Restore Us, O Lord

Lamentations 5

 

As we come to the end of this look through the long poem of Lamentations, we have been examining the book as it is, through the lens of lament: the worship that comes through sorrow and repentance.

This is a heart-cry from Israel in the midst of the destruction of God's temple and the exile of her people. The scene is bleak, the language brutal, but the poet never wavers from an understanding that the people's sin brought this result, and that God was just in bringing it to pass. This is a book that wrestles with the Lord's sovereignty and goodness in the face of evil. Speaking of the events of the Exodus, the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:11, "Now these things happened to them [Israel] as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come." Surely, we would likewise do well to learn from the events of Jerusalem's conquest and the exile, and Jeremiah is our guide in this "instruction."

In chapter five, the poem again turns to prayer, directly addressing God, even in the midst of recounting the nation's woes. Jeremiah begins: "Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our reproach!" (5:1). Rather than dwelling on the horror of the conquest, here he looks at the results of what has already taken place. It is as though the people laid their cards on the table before God. "This is where we are. This is what is left. We are lifting it to you, for where else would we turn?"

We read: "Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our houses to aliens. We have become orphans without a father, our mothers are like widows. We have to pay for our drinking water, our wood comes to us at a price. Our pursuers are at our necks; we are worn out, there is no rest for us. We have submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread" (5:2-6). The people had lost their inheritance and their privileged place in the world. Because of His judgment, God's people were forced to seek their daily bread (and water, fuel, etc.) from lesser sovereigns. His very provision had been taken from them.

Moreover, the social order had been upended. Families were destroyed, women defiled, and children forced into labor as suffering reigned in the land. "Slaves rule over us; there is no one to deliver us from their hand. We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the wilderness. Our skin has become as hot as an oven, because of the burning heat of famine. They ravished the women in Zion, the virgins in the cities of Judah. Princes were hung by their hands; elders were not respected. Young men worked at the grinding mill, and youths stumbled under loads of wood" (5:8-13).

In all this, there is an understanding that the Lord's punishment encompassed more than the present generation's transgression: "Our fathers sinned, and are no more; it is we who have borne their iniquities" (5:7). This is in keeping with what we see in 2 Kings 23. Under Josiah's reign, the people of Judah had returned to worshipping God according to His Word. They had turned from idolatry, and reinstituted proper worship of the Lord through the Passover. Even so, the Lord's righteous judgment on all the nation's evils was not withheld. "However, the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of His great wrath with which His anger burned against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked Him. The Lord said, I will remove Judah also from My sight, as I have removed Israel. And I will cast off Jerusalem, this city which I have chosen, and the temple of which I said, "My name shall be there."'" (2 Kings 23:26-27).

Why would God punish a generation which was rediscovering His righteousness in recompense for the sins of the past? As we have seen previously in this study, at a "big-picture" level, it was a matter of God's covenant faithfulness (they broke His covenant time and again, and His holiness demanded that He keep His promises) and His ultimate plan for his people to come to see their need for a Savior. Jeremiah calls out woe for that generation's sin as well, recognizing that they were guilty also (as are all people) and that sin itself makes it impossible for us to pass any judgment on God's decrees. Because of iniquities past and present, all joy and authority had gone out from Judah: "Elders are gone from the gate, young men from their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned in mourning. The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us for we have sinned!" (5:14-16).

The result of all this was a people in despair, barely able to see the way back to God: "Because of this our heart is faint, because of these things our eyes are dim; because of Mount Zion which lies desolate, foxes prowl in it" (5:17-18). The holy hill where the Temple stood was now overrun by wild animals, usually a symbol in Scripture of abandonment or neglect (Ezek. 13:4, Ps. 63:10). Around them, they witnessed a very definitive end to their society and customs (which, in spite of their imperfect application, they had received from the Lord). That destruction did not square with their knowledge of God as self-existent and eternal. If they were His chosen people, how could this happen? "You, O Lord, rule forever; Your throne is from generation to generation. Why do You forget us forever? Why do You forsake us so long?" (5:19-20).

To close the book, the prayer becomes a humble request: "Restore us to You, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old, unless You have utterly rejected us and are exceedingly angry with us" (5:21-22). If that were the end of the matter, though, the hope that Jeremiah so beautifully distilled in chapter three would have been shown to be false. But we know that God did not "utterly reject" the Jews. In exile Daniel lifted God's name before kings, Esther boldly stood in the gap for her people, and Ezra and Nehemiah were given God's blessing to return and rebuild with a remnant. In His time, He sent Jesus Christ to open the doors of His mercy to all nations.

Jeremiah's prayer for restoration will find its ultimate answer when the Lord comes again. In that day, He will not simply restore what has been lost ("renew our days as of old"), but bring everything to its ultimate consummation. He will sit on the throne and proclaim "Behold, I am making all things new" (Rev. 21:5). Even as we mourn the ravages of sin, God is on His throne. He hears our cry, and His "lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail" (3:22). That is the hope of mercy new every morning; in His great faithfulness we can trust.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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