“When was the last time you read the book of Lamentations?” Such was the gist of the whisper of God I sensed earlier this year. I suspect I’m not the only one who hasn’t been devouring Lamentations of late or designing sermon series’ around it. It is a much neglected book and yet in the midst of this raw, heartbreaking, shocking, beautiful book lies treasures for the soul. As with all treasure hunting, there are challenges to navigate along the way.
Navigating the challenges
Remember the context
‘Almost certainly, it is the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. It was the most traumatic moment in Israel’s Old Testament history. The writer paints a portrait of utter devastation and appalling suffering: starvation, disease, slaughter, rape, scavenging, looting, and the desecration of holy things.’ (Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament scholar).
Don’t flee other people’s suffering. When we see someone suffering, most of us will at least consider how we can escape. It’s one reason why we switch channels when the commercial break brings up a plea to donate to child refugees and why we can gently steer the conversation somewhere else when someone begins to hint at their own pain. The author (or authors) of Lamentations experiences and observes such intense suffering as to make us deeply uncomfortable:
“For these things I weep;
my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate,
for the enemy has prevailed.” (1:16)
Yet, to be a Christian – in Christ, one with Christ, united to Christ – is to embrace not just our own suffering but that of other people too, just as He did.
Recognise that we’re increasingly conditioned to be shocked by God’s fierce opposition to human sin and rebellion. Lamentations shows us the white hot, jealous, righteous anger of God and that peturbs and shocks us, especially in the West in the 21st Century.
How the Lord in his anger
has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!
He has cast down from heaven to earth
the splendor of Israel;
he has not remembered his footstool
in the day of his anger. (2:1)
In the dust of the streets
lie the young and the old;
my young women and my young men
have fallen by the sword;
you have killed them in the day of your anger,
slaughtering without pity. (2:21)
Discovering the treasure
There is a time to grieve. Don’t be too quick to rush to the more comforting chapter 3. As Solomon reflected, [there is] ‘a time to weep … a time to mourn’ (Ecc 3:4). We all experience loss, confusion, pain and the tragic consequences of our own and other people’s sin. At times we cling on to faith by our fingertips, wondering if God is even real, let alone good and faithful. The book of Lamentations gives us both the vocabulary and the permission to tell God – tears, snot and all – and to allow others to do the same.
“Look, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my stomach churns; (1:20a)
He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;
he has made my chains heavy;
though I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
he has made my paths crooked. (3:7-9)
The mercy of God. Delight at the grace of what we have been given in the family of God is of course appropriate amd central to our faith lives. But distinct from the grace of God is the mercy of God. The mercy of God has delivered us from receiving the just and fierce punishment due us for our own evil and rebellion. Lamentations shows us just how fierce and consuming God’s wrath is and prompts intense humility and gratitude when we know what we deserved, what we have been spared from and what Christ absorbed on our behalf.
though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love; (3:31-32)
The Gospel is this: In order to show his compassion to us, Jesus was prepared to be grieved. God the son knew grief and sadness beyond all description in order that we might know the compassion and life of God forever more.
God’s heart for the oppressed
To crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the earth,
to deny a man justice
in the presence of the Most High,
to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
the Lord does not approve. (3:34-36)
The Bible continually points to God’s passion for justice, especially for those who experience it least. Though God can use evil and injustice to bring about his sovereign and good purposes, he hates the evil and injustice itself. Our mandate to work for the rescue and care of the most vulnerable, oppressed and marginalised doesn’t lie in a vague sense of human rights. Rather it lies at the heart of a God who has made all people in his image and who has inaugurated his restorative Kingdom through the resurrection of His Son.
The beauty in the carefully planned
Every line of the first four poems in Lamentations begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet; that is to say they are acrostics. It is as though the author is telling us that he is giving us the ‘A-Z’ of human suffering and lament. There is such poignancy and profundity in the carefully planned and ordered word of God. In circles where spontaneous praise and expressions of the gifts of the Spirit can be esteemed more than the planned or liturgical or orderly, it is a timely reminder that our God is both creative and orderly and is quite capable of being both at the same time.
The patient and the humble always find God, for he is near.
Approach Lamentations with humility and patience and you will find rich treasures in God.
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord. (3:25-26)