To open up our study of Lamentations, we introduced the book's historical background, Jeremiah's authorship, and its unique poetic structure. We explored the reasons such a work is included in Scripture, seeking to understand lament as the facet of worship that incorporates mourning over sin and its consequences. As with most poetic sections of the Bible, Lamentations does not lend itself to the verse-by-verse expositional study that is so vital to understanding other passages. Rather, we will focus on the big picture painted by its descriptions, allusions, and metaphors.
The book opens with striking images: "How lonely sits the city that was full of people! She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a forced laborer" (1:1). Jerusalem, Zion, the religious and political center of the Jewish nation sits empty; her armies defeated and her people captive to a hostile nation. All the promises of God wrapped up in the city and the land seem, in that moment unfulfilled and unfulfillable. Jeremiah depicts the holy city as a woman deprived of her position, provision, and love-what is she to do?
All those on whom she has relied are no help now: "She has none to comfort her among all her lovers. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her" (1:2). Perhaps Jeremiah here alludes to the false gods the people of Judah have bowed down to (adultery and promiscuity throughout the Old Testament often allude to the spiritual infidelity of the people). In the hour of crisis, none of these idols could help her in any way. The "friends" likewise (likely Egypt and other nations with whom Judah had pursued alliances) did not come to her aid when Babylon invaded.
Jeremiah enumerates the losses of the nation. They have "gone into exile under affliction" (1:3). What remained of true worship at the temple has been uprooted "no one comes to the appointed feasts…her priests are groaning" (1:4). Their independence has been taken from them: "her adversaries have become her masters" (1:5). The royal family has been dethroned, and their respect among the nations has vanished: "All her majesty has departed from the daughter of Zion" (1:6). The temple treasury and all the articles used for worship of the Lord have been defiled and stolen: "The adversary has stretched out his hand over all her precious things, for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, the ones whom You commanded that they should not enter into Your congregation" (1:10). The people waste away from hunger: "All her people groan seeking bread; they have given their precious things for food" (1:11).
Beyond the pain of such tremendous loss, Jeremiah couches Jerusalem's fall in terms of shame and impurity. "Jerusalem sinned greatly, therefore she has become an unclean thing. All who honored her despise her because they have seen her nakedness; even she herself groans and turns away" (1:8). The people's rebellion against the God of their fathers had ultimately rendered them "unclean" before Him. Their pride blinded them to the fact that they had forgotten His covenant, and that the blessings He gave would turn to curses when they turned their backs on Him. His judgment came swiftly: "She did not consider her future. Therefore she has fallen astonishingly" (1:9).
Even in the midst of mourning, the awareness that Israel's fall is a result of their sins that threads through the whole book begins to show. "For the Lord has caused her grief because of the multitude of their transgressions" (1:5); "Look and see if there is any pain like my pain which was severely dealt out to me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger" (1:12); "The yoke of my transgressions is bound; by His hand they are knit together" (1:14). "The Lord is righteous; for I have rebelled against His command" (1:18).
In considering all these things, especially the chasm that has opened in their relationship to God, the people weep. "My eyes run down with water; because far from me is a comforter, One who restores my soul" (1:16). At the bottom, there is nowhere to look but up. Jeremiah depicts the people crying out again to God: "See, O Lord, for I am in distress; My spirit is greatly troubled; my heart is overturned within me, for I have been very rebellious…. All my enemies have heard of my calamity; they are glad that You have done it. Oh, that You would bring the day which You have proclaimed, that they may become like me. Let all their wickedness come before You; and deal with them as You have dealt with me for all my transgressions; for my groans are many and my heart is faint" (1:20-22). Recognizing that the justice of God has come upon them for their sins at the hands of a pagan king and his armies, they pray for God's ultimate justice to be brought to all people by the same standard with which He has judged them.
The prophet weeps, and all Judah with him, because we see in post-exile Jerusalem the end result of the life of rebellion against the Lord that the nation had chosen. They removed right worship and pursuit of holiness from their midst, and God in the end removed His hand of blessing. After Nebuchadnezzar, their physical reality matched the spiritual reality they had chosen.
The question remains: why did God bring this destruction to His people? Of course, the text itself links it directly to the "multitude of their transgressions," but such judgment is rarely as simple as quid pro quo: "If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared" (Ps. 130:3-4). When does our sin go "thus far and no further?" I'd like to offer three (among many) possible answers.
1) In human terms, God's people were brought to their knees for their own good. Sometimes, nothing short of "rock bottom" gets one's attention and brings on confession and repentance. Conquest and exile is "rock bottom" for a nation, and through this experience, the people learned to fear God again. In God's judgments, there is mercy. "Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him." (Deut. 8:5-6).
2) God's plan for His people was for them to be a light to the nations: "God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us-Selah. That Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all nations" (Ps. 67:1-2). When they consistently refused to repent and live according to His Law, the nations mocked His name. Better that the people should be humbled and purified than that they should live in the land and prosper but defile His reputation.
3) In God's Sovereign Plan, the loss of Jerusalem and the exile caused Israel to humble themselves and pray for God's deliverance-for a Messiah to rescue them and restore the throne to David. Daniel's prophecies (made from the seat of the foreign occupying power) foretell His coming in space and time, preparing the faithful among the Jews to watch and wait and to know Him and worship Him when He came (Simeon, for instance, in Luke 2). Without the exile and continued subjugation of Jerusalem by the Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, and Romans, the prophets would not have needed to emphasize Christ's coming, and the people would not have longed for His appearance. For God to be faithful to keep His promises, He had to send a Redeemer.
Whatever God's manifold reasons for bringing about this result in that time, Jeremiah wrote this under the Spirit's direction-therefore we are to read and learn (cf. 1 Cor. 10:26). God gave Jeremiah these words to put in Jerusalem's mouth. The history of her destruction is recorded by others (in and out of Scripture), but Jeremiah speaks for her heart. If nothing else, we see clearly that when God causes the consequences of our sin to fall on us, our response is to lament-recognizing the depth of our sin, meditating on God's holiness and sovereignty, repenting, and returning to living for His glory and worshipping Him in spirit and in truth.
Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.