The return of the shepherd God

Warner Bailey writes about the trauma captured in Lamentations, chapter 1, and how pastoral caregivers can serve as witnesses for those who have no words for their pain.

The possibility always exists that we will suffer trauma so devastating that we can only express our burden through groaning. In her 1987 book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry observes that pain is language shattering, causing a reversion to the prelanguage of cries and groans. Bessel van de Kolk, in his 2015 book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, describes the impact that deep emotional, psychological or spiritual trauma makes on the physical body: the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, bringing on heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions that continue to haunt the traumatized.

Pastoral caregivers frequently encounter people who don’t have the words to talk about their hurt. These people may suffer a profound loss of confidence in any benevolent power to support and guide them. They may have experienced their marriage vows betrayed, may have suffered the death of someone who was their “strength and stay” or may have been shamed by a lowering of status in their work. They may be at a loss to make sense out of what is, to them, irrational decision making, cruel and cynical venality or systemic racism. Morally injured service personnel are scarred by a profound loss of trust in deeply held views of themselves as good persons and of a world ordered by a God who limits destructive evil. Similar doubts are voiced by victims of sexual abuse, racism and climate change.

Groaning is all that remains when you run out of words. It signals the fracturing of language. The burden of trauma is so great that people are unable to communicate their experiences in comprehensible language. Since no one can understand them, they are left bereft and isolated. The crisis only expands. Because language is a major factor in forming meaning, any breakdown of language produces a consequent erosion in the structure of beliefs that once supported life.

Can you communicate meaning when you run out of words? Can you reach out and unburden yourself when your thesaurus is empty? It’s not that you have nothing more to say. Rather, the enormity of what you are struggling to communicate overpowers your ability to find the right words to convey that burden. Can your groaning make a difference? 

How do we deliver pastoral care when the burden of hurt comes in groans? I suggest that we look carefully at the book of Lamentations.

When we read Lamentations, chapter 1, cries of groaning hit us in the face. The word “groan” occurs in verses 4, 8, 11, 21 and 22. The physiological manifestation of groaning occurs in verses 16 and 20. Look at how the word “groan” or its gut-wrenching experience occurs at regular four-verse intervals. Take note of its appearance at the central pivot verse 11, and see the way it adds emotional freight to the two concluding verses of the chapter. Doesn’t it tell us that groaning is the standpoint from which to interpret this chapter, if not the entire book of Lamentations?

What trauma is so overwhelming that it causes so much sustained groaning in chapter 1? The entire book of Lamentations reflects the devastation caused by Babylonian forces that crushed the army of the state of Israel in 586 BCE, conquering the country and sending a large part of its population into exile. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, also called Zion, was especially devastating because it was proof that God was powerless to fulfill God’s promises to protect God’s dwelling place and people.

The savagery of urban warfare, the degrading experiences Babylonians forced Israel to endure, and the abysmal isolation from any source of hope all conspired to create the conviction that God had betrayed Israel’s trust in God’s promises. How to express a nation’s great loss of trust? The poet of Lamentations 1 discharged this burden through writing a poem with great literary skill that provoked the sounds of groaning. The poet did so with the clear intent of reaching out to the only God the poet knew, the God who has broken promises, in the dogged hope that the sounds of groaning would attract God, the only witness who could help.

The poet took the daring step of echoing the beloved Psalm 23 by turning its images of confidence inside-out to craft Lamentations 1, a poem that surges out of a soul that has been shattered by the collapse of Israel’s Temple and state: all that God’s people trusted in and counted upon to make life meaningful. Through searing language, the poet presents a God who is at times impotently absent or actively hostile or coldly uncaring — the very things we expect to be said about God by those who are suffering from being catastrophically betrayed. Look at the contrasts.

The psalmist says, in essence, “The Lord comforts me”; the poet in Lamentations wails repeatedly, “there is none to comfort me” (paraphrasing vv. 2, 9, 16, 17, 21). The psalmist says that the good shepherd “restores my soul,” or strength (v. 3); Lamentations says no one helps to revive strength or courage (vv. 11, 16, 19).
Lamentations 1:16 shows how the lack of any comforter means there is no one to revive strength — to drive home the poet’s desperately needed relief from weakness in both body and spirit. The pairing of no comforter and no relief makes verse 16 explode in groaning.

The poet pairs two additional borrowings from Psalm 23 in Lamentations 1:3 and 6 to describe the distress of God’s people. The psalm’s “goodness and mercy [that] follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6) becomes, in Lamentations 1:6, the enemy forces pursuing Israel’s retreating “princes,” or elite forces. And the “green pastures” of Psalm 23:2 provides the word allowing the Lamentations poet to point to the starvation of Israel’s protectors. “Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer” (v. 6).

To summarize, in ten verses of Lamentations 1, the poet uses four concepts that call to mind key ideas from the beloved psalm of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, these four ideas – comfort, strength, pursuit and pasture –
are redolent with meaning that supports the picture of God as specially caring for Israel. In every case, the poet of the lament has inverted the psalmist’s positive intention in order to make plain the absence of God’s response to the pain of God’s people.

Widening our investigation to consider broader themes, note that the climax of Psalm 23 – “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6) – disintegrates in Lamentations 1:10 with the picture of the nations that are invading Zion’s sanctuary, “the house of the Lord.”

Another noteworthy overlap occurs in the multiple ways Lamentations 1 trounces the psalm’s confident “you are with me” (v. 4). The lament, says the Lord, “has made her (Zion) suffer” (v. 5), has “handed me over” (v. 14), “has rejected all my warriors … [and] trodden … the virgin daughter Judah” (v. 15), “has commanded against Jacob” (v. 17), and “is in the right” (v. 18). Verse 13 is devoted entirely to hostile acts taken by the Lord against Zion: sending fire, spreading a net, turning back, leaving Zion stunned and faint all day long.

Lamentations 1 is replete with contrasts to Psalm 23. Look at the contrast between a frantic, futile search for food (vv. 6, 7, 11, 19) and the shepherd’s leading sheep into pasture and water. In Lamentations, the house of death (v. 20) replaces the house of the Lord. And in the psalm, the table prepared “in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5) is designed to show God elevating the speaker to dominance. But in the lament, the roles are reversed; in the absence of a helper, “the foe looked on mocking over her downfall” (v. 7).

Given the preponderance of shared words, phrases and themes, Lamentations 1’s rendering of God as the anti-shepherd is clear. The lived experience of the shattering of deeply held beliefs in God’s beneficent control creates a profound spiritual disturbance, which the poet calls groaning (vv. 4, 8, 11, 21, 22) and describes as copious weeping and vomiting (vv. 16, 20). How different from the one in Psalm 23 who holds an overflowing cup, whose head is anointed with oil!

This poetic rendering of pain into sounds of groaning has but one purpose: to attract a witness, someone who will take note, come alongside and offer relief. Lamentations 1:12 clamors: “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me.” However, God, as the anti-shepherd, is silent in the face of these groans, refusing to be the long-sought witness. This silence leaves the poet no recourse but to look into an abyss of disintegration at the end of the book, if “you [God] have completely rejected us, or have become too angry with us.”

The twisting of Psalm 23 makes Lamentations 1 ring true today wherever unimaginable radical evil has enveloped people, either as victims or perpetrators. Through meditating on the lament, we can plumb the depth of existence when all that is meaningful has been shattered. The story of the flock of the anti-shepherd God mirrors elements of the scars we carry. The poet’s words help us see that we are not alone, that others have left a record of similar scars. We may not know how to resolve our shame, anger, isolation, hurt and doubt; but in Lamentations 1, in the words of someone like us who had no shepherd, our groans find a familiar echo. Here is someone who is a witness, someone who is with us. We are not alone.

But the testimony of Israel is that God is not content to remain the anti-shepherd. The prophet of Israel’s restoration, commonly referred to as Second Isaiah (chapters 40-66), knows that all humanity is weak and ephemeral (see Isaiah 40:6-7) and that we often find ourselves in situations beyond our control. However, in the face of grim reality, Second Isaiah reinvigorates Psalm 23. He opens his message echoing the very needs the lament cried out for but were denied: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (40:1). God returns as the shepherd of Psalm 23 to forestall the terrifying consequences of the anti-shepherd. He will feed his flock, gather the lambs and protect the mother sheep nurturing new life (Isaiah 40:11). Isaiah 51:11 uses the imagery of Psalms 23:6 (goodness and mercy nipping at one’s heels) to urge that gladness will overtake Zion and that “sorrow and sighing” – groaning – “shall flee away.”

Faced with the Lamentations poet’s trenchant criticism of God as anti-shepherd, the shepherd of Second Isaiah returns eager to give an accounting: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7-8).

As we see in God’s self-avowal, God does not irreversibly stay the anti-shepherd. Indeed, what seemed to be complete abandonment was in fact “a moment.” Israel survived the anti-shepherd God because it protested the excesses, the injustices, of the anti-shepherd. Israel’s outcry for a witness had the effect of deepening God’s covenantal engagement and intensifying God’s positive passion for Israel right at the moment when God was poised to walk away.

Consequently, the depth of God’s passion turned from a posture of hostility and abandonment to a commitment “to suffer with and to suffer for, to be in solidarity with Israel in its suffering, and by such solidarity to sustain a relationship that rightfully could be terminated,” in the words of Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament. God became the long-sought witness, a helper, because God found in God’s own internal life a depth of devotion to the well-being of Israel that was not, until that moment of crisis, available to God.

God proved this solidarity both in the death of the Son, whose loud cry from the cross gathers up all human groaning, and in the gift of the Spirit, who prays for us with sighs too deep for words. Pastoral caregivers are able not only to be a witness, but to point to a new structure of meaning wherein our scars can find a mirror image in the crucified and resurrected Jesus and can, in his light, find a way to thrive while bearing our scars.