The Book of Lamentations
Rector’s Weekly Letter to the Congregation for Sunday, December 1, 2019
The Book of Lamentations
The book of Lamentations is the twenty-fifth book of the Bible. It has five chapters and 154 verses. Chapters one and two have twenty-two verses each, while chapter three has sixty-six, and chapters four and five have twenty-two verses each also. The book is not to be confused with the Laments mentioned in 2 Chronicles 35:25 which Jeremiah is said to have composed to mourn the death of the good King Josiah who made sweeping religious reforms to the delight of those who were still loyal to Yahweh, often labeled religious fanatics in their day.
Jewish and Christian tradition ascribes the authorship of the book of Lamentations to Jeremiah the prophet. There is similarity in vocabulary and style of writing in the two books, Jeremiah and Lamentations. Moreover, Jeremiah was a witness to the horrors of the capture of Jerusalem in 586 BC by the Babylonians. And he loved the city. He had tried his human best to get the people to turn to God and ward off this total annihilation but to no avail. The words of the book of Lamentations fit the mood that Jeremiah would be in as he looked at the state Jerusalem was in after the Babylonians put it to rout.
The book is the cry of an eyewitness to the total devastation of Jerusalem the eyewitness’s beloved city. The emotions expressed fit the emotions that would arise in a person fond of Jerusalem on the day of its demise by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Jerusalem experienced the darkest shame possible. The temple of God, the God of the universe, was desecrated by uncircumcised gentiles and burnt down. The king’s palace was in flames. The walls of the city were broken down. The buildings in the city were all demolished. Jerusalem was burning, and the king was ignominiously treated and marched away to a foreign land. The leading citizens and military officers were taken prisoner, and many of them cruelly murdered in a public show of force by the Babylonians.
But it should be remembered that the Babylonians were merely human agents. The one behind the scenes punishing Judah was Yahweh. The inhabitants of Judah had deserted him. They would not listen to his prophets. They rejected them and mistreated them and even killed some of them. The covenant had clearly spelled matters out. The people were to toe God’s line or ship out of the land. They forgot that they were in the land on the express will of Yahweh. He wanted them in the land but on his terms, not theirs. The people instead offered sacrifices to idols in the hope that those idols would shield them from being ejected from the land by Yahweh the rightful owner. That was sheer madness on their part. Only Yahweh is God. All others are mere imagination of human beings devoid of any power to affect history.
The writer of Lamentations decries the wholesale destruction of the city and the slaughter of all and sundry, kings, princes, the elderly, the young, priests, prophets, and the common people. There was widespread starving to the point that mothers cooked and ate their own children. The elaborate and beautiful Levitical system of sacrifice, ceremony, and worship was no more. The cream of society was herded away to a distant land with bowed heads. The worst the people feared had come to pass.
Chapters one to four are an acrostic, that is, each verse begins with the successive Hebrew alphabet, covering all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew language. This feature is nearly impossible to carry into translations. Chapter three repeats the alphabet three times to cover its sixty-six verses.
In chapter one, the writer describes the ruins of Jerusalem. Her beautiful past, which is no more, is recalled. She is no more famous as she was. Her enemies have overpowered her. She’s now all broken. But it was her fault. She sinned and would not be corrected; the writer admits amid the sadness in his heart. She asked for help from her allies but none of them would help.
In chapter two the writer castigates the false prophets, the leaders and women who had told lies to the people misleading them and causing the catastrophe of total devastation. It is too much to watch starvation grinding at everyone.
In chapter three the writer gives an eyewitness account. He is sickened by what he sees. Everywhere he looks he sees suffering, devastation, death, shame. But he rouses himself and catches a glimpse of hope. God’s wrath will not last forever. “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. The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him,” he writes in 3:21-25 (ESV).
Chapter four contrasts the period immediately before and after the walls of Jerusalem were broken into to the former glory of the land when there was peace. The writer vindicates God and puts the blame squarely on the people for what happened to the city of Jerusalem. God acted within his prerogative given the adamancy of the people to court sin and idols non-stop.
Chapter five is a prayer for restoration from the results of the people’s foolish departure from God otherwise the present suffering is unbearable.
Read the book of Lamentations and learn the following and more:
- God keeps his promises. When he says he will punish sin, it’s true he will punish unrepented sin. If he says he will bless, it’s true he will bless.
- God sees all the injustices done to us and he is doing something about it, even if we don’t seem to see what he is doing.
- The Lord knows whatever is done to us and he is in absolute control of the ultimate outcome which we know nothing about in the now.
- In the darkest of times, hang on to God’s faithfulness and goodness. He is good all the time, and all the time he is good. It is true.