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The Big Book–Cover to Cover: Lamentations

Michael teaches an overview of the book of Lamentations.

A mournful post-script to the longest book of the Bible (Jeremiah), Lamentations serves a sure and certain warning. As God’s people grieve the loss of the Tabernacle, heaven remains silent.

What does this tell us about who God is? How should we read and respond to this difficult text?

The encouragement found in the sorrowful prose of this book may surprise you–and even offer hope: God’s lovingkindness never ceases.

Show Notes

“The Book of Lamentations is a mournful postscript to the Book of Jeremiah. …[Using] five dirges, or funeral laments, the author grieved over the fate of Jerusalem because of her sin. Yet the book contains more than just the backward glances of a vindicated prophet. ‘It is a mute reminder that sin, in spite of all its allurement and excitement, carries with it heavy weights of sorrow, grief, misery, barrenness, and pain. It is the other side of the eat, drink, and be merry’ coin’ (Charles R. Swindoll, The Lamentations of Jeremiah, “Introduction”). Lamentations both mourns the fall of the city and offers reproof, instruction, and hope to its survivors.” (1.)

Mentioned in the episode: Jimmy Gentry, WWII Veteran and Liberator

We do not have an experience of destruction and spiritual trauma analogous to what God’s people experienced in the destruction of the tabernacle. We can’t relate to the gravity of this loss.

Title:

The title comes from the first word in the Hebrew text, אֵיכָה ekah, i.e. HOW?

Rabbinic translators used the word qînôṯ, which means dirges, and as with other OT titles we’ve noted, the Septuagint translators changed the Rabbinic title into thrēnoi, the Greek term for dirges. English translators, in keeping with the Septuagint and Vulgate named the book “Lamentations” describing the content to modern readers, and later noting the author, “The Lamentations of Jeremiah”.

Timestamp:

2 Kings 25:9, 588-586 b.c. The siege ended July 18, 586 b.c.

All the things that were prescribed in the Law of Moses was plundered. Jeremiah is an eyewitness of this, and Jeremiah chapters 39 and 52 describe his seeing this event.

Dyer points out that Deuteronomy 28 is a parallel to the book of Lamentations.

Outline

Lamentations is a brief book crafted in an amazing structure.

chiasm structure lamentations with michael easley incontext

The book is poetic, chapters are acrostics. We’ve noted this before in the psalms but here each of the three strophes in each verse maintains the acrostic.

In chapter 3, the acrostic effect is tripled. David Slavitt’s translation:

Afflicted am I and beset, a man whom God in his wrath has abased.
Abused by his rod and broken, I am driven into the darkness.
Against me, he turned his hand, and again and again.

Bones broken, wasted, I am besieged and battered.
Bitterness is my portion and tribulation.
Banished, I dwell in the darkest darkness like those long dead.

Chained so I cannot escape and walled in, I am a captive.
Crying for help, I call out, but he will not hear my prayer.
Crooked are all my paths, which he has blocked with boulders.

Desolate am I and desperate …(2.)

This book is rich in structure.

“In five “dirges of death,” Jeremiah expresses the horror and helplessness of seeing the Jews’ proudest city reduced to rubble. Defeat, slaughter, and ruination—the horrors so long promised and so frequently ignored—now fall from the hands of the brutal Babylonians.

And yet, even as the prophet’s heart breaks, he pauses to proclaim a ringing testimony of deep faith in the goodness and mercy of God.

Though the present is bleak with judgment, the future sparkles with the promise of renewal and restoration—a promise as regain arts the dawn. Indeed, “Great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23) (3.)

 

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC is the likely setting for the book of Lamentations. This was the most traumatic event in all of Old Testament history, with its extreme human suffering, devastation of the ancient city, national humiliation, and the undermining of all that was thought to be theologically guaranteed like the Davidic monarchy, the city of Zion, and the temple of God of Israel. It is out of that unspeakable pain that Lamentations speaks in poetry of astonishing beauty and intricacy, though soaked in tears. (4.)

Characters

The writer himself as the narrator, and the city of Jerusalem personified as a woman. Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright refers to her as ‘Lady Zion.’ (5.)

In addition to those who speak in the poems, there is a cast of other players whose voices we only hear indirectly – lovers and friends who had betrayed Lady Zion (Lamentations 1:2, Lamentations 1:19), enemies who mock and taunt as they rape and pillage (Lamentations 1:7, Lamentations 1:10, Lamentations 1:21, Lamentations 2:16), passersby who neither speak to nor comfort Lady Zion (Lamentations 1:12) or express astonishment (Lamentations 2:15).

There are princes, priests, prophets, and elders; all of whom failed to prevent the disaster and now suffer in it along with the poorest slaves (Lamentations 1:19, Lamentations 2:9-10, Lamentations 2:14, Lamentations 4:5, Lamentations 4:7-8, Lamentations 4:13, Lamentations 5:12-14).

There are the soldiers and young men who have been trampled, young girls abused and humiliated (Lamentations 1:15, Lamentations 2:10, Lamentations 2:21, Lamentations 5:11). There are mothers and children, whose cries as they die of starvation end in a fate worse than death, which move the poet again and again (Lamentations 1:11, Lamentations 2:11-12, Lamentations 2:19-20, Lamentations 4:3-4, Lamentations 4:10).

But there is one voice absent: God does not speak in the entire book. Perhaps heaven is silent for good reason.

“Heaven is silent, which does not necessarily mean that heaven is deaf or blind.”

Kathleen O’Connor calls us to consider ‘the power of the missing voice.

Themes:

No comfort: Lamentations 1:2, Lamentations 1:9, Lamentations 1:16-17, Lamentations 1:21

God’s judgment is unmistakable. Lamentations 1:5, Lamentations 1:12.

Lamentations chapter 2 is difficult to read. God, as the Agent of judgment, is blatant. He, His, the Lord let – these words give unwavering clarity that God brought this. Lamentations 2:5

In chapter 3 we see the personal implications for Jeremiah: Lamentations 3:1-17

Lessons:

  1. Judgment of sin is clearly attributed to God. This is unpopular and counter-cultural. Culture – unfortunately, Christian culture – abhors the notion that God judges sin.Certainly there is bad shame, we can shame people for the wrong reasons. But sometimes shame and guilt go a long way. I think a little guilt is good. If guilt and shame remind me and prevent me from going a sinful direction again, I think that’s a good thing.I think there is a Godly guilt. Don’t let the world teach you theology, come back again and again to the Bible.

    So, when things happen to you and me and I get this question: Do you think God is judging me?

    I say, that’s a valid question you need to pray through. It’s a good spiritual listen to ask the Lord to reveal sin to you and to confess those sins. That’s a good calibration.

    Nonetheless, Lamentations makes it clear that this judgment is from God after He warns and warns and warns His people, and they do not obey.

  2. Perhaps we should be more surprised that He does not bring such punishment upon us: “Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins?” Lamentations 3:39You and I deserve hell. The ground at Calvary is level, we are all equal in our deserving such a fate. It’s remarkable how merciful God is, and we don’t see it. His mercy endures forever.When we sin, He’s a patient Father and we ought to be grateful.
  3. Recognize God “can take” our venting, but take care not to overstep. I don’t know when we overstep but I wonder if we are unable to move beyond the judgment, injustice, and consequence of others’ sins – of our own sins, and know there may well be consequences.Maturity is when you stop blaming the past, own the present, and plan the future.Things happen to people that are unjust, likely the result of our sin or someone else’s, but we grow up when we stop blaming, start owning, endure the consequences due, and prepare for the future.
  4. God is not capricious. He’s not malevolent: Ezekiel 18:23We would do well to choose to worship and wait, to remember, to sit alone and be silent, and to meditate: Lamentations 3:19-24In our culture we’re never silent. There is constant noise. But the Word says it is good that we should sit in silence.

    Lamentations 3:28-33

When this judgment happens, we must sit and wait. Choose to worship, choose to remember, choose to sit alone and to be silent

“If we neglect this book we miss the challenge and reward of wrestling with the massive theological issues that permeate it. How can suffering be endured alongside faith in an all-loving, good God? Even if these events are recognized and accepted as God’s judgment, has not the flood of brutality and evil gone beyond all bounds? If anarchy, death, and destruction stalk the land, can the center of Israel’s faith in the covenant God of faithfulness and mercy hold? He shows that as Christian readers we must not, and cannot, isolate Lamentations from the rest of the Bible, and, equally, that we should not read the rest of the Bible without Lamentations. We must still let it speak for itself as a book for today.” – Dr. Wright

 

Resources:

  1. Charles H. Dyer, “Lamentations,”in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1207.
  2. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations: Honest to God, ed. Alec Motyer and Derek Tidball, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015), 30.
  3. Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa, Talk Thru the Bible(Nashville: T. Nelson, 1983), 206.
  4. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations: Honest to God, ed. Alec Motyer and Derek Tidball, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015
  5. Wright, p.32
Michael Easley

About Michael Easley

Michael is husband to one, dad to four, and host of Michael Easley inContext.



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