Lamentations: A Guide out of Grief

 LAMENTATIONS
is a book about
GRIEF
in which God shows his
COMPASSION.

Introduction

Lamentations is a cycle of five separate poems (comprising five chapters in most modern versions) about the fall of Jerusalem, 9th of Ab, 586BC.⁠1 This important event is recorded in four places in the Old Testament. The Babylonian siege resulted in horrific human suffering as well as the destruction of Solomon’s temple. Jeremiah’s poetic account implies not only murder and starvation (4:9), but rape (5:11) and even cannibalism (2:20, 4:10).

The fuller title of the book is sometimes “The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” but in Hebrew its title is simply the interjection “how!” from the first verse: “How empty lies the city!” The poem’s conclusion is just as bleak as the beginning; however, the “weeping prophet” (as Jeremiah is sometimes called) does make some sense out of their suffering in the course of the poem, and points to his hope in God’s enduring faithfulness.

Communal Suffering, Communal Repentance

Suffering and grief in the Lamentations are communal. Throughout the first poem (ch. 1), Jerusalem is allegorized as a friendless widow, defiled and deceived. The prophet laments not just personally, but on behalf of the great capital, Jerusalem. His poems encompass men and women, old and young (2:21), king and princes (2:9), and prophets.

Repentance likewise must be communal. Jeremiah confesses and repents on the people’s behalf (1:18). Like Moses (33:1-17, 34:9) and Ezra (9:5-10:4) before him  and Daniel after him (Dan. 9:1-19), Jeremiah repents vicariously on behalf of the people, standing in the gap as their representative before God in his prayer. By interceding before God for Israel, these prophets point to Christ who “lives to intercede” (Heb. 7:25; see Rom. 8:34, etc.). 

God’s Righteous Judgment

Jeremiah is unapologetic about two things: First, God brought this about (2:17); second, we deserved it (3:37-38, 5:7). In the first poem, he sings: “The LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (1:5, ESV). Again, he writes: “The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (1:18, ESV; compare Ezra 9:15, Neh. 9:33).

No matter how dark times get, an attitude of humility should always lead us to these two conclusions: God is still at work, and righteousness leads to an attitude of repentance.

Suffering: Did God Cause It?

First, God is always at work, even in the worst of times.  “The LORD has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago” (2:17, ESV). “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it” (3:37, ESV)? Everywhere in the poem, God’s agency is acknowledged, especially in passages like 1:12-15, 2:1-8, 3:1-17, 42-45, 56-61 and 4:11. In these verses, God is the agent of more than 80 verbs, a remarkable testimony to his activity in times of trouble.

The worst affliction of all is the closing of divine channels. See especially 3:1-8: God “shuts out” prayer (3:8; the prophets “find no vision” (2:9); “the Lord has become like an enemy” (2:5). Few Scriptures are as forthright 

Suffering: Does Judah Deserve It?

Regardless of his personal righteousness, Jeremiah freely admits that Judah is suffering in guilt, not in innocence. God does not owe them any favors. Unlike Job, Jeremiah does not question whether the suffering is personally deserved or not. He cuts to the chase: This is judgment! We are guilty, and God is in the right. “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins” (3:39, ESV; see also 3:42; Neh. 9:33, Mic. 7:9, 1 Pet. 2:18-24)?

Jeremiah does, however, petition God for justice where justice is lacking, especially in the fifth and final poem (3:64-66; 5:1-22). Admitting guilt before God and pleading for reversal of fortune are not mutually exclusive.

God’s Compassion—Our Hope

The core of Lamentations is found in its message of hope in the middle of the third poem:

“But this I call to mind,
   and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness. . . .

For the Lord will not
    cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
    or grieve the children of men.” (3:21-23, 31-33, ESV)

Jeremiah mentions three character traits of God: his steadfast love, his mercy, and his faithfulness. The character of God is his reason to have hope.

Summary: Four Applications for Times of Grief

Jeremiah’s book offers an important example for those crushed by grief. There are four ways that we can see Jeremiah finding a pathway out of grief:

1. The first solution is simply to express yourself in grief. Trauma often leads to avoidance behaviors, but Jeremiah counsels us to pour out our hearts:

“Arise, cry out in the night,
at the beginning of the night watches!
Pour out your heart like water
before the presence of the Lord!” (2:19, ESV)

2. Next, repentance is always a good idea; even if you cannot recall any personal sin to confess before God, you can repent on behalf of your nation. Take an attitude of humility and lift your heart to God.

“Let us test and examine our ways,
and return to the LORD!
Let us lift up our hearts and hands
to God in heaven.” (3:40-41, ESV)

3. Third, remember God’s faithfulness. Jeremiah says “this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope” (3:21, ESV). We must remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness by calling it to mind, whether through song, through reading his Word or through other acts of devotion.

4. Fourth, ask for justice. (See 3:40-66, 5:1-22.) Even though they are guilty, Jeremiah does not hesitate to ask God to restore justice by coming to the aid of the penitent and restoring his covenant people. We should never wallow in injustice, but entreat God’s aid and the comfort of his mercy.

Book Recommendations

Besides the books recommended on Jeremiah, I recommend a compilation called Devotional Poets of the Seventeenth Century. It includes a paraphrase of Jeremiah’s Lamentations. Poetry and song can be a great comfort in times of grief.

1 However, some contest this date to be in 587BC.

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