A Song in Parts

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick. 
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) 
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.” 
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored? 
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people! 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

There’s not a lot of hope explicit in this text.  More accurately, there is none.  

There is grief and heartsickness and hurt and mourning and dismay.  The pitiful cry for expectations unfulfilled:  ‘harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.’  A longing to be turned to a fountain so that constant weeping would be possible, that tears would be the speaker’s entire being.  All of that is stated, clear on the surface, no close-read parsing needed.  But of hope, there is none plain.

That said, there’s less plain about this text than the translation allows.  The very first phrase — that stark statement, ‘my joy is gone’ — varies between translations (JPS makes it a dependent clause, ‘When in grief I would seek comfort…’ ; NIV offers, ‘You who are my Comforter in sorrow…’).  The Hebrew is obscure.  Is it a a single word referring to lost joy — the flash of a smile now dimmed in grief?  Is it better read as two words, referring to healing foregone?  Is it actually a loan-word from Akkadian, a form of ritual lament known as a ‘balag’ sung over cities abandoned by their god/s?  (Really, the article on balag-laments was more interesting that you might suppose.)  

And — speaking of God — where is the LORD, anyway?  That question is explicitly posed.  But by whom?  The NRSV provides punctuation, periods and quotation marks and parentheses, but that punctuation is interpretation of the original, unpunctuated, text.  Defensible but not determinative.

Is it the query the cry of ‘my poor people’ (literally, ‘daughter of my people’)?  If so, is it a plaintive seeking after God — we’ve waited all summer, we’ve brought in the harvest, and still we are not saved?  Is it, instead, a smug certainty that God is present notwithstanding the multitude of offenses cataloged elsewhere, as if God’s presence is license to sin with impunity.

Is it the query of the LORD God-self — a rhetorical question as if to stress that God is in Zion, the king is in his city — thus intensifying the anguish and anger of the line that follows:  ‘Why have they provoked me to anger’ — as if the LORD stands in the midst of the city, palpably present, yet ignored by the people who throng after other images, desires, promises, and the LORD cries aloud, ‘Am I not here, among you, my people?  Why do you not see me?  Why do you pass by and not even look?’

And who is the ‘I’ of the passage, the one whose speech is not set off with quotation punctuation?  The one whose joy is gone, whose heart is sick, who mourns the ill and slain of ‘my poor people’ and would turn himself entirely to tears?  Is it the prophet?  Is it the LORD?  (The possessive ‘my’ could apply to either.)

These questions cannot be answered.  Any answer is partial, shifting.  As soon as parts in the dialogue are definitely defined — this speaker is the people, that speaker is the LORD — a shift in focus results in a different point of view, a different understanding.  Maybe that speaker is the people; this speaker is the LORD.  And that other one the prophet?

Maybe that’s the point.  That the passage is less prose discourse and more choral performance.  That the imprecise definition of parts and speakers is because the speakers shift and share the parts.  That both the people and God ask after the LORD’s presence.  That both the prophet and God are offended at the sin, heartsick for the suffering.  That each speaker interleaves with all the others; that all bear the burden of the lament.

Have you sung in a choir before?  Extended passages when voices cycle out and back again, as singers pause to breathe and resume singing, but the song as a whole continues to sound.  

Have you sung in a boat?  Singing to lift your spirits, to straighten your back and strengthen your arm so to steady your stroke?  Singing with others not only to raise a smile but to synchronize the rhythm as you paddle on longer than you knew you’d have to, longer than you knew you could?  

What if the LORD is in the boat with you?  What if the LORD is in the choir?  What if the LORD is singing alongside the whole ‘daughter of my people’ — strengthening the sound, supporting the note, not only building up the capacity of all the other singers but sustaining and expanding the very song itself.

Hope is not expressed in the text.  But hope may yet be standing at its center, wanting to be seen and turned to and joined.  Invert the question and sing the song:  the LORD is here.

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