Lamentations: Part 1

Thomas Lieth

What the book means for Israel, and for us today. An overview.

In the original Hebrew, the book of Lamentations is called Ekah for the first word in the book. It is less formally referred to as Qinot due to its content—a word meaning “dirges” or “laments.” The dismay of lamentation is often expressed in our translations as “woe” or “alas,” but the beginning of chapters 1, 2, and 4 shows despair at the state of Jerusalem by expressing the extent of its ruin.

The book has only five chapters, and its structure and writing style alone are worth exploring in detail. But I’m going to limit myself to the content and historical setting of this extraordinary book. Although the author is unnamed, a great deal of evidence suggests that the prophet Jeremiah was inspired and charged by God to write Lamentations.

No other prophet felt and experienced his people’s suffering as intensely as Jeremiah. He was an eyewitness to the consequences Jerusalem was reaping for its godlessness. He witnessed its siege and simultaneous famine. He saw the holy city being taken, possessed, and destroyed by the Babylonians. And he saw God’s dwelling place, the temple, burned and laid waste. Jeremiah pleaded with the people to repent for fifty years but was met with rejection, culminating with an attempt to assassinate him.

It’s no coincidence that Jeremiah has been dubbed the “weeping prophet,” since it literally tore his heart in two to see his beloved people marching straight to their own ruin. God had constantly called for repentance through His prophets, but His messengers reaped nothing but contempt. And whoever despises a messenger despises the one who sent him. Consequently, the people weren’t rebelling against Jeremiah or any of the other prophets; they were rebelling against God Himself. As Jeremiah 22:21 says, “I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said, ‘I will not listen.’ This has been your way from your youth, that you have not obeyed my voice.” And now, when it was almost entirely too late and judgment had fallen on this unrepentant people, Jeremiah called Israel’s guilt worse than the sins of Sodom (Lam 4:6).

Yes, God’s judgment was long overdue. Israel had broken God’s covenant and trampled on it. The prophet Moses had already prophesied on God’s behalf, “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God … then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field” (Deut 28:15-16).

If we read further in Moses’ prophecy, we see how this curse was to be wholly fulfilled. God is not mocked. Although He allows time and space for repentance, due to His long-suffering, kindness, and mercy, there comes a point where He stands by His Word—both His promises and His judgment, both blessing and curse.

God doesn’t forget the ones who serve Him and who have done good, yet He also doesn’t forget those who disrespect and dishonor Him. More than a hundred years after the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom had been wiped out by the Assyrians, the Babylonians were now moving into Jerusalem. This book of qinot is primarily a lament describing the burial of the once exceptional city.

“All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem: ‘Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?’” (Lam 2:15).

Jerusalem’s fall was an incomprehensible shock for the Jews, who had believed that God would never permit this city—the heart of the entire nation and joy of the whole earth—to fall into the hands of Gentiles. Micah 3:11b says, “Is not the LORD in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.” What a deceptive assumption: “The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!” (Lam 5:16).

The first song begins with an expression of outright dismay: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.”

What a vibrant and impressive city Jerusalem had been! And what’s more, it housed the greatest sanctuary, God’s dwelling place among His beloved people. Jerusalem wasn’t just any city; it was called the City of God, and rightly so, since God Himself had chosen Jerusalem and had the temple, His earthly house, built there.

God, who alone is immortal— who dwells in impenetrable light and whom no man has seen nor can see (1 Tim 6:16)—wanted to be close to His people in that city and in that temple. It was in the form of the shekinah, the glory of God, which once preceded the Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire during their wanderings in the desert. It then settled in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. Even if Jerusalem wasn’t necessarily of preeminent importance to the nations, the city was and is—to the present day—constantly fiercely contested. Few places have seen more people come and go than this mysterious Middle Eastern city. Friend and foe alike came and went, and still come and go. Millions of people made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, especially on the high holy days such as Passover. But God put an abrupt end to that affair, which had once begun in great fear of God but ended in spiritual adultery: “The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly” (Lam 1:4).

Because of Jerusalem’s status, the people had the misconception that this city, God’s city, was unassailable for the Gentiles. But God would rather have His sanctuary trampled underfoot by the heathen, than have His holy name dishonored by the spiritual adultery of His people, priests, and kings. So God’s wrath was discharged against His people and His city. The reason for this terrible judgment is promptly supplied:

“Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns her face away. Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter” (vv. 8-9a).

Jerusalem has reaped what it has sown. God hasn’t turned away from His people, but His people turned away from God. Isn’t the same thing happening today? Just as Jerusalem in its boundless pride had completely misjudged the consequences of ignoring God’s Word and consciously living in sin, so people today also misunderstand that sin leads to destruction, disaster, and strife, and will ultimately lead to both spiritual and physical death. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23a). When we read on to Lamentations 1:16, we can see how Jeremiah identified himself with his people and city: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”

Jerusalem’s suffering is Jeremiah’s lament: “My eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me.” Being far from God brings sorrow, and true consolation only comes from the Almighty. As Isaiah 51:12 says, “I, I am he who comforts you.” This Comforter is the exact same one that the people have rejected. People who increasingly distance themselves from the only true Creator God, are sawing at the branch they’re sitting on. We want to save the world, until we realize we’re actually running toward ruin and need to be saved ourselves.

The second lament begins like the first, showing awe and dismay: “How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud! He has cast down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger” (Lam 2:1).

The fate that has befallen the entire people is no accident, but springs from God’s holy wrath. It’s the result of ongoing spiritual adultery by the chosen people. In the first verses of this second chapter, we are confronted with the wrath that Judah, and particularly Jerusalem, will feel.

“The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of the daughter of Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers. He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has withdrawn from them his right hand in the face of the enemy; he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around” (vv. 2-3).

When we continue reading from verse 6, we see that God’s wrath isn’t just directed against the land, city, and people, but also against the kingship, priesthood, and sanctuary—and thus against God’s house, the temple. What had formerly been the Lord’s glory—this pillar of cloud that had settled in the temple—now became a cloud of wrath that poured over Jerusalem like a relentless storm. God’s glory had long since departed His sanctuary. The prophet Ezekiel describes this dramatically: “Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house” (Ezek 10:18a). Further into the text, you can even read about God’s glory leaving the city, literally paving the way for the Babylonians’ unrestrained appearance.

Returning to Lamentations: “He has laid waste his booth like a garden, laid in ruins his meeting place; the Lord has made Zion forget festival and Sabbath, and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest. The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; they raised a clamor in the house of the LORD as on the day of festival” (2:6-7).

All was lost: the city, the rulers, the kings, the priests, the law, the altar, the sanctuary, dignity and prestige, sheer existence, hope, joy, festivals— nothing was the same, but the worst thing was that they had lost God. If the people had become godless over the years, they were now rid of Him entirely.

“My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom” (Lam 2:11-12).

This chapter is Jeremiah’s dismay at seeing no one spared from God’s wrath: not children, not the elderly, not infants, not nursing mothers. Let’s not forget that Jeremiah saw the inhabitants of Jerusalem starve during the siege. According to historical accounts, the events that occurred in the city must have been heartbreaking. It states in Lamentations 4:10, “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.”

What more is there to say? Haven’t we also reached our limit? Aren’t these the very kinds of events that make people doubt God, which lead people to accuse Him and ask, “Why are you allowing this misery? Where is God?” But God was no longer there. He had long since departed both His house and His city. All hell had broken out on earth, since God had long since withdrawn. But, apart from that, aren’t the ones who reproachfully cry out to God in these situations, the very same ones who threw God out of His house, His temple, His city, and their hearts? Isn’t it the ones who claim not to need God who want to reap the harvest without Him? Isn’t it the ones who say, “We can save ourselves! We can do it!” who treat God’s Word with contempt? Aren’t those the ones who aren’t willing to repent and heed God’s Word? Aren’t they the same ones who think they can rule without regard for God? The ones who give themselves over to their lusts without restraint, disregarding everything that is holy to Him? Isn’t it those who think themselves wise who have become fools (Rom 1:22)?

Shouldn’t it instead be God who asks, “Where are you, man? Why are you allowing this misery?” Just as He once asked Adam and Eve after the Fall, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). It is the human being who has distanced himself from God and has to live with the consequences, and this principle hasn’t changed. I’m convinced that the more people—and in turn political and religious leaders—distance themselves from God, the more bewildered, confused, and helpless society becomes.

News from Israel - 11/2023

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