Lamentations: Part 2

Thomas Lieth

God was punishing Judah for their continual persistence in sin, but He didn’t reject His people. God is still continuing with His people—especially with the remnant—because He is faithful. Yes, God had announced the curse, but He had also promised His mercy and the restoration of His covenant people.

“Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading” (Lam 2:14).

The nation’s spiritual leaders had preached the wrong message to the people. They had prophesied and taught things that tickled the ears of kings and people, instead of warning, pointing out blame, and calling for repentance. And with all due respect, is it any different today? Isn’t a false gospel being proclaimed in various places throughout our churches and in our gatherings? Instead of waking up humanity and pointing out our great guilt, things that should make our hair stand on end and that are an affront to God, are not only tolerated but even blessed. Who still has the courage to say that abortion is murder, or that homosexuality is an abomination to God? Jeremiah likened these false prophets to deceitful doctors, and the Lord Jesus called them vipers and wolves in sheep’s clothing. So, this second chapter ends with the devastating words that also tear at Jeremiah’s heart:

“Look, O LORD, and see! With whom have you dealt thus? Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity” (vv. 20-21).

I don’t know how you’re doing or what you’re feeling as you read this—especially since it isn’t a horror story, but the real fate of a people who had turned their backs on the God of their fathers. Jerusalem was besieged for about 18 months, and the famine grew to such an extent that mothers ate their own children. What had become of Jerusalem and its inhabitants? Jerusalem was once called “the perfection of beauty,” but now it all lay in ruins. And not just the city, not just the sanctuary, but also the people—young and old, men and women—had been trampled on, demoralized, and downright slaughtered. 

I don’t think we can begin to imagine what happened to those who survived. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31) while unredeemed. Most of us would probably prefer to just stop reading here and cry out, “O God, have mercy; O God, put an end to all of this. O God, where is your grace, your love, your mercy? O God, isn’t there any way out of this hopeless situation? O God!”

And this brings us to the third song.

The first three verses teach us the extent of Jeremiah’s suffering and lamenting. First, he’s suffering because of the people’s godlessness. But he’s also suffering due to the misery and destruction inflicted by the Babylonians. As Jeremiah 8:21 records, “For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.”

For decades, Jeremiah had been talking until he was blue in the face. He repeatedly pointed out that God will not be mocked, and He will accomplish what He had already commanded through Moses. Consider Deuteronomy 28. One of its warnings is that if the people backslide and disobey the voice of the Lord, they will be cursed in the city and in the field. The chapter also says, “Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb.” Didn’t we just read of how mothers ate their own young?

When we compare Deuteronomy 28 with what Jeremiah writes in Lamentations, the parallels are striking. The people had no excuse. They should have known what it meant to spit in the face of the God of their fathers. And even if the words of Moses had passed from memory, prophets like Jeremiah reminded the people and called on them to turn back. But they were unwilling. How devastating that must have been for Jeremiah. Doesn’t it wound us when we pray earnestly for our children, and they just laugh and carry on with their own godless lives, lives without any knowledge of sin or fear of God?

Then in verse 8, Jeremiah speaks of the fact that his prayers have apparently gone unanswered: “Though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.” This is very reminiscent of Job, who also lamented and doubted whether God would hear his cry, let alone answer (Job 19:7; cf. 30:20). In verse 18, Jeremiah shares his hopelessness when he laments, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.”

Would this be the end of Israel? The Northern Kingdom was practically nonexistent, since the people had long since been scattered among the nations by the Assyrians. The Southern Kingdom was facing the same fate, but this time it would be the Babylonians who would wear down the people, carry them off, and cause them to sink into obscurity. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the temple was just a heap of rubble. The Final Solution, thousands of years before the Nazis, seemed a settled matter and crowned with great success. Deep darkness lay over the land, and no light could be seen. In all directions, there was nothing but hell on earth. But, beginning in verse 19, Jeremiah isn’t just looking at the circumstances; he’s looking for a light. He looks forward to God’s grace and sees a glimmer of hope. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lam 3:21-24).

Jeremiah seeks the Comforter in his greatest need. He seeks the light in the midst of darkness. And he knows there is no valley, no matter how dark, which God cannot lead out of. “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (vv. 31-33).

God takes no pleasure in a sinner’s death. He doesn’t punish because it pleases Him, but to persuade His people to repent. No one believed the words, so action had to follow. Jeremiah knew, “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? … We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven” (vv. 39, 42).

God was punishing Judah for their continual persistence in sin, but He didn’t reject His people. God is still continuing with His people—especially with the remnant—because He is faithful. And Jeremiah was relying on this very fact. In all his suffering, tears, and sorrow, he looked to what God had promised. Yes, God had announced the curse (Deut 28), but He had also promised His mercy and the restoration of His covenant people. Yet until then, it was a painful and nightmarish journey, over which Jeremiah could only weep bitterly, “My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the LORD from heaven looks down and sees; my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the daughters of my city” (vv. 49-51).

The thought is inevitable that centuries later, the Lord Jesus would weep and lament in the same way over the sins of Jerusalem and its leaders. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37).

Please forgive the expression, but tears are flowing in heaven even today because of the godlessness that is happening on earth. If there’s a holiday that should be celebrated from the heart, it is the Day of Repentance and Prayer (celebrated in Europe just prior to Advent). But people would rather celebrate “Pride,” and even pastors take part … What can you do but weep?

The fourth song continues from the first two, and begins with another reflection of dismay. First, Jeremiah expresses that Judah’s sins are what prompted God to this merciless judgment. God’s judgment is the response to Israel’s sins: “For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater than the punishment of Sodom […] This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” (Lam 4:6, 13).

This chapter describes the terrible time of the siege, the accompanying famine, and the subsequent destruction of the unholy city. Jeremiah reports infants dying of thirst because their mothers were unable to (or did not want to) nurse them (Lam 4:3, 10). Instead of the parents feeding their babies, as even scavengers do, the babies became food for their parents. This isn’t symbolism, metaphor, or a parable. No, it was bitter reality (Lam 2:20). This state of affairs had already been announced in Deuteronomy 28: “And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you” (v. 53; cf. Lev 26:29; Jer 19:9).

The famine was so severe that Jeremiah writes, “Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field” (Lam 4:9).

The one who died by the sword was fortunate because his death was quick. But starving to death is something else entirely, and turns people into cannibals. Yes, Israel’s guilt, Jerusalem’s guilt, was greater than Sodom’s. Why? Because Israel had seen the glory of God, the shekinah, and God dwelt in the temple among His people. Because God had communicated Himself through His prophets, and the people had access to God through the priests, sacrifices, and worship.

Israel had many privileges, but these were accompanied by tremendous responsibilities. Failure to meet them ultimately resulted in Jerusalem not only being defeated, but also the city and its inhabitants languishing and dying in agony. How great God’s wrath must have been to not only hand His people over to death, banishment, and captivity, but also give them away like defenseless sheep to be ravaged by wolves. “The LORD gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations” (Lam 4:11).

Who would have thought it possible that God Himself would feed His people, city, and temple to the enemy? “The kings of the earth did not believe, nor any of the inhabitants of the world, that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem” (Lam 4:12). But this judgment was God’s righteous and holy method of dealing with a thoroughly corrupt people. God had continually warned His people, and now the time for mercy had passed. “The LORD himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders” (v. 16).

This brings us to the fifth and final song:

In the final song of lament, Jeremiah prays that God will not completely turn away, but instead consider His people’s great misery: “Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (v. 1).
Jeremiah knows that when God isn’t thinking of us, all we can say is, “Woe to us, and woe to the people living without God.” Jeremiah is appealing to God, even begging Him with the heartbreaking question, “Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days?” (Lam 5:20).

Shortly before Jerusalem’s destruction, Jeremiah had written in his prophecy, “Thus says the LORD: ‘If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the LORD’” (Jer 31:37). Is this Word invalid? Does God say something and not follow through? Jeremiah is relying on his God, trusting in Him; he knows his God. Convinced that God stands by His Word, Jeremiah makes a second request of the only true and holy Creator God. He asks for restoration, for a happy ending: “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” (Lam 5:21).

This plea is practically the heart of Jeremiah’s lament: “Renew our days as of old!” In other words, “Be reconciled with us.” Jeremiah still had God’s Word in his ear, which promised, even in the midst of a message of judgment, “But even in those days, declares the LORD, I will not make a full end of you” (Jer 5:18). Jeremiah knew that God would continue with a remnant of His people! But to forget the misery ... to erase the memory of their guilt ... to cancel the debt ... to pay the wages of sin once and for all ... to pass from death to life ... and to appear justified before God—how would that be accomplished?
Jeremiah may have been longing for the good old days, but there was no going back. What had happened couldn’t be undone. Instead, a new beginning was needed, “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

This new beginning is only possible with a restored relationship … only possible through forgiveness … only possible through repentance … only possible through grace … only possible through God Himself. As it is written, “Restore us to yourself!” It is only possible through a new covenant. So, it’s not surprising that in the book of the prophet Jeremiah (the author of Lamentations) this new covenant is referenced. It is a covenant of grace, based on Jesus Christ (cf. Jer 31). It is the Lord Jesus, the promised Redeemer, who reconciles God’s people and in whom the grace of God became man. Finally, Jeremiah ends Lamentations with a touch of doubt, wondering, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us” (Lam 5:22).

Jeremiah knew that Israel’s guilt was so great that it would be just and natural for God to cast out His people for good. And yet he believed it wouldn’t happen (cf. Lam 3:31-32; Jer 46:28).

What mercy, grace, loyalty, and reconciliation! God has always kept His Word. God has always kept His promises … and He will until the end of the age. That applies to Israel, but it also applies to you, His Church, me, and everyone who trusts in God. For the Lord’s grace is new every day, and His faithfulness is great. “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal 6:7-8).

News from Israel - 12/2023

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