As we come to the heart of Lamentations, the poet takes the suffering of Israel into himself, crying out to God in the first person. Chapter three is the longest of the book, maintaining the acrostic format but extending it to three verses for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition to the switch from third to first person, Jeremiah begins to turn from speaking about God to speaking to Him directly, transitioning from woe to worship.
He starts, though, with deep anguish, showing the pain and suffering of the judgment God has wrought on his people. The Afflictions of the first third of this chapter echo the description of the destruction of Jerusalem in chapters one and two, but with metaphors of intense personal desolation.
He speaks of God's wrath as His turning away, casting him into darkness, and also in physical terms as illness, suffering, and death: "I am the man who has seen affliction because of the rod of His wrath.He has driven me and made me walk in darkness and not in light. Surely against me He has turned His hand repeatedly all the day. He has caused my flesh and my skin to waste away, He has broken my bones. He has besieged and encompassed me with bitterness and hardship. In dark places He has made me dwell, like those who have long been dead" (3:1-6).
He says that the Lord's judgment has trapped him as a prisoner, and cornered him like a ravening beast ready to pounce and devour: "He has walled me in so that I cannot go out; He has made my chain heavy. Even when I cry out and call for help, He shuts out my prayer. He has blocked my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in secret places. He has turned aside my ways and torn me to pieces; He has made me desolate" (3:7-11).
God is called a warrior, armed and powerful: "He bent His bow and set me as a target for the arrow. He made the arrows of His quiver to enter into my inward parts" (3:12-13). Jeremiah sees the reaction of others to the afflictions God has brought to him, and lists again ways he has been brought low: "I have become a laughingstock to all my people, their mocking song all the day. He has filled me with bitterness, He has made me drunk with wormwood.He has broken my teeth with gravel; He has made me cower in the dust" (3:14-16).
Finally, the poet sinks to despair: "My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, "My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the LORD" (Lam 3:1-18). For most of us, it is difficult to conceive of prayer like this, laying such charges (accurate thought they are) at God's feet, but Jeremiah ascribes to God responsibility for the just punishment he has received. That theme resonates throughout the book-because of our sin, God must both wound and redeem.
Yet this is not where he stays, and the turn is nothing short of miraculous. His ability to hope under his own strength may have perished, but the focus of that hope-the same sovereign, holy, omnipotent God who has brought devastating chastisement for sin on His people-is imperishable. So, from his downcast resignation, the poet begins to pray.
"Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness" (3:19-23). In the midst of great darkness, the light of truth breaks in as Jeremiah remembers God's character, dwelling on His great compassion and utter trustworthiness. This rekindles hope, stirring praise. You will undoubtedly recognize this passage as the source of one of our great hymns of the faith, Thomas O. Chisholm's "Great Is Thy Faithfulness". This praise builds further as the chapter goes on, as we will see next month, revealing hard and beautiful truths about God's sovereign will.
What is the purpose of this emotional and personal drama at the heart of what is otherwise a very collective book? Is Jeremiah is taking some poetic license here, as he among all the people of Israel, saw the judgment of the Lord coming and was told by God Himself (see the entire book of Jeremiah) of the purposes of the suffering? Did he truly feel these pangs, and pray this prayer? As a member of the family of Israel, he must have felt the pain of His people, and to be a servant of the Most High does not always mean untroubled acceptance of His will (as we see even from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane). Still, it is also likely that the Lord instructed His prophet to include this section as a picture of the desired outcome of His judgment for all the people-that they would recall in their hearts and minds His character and power and plan, and then turn again to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
As we have mentioned before, Israel had to lose the kingdom to pave the way for the coming of her one true King, and the Old Covenant's promises (in this case, the curses) had to be kept in order for the New Covenant to come. Even in the fury of His wrath, great is His faithfulness to those He has chosen and called.
Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.