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The Book of Lamentations

Oct 22, 2015

Why do I suspect that most Christians have given this Old Testament book a wide berth, and never bothered to read it? While perhaps most Western Christians may not have even read the entire OT, many would be put off by this book simply because of its title.

Too many Christians today want only the happy-clappy stuff, the cheerful stuff, and the positive stuff. Anything that seems to be negative or hard or downbeat will send them heading to the hills. But this brief (five chapter) book is part of the inspired Word of God, and contains so very much important spiritual truth.

While most Christians would love singing the great hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” how many even realise that it comes directly from this book (Lam. 3:23 to be precise)? Thus we need to go back and read this book – perhaps for the very first time.

The lament is fully understandable if we are aware of the context. Something incredible has just happened which had left the surviving people of Judah in a state of shock. In 588-587 the Babylonians laid siege to and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, killing many and sending many others into exile in faraway Babylon (see Jeremiah 52 eg.).

The terrible destruction, carnage and suffering are described in great detail in this book. It was horrific in the extreme, with graphic language describing graphic realities. As Tremper Longman comments, “The language is vivid and intense; the reader can almost smell the smoke from the smouldering buildings, see the bodies lining the street, and, most poignantly, hear the cries of the children.”

Beyond the horrible physical realities were even more shocking spiritual realities: how could this happen to God’s people? “We are God’s chosen people? We thought we were inviolate and unassailable!” They really did think that they were indestructible. They thought that since the temple was there, they could never suffer harm.

But Jeremiah and other prophets had warned for a long time about judgment to come if they did not repent of their sins. And the Northern kingdom had already fallen to the Assyrians in 722. Yes, Yahweh had miraculously preserved them in 701 B.C. when the Assyrian king Sennacherib had threatened Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-19).

But these folks thought they were free of any negative outcomes. They felt (rightly) that Yahweh was a Divine Warrior who fought against her enemies. What they forgot was that this same Yahweh sometimes fought against Israel.

They felt that with the Lord’s temple in their midst, they were immune from all danger. But as God warned through Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’” (Jer. 7:3-4)

As John Mackay notes, “In absolutizing the promise of the covenant, they had forgotten the two-sided nature of the covenant relationship and so neglected the need for loyal commitment and obedience as their response to the blessings conferred on them. Repeated breaches of their covenant obligations had led inexorably to the withdrawal of God’s protection from them.”

Yes, how wrong they were. This was a tragedy of enormous proportions. The unthinkable had happened, and it was devastating. Consider simply the first five verses of Lam. 1:

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.
After affliction and harsh labor,
Judah has gone into exile.
She dwells among the nations;
she finds no resting place.
All who pursue her have overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to her appointed festivals.
All her gateways are desolate,
her priests groan,
her young women grieve,
and she is in bitter anguish.
Her foes have become her masters;
her enemies are at ease.
The Lord has brought her grief
because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile,
captive before the foe.

Of course elsewhere in the OT we read about the grieving and lamenting over fallen Jerusalem, as in Psalm 137:1-6:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplarsBabylon
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

All five acrostic poems in the Book of Lamentations contain such gloom and misery, except for one amazing exception. As mentioned, in the very centre of the book, in the centre of chapter 3, there are wonderful words of hope and comfort. Despite everything that has happened, the writer can still say this in 3:21-26:

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

Even in the darkest periods imaginable, there is still hope. Even in the just judgment of God, there is still always a glimmer of grace and a good end. But we must take the messages of Lamentations seriously – the good and the bad. “Divine sovereignty, justice, morality, judgment, and the hope of blessing in the distant future” are some of the themes found in this book, as R.K. Harrison writes.

Indeed, there is application to be found here for New Testament believers. Among other things, we must realise how familiar Jesus was with lamentation and suffering. As Christopher Wright states in his new commentary:

Jesus not only wept, like Lady Zion, over Jerusalem, like her he also suffered desertion by his friends, mockery from his enemies, and apathy from passers-by. Like her, he was stripped naked, publicly exposed and humiliated, with none to comfort. Like her, he suffered all this at the hands of an implacable foreign enemy wielding idolatrous imperial power through blood and brutality. Was there, indeed, any sufferings like his, that the Lord laid on him in the day of his fierce anger?

And F. B. Huey offers some contemporary application from this important book:

1) The wickedness of any people will eventually result in the disintegration of that society; 2) we should never take God’s past blessings as assurance that they will continue when we continue to sin; 3) our nation and our churches are subject to God’s judgment when they are no longer faithful; 4) God fulfils his word; 5) though many solutions for human suffering have been proposed, ultimately the only satisfactory way to deal with it is through deep and abiding faith in God in spite of the circumstances.
God is patient and compassionate, not willing that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9; 1 Tim 2:4); but when all warnings are ignored, nothing remains but his judgment. We should never presume upon God’s mercy and compassion. The Book of Lamentations contains the implied warning that sometimes it is too late to weep and repent; nonetheless, God is always faithful (3:23).

Much more can be said about this vital book. As Paul reminded us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” And that includes the Book of Lamentations.

If you have not read it yet, I encourage you to do so now. And if you already have, why not read it again?

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6 Responses to The Book of Lamentations

  • I’m struck by the comparison of our Lord’s suffering (as chronicled in the Gospels) with Israel’s (as detailed in Lamentations).
    Thank you for another brilliant essay, Bill.

  • I recently read Lamentations again. Each time, it is more significant and lingers in my memory. Without referring to the Book, I remember that Nebuchadnezzar’s Captain of the Guard left Jeremiah to go where he pleased.
    His life was “a prize”, but the prophet penned Lamentations, for a nation that had thrown its destiny to the wind.
    As you say, they didn’t think too clearly about that aspect and yet this is one of the great questions of all faiths: it is one of the great questions of our Age.
    I expect to glean more from each precious reading and consider it a great work of literature as well. Praise God!

  • Yes you are a bit of a Jeremiah yourself.

    I was looking at:-

    Rev 2:14 But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication.
    Rev 2:15 So you also have those who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
    Rev 2:16 Repent! But if not I will come to you quickly, and will fight with them by the sword of My mouth.

    It would appear that God is saying that if churches do not deal with fornication and oppression in their ranks then He will have to.

    Also:-

    Rev 2:20 But I have a few things against you because you allow that woman Jezebel to teach, she saying herself to be a prophetess, and to cause My servants to go astray, and to commit fornication, and to eat idol-sacrifices.
    Rev 2:21 And I gave her time that she might repent of her fornication, and she did not repent.
    Rev 2:22 Behold, I am throwing her into a bed, and those who commit adultery with her into great affliction, unless they repent of their deeds.

    Which, by also including Jezebel, who we all know was involved in the persecution of the prophets, indicates how these people will be condemned for how they bring persecution onto those who want to stand up for God’s truth.

    I look forward to seeing how God does it.

  • I have been reading through Laminations recently, particularly focussing on ‘Great is your faithfulness’. I really believe that this is one of the majestic attributes of God, that most Christians have no revelation of!

    Despite the wickedness and unfaithfulness of the Israelites, God continued to be faithful to His covenants, faithful to His people, faithful in His judgment of sin, and faithful in His mercy to those who repent. As His people, God expects us to be faithful!

    So much ‘Christian marriage’ counselling etc is founded on humanism, which is over occupied on people’s wants and needs. No wonder there is so much divorce, and focus on GLBT rights ….

    Rather, let us lay as our foundations for marriage and sexuality the faithfulness of God. If God was faithful to His promises, regardless of the pain He endured with His people, how dare we entertain the idea of divorce! If God is faithful in His execution of judgment against sin, how dare we move the goalposts and condone gay marriage! As He is faithful, God is calling us to be faithful.

    Thanks for this article Bill, it has made me more excited about the faithfulness of God.

  • The 5 points of Huey are so apt for today and yet, who is listening? And what makes us think that today’s church – and doesn’t Paul call the church the “Israel of God” – should escape a similar catastrophe to that experienced by physical Israel? At present it appears that the suffering church is the faithful church, not the apostate western church that should be suffering when you look at mere justice. So maybe we can take from that that God’s mercy is still greatly at work but when the mercy does no longer produce the obedience God requires, no doubt the full impact of pure justice will have to once again be felt. I pray that those called by the Lord will once again heed Paul’s instruction in Eph 5: “find out what pleases the Lord”.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • “What they forgot was that this same Yahweh sometimes fought against Israel”

    An interesting topic Bill coming after “Difficult Bible Passages: 2 Thessalonians” where you say “My concern is more specifically to deal with the notion of God sending strong delusion” upon those “refused to love the truth”.

    If God was willing to fight against His chosen people when they were disobedient just what will He do to those who only ever openly reject Him?

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