An ancient poem on the ruins of Jerusalem reads as if describing today’s Middle East.
The New York Times recently devoted the entire issue of its weekly magazine to the devastation unfolding in today’s Middle East. In a long story titled “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart,” Scott Anderson tells that story through the lens of six Arabs and Kurds whose lives have been forever altered by the deadly forces unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Their stories trigger powerful emotions. One reads and begins to grieve. For their tales illumine the anguish and terror that millions in these lands have come to experience as their homelands have descended into chaos. No one knows if we have even reached the nadir yet.
When I read their stories, I found myself turning back to the Old Testament book of Lamentations. This book of five chapters is an extended reflection on the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies in 587 B.C. After a long, two-year siege, those armies breached the city’s walls and poured into the city like tsunami wave.
In its wake all that constituted the kingdom and culture of ancient Judah was obliterated. The Davidic line of kings ceased. The city’s walls were demolished along with its houses and palaces. The glorious temple of Solomon was left a heap of ashes and scattered stone blocks. And any people who survived the massacre were carried into exile into Mesopotamia.
The poet surveys the scene afterwards and his opening words are:
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal. (Lamentations 1:1)
Everywhere the poet looks he sees ruin, devastation, and disappointed hope. It is scant comfort that he understands why all this has happened. It is a manifestation of God’s wrath upon the people’s failure to be faithful to their covenant with God. Still it all represents a wasteland, both literally as well as spiritually. And he pours out his heart in a searing lament.
If we were to substitute the words Middle East for the word city, I think we might be able to read the poet’s language as a description of today’s Middle East. How lonely indeed does its land sit that were once so full of people, people living in cultures comprised of diverse tribes, religions, languages, and ethnic identities. As the New York Times story details, all that is coming apart today.
This is an example of how the Biblical text, written so long, long ago, continues to provide us with the words for expressing our own experience today. Maybe this is why we continue to read and cherish this ancient book.
Photo credit: Bernard Gagnon