What Does Lament Mean in the Bible and Why Is It Important?
- Lori Stanley Roeleveld Contributing Writer
- 2021 8 Jan
In Hebrew, there are several words for lament or lamentation, but all convey the same sense, to outwardly demonstrate deep sorrow or regret. In Hebrew, the lament definition is “to wail.” The Hebrew meaning of lament is expressed in the words “Quwn,” “Caphad,” and “Awbal.” All mean to cry out, to wail, to chant a dirge, to lament.
There are times in the lives of individuals, groups, even nations when circumstances arise that fill us with sorrow, regret, and pain. Our thoughts and our emotions are complex and not easily captured with words. God provides for us in these times with the gift of lamentation. Most of us aren’t prone to wailing in most circumstances but there are losses and sorrows that lead us to mourn aloud or to grieve visibly or with sound. That is the essence of a solid lament definition, “to express sorrow, mourning, or regret for, often demonstratively.”
Every culture has a different comfort level with open demonstrations of grief or sadness and personalities vary in what it looks like to lament. But, just as it’s vital for physical health for doctors to drain an infected wound, it’s also vital to our mental and spiritual health to release the pent-up stress that forms in times of loss. When the doctors open and release infection from a wound, the point isn’t to continuously release infection but to heal. The same is true of lamentation. The point isn’t to live in a continuous state of wailing, but to move toward deep healing.
What Is the Biblical Meaning of Lament?
In ancient Israel, there were great demonstrations of grief and mourning for leaders such as Moses, Jacob, and Aaron that lasted 30 days. It was a tradition for the dead to be mourned by family, but they may also call on professional mourners who played instruments or chanted dirges. This is what Jesus encounters when He visits Jairus’ house to raise his daughter from death in Luke 8.
Lamentation was also a practice to express sorrow over sin. In James 4:9, James uses the Greek word, pentheo, as an instruction to the believer in the process of repentance. After we submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, and purify our hearts, he calls us to “Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” James 4:9 NKJV. Lamentation is not an end to itself, but a path to praise. James tells us in verse 10 that if we humble ourselves before God, He will lift us up. In the heavy times of life, there is a lightness to be found but the pathway to this is lamentation.
Who Wrote Lamentations and What Does the Book Have to Do with Lamenting?
The book of Lamentations is the most famous use of lament in the Bible. It’s a short read with only five chapters. Jeremiah the prophet wrote the book in response to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC. As a lament, it covers a multitude of griefs and regrets.
Jeremiah had faithfully preached repentance and warning to his people at God’s direction for over forty years. When God allows the Babylonians to overtake the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah mourns its fall, the loss of life, and expresses deep regret that his people stubbornly refused to respond to God’s call to repent.
Jeremiah cries aloud his sorrow for his city, his people, and then for himself. The work God called him to do has not brought about the end for which he’d hoped, and his disappointment is understandable and deep. Especially painful is that while he’s been faithful, he suffers along with those who refused to listen. Many of us understand this experience when family, leaders, or people in our ministries make sinful choices and we face the consequences with them.
Yet, even in the midst of his great lament, Jeremiah expresses hope in God. “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ 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”Lamentations 3:22-26 NIV.
Lamentations is a superb example of how the deepest despair, when expressed aloud to God, can lead to hope and a renewed vision.
What Are Examples of Lament in the Bible?
Throughout the Bible, we see examples of lament associated with mourning. David mourns his son Absalom aloud in 2 Samuel 18:33. Mary and Martha were surrounded by mourners weeping at the death of their brother, Lazarus in John 11:31-37. Jesus also weeps that day.
There is often national lamentation for sin or after great suffering such as in Ezra 10:1, Jeremiah 9, or Nehemiah 8:9. The Psalms are full of lamentation. And there are numerous times God calls all of us to lament or to mourn in both the Old and the New Testaments.
God is aware of our varied ethnic backgrounds, our cultural norms, and our personality styles. Still, His call to lament is clear throughout Scripture. While it may initially create discomfort depending on our individual traditions, it’s a vehicle God’s given us to release sorrow and make room for hope and praise.
Why Is it Important that We Know What Lamenting Is as Christians?
We live in a fallen world. We experience the consequences of sin and death on individual, cultural, and global levels. God knows we need a way to express and release the pain of these losses or we risk becoming numb to even the joys of life or allowing momentary sorrows to infect our entire being. The tool He’s provided for this release is lamentation.
It’s not that God wants us all wailing so loud our neighbors check up on us or walking around talking about our sorrow to everyone we see. As you saw in Nehemiah 8:9, the leaders at some point instructed the Israelites to stop their lament and to rejoice. There is a time for everything.
The point of lamentation is to give sorrow, regret, disappointment, and grief their due. God knows what we’re made of and He doesn’t reject our humanity. When losses or regret occur, our humanity demands we acknowledge them. When we pay attention to God, we learn how to manage and express our humanity in ways that are healthy and God-honoring.
When we are deeply impacted by our own sin or someone else’s, such as when a child becomes addicted to drugs, a spouse commits adultery, or a ministry leader steals funds, this is a time for lament. When our nation is in turmoil, when sinful practices are approved by our culture, or when natural catastrophes have global impact, these are times for lament. And, of course, when death robs us of people we love, this is a time to lament.
The spirit of lament is to grieve aloud, to allow our sorrow to be expressed visibly or audibly before God. Private people can do this in the isolation of our own homes, office, or prayer closet. Those with a greater comfort before others can weep or wail or cry out to God in the presence of trusted friends or in the context of corporate worship without fear of condemnation. Some may choose to write our lament while others may find songs, art, dance, or handcrafts as the best vehicle of expression.
God created us, knows us, and is willing to help us function according to our design. We live in a world marked by sin and death. To help us cope, He’s provided the gift of lament. We are wise to make use of this loving tool for passing through sorrow to joy.
A Prayer of Lament
Lord, I know that you are faithful over all things, even the hard, dark times of my life. Help me not back away from you in my time of grief. Help me instead to lean into you and trust you, even when I do not understand your ways. Please keep my head above the waters of anguish and my feet from slipping off the ground of truth. Help me see you in these hard moments and glorify you in my response. In Jesus' Name, Amen. (by Debbie Przybylski)
Photo credit: Unsplash/Thought Catalog
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.