(A Sermon given on September 10, 2017 at Langley Park Baptist Church, England)
Why study Lamentations?
Many of you will have read, and perhaps even studied, the book of Lamentations several times. BUT, you would be the exception that proved the rule. The truth is that the majority of Christians these days seem to be exceedingly illiterate when it comes to the Bible, especially the Old Testament, not to mention a book like Lamentations.
But why is Lamentations so challenging? I think it will be helpful to consider some factors.
- The Old Testament is challenging
- It is so long ago
- It is often neglected by preachers, especially in churches with a liturgy.
- The Old Testament is often more challenging to preach.
- Lamentations is never quoted in the NT, which makes Lamentations appear to have nothing to offer Christians when it comes to understanding the work of Christ, church life, or the doctrines of Scripture.
- Hebrew Poetry
- Very timely…singular event, singular audience Jerusalem’s destruction
- It’s so sad!
- Why would we want to read such a sad book?
Well, yes it is. It is a very sad book. It has made me cry on more than one occasion. But there is strange comfort in know that others have suffered too. If I am able to show that there is applicable theology for the church today then Lamentations can be a source of great comfort to those in trying times.
Is there anything for the church to learn from Lamentations?
Yes, I believe so, and I believe that understanding the historical setting of Lamentations will bring this out.
Fortunately we know a great deal about the setting of this book from the Bible itself.
- We know that it is about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.
- Timeline of events:
- 605 The Babylonians invade Judah (2 Kings 24:1–2) king: Jehoiakim
- 605 First wave of deportation of Jews to Babylon (2 Kings 24:1–2; Chron 36:6; Dan 1:1–2) including Daniel
- 597 Babylonians capture Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:10) king: Jehoiachin
- 597 Second wave of deportation to Babylon from Judah. (2 Kings 24:12–16) including Ezekiel
- 588 Famine in the land (2 Kings 25:3)
- 587 The Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and the Temple (2 Kings 25) king: Zedekiah and the Third wave of Jews deported to Babylon (2 Kings 25:18–20)
Now let’s talk about authorship
Most English speaking believers will almost instinctively ascribe the authorship of Lamentations to Jeremiah. I think that this is probably right, but when we look at the ancient manuscripts, we discover that this ascription to Jeremiah as the author was not added to the actual copies of Lamentations until about 300 years after it was written.
What’s the point?
My point is that if we focus on Lamentations as a book by Jeremiah, we will be tempted to read chapter three as about Jeremiah, and only about Jeremiah. However, if we recognize that the book is anonymous, then we realize that any Israelite living through the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile can pick up this song of lament and sing it. Every man, woman, and child, could pick up this lament and express their anguish to God.
And that’s exactly what they would have done.
We know this because of the genre and poetic artistry evident in this book.
The book of lamentations is what is known as a city lament.
This simply means that Lamentations mourns the loss of Israel’s major city, Jerusalem.
In fact, during this period, there were hundreds of city laments being written. World powers were rising and falling, as you know. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. As these nations were rising and falling, cities like Jerusalem were captured and destroyed.
- 1–4 are in the form of an acrostic.
- Why? It functions as a memory aid.
- These chapters all go through the Hebrew alphabet.
- 1,2,4 containing 22 verses with the first letter of each verse beginning with the next Hebrew letter
- 3 has 66 verses with 3 for each letter of the alphabet. They were intended to memorize it and teach their children the poems while they are in exile.
- Why? To teach the exile generation a theology. Lamentations will teach them how to view the exile and the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple.
- 5 is usually understood as a community prayer.
So what did Lamentations teach Israel and what does it teach us?
Well, aspects of this answer are found throughout the entire book, but the centre of the book is here in Lamentations 3.
You see, the structure of the book means that the centre of all of its message and theology is here in chapter three.
This is because Lamentations, as a brilliant piece of poetry was written as in what is called a chiastic structure. This simply means that the whole book is symmetrical.
- The outer chapters (1 and 5) deal broadly with the nation of Israel and her destruction
- The middle chapters (2 and 4) take the reader into the streets of Jerusalem so that he can see what the destruction looks like. The reader is given a picture of how bad things are.
- The central chapter zooms in even closer and focusses in on the individual person who is having to go through this disaster. It begins with “I am the man”
- Chapter 1
- Major theme is the abandonment of Jerusalem
- The city is personified as a woman being punished for her many transgressions (1:5)
- She has no one to comfort her (1:9, 17, 21)
- This motif is intensified when the woman is no longer being spoken of, but becomes the speaker (1:9).
- Chapter 2
- Whereas ch. 1 focused broadly on the event, that it occurred and that it was indeed terrible, ch. 2 seems to focus in on the specific actions of God (ex. 2:1–9).
- God is involved in this event.
- Really focuses in on how bad the situation got and the city is really pleading with God for answers (ex. 2:20)
- Chapter 3
- Clearly spoken from the perspective of a person; the prophet? Everyman?
- Communal prayer for return to Yahweh (vs. 40–47) o Prayer of supplication for God to respond (vs. 48–66). Prayer for God to punish his instruments of judgment (Jer 51:6 on Babylon; Isa 13:1, 4, 11 on Babylon, Ezekiel, etc.)
- Chapter 4
- Viewpoint of someone in the midst of the events. Things are really bad.
- 22, the punishment has been completed. Waiting for restoration…
- Chapter 5
- Prayer for restoration, but still waiting for restoration…
- Notice the open ending. Not going to happen until the Millennium.
- Books written later tell us that God is present. But we know that they are still waiting for this restoration.
Chapter 3 is an even more zoomed in look at the events that have just taken place. Whereas Ch. 1 was an overview, Ch. 2 was zoomed in at the particular aspects of the destruction of Jerusalem, Ch. 3 is zoomed in to the personal level.
Ch. 3 seems to be addressing the question: How can the individual respond to these events?
This might be why this chapter is written largely in the first person.
It is helpful for me to think of Lamentations as a recipe for a right response to God’s punishment. That recipe has two ingredients: humility and faith.
Vs. 1–18: First ingredient: humility
“I am the man”
Note how personal Jeremiah is. Consider also that any Israelite who learns and recites this poem would also be expressing this pain in a personal manner.
This chapter begins by saying that this individual has seen the affliction that was brought about by the rod of his wrath.
BUT, the author continues by stating that the individual is being driven by that rod. Same language, but opposite feeling of Ps. 23. Instead of being led gently, he is being driven. He is being led through darkness.
The language here is siege language. The poet wants each Israelite to realize that they are being individually, and not just collectively, punished by God.
Each person, in a way, is responsible for this.
Just as Moses promised that this would happen in Deuteronomy 28, it has now happened. Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord has been met with punishment. It is a punishment on the nation as a whole, but there is a personal nature to this punishment.
Isn’t it true that when we go through trials and suffering, the human response is to ask, “Why is this happening to me? Where is God in all this? Doesn’t He care that I am suffering?”
Well, to these questions, Lamentations 3 teaches Israel that these terrible things are happening because of sin and rebellion, that God is not absent in their trials, but that he is very present. In fact he is the one that is acting through Babylon to punish his people.
Notice how often the Lord is the subject of the verbs in vv. 1–18.
- He has driven me (vs. 2)
- He has turned His hand (vs. 3)
- He has caused my flesh and my skin to waste away, (vs. 4)
- He has broken my bones. (vs. 4)
- He has besieged and encompassed me (vs. 5)
- He has walled me (vs.7)
- He has made my [a]chain heavy (vs. 7)
- He shuts out my prayer (vs. 8)
- Etc., etc., etc.
The point is: When we go through suffering we often ask, “Where is God?” Lamentations answer to this question is, “God is right here.”
We ask, “Doesn’t God see what I’m going through”
Lamentations answers, “Yes, He sees what is happening, because He is causing it.”
Here God is seen as a crouching lion and bear who has mauled Israel.
I will encounter them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
And I will tear open their chests;
There I will also devour them like a lioness,
As a wild beast would tear them.
This is not a pretty picture and it shows just how desperate the situation is.
It also takes us into the very depths of despair, where feels as though he cannot even turn to God for help. God is the one who is causing this grief. God is the one that is tearing you apart limb from limb.
Pictures YHWH as an archer and the individual Israelite as the specific target of God’s arrow. The shocking element is that it is the individual man who is the precise target of God.
To top it all off, the man feels as though God is forcing his face into the ground. God is making him lie in the dust and eat gravel.
The picture is of God shoving the individual’s face into the ground. Thus forcing a spirit of humility.
But there is a turn here at vs. 19 and that is because the second ingredient is introduced: faith.
Vs. 19–24: The second Ingredient: faith
Vs. 19–21: notice the transition in focus
Begins “remember my afflictions…”
Continues, “I remember them…”
But he remembers something else…God’s loving kindnesses!! AND THEREFORE THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE
I.e. despite his feeling of being cut off and having no hope, he knows that the Lord is faithful.
What he knows is not really matching up with what he feels.
What he knows reframes how he feels. His faith in the character of God can totally reshape his understanding of what is happening.
You’ll notice in the text that this does not suddenly mean that everything is ok à The book of Lamentations has no happy ending!!
Our hearts long for a happy ending in this situation, but Lamentations offers no such happy outlook.
You’ll also notice that this does not mean that everything that he has said up to this point about God targeting him is not in reality the truth.
He still knows that life is a challenge. He remembers his affliction. The affliction has not gone away.
All too often we Christians can approach a suffering Christian and say, “well God works all things for the good of those who love him.” How many funerals have we been to that all to quickly jump to talk of “celebration” or of a “home going” without giving full recognition of the pain of loss, or of the heartrending reality that we live in a broken world and that death is wrong and an enemy of God.
NO, the individual here cannot ignore his pain and suffering. Nor should we! We should not ignore our pains and write them off. We should not ignore the pain of those around us.Romans 8:28 can so often be used as a way to condemn those who are suffering and indicate to them that they shouldn’t be sad, because that would somehow demonstrate a lack of faith in God.
NO, we who trusts in the Lord should weep with those who weep knowing that sin has entered the world and has introduced pain and suffering into this world . . . and that is a problem!!
At the same time, however, those who trust in the Lord know that we can have a mature and full understanding of what is actually happening. You will notice that vs. 21 indicates that there is always hope! But from where does this hope come? The source of this hope is faith in God’s character, and as we will see in vv. 25–29, faith in the nature of God’s loving chastisement.
After all, vs. 24, If God is your portion than you need nothing else. If you have God and nothing else, you have everything that you need.
And we see that in vv. 25–29. In other words, with the two ingredients of humility and faith, the individual is able to see more clearly what is happening how to respond to what is happening.
Vs. 25–39: The result of these two ingredients is a complete and mature understanding of the nature of God’s Punishment Vs. 25–27:
In light of the previous recollection that God is the believer’s portion, there is no reason to worry or fear. The believer needs only wait and be steadfast.
All three of these verses begin with “Good.” The focus is on the good
These verses explain what it means to bear the yoke in his youth.
Vs. 28 – it means to not complain
Vs. 29-30 – it means to humble yourself and stop resisting the Lord’s work in your life
These verses are cluing us in on reasons for bearing the yoke.
They are explaining the nature of God’s punishment!
- His punishment does not last forever
- Grief is followed by compassion
- It hurts the heart of God to inflict punishment
- YHWH’s discipline is not characterized by the things that can so often characterize the punishment of mankind. But God is not vindictive or unjust.
AFTER ALL, God is sovereign (vv. 37-38)
This why in vv. 39 the poet is able to fully submit and accept the punishment of God.
The same word of “strong man” occurs here in vs. 39. It seems then that we have been witnesses to a journey toward humility and understanding. In vs. 1 the “strong man” views God as a cruel shepherd driving his sheep, but here God is perceived to be a just, sovereign, and even loving God who is judging sin.
This all leads to the fully baked, response to God in light of the poet’s pain, his humility, and his faith. The fully baked response is an honest, mature, and theologically informed prayer.
This is a call for national confession and a return to YHWH.
They sinned. He did not pardon.
Imagine how this would shape and influence the national understanding of Jerusalem’s destruction and the horrors of war and exile!!
Jeremiah has provided the nation with a brilliant song that anyone in Israel can learn and sing. At the same time their understanding of these events would be shaped. They would be offering up a national prayer of confession and faith.
A FEW LESSONS FOR US:
The brokenness of this world is displayed:
- This world is not as it should be!
- Every time someone dies, or when we suffer loss or hardship we need to remember that something is wrong with this world.
God’s faithfulness displayed:
- Through His unfailing, loyal love
- Through His righteous, loving punishment
- Through His ever-present ear to hear the cries of His people
A right response displayed:
- We also learn from this text how to rightly experience the discipline of God.
There will be pain when we sin and disrupt our fellowship with God, but . . .
- God’s faithfulness is genuine and not a pipe dream.
- God’s loving kindnesses never cease, therefore we can trust that God will
HOW DO WE BRING THIS BACK TO CHRIST?
As Christians, however, what difference does Jesus make to all of this?
Why should Christians read Lamentations? After all, what is depicted here is God’s wrath against Israel for her sin, and our punishment for sin was placed upon Jesus at Calvary!!
While it is true that Christ was crucified for our sins and we will never have to experience this type of punishment for sin, it becomes a starling picture of the pain that Christ went through on our behalf on the cross.
There is also the starling fact that as we read Lamentations we begin to recognize, not only the pain of this life, but also the utter condemnability of our sin.
We must rejoice and praise God for his work on our behalf. Christ bore the wrath that we deserve.
We also realize that Christ perfectly demonstrated trust in the Father as he was the object of God’s wrath upon the cross.
We thus realize that Christ perfectly responded to the pain and suffering of the cross and gives us the power to do so as well.
If Christ could receive on himself the wrath for our sin and walk by faith and perfectly demonstrate the response to suffering that is described here in Lamentations 3 then as his disciples, we can walk in his likeness with the Holy Spirit in us.