Lamenting Lamentations

There is no book of the Bible that has a less appealing title than Lamentations. That title was unappealing to me the very first time I heard it as a kid in Sunday School. We were learning the books of the Bible and came to Lamentations. I knew what a lamentation was (kind of, anyway – I at least knew it wasn’t anything good), and I further knew I didn’t want any part of one. So that title really didn’t draw me into this book. If anything, it pushed me away from it.

It may do the very same for you right now. Nonetheless, Lamentations is where our daily reading plan is taking us.  And difficult though it may be to get through, there is going to be something good in there for us.

What It Is

Before we get to that something good, though, let’s take a second to understand what Lamentations is. Lamentations is not a book of prophecy, even though it is found in the prophecy section. It is placed in the prophecy section after Jeremiah because whoever created the order of our English Bibles believed it was written by Jeremiah. (That may well be true. Jeremiah both was at the right place and time to write it and had the skills and heart to write it.) But as far as content goes, it is much less like Jeremiah or any other prophetic book and far more like Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs.

Lamentations is also not a linear story but a collection of poems. There are a total of five poems in the book. There is, in fact, one poem in each chapter of the book. Every chapter is one of these poems. Most of these poems are acrostic poems. The first line or section starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and every line or section starts with the next letter until the poem has gone through all 22 letters. This is why every chapter has either 22 verses or 66 (a multiple of 22) verses. The last poem, chapter 5, is not an acrostic, but it just happens to have 22 verses, too.

The Fall of Jerusalem

And Lamentations is wholly concerned with the great horror we just experienced in the final chapters of Jeremiah, the horror we know as “the Fall of Jerusalem”. As you know if you walked through Jeremiah with us (or Kings and Chronicles for that matter), God allowed Jerusalem and all Israel to fall to the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians took over the country, destroyed the city, executed the king, and carried most of the people away to Babylon.

This was a physical horror. The people of Israel suffered all sorts of physical mistreatment during and after this fall. But it was even more a spiritual horror. The natural conclusion a citizen of Jerusalem would come to after the fall was, “God has abandoned us. I no longer have access to God.” And even if a person didn’t come to that conclusion, they still had to face the reality that all the things they loved about their heritage with God (the Temple, the priesthood, the Davidic dynasty, the feasts, the Ark, etc.) were now gone. In many cases, those things were irrevocably gone.

Those horrors get a good deal of treatment in Lamentations. The first two chapters are almost entirely about these horrors, in fact. There is a little reference to some of the spiritual truth behind these horrors in these chapters, but the horrors themselves get the bulk of the attention in the early part of the book.

A Powerful Promise

As we move into chapter three, though, we find something besides the horrors. We find this beautiful, powerful statement:

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.
It is good for a man to bear the yoke
   while he is young. (3:22-27)

You may have heard these words or at least some of these words before. I know of at least one song that uses the lines “they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”, and I think there are others. So you may have heard them there.

Life Change

And you will certainly agree with me that they are beautiful and powerful. They are “life-changingly” powerful. I don’t think “life-changingly” is an actual term, and I know that I use the phrase “change your life” way too much. But it is certainly true in this case. The fact that God’s love/compassion “never fails” or is “unfailing” is a fact that has changed my life.

I can’t remember exactly when it changed my life, but I do remember it happened when I was sitting under a tree in California. The leaves of this tree had gone yellow in the autumn season, and I was reading a psalm which makes a similar statement to this passage in Lamentations (it may have been Psalm 107). I realized as I did that if God’s love is unfailing, then He still loves me despite my sins and failures. Since I was raised in a culture which said, “Love is earned by performance and lost by bad performance,” this was a revelation to me. And it has continued to be a revelation for me. The fact that God’s love is unfailing continues to give me confidence and draw me closer to Him.

Truth in the Midst of Horror

And now we see this fact stated by someone (probably Jeremiah) who is sitting in the rubble of Jerusalem surveying the physical and spiritual horrors the Babylonians have wreaked upon the people of God. And that context makes this statement even more beautiful and powerful.

You see, he is not just stating this fact but stating it as a counter to these horrors. He is quite literally saying, “Yes, these horrors have happened, but God still loves us.” Then he goes even further and tells the people experiencing these horrors that they need to “wait” and “hope” on the Lord during these horrors. Moreover, they can still seek the Lord despite their sins, and that what they are experiencing actually has a good side to it as it means that it will soon be over and blessings will follow them for the rest of their lives.

The Central Message

Not only so, but this someone says all this in the center of the book. This is the third poem of five, which means it is the central poem. This statement comes close to the center (by verse count, it is about a third of the way through but that is probably close enough). And as you know by now, the center is where Hebrew authors put the important stuff. So this is not just a nice statement. This is actually the main lesson of the Fall of Jerusalem and the book of Lamentations.

And it is a message for us as much as for the people of this time. I hope we never experience something as horrible as they did. But we still need to believe that God’s love is unfailing as they did. We still need to wait and hope on that unfailing love as they did.

So, yes, this book is unappealing in both title and content. That’s not blasphemy. That’s just truth. And yet if we work through those unappealing aspects, we find this great message and this great application, the great message and application of waiting and hoping on God’s unfailing love. May we all receive this message as we finish this book together.

Pastor Doug McCoy
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