Lesson Six: Lament Over the City
Focus Scripture: Lamentations 5:1–22, Luke 23:26–31
Singing Songs of Our Cities
Hymnbooks are, really, books of theology—the sung theology of the people. What do we sing about in any given time? Are the most-often sung hymns those of personal devotion? Do they have lots of “I, me, and my” references? Are we singing mostly songs based on one book of the Bible or one type of Biblical literature—gospel songs or psalms, for example? What are the songs we are singing about our cities?
In Glory to God, there are 18 hymns connected to the book of Lamentations (see the Scriptural Index on page 982 in the pew edition). Lamentations is a single book in the Bible, but it is a series of five poems that were written following the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. One of the characteristics of these poems is that God never speaks. There is no consolation for those lamenting the loss of the city in Lamentations.
If you have a copy of Glory to God, look up the 18 hymns listed in the Scriptural Index.
Not one of the hymns listed mentions the city.
Why do you think that is so?
There are many secular songs about cities. Look at this list: New York, New York (the city that never sleeps), Luckenbach, Texas (with Waylon and Willie and the boys), Allentown (where they closed the factories down), Gary, Indiana (my home sweet home), Seattle (the bluest skies you’ve ever seen), Kalamazoo (I’m going to Michigan to see the sweetest gal in), Savannah (I hope to be there by the morning). You can probably name a long list of others.
And you might do just that as an introductory exercise for Lesson Six. Make a list of your own of songs about cities. Look at the list you made and put the songs into two big camps: songs of lament and songs of celebration. Which group is larger?
I suspect that though some of the songs may be sad or wistful in tone, or even songs about love gone wrong, most aren’t technically songs of lament over the city. That’s not unexpected for songs in the commercial sphere. The form of Biblical lament doesn’t lend itself to commercial success: addressing God, describing the injustice, reminding others of the relationship between God and the one(s) lamenting, and so forth.
The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) offered one hymn about cities in its Topical Index. However, in the section titled Church: Mission, there is a hymn that speaks to the things we lament about our earthly cities, “Our Cities Cry to You, O God.” Singers of Margaret Clarkson’s 1981 text of this hymn declare that our cities cry to God from “their pain and strife.” The second verse reminds us, “Yet still You walk our streets, O Christ!” and the third verse acknowledges that the people of God are God’s hands and feet and that our lives are the book our cities read. “O come, Lord Jesus, bring to earth the city of our God,” the hymn concludes.
The lives we live as the people of God are the books our cities read. What are the implications of that for how we live in our cities? For how we advocate for our cities? For how we lament for our cities?
Though there is not a song about the destroyed Jerusalem in its pages, Glory to God does offer us an image of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 in the hymn “O Holy City, Seen of John” (#374). The first verse describes the city with its foursquare walls as a place where there are no tears. The third verse offers us today a challenge in light of the promise of the new city:
Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that has stood
too long a dream;
whose laws are love, whose ways are servanthood,
and where the sun that shines becomes your grace for human good.
P. Lynn Miller.
Author and Illustrator of the 2020–2021 PW/Horizons Bible Study
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