Dr Heath Thomas explores how the cry of 'kyrie eleison!' can become a model for the Church today.
In the Christian tradition, the cry of kyrie eleison or ‘Lord, have mercy’ has resounded in the liturgy of the Church at least since the fourth century AD. It is the Church’s prayer for help and mercy from the Lord in their straits of suffering and sin. This traditional prayer goes back to the psalter (e.g. Psalms 4.2; 6.3; 9.13) and the New Testament as well (Matthew 9.27; 20.30; Mark 10.47). In this light, it is clear that God’s mercy is an important focus for Scripture and the Christian faith.
This article will explore the mercy of God in the book of Lamentations. While God’s mercy is affirmed in creedal affirmation (particularly Lamentations 3.21–24), I shall argue that Lamentations launches from this creedal affirmation of God’s mercy to cry out in the spirit of prayer: kyrie eleison! This will become a model for the Church today, who struggles and suffers in sin and pain. To get there, however, it will be useful to get a handle on the brief but underexplored book of Lamentations.
Measured against any standard, Lamentations stands out as a literary masterpiece. Each of the poems deal with experiences of confusion that all too often mark the human experience: suffering and sin, guilt, blame, penitence and protest. Lamentations speaks to human suffering and the dark experiences of life in a manner unparalleled in the Old Testament. It is one of the only books, if not the only book, in the Bible without a ‘happy ending’.
The New Testament over and again recognises and mourns suffering but looks towards the resurrection hope in Jesus. Although 'Good Friday' moments recur in the New Testament, the reality of Easter Sunday provides a hope for the suffering Church that her resurrection day will come as well. The shape of the New Testament concludes with the apocalypse of John, with a new heaven and a new earth, where the glorified Jesus sits on the throne and cries out: ‘See, I am making all things new’ (Revelation 21.5 NRSV).
Lamentations speaks to human suffering and the dark experiences of life in a manner unparalleled in the Old Testament
One might think the Old Testament books are different and are less happy and hope-filled, but even there bright rays shine in the darkest of books. The book attributed to the ‘weeping prophet’ Jeremiah concludes bleakly, but readers grasp a grand vision of hope and restoration in Jeremiah 30–33. In the little book of consolation, God speaks his word of forgiveness, giving a picture of the coming new covenant (Jeremiah 31). This picture provides provides the suffering follower of God the grounds for hope, despite pain in the present.
And what of the psalter? Surely it is bleak. After all, it contains the greatest number of lament prayers in the Bible. Indeed, there are more lament psalms than there are praise psalms or hymns. Even the psalter concludes with a happy ending: a rousing crescendo of praise in Psalms 146–50. The hallelujahs of these psalms reveal that lament has been turned to praise. Another dark prophetic book emphasises the point. The prophet Habakkuk’s dark cry of ‘how long?’ in chapter 1 concludes with bright praise in chapter 3. Lament breaks into praise as the prophet boldly affirms:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
(Habakkuk 3.17–19, ESV).
The prophet Habakkuk experiences joy through pain, giving hope for believers that suffering is not the final word on the life of faith. As this brief survey reveals, even the dark books in the Bible see luminous rays of hope. But what of Lamentations? The entirety of the book may seem too gloomy for the bright halls of biblical faith.
For good reason, the modern Christian imagination has been captured by the third poem of Lamentations that highlights the mercy of God. Note particularly Lamentations 3.21–24 (ESV):
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion”, says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The beauty of these verses lay in their creedal affirmation of the covenant-character traits of YHWH, Israel’s God. The Hebrew terms ‘steadfast love’ (hesed), ‘mercy’ (rekhem), and ‘faithfulness’ (emunah) appear here in 3.22–24 and recall the same language that YHWH uses of himself after after Israel committed grave sin with the golden calf in the wilderness, recorded in Exodus 34.6–7.
After judgement, God appears to Moses and reveals his character in a creed that is repeated and received throughout the Old Testament. The verses affirm YHWH is a God who is ‘merciful’ (rekhem) and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in ‘steadfast love’ (hesed) and ‘faithfulness’ (emunah). The point of the revelation of YHWH’s character in Exodus is to emphasise that although Israel sins, God’s ‘mercy’ (rekhem) would remain.
Terence Fretheim says the creedal affirmation of Exodus 34.6–7 exclaims YHWH’s ‘divine mercy and forgiveness and patience’ that is matched with an unconditional love for Israel.1 Although Israel has sinned, God’s mercy is new like the morning. It is no wonder, then, that Lamentations 3.22–24 picks up this language. It comforts those who receive Lamentations as they experience pain. It reminds them that all is not lost. Both texts testify that God is still the covenant Lord of Israel, and his mercies will break forth as the morning light.
Walter Kaiser characterises Lamentations 3.22–24 as ‘a pool of light in the midst of thickest darkness’ and the chapter provides the deepest consolation and presentation of YHWH.2 The verses then are the theological high point of the book and the creed that the readers must embrace. It is not too much to say that Kaiser’s perspective is emblematic of much of Lamentations’ interpretation amongst those who have read and received the book, particularly in Christian circles. Yet more needs to be said about these verses and their theological affirmation.
Lamentations 3, along with the beautiful pronouncement of verses 21–24, must be heard in concert with the prayers and tears of Lamentations. A careful reader notes that when one reads Lamentations 3 closely, one sees a structure that moves through:
a. Suffering and lament (vv. 1–20)
b. The creedal affirmation of YHWH (vv. 21–24)
c. A teaching on suffering and sin (vv. 25–39)
d. A return to lament prayer (vv. 40–66)
In this way, one cannot lodge at (b) for too long. The poetry does not allow the reader to stop at the ‘pool of light’ but returns to darkness, suffering and prayer. In other words, the poem ends on plea rather than praise, and it returns to lament rather than resting in victory.
Because of the movement of Lamentations 3, the poem profiles the cry for mercy and the anticipation of divine help rather than teaching a simple creedal affirmation of the character of God. God may be the source of hope, as verse 24 indicates, but suffering and prayer remain. The people cry out for God’s mercy rather than simply affirming it. An important section of this chapter confirms this point:
My eyes will flow without ceasing,
until the Lord from heaven
looks down and sees;
my eyes cause me grief
at the fate of all the daughters of my city.
(Lamentations 3.49–51, ESV)
The people of God cry out until God looks down and acts out of his mercy. These verses affirm a theology of the mercy of God in line with Lamentations 3.21–24, to be sure, but they do so in a way that anticipates God’s mercy in the future rather than experiences God’s mercy in the past. It is a theological position that prays for God’s mercy to be real in the real world. The mercies of God are ‘peeking around the corner’ without running to meet the plight of God’s people.3 Until he does, God’s people will cry out from the depths of their souls. Hope in God in Lamentations is real, but it is articulated primarily in and through prayer. Prayer, then, becomes a fecund way to receive and interpret the book of Lamentations for today.
Prayer is a way to engage the God who made a needful humanity. Jacques Ellul helpfully describes prayer as a kind of dialogue between God and humanity, which ‘implies reserve, tension, contradiction, argument back and forth’.4 Although the prayers of Lamentations do not provide God’s side of the dialogue, we certainly hear the ‘tension’ and ‘contradiction’ in the voices of those who pray in the book. This helps us see that for Lamentations, prayer is the primary grammar for expressing faith.
So to understand Lamentations’ perspective on God and his mercy, we must look to the prayers of the book rather than the ‘pool of light’ found in Lamentations 3.21–24. Prayers reveal faith, or as Pope Celestine 1 famously said: ‘Lex orandi est lex credendi et agendi’ (‘the law of prayer is the law of belief and action’). His words emphasise the primacy of worship and prayer beyond rationalistic belief. In other words, if you want to know what one believes about God, then look to see how and what one prays, and how those prayers animate the life of faith. Lamentations reveals a people that believe in the God of mercy but express that faith in prayer alongside the creedal affirmation in Lamentations 3.21–24.5
Those central verses in Lamentations affirm the doctrine that God is merciful, in line with Exodus 34.6–7. But we should remember how Lamentations employs the creedal affirmation. As one observes the shape of Lamentations 3, the creedal affirmation serves as a kind of launching pad into prayer. Stated another way, Lamentations’ firm belief in the mercy of God generates more and more tears and more and more prayer in the book. God is merciful, the affirmation goes, so pray without ceasing.
Praying for God’s mercy Lamentations 3.49–51 draw us to the persistence of prayer in the book. These verses evocatively portray a person worn out from weeping over the suffering of others (‘all the daughters of my city’). It is a parental image of loss and an experience of deep empathy with the sufferer. The poet cries unceasingly in compassion for those in pain: ‘My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite’ (Lam 3.49). Love and concern for another motivates prayer to God until he looks down and perceives the sad state of the ‘daughters’ of the city.
Only when God notices will these prayers be turned to praise and these tears turned to laughter: ‘Until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees’ (Lam 3.50). Robin Parry captures the perspective of Lamentations’ cries for God’s mercy. He says that Lamentations’ scenes of suffering, including Lamentations 3.49–51, are there not merely because the people need to speak their pain, but mainly because the underlying hope is that YHWH is fundamentally a God of compassion: if his attention is drawn to the dreadful suffering, then, it was hoped he will be moved to act salvifically. Even the articulation of complaint is a step out of the darkness.6
The hope in the cries of Lamentations is that God would be moved to act, precisely because YHWH was and is a merciful God! Although Parry rightly notes that the book affirms God’s compassion, not all the prayers for God’s mercy are the same. The book highlights prayers for relief from enemies, forgiveness of Israel’s sins, and even relief from God’s adversarial action against his people and city. In each of the prayers uttered, God’s people request his mercy to be made real in their experience.
Because God is merciful, he will respond to the prayers of his people
For the Church today, it is entirely helpful to learn from Lamentations’ cries for mercy in and through prayer. The words of Lamentations become a kind of script that the Church might perform in many ways. God’s people cry out to him for mercy because of their sin, their suffering, or their persecution and oppression. God’s people cry out for mercy when they experience what can only be a kind of disruption in their relationship with their Lord. Such prayers are not empty words: they are the very words of life that God has given us to speak in our destitution, and that is a wonderful gift. Lamentations becomes the vocabulary and grammar for the Church to cry out: kyrie eleison!
God’s compassion is revealed in Lamentations 3.21–24, where the poet confirms that YHWH’s mercies are ‘new every morning’. That creedal affirmation is given a particular shape in the prayers of the book. Because God is merciful, he will respond to the prayers of his people. In this way, prayer becomes the vehicle for faithfulness. If one wants to see faith on display in Lamentations, then one should look to the faithful prayers of penitence, protest and pain. They will persist ‘until he looks down and sees’. God does respond to their cries for mercy, because he is merciful.
In the full sweep of Christian Scripture, God reveals his mercy most fully in the work of Jesus the Messiah, who forgives sins, liberates the captive, and will make all things new. Recognising the centrality of Jesus, the Christian Church has used the book of Lamentations during Lent, particularly during Holy Week. Lamentations becomes a text that enables God’s people to voice sin, suffering, pain, and loss. But it does so by refracting its pain and prayers through the suffering and passion of Jesus.
Our suffering, pain and sin is put on Christ’s shoulders and he bears them all. Easter Sunday testifies that God answers suffering, sin and even death with new life. The Lord’s mercies radiantly become new on the resurrection morning of Christ. This reality does not stop our prayers, however. It drives us to pray ever more fervently because of the mercy of God in Christ. It drives us to pray in the words of Lamentations and the words of Revelation:
My eyes will flow without ceasing,
until the Lord looks down
from heaven and sees.
‘Come quickly Lord Jesus’! (Rev 22.20).
Dr Heath Thomas is Dean, College of Theology and Ministry, Associate Vice President for Church Relations and Professor of Old Testament at Oklahoma Baptist University.
1. TE Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), p. 302.
2. WC Kaiser, Jr., Grief and Pain in the Plan of God: Christian Assurance and the Message of Lamentations (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publishers, 2004), p. 81.
3. HA Thomas, ‘Until He Looks Down and Sees’: The Message and Meaning of the Book of Lamentations (GBS 53; Cambridge, UK: Grove Books, 2009), p. 16.
4. J Ellul, Prayer and Modern Man (trans. C. Edward Hopkin; New York: Seabury Press, 1970), p. 133.
5. DB Clendenin (ed.), Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), p. 7.
6. R Parry, Lamentations (THOTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 217.
Author: Bible Society, 18 November 2016