Crying on cue…can you do it? I can’t. I’m not prone to be outwardly emotional although that doesn’t mean I’m devoid of feelings. I just rarely cry in public. In fact, it took my husband a while to learn that if I did cry on his shoulder, the tears would dry up as soon as he said something. Something about someone speaking to me while I’m sobbing doesn’t mesh well for my brain and instantly the tears dry up. All this, combined with the fact that I’m a terrible seamstress, means that I wouldn’t have been able to have much of a career in biblical times. Let me explain…
Jeremiah 9:17-18 & Amos 5:16 refer to paid mourners and wailing women beginning in as early as 650 B.C. From roughly 750 A.D. China has records of paid mourners at funerals and this practice is still carried out in parts of China even still. Psalm 56:8 states, “You have kept count of my tossing; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” This chapter in Psalms was written in roughly 1060 B.C.* That would make a reference to tear bottles/mourners appear 300-400 before these other historical documents! If you’re like me, history and dates make you a little squizzly. DON’T CHECKOUT! Why in the world should we care about the long history of professional mourning and tear bottles?? Well, for several reasons. First, it’s history and although the dates and timelines of history stress me out because numbers are hard (hello dyslexia), the things that have paved the way for our current life matters. Second, scripture mentions it and when God feels fit to include it in his love letter to me, I don’t want to overlook it! Third, the comfort and encouragement in this concept is timeless!! So keep trucking along with me - I think you’ll be excited by the end.
Since women didn’t really have a whole lot of cultural value during biblical times, there were only a few job options for a woman needing to support herself or her family. The major choices were as a seamstress or a professional mourners. (Men were supposed to be emotionally strong and never show weakness through grief, thus professional mourning was not a career they pursued.) You see why I would have struggled in biblical times? I can’t cry on cue and you wouldn’t want to wear anything I sew. Regardless, plenty of women were able to find success on the mourning circuit.
What exactly was required of these professional mourners? Well, lots and lots of tears. Let me give you a scenario to better explain. Imagine that your uncle has died. It’s very sad and everyone is upset. However, there were mostly men in your family. In fact, except for your aunt, your mom, and you there are no other women in the immediate family and the men, although grieving, don’t cry in public. When it’s announced that your uncle has passed, your aunt pulls out the family tear bottle. You want your family’s tear bottle full to give the most honor and dignity to your deceased uncle. The family tear bottle is small, no bigger than 3-4 inches tall and maybe an inch or two in diameter. No seal is on the top of the bottle so that the tears cried into it can evaporate. Since there’s only a few women in your family, your aunt hires 2 professional mourners to join in during the lamentation period (the time from the death until the funeral). Once the funeral is finished, the mourning period begins.
In the above scenario, professional mourners were used to cry tears on behalf of the family. Those tears/tear bottles would do two things:
Provide honor to the deceased
Determine the length of this particular mourning period
What would happen when the tears evaporated though? Simple: the mourning period was over. Life resumed as normal. Gone were the black dismal clothes. You went back to work and into the market. You couldn’t sit and mope; it was time to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and find a new normal.
Fast forward to 2019 in much of the world. What does this have to do with you or I? I’m so glad you asked!!! Let’s go back to Psalm 56:8.
“You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?”
God records our every tear. Not just the public ones we shed. He sees and takes notice of every singe tear. The ones that fall on our pillow at night. The tears that flow from you, precious mama, who is eating chocolate while you’ve locked yourself in the closet for 3 minutes of solace. The tears that well up at the brim of your eye but you blink back. Those tears. God sees those too! Not only does he see them though. He catches them. He puts them in his tear bottle!
Here’s my favorite part! You haven’t checked out right?? It’s so good! The tears in tear bottles evaporate. They don’t stick around forever!! This is what makes Isaiah 61:1-3, which is repeated in part by Jesus in Luke 4, and Revelation 21:4 so thrilling!!!!
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4
For those earthly tear bottles, the individuals and families had only a guess of how long the mourning period would be. But God’s tear bottle has a clear end date to our mourning! Jesus is our end date! He came and provided salvation and grace to all who believe! And when he comes back again or we join him in heaven, we can know that the tears have vanished! The moments of mourning and sorrow we have in this life are not forever. The brokenness and hurt left from others, or our own choices, don’t stick to us permanently.
John 16:33 says, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” Did you see that? Here on earth we WILL have MANY trials and sorrow BUT TAKE HEART!!!!!! Friends! We have the victory over the sorrow, mourning, brokenness, and trials of this life!
What glorious news to be reminded that God sees our tears, he collects our tears, and he promises to wipe them away and bring the mourning to an end!! Friends! This is news we simply can’t keep to ourselves! That’s where hospitality of course comes in to play. See, its easy to see someone mourning and remind them of Revelation 21:4. In the moment of immediate sorrow and loss that will likely fall on deaf ears - even if the one grieving is the holiest of believers. Sometimes our role to play is that of the proverbial professional mourner: to sit next to the one mourning and meet them where they are. As they cry, to quietly join them in the crying. As they mourn to do the practical work of doing their grocery shopping, take out their trash, or feed their dog. While you and I know that the tears will not last forever, they have value and should be honored. Hospitality, or loving well, is not trying to hurry along the mourning period. It is meeting your loved one where they are and giving them support.
However, loving well and with intentionality also means observing the moment that true mourning turns to wallowing. We are not meant to mourn forever. [Please note: grief is an often life-long journey occurring after great loss. Mourning is the immediate period where it feels like the world is spinning fast and yet you’re stuck in mud. Grief can still occur while we move on with life. Mourning prevents one from finding their “new normal.”] And while everyone’s mourning period varies, as quality friends who are loving well we must encourage our friends, at the right time, to live once more in the joy and hope that God provides to us.
As someone who has experienced moments of intense mourning, continues walking a grief journey and has found glorious hope and joy in Jesus Christ I hope you find encouragement in everything written here. You are never alone. God is the collector of your every tear! He also is the giver of unspeakable joy in the midst of those tears. Be encouraged friends. <3
*according to BlueLetterBible.org
(print in picture is from bottleoftears.com)