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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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Leviticus: Be Holy For God Is Holy

LEVITICUS
is a book about
HOLINESS
in which God provides
ATONEMENT.

The Book of Leviticus: God’s Holiness

Leviticus is named for its relation to the Levites, and most of its commands pertain to the priesthood, especially commands about atonement for sin, which is the subject of about half the book.
In Exodus, one of the most important phrases in the Old Testament is introduced: “I am the Lord.” In Leviticus, God says his nature is essentially holy (20:7-8, 21:8, etc.). In the ESV, the word “holy” is used 91 times in Book of Leviticus.
He is also the Lord who sanctifies or makes us holy (20:8; 21:8, 23; 22:9, 16; see also Ex. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12, 37:28, etc.). This is a key concept in Leviticus, repeated five times: “Be holy, for I am holy” (11:44-45, etc.). God’s holiness informs us about what it means for us to be holy, and God’s holiness is the reason that he provides atonement for us. This is the attribute of God most clearly on display in Leviticus, and nearly every passage in Leviticus can be seen through this lens.

Plain Teaching on Sin (ch. 1-7)

These commandments about sacrifice are filled with specific truth about sin and guilt. There is no need to seek any allegorical meaning in them, when they teach plain truths about sin and sacrifice:
1) We learn the difference between sins and trespasses (Ps. 19:12-13). There are sins that are obvious to us, but there are also sins that we commit unknowingly (4:2). 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our (known) sin, he will cleanse us from all unrighteousness (which would include unknown sin).
2) We learn the difference between personal sin, public sin, and priestly sin (4:13, 22, 27). If I cheat my neighbor, that is my own sin. But Nehemiah acknowledged, for example, that the people had sinned corporately, and corporate repentance was required.
The sin of priests and leaders is also treated differently. Ministers and teachers of the Gospel carry more responsibility because of their consecration, and this even affects the way their families are treated.
3) We learn from Aaron’s four sons that there are sins of commission and omission. Just as Nadab and Abihu sinned by offering fire “which the Lord had not commanded” (10:1), Eleazar and Ithamar sinned by neglecting to eat the sacrifice as commanded priesthood(10:18).

Plain Teaching on Priesthood and Sacrifice (ch. 8-10, ch. 21-22)

The tabernacle is established in the Book of the Exodus, and the  is established in this book. In Leviticus, we have plain teaching about the meaning of sacrifice—not only that God requires our best, or that he requires blood, but beyond that, we learn:
1) Sacrifice required confession (4:15, 5:5, 16:21). The purpose of placing hands on the animal was to confess guilt in its presence. Likewise, the sacrifice of Christ has no effect if we do not admit our guiltiness.
2) Sacrifice required consecration (ch. 8-10). Not everyone can make a sacrifice, but only a priest can make atonement under the Old Covenant (4:35, 5:16, etc.). But now the Lord requires consecration from all his children, and we are all priests in the new order (Heb. 7:11, 1 Pet. 2:5).
3) Sacrifice required cleanness. It is not undertaken flippantly (10:1), or in any place, or at any time (16:2). But under the New Covenant we learn that God seeks those who worship him “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). It is not just clean hands but “a pure heart” that the Lord desires (Ps. 24:4).

Holiness and Cleanliness (ch. 11-15)

All the rituals involving food, skin diseases, etc. may be seen as involving cleanliness, and may or may not involve the guilt of sin. The commandments about food (ch. 11) are practical and interesting. (Winkie Pratney says, if you break these commands, you won’t necessarily go to Hell, but you will feel like Hell.)
Before the New Covenant was established, the Lord frequently required healed lepers to abide by Leviticus 14 in presenting themselves to the priests.
Leviticus 13 and 14 are dedicated to the separation of those with contagious skin disorders from the crowd of the camp.
The idea that these diseases were transferred through physical contact, and not by some other mystical means, has suffered a lack of acceptance, even recently, even in the educated West. At the height of his career, Joseph Lister was criticized and laughed at in his early career for his ideas about cleanliness and antiseptics in hospitals; in his old age, Queen Victoria made him a baron and a royal counselor; now, he is known as the “Father of Modern Surgery.”

Day of Atonement (ch. 16)

The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is at the center of the Book of Leviticus, and it is central to the whole practice of making atonement. This is neither the same as the daily sacrifices, nor is it “business as usual.” We see this in 1) the rarity of the occasion, which was annual (v. 2, 29); 2) the entry of the Holy of Holies, which was not allowed at other times (v. 2); 3) the special release of the scapegoat, which is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible.
The meaning of the scapegoat is up for debate, but the custom is clear enough: In addition to the commands laid out in this passage—namely, confession over this goat—the high priest tied a scarlet thread to the goat, representing guilt, before sending him away. In later years, rather than merely releasing it, the man charged with the duty would push the goat off of a precipice, and wave a signal to people stationed nearby that the atonement ritual was complete. Regardless, it represents a distancing from sin (Ps. 103:12), God not counting our sins against us (Ps. 32:1-2, Rom. 4:7-8).

General Commands (ch. 17-20)

It is no coincidence that sex is mentioned so prominently (ch. 18) in a book about holiness and atonement; sexual immorality is the quickest path to deceive yourself and destroy your family, and must be taken seriously (Heb 13:4).
This section contains what Jesus called the second most important commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Thomas Fuller, a Puritan author, had a fascinating insight on this verse in connection with the Sermon on the Mount: “Many things pass to be in Scripture, when no such matter is to be found therein. ‘Ye have heard it said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.”’ (Mt. 5:43) But where is it said, ‘Thou shalt hate thine enemy’? Surely nowhere in God’s Word.”[1]

Feasts, Sabbaths and the Year of Jubilee (ch. 23-25, 27)

Note especially how the Feasts of Passover and Booths have been fulfilled in Christ’s death, and Pentecost, respectively (Mt. 26:2, 1 Cor. 5:7, etc.). (It’s important to know that Pentecost is simply the Greek name for the Feast of Booths.)
The Year of Jubilee (ch. 25) ensures justice and provide balances to the economic system; most interestingly, debt is freely forgiven, while in our modern system it simply accumulates unchecked.

Covenant and Consequences (ch. 26)

In Leviticus 26, God outlines consequences if Israel should fail to keep her side of the Covenant. This chapter shows that for believers, God will progressively try any means to get their attention, so that they will return to him (v. 3, 14, 18, 21, 23, 27; see also Deut. 28). But God promises in spite of this that he will bless and help them “if they confess their iniquity” (v. 40), and he could never forget or break his end of the covenant (v. 43-44).
This important section of the Pentateuch is what is referenced by Jeremiah and Daniel when they say that the punishments of the covenant have fallen on Israel (Dan. 9:10-14, Lam. 2:17). The complaints of other prophets of the exile period also prove that this Scripture was being fulfilled in their day (Hag. 2:16-17).

Study Recommendations

Written in Blood by Robert E. Coleman is a readable, well-studied devotional on the meaning of Jesus’ blood.
Andrew Murray published two books of sermons on Jesus’ blood: The Power of the Blood of Jesus and The Blood of the Cross.


[1] Concerning Christ’s Temptations.

Haggai: Work Is for Fellowship

HAGGAI
is a book about
WORK
in which God
DWELLS.

The Messenger and His Audience

Haggai is unique in that his audience is primarily just two people: Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest. Both of them participate in this revival in a personal way (1:12, 14), receive personal words from God, and special promises. (See Ezra 5:1-2, Hag. 2:21-23, Zech. 3:1-10, 4:9-10, etc.) The only verse specifically directed at the public is 1:13: “I am with you, says the Lord.”
Haggai’s message is intimately related to the Books of Zechariah and Ezra. (See Ezra 5:1.) Zechariah and Haggai’s prophecies dovetail in confirmation of each other, and the people prosper through their prophesying (Ezra 6:14).

Haggai’s Message: Realignment of Priorities

Haggai’s primary spiritual message was one of priorities, and its primary application was that is it is time to work. Five times God commands them to “consider” (1:4, 1:7, 2:15, 2:18). It is easier to live selfishly; righteousness requires that we turn off autopilot mode and examine our priorities.
When we experience spiritual revival, it leads to a realignment of priorities. The first way this seems to happen is in the area of work. Haggai’s hearers were invited to invest time. Building the Lord’s temple would require some sacrifice of the time that they spent on their own affairs.
The second result of revival is in our finances. Haggai’s hearers were challenged to contribute materially (1:8, 2:8). Our time and money go towards what we value. Whenever there is repentance, spiritual renewal translates into an active response in these two ways.

Why Build?

“‘Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified,’ says the Lord.” (1:8) God commands the Israelites to build “that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified.” This twofold purpose reminds us of the Westminster Catechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We build because God says “I am with you” (1:13, 2:5).
When God ordered the building of the Tabernacle, the reason was “so that I may dwell among you.” But now God says he is already among them, and they needed to acknowledge and prepare for his presence.
When God asks us to commit to the work of ministry, it is never to receive justification or atone for guilt; it is always for his pleasure and because he is worthy of glory. Work is for fellowship.

The House of the Lord

The temple is not “a house for the Lord” but “the house of the Lord.” It is a holy place belonging to him that he might reveal himself to his people; it is not a place for a tribal god to live. They did not rebuild the temple so that God could dwell among them; they rebuilt the temple because God was dwelling among them. “Work . . . for I am with you” (2:4).
In the New Covenant, God’s preeminent dwelling place is his people. A church building is never called the house of God in the New Testament. As Solomon said, “Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you!” (1 Kings 8:27, NKJV) But it is also written: “You [plural] are God’s temple” (1 Cor. 3:16). Building God’s house for us means prioritizing our time and money for spiritual ministry. (See also: Christ’s Body Is the Temple.)

Special Promises

“The heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit” (1:10, KJV). God hearkens back to his covenant promises in Deuteronomy 7:13 and Leviticus 26:4. Abundant crops are specifically promised for Israel if they obey the covenant; drought and lack are promised if they disobey.
The promise is not universal, and it is not the same as karma—it is a specific way that God proves himself to his covenant nation (Lev. 26:9). In Haggai, God is trying every economic expedient to get the attention of believers, because they should know better. However, he promises specifically that this will turn around from the date of the foundation of the temple (2:18-19, Lev. 26:40-42).
In the Old and New Testaments, God never commits himself to a law of always returning good for righteousness and evil for wickedness. In his great wisdom and faithfulness, he can allow suffering on the righteous (e.g. Job), or mercy for the wicked (e.g. Saul). He sends his sun and rain on the righteous and the wicked, because he is perfect (Matt. 5:45); and the wind and storms come to both, whether our foundation is built on the sand or the rock (Matt. 7:24-27).

The Latter Glory

Haggai says the latter glory will exceed the former glory (2:9). This is immediately about the temple but also relates to the Messianic kingdom to come. The “shaking of all nations” and the “desire of all nations” relate to the future period when Israel becomes the center of the Messiah’s earthly kingdom. (The “desire of nations” is often thought to mean Jesus, but from the context, it seems to refer to the wealth that will be brought to Jerusalem, as in Zechariah 14:14.)
Victory over the Gentiles is also one of the promises of this time period. (See 2:20-23)

Shares themes with: Ezra, Nehemiah, Zechariah.