An Overview of Lamentations

Divine Author: God the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16)

Human Author: Anonymous, perhaps Jeremiah     

Date of Writing: Early date, 586 BC; late date, 516 BC

Writing Style: Four of the five chapters in Lamentations form Hebrew acrostic poems, or alphabetic poems, consisting of 22 verses each. Each verse in chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 is identified with a Hebrew letter: aleph, beis, vesi, gimel, dalet, etc.

Key Passage:  “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. 23 They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).

The author of the book laments, or expresses sorrow and regret, over the events dealing with the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the following exile (2 Kings 24 – 25). The Babylonian Captivity was a horrendous period in Hebrew history. It not only altered many lives forever, but changed the course of history. Many people could not comprehend what was happening, or why.

The Jews knew that God had promised Abraham the Land of Canaan. Why were the people being dispossessed of their covenantal heritage? Had not David fought to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel? Did the Royal line of kings not come from David? Had not the Law and the Priesthood been given to Israel?

The prophets tried to warn the people of God they would be disciplined if the idolatry and social injustices did not cease, but the people refused to believe, and repent of their evil ways. Therefore, in 586 BC the Babylonians were used by God to chastise His people.

The Book of Lamentations is a memorial to the pain and suffering the people endured lest the nation forget. There are good reasons to remember the past, one of which is stated by Edmund Burke. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

The Church would do well to study her past in a age that is guided by the mindless of minimalism which says, “Forget the past, don’t worry about the future, live in the present.”  The past is a guide to the future, and reminds the heart to be grateful.

The importance of remembering the past, for the Church, is manifested at the Communion Table when Christians remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” said Jesus (Luke 22:19). 

“Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul.
Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.
Thank you, Lord, for giving to me,
Thy salvation, so rich and free.”

The Book of Lamentations is not unique in the Hebrew Bible. There are similar poems to study in Psalms 10, 12, 63, 69, 74, and 79. Martin Luther treasured the psalms of lament. Of them, he said, “What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid the storm winds of every kind? . . . Where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself. . .. When they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for your fear or hope, and no Cicero or other orator has so portrayed them. And that they speak these words to God and with God, this I repeat, is the best thing of all. This gives the words double earnestness and life” (Word and Sacrament, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. E. T. Bachmann. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960, pp. 255 –56).

The lamentations in Scripture address national issues, and they speak of the practical and personal problems people face in every generation. There is an emotional and intellectual therapy in the lamentations.

In grief and anguish people cry out. Some will protest the injustices in life. The goodness and wisdom of God is often questioned. Confusion and doubts are articulated when people lament as pent-up emotions and thoughts are honestly expressed. Human suffering is real, and there is no way to pretend otherwise.

The counsel to “Keep a stiff upper lip”, to remain resolute and unemotional in the face of adversity has no place in Biblical lamentations.

Pain and suffering cannot be dismissed with a cliché, or a theological construct that says it is all an illusion. Christian Scientists are wrong when they tell people that the nothingness of sickness and sin, and sin and sickness will disappear from consciousness (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy, 1821 – 1910).

What will help to minimize pain and suffering in life is a firm belief in God, and in His wisdom. God has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). Faith in God begins, in part, by remembering that God is a God of grand design. There is order to God’s decrees, including pain and suffering. This principle is conveyed in shadowy form by the structure of the Book of Lamentations which is set forth in the acrostic poetry form. It cannot be missed. Against the backdrop of the Divine structure, the suffering of the saints is expressed.

Chapter 1: The Sorrows Associated with Sin

The unknown author of Lamentations personifies the city of Jerusalem as a Weeping Widow. No one comes to comfort her. Lady Zion prays. She pleads with the Lord to recognize her humble state for she is distressed. “O LORD, behold my affliction” (Lam. 1:9). But the heavens are as brass.

It has been noted that sin will take a person farther than they wanted to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay. The Bible says the wages of sin is death. When people transgress the Law of God, they do not believe they will have to pay the Devil’s wages either psychologically, emotionally, or physically. But they do.

The Lady of Zion, the Weeping Widow of Jerusalem, expresses the depth of grief associated with a funeral. “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me” (Lam. 1:12).

The Weeping Widow of Jerusalem prays for Divine retribution upon those who have hurt her, pointing out they are as wicked as she has been. Therefore, they are worthy of reciprocal judgment. “Let all their wickedness come before thee; and do unto them, as thou hast done unto me” (Lam. 1:22).

Is this how you pray? You who have sinned against the Lord and brought shame and trouble into your life, only to be disciplined by God with a more wicked person, do you now pray for their destruction because of your own pain? Does your heart want the wickedness of others be put on parade because your own tears are many, and your heart is weary?

While understandable, this is not a prayer that Jesus would pray. For those who beat, tortured, mocked, spit on, and crucified Him, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Lamentations reflects the honest anger and desire for revenge in the hurt, but that venting is not spiritually healthy.

There are Bible commentators who teach that it is okay for a Christian to be angry with the wicked, and want revenge, and their annihilation. However, such teaching cannot be upheld according to gospel standards, for that is the dark side of the soul, which only serves to perpetuate hatred in the heart, violence, and verbal abuse.

Church of the Living Lord, hear what is to be done. “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph. 4:31). The disciple is not above the Master, and so, the Royal Command must be obeyed. In this matter, follow the Lamb (Rev. 14:4-5).

Chapter 2: The Fall of Jerusalem

While it is not an attribute of God that people like to think about or discuss, the Bible teaches that God is a God of wrath (Heb. charown, khaw-rone; a burning of anger), which is to say that God is a God of justice.  “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face” (Psalms 89:14).

When God made a Covenant with Israel, He expected the nation to keep the Covenant, which they had vowed to do. “And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD” (Ex. 19:8). However, over the centuries Israel violated the terms of the Covenant in a grievous manner. The people worshipped false gods. They oppressed the poor. They coveted what others had. They did not honor their parents. They did not keep the Sabbath holy. The land was not allowed to rest for 490 years, though the Law demanded soil conservation every seventh years. God was determined to redeem His Sabbatical years (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:2-7; Deut. 15:1-11; 31:1-13). The Babylonian Captivity of 586 BC would administer Divine justice to Israel, and redeem the time Israel had robbed God.

“And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; where they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: 21 To fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate, she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years” (2 Chron. 36:20-21).

 For a long, long time, Israel violated every Moral, Civil, and Sacrificial provision of the Law of Moses. Finally, the Lord had enough and moved to administer justice to Israel by holding the nations accountable for their attitudes and actions. When weighed in the balances of the Divine scales or righteousness, the people of God were found wanting. Justice demanded a price be paid, and that was the administering of the Five Cycles of Divine Discipline, which the Lord had warned the people would be the penalty for their transgressions (Lev. 26). God kept His Word.

In 586 BC, the Babylonians came and destroyed the Holy City of Jerusalem as an expression of God’s justice. Any thoughts of God possessing a volatile anger that is exercised in a capricious manner is unworthy of the Lord.

While the justice of God is righteousness in action, the people of God can still pray, and plead for mercy in the midst of justice. For God to have mercy on sinners is not injustice, though there are people who would argue that very point.

In the book, The Impossibility of God, the argument is made that God cannot be both an “all-just”, and “all-merciful” judge at the same time, for then the attributes of are not consistent (Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier, eds. The Impossibility of God; Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2003).

While it is always true that the justice of God must always be satisfied so that the guilty are in no way cleared, the wisdom of God has found a way to justify the ungodly. “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3-5).  Here is the Divine solution to the justice and mercy of God. “God graciously justifies the ungodly sinner who does not work for salvation, but believes in Jesus Christ” (Steven J. Cole).

In 586 BC God administered Divine justice to His people, but in His wrath, the Lord remembered to have mercy (Hab. 3:2), which He could do because of the Person and work of Jesus Christ who was slain before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:19-20; Rev. 13:8).

Chapter 3: The Lonely Suffering Survivor

Using the freedom found in poetic license, the author of Lamentations personifies the hardships of the Babylonian Captivity and Exile in a Lonely Suffering Survivor. “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of His wrath” (Lam. 3:1). Drawing from the experience of Job (Job 3), the Psalmist (Psalms 22, 69), and the Messiah (Isa. 53), the Lonely Suffering Survivor acknowledges God’s disciplinary justice, and yet has faith there will be a better future, personally and nationally. With hope in his heart the Lonely Suffering Survivor says, “Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens” (Lam. 3:41). Let there be repentance and confession of sin (Lam. 3:42), but let hope live for His mercies never fail; they are renewed every morning (Lam. 3:22-24).

Chapter 4: A Tale of Two Cities

The poet of Lamentations returns to review the siege of Jerusalem. A contrast is made between how national life in the past, to how awful it became. The children once laughed and played in the streets, now, they are hungry and hold out their hands pleading for food. The wealthy in the land once enjoyed lavish meals and fine dining, now, they cling to dunghills. The leaders of the land were once dignified and finely dressed but now, they are dirty and wear tattered clothes. The royal family was captured and taken into exile. It is shocking to consider. O, how the mighty have fallen!

Chapter 5: A Pitiful Prayer for God’s Mercy

Anyone who has prayed, or listened to someone else pray, knows there is a difference between an authentic heartful prayer, and a formal expression of worship. It is possible to pray without the mind and heart being engaged. It is also possible to pray with pathos and sincerity. In the final chapter, the poetic prays with an emotional intensity that stretches across the centuries to touch the heart of the reader of Scripture. An appeal is made to the Lord by reminding Him of all the people who have suffered under the rod of Divine discipline. Mothers have suffered, and so have the children. The elders of the land are in anguish, as are the fathers.

Conflicting Emotions Concludes the Narrative

While giving a voice to his heartfelt emotions, the poet of Lamentations concludes his narrative by bowing before the Lord as the eternal King. “Thou, O LORD, remainest forever; thy throne from generation to generation” (Lam. 5:19).

However, in the midst of faith and worship there is the conflicting wondering whether or not the Lord has forgotten, and forsaken His people. “Wherefore dost thou forget us forever, and forsake us so long time?” (Lam. 5:20).

The conflicting emotions which conclude Lamentations reflect what sin does to the heart. One moment the Christian is pleading with God saying, “Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5:21). But then, in the very next moment, the heart says something against the Lord. “But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou are very wroth against us” (Lam. 5:22). That is not true, or fair.

Christian, when the pressures of life are upon you, what will be your final response? Will it be a cry of faith? Will it be a capitulation to despair? In the hour of death, will you believe the Lord shall renew your days as of old, so you can walk with Him in glory, forever? In the hour of death will the terrors of your heart grip you so that you cross Jordan, not in faith, but with doubts and fear?

“My faith looks up to Thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine!
Now hear me while I pray, take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day be wholly Thine!

May Thy rich grace impart
Strength to my fainting heart, my zeal inspire!
As Thou hast died for me, O may my love to Thee,
Pure warm, and changeless be, a living fire!

While life’s dark maze I tread,
And griefs around me spread, be Thou my guide;
Bid darkness turn to day, wipe sorrow’s tears away,
Nor let me ever stray from Thee aside.

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!”

—Ray Palmer

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