Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 39. Lamentations
Lam 3:20-26 my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
Having just covered two of the mountain of prophecy, Isaiah ad Jeremiah, it would be easy just to move straight on to the third of those major prophets, Ezekiel, and completely forget this little song of anguish, especially as it is simply an anonymous poem that bewails the state of Jerusalem. (Tradition has it that it was written by Jeremiah but that is by no means certain.) Reading through Lamentations and finding these verses above, is like walking through the devastated, burnt out city and then suddenly, in a pile of charred ashes coming across a golden goblet. They are that because of the nature of what precedes them and what follows them. Describing these seven verses as a highlight of this book, is an understatement.
When we come to see the content of this little book we find both descriptions of the city itself and descriptions of what has happened to the people in it, as well as the reasons why all this happened. Let’s consider those three things before we look at the wonder of the seven verses above.
- The State of the City: “How deserted lies the city.” (1:1) It is devoid of people. We are considering an empty set of ruins. “The LORD determined to tear down the wall around the Daughter of Zion. He stretched out a measuring line and did not withhold his hand from destroying. He made ramparts and walls lament; together they wasted away. Her gates have sunk into the ground; their bars he has broken and destroyed.” (2:8,9) “The walls and its gates are gone. Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets; my young men and maidens have fallen by the sword.” (2:21) There are corpses still in the streets. “Because of thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them.” (4:4) The similarity of TV pictures of children in war torn countries does not escape us. the same picture continues, “Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as a stick. Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.” (4:8,9) Those who remain are in a terrible plight from famine and lack of water. And that is it! Actually this ISN’T a poem about the terrible physical state of Jerusalem; the physical state isn’t the thing that consumes the author, it only covers a small part of the book.
- What has happened to the People: We have had a tiny glimmer of this already as we have struggled to find records of the state of the city. “Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer.” (1:6) The royal family have fled into captivity. “All her people groan as they search for bread.” (1:11 See also 2:11,12,19,20, 4:4,9,10) Those people who are left, battle starvation but “My young men and maidens have gone into exile.” (1:18) i.e. the majority have been carried off into exile, but “The elders of the Daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have sprinkled dust on their heads and put on sackcloth. The young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.” (2:10) i.e. those who are left are utterly humbled. Prophets and priest who remain are as nothing (4:13-16) This disaster struck everyone – women, girls, princes, elders, young men, old men (5:11-14) – all were included. All of the elaborate feasts and special days of the Law have disappeared (1:4,10). All that is left is a meager quest for survival.
- Why it has happened: This is clearly a work of the Lord (1:12-15, 2:1-8,17,22). Yes, Nebuchadnezzar and his mighty army may have been the instrument that brought this destruction about, but ultimately he was simply the instrument in the hand of the Lord. And why? It happened “because of her many sins,” (1:5) and because of her spiritual and moral filthiness (1:8,9), even at the heart of the religious establishment, the priests and prophets (4:13). Yes it was the sin of the city (5:7,16).
Time and space precludes this exercise, but read through the book and catch the sense of how the reputation of Jerusalem in the eyes of the surrounding world has fallen. That encompasses all we have picked out above. The once glorious people of God sinned and sinned and sinned, and refused to repent. Thus God eventually (after many warnings) sent Nebuchadnezzar and Jerusalem was destroyed, many were killed, many more were taken off into captivity in Babylon, and those who were left, struggled to survive among the ruins. These are the things that consume the writer.
He is almost overwhelmed by them – and then we come to those words that fly in the face of all of this, words that have even been made into a modern song: “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” God is faithful? God is compassionate? But yes, because if He wasn’t He would have utterly wiped out Judah long ago. As it is, the majority have been carried off to a new life in Babylon where it appears they settled for forty years at least, before being returned to once again pick up the mantle of being God’s people, the people into whom He would bring His Son, some four hundred years or so later. Oh yes, God feels for this people but knows the best for them is being freed from idolatry and being returned to be ‘the people of God’ again, even if that does take decades. Their long-term history is all important and He remains faithful to His plans and purposes to bless the world through the people of Abraham (see Gen 12;1,2).
Yes, the writer recognizes what he feels – “my soul is downcast within me” – but he will not be brought down by it and so he turns away from that: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope,” and he declares the truth above and concludes, “I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” i.e. I will trust the Lord. He is good and He is compassionate and He is faithful. That is the truth and I will resist all lies the enemy might seek to bring me and instead I will be quiet before my Lord and remember these things.
Yes, there are times in life when all hell seems to break loose or the sky seems to fall on us and we sit there in the midst of the debris of what was once our quiet and pleasant and ordered life, devastated. Yes, it does happen in this fallen world. The causes for such things are many and varied but in the midst of them we must come back to that incredible revelation of the apostle Paul: “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28). Lord, I do love you and I know you called me with a purpose. I may not understand all that is happening at the present but I will hold to the truth: you are good, you are compassionate and you are faithful and I can trust in you. Amen!