play in the streets, but now they beg for food. The wealthy used to eat lavish meals, but now they eat whatever they can find in the dirt. The royal leaders used to be full of splendour, but now they are famished and dirty and unrecognizable. And the anointed king from the line of David has been captured and dragged away.”
The Fifth and final poem is different from the other four because in the fifth poem, the poet has abandoned the alphabet structure. As Tim Mackie puts it, “It is as if the poet cannot hold it together any-more, and his grief has exploded into chaos. The poem itself is a prayer for God’s mercy, written on behalf of the people of God. The first line: “Remember Lord what has happened to us, look and see our disgrace. We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows, women have been ravished, princes have been hung up by their hands, elders are shown no respect, boys stagger under loads of wood”. In verse 15 “Joy has gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned into mourning.”
The poem ends with a plea for God to restore them: “Restore us to yourself O Lord, that we may return. Renew our days as of old, unless you have rejected us forever.” (5:21-22).
Tim Mackie puts it like this: “Suffering in silence is just not a virtue in this book. God’s people are not asked to deny their emotions but voice their protest, to vent their feelings and to pour it all out before God.”
One of the interesting things about the book of Lamentations is that God does not speak. God is seemingly silent. The voice of God is not heard. And that too is often the feeling and experience of many who suffer in this world, the seeming silence of God.
While the voice of God is not heard to speak in the book of Lamentations, we do hear the whisper of God’s voice in other parts of scripture reminding us that in the midst of our hurt and pain, even though it may seem like it, we are never alone:
Psalm 139: 11-12 “If I say ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me’, even the darkness will not be dark to you, the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...you are with me”.
Matthew 28:20, the final verse in Matthew’s Gospel, the words of the crucified and risen Christ: Surely I am with you always.
In the REM song we hear these words:
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on,
No, no, no, no you are not alone.