The Book of Lamentations portrays grief in its darkest form and functions like a mirror to grieving souls. It shows readers how to grief and how to heal this malady of the soul.
The particular grief that Lamentations underscores is the grief caused by our own sinful choices. In short, it answers the question, “How should I respond when I suffer for doing what is wrong?” Part of the answer to that question involves the form of the poetry itself.
Ordering our grief gives structure to our grief
Lamentations 1–4 are alphabetic acrostic poems, meaning that each line of poetry begins with a letter of the alphabet. So lamentations 1:1 begins with aleph, 1:2 with beth, and so on. Lamentations 3 does the same but in sets of threes: so three lines of aleph, three lines of beth, etc. The fifth chapter does not contain an acrostic for a reason that I will explore in another place.
Now, to avoid the trap of providing extraneous details, let me explain why knowing about the structure of these poems helps us to grieve.
Acrostic poems give order to our emotions. They show lay out grief in a structured way to prepare us for divine surgery. In this sense, order cleanses the wound before the Spirit can do divine surgery on our souls.
Grief creates disorder in our minds. Like a desk with papers, notes, and books scattered everywhere, so our minds become disordered. Instead of locating the book we want on the table, we somehow keep returning to the same piece of paper over and over. It’s not logical. But we focus on the paper in front of us despite wanting the book to the left of us. It’s a disorder.
Barry Webb explains, “Grief itself, by its very nature, is a rather formless thing. The mind of a person in deep sorrow characteristically moves in circles, returning again and again to the source of the grief, unable to leave it and unable to resolve it” (Webb, 2000: 61).
Everyone who has experienced grief or hurt understands this. We return to the thing that pains us even though we don’t to. Like flies to a honeypot, we return again and again to grief or pain. But when we go to take a handful, the pot is empty.
Ordering our grief lets us say what needs to be said
And this is why acrostic poems can serve us in grief. They give full expression to all our feelings from A to Z, aleph to tav (See Webb, 2000: 61). Webb expands further:
And yet, by the acrostic pattern, the grief is shaped and led to a conclusion, a point of completeness, where everything necessary has been said, at least for the time being, and the mourner can fall silent without feeling he has been stifled. In this sense the acrostic form has more than aesthetic significance; it has a therapeutic and pastoral significance as well (Webb, 2000: 61).
When we put words to our grief, we feel listened to and acknowledged.
So by giving structure to our grief and by saying what needs to be said, we begin the process of working through our pain. The acrostic poems in Lamentations provide us with these two tools to equip us to grieve and eventually to be healed from our grief.