Memory is a funny thing, and the author of Lamentations knows it. The opening verse of this particular passage makes this clear as the author quite literally laments the inability to forget affliction, poverty, restlessness, and straying. The word translated to “remember” here is זָכֹ֣ור (zachovr) which indicates a recollection of past distress, and this is not a mild or passive reminiscence but one that encompasses a person holistically. In the Message paraphrase, Eugene Peterson put it this way: “I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed. I remember it all—oh, how well I remember…” Other translated versions diminish the repetitiveness, but “remember” (זָכֹ֣ור, zachovr) is actually repeated and then underscored as תִּזְכֹּ֔ור, (tizkovr), bringing the devastation of the past into the present and enveloping the self, both sinking deeply into the soul and pressing from above. The word the author uses for himself is נַפְשִֽׁי׃ (nafshi), and this encompasses life, desire, passion, and emotion in a way that no single word translation can hope to express. In some ways, this kind of remembering seems parallel to trauma, where events cannot be neatly integrated within a continuing narrative but instead take on a quality of transcending time. The author cannot forget. Yet, there’s something more…
The NRSV puts it simply, “But this I call to mind…” Again, I like how Peterson frames it: “But there’s one thing more I remember…” I like this, because it indicates that we are people capable of holding memories in tension, and even those that seem mutually exclusive may be reconciled. Just as the author remembers pain, which is very real; the author also remembers hope, which is equally authentic. Strangely, though, the word for hope doesn’t actually make an appearance until many verses later (beyond the scope of this commentary). Instead, what we find is the word for wait, over and over again. The concept of hope is definitely prevalent, but there is also an undercurrent of peace that may go unnoticed if not carefully uncovered, and I posit this peace comes from even more memory. If things are as bad as they presumably are, why does the author have hope? Why is he willing to wait? Perhaps it is because it hasn’t always been this way, and the suffering probably won’t last forever.
What does he remember?
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
“God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.”
This is certainly not to say that it is easy to remember this in the midst of suffering. If we’re not careful, it could become cliché; or worse, it could become an expectation which causes others to ignore the difficult circumstances, claiming hope without any real healing. If you have ever read anything I have written (for A Plain Account or otherwise), you know it all reeks of lament and the importance thereof, but even when we’re right in the middle of the struggle, hope can break in (often tenuously and fragile), and this is necessary for keeping on. The Message says, “I keep a grip on hope.” I like that, because it emphasizes the effort. Hope is generally not passive. We don’t merely have it, as if imparted as some magical gift. We often have to hang on for dear life.
I can remember one particularly difficult time when nothing seemed to be going right and despair was creeping in, but like the author of Lamentations, there was something else, something more working its way into my thoughts, and it came out in this statement: God has never failed us yet, and I don’t expect today to be the day he starts. Did thinking this make everything instantly perfect (or even alright)? No. No, it did not. Did it change the situation? Also no. But it did serve as a reminder to continue to practice the pattern of breathing in and breathing out, of living to see another day. Much like the author of Lamentations, we sometimes find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances, and our hope comes from having a history with a loving God.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him” may be expanded to say something like this: God’s way is what my entire being desires, so I will wait for it. This in no way indicates that the pain or suffering experienced is God’s will or way or plan but that God has a better way and that it will be accomplished. Waiting is hard, but holding on to hope that all things will be set right is a positive way to survive in a world where things are not yet right, both believing that they will be someday and working toward that kind of redemption in relationship with God and others.
Relationships are, of course, key, so much so that verse 25 is somewhat unclear regarding who is doing the waiting and seeking. Traditionally, this is translated, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him,” but it is not much of a stretch to also arrange the original words to say, “The Lord is good, waiting for us and seeking us out.” Perhaps it is even reciprocal! The Lord is with us… in us… near. We can rest in knowing that salvation is coming and has already come. It doesn’t mean that everything looks exactly as we want it to right now or even exactly as God wants it to, but we can be assured that it really will all pan out in the end, because God keeps covenant. Life is hard. Pain is real. And it’s OK to feel it. Go ahead and lament, holding steadfast to the promise that this is not all there is.