Funeral for a City

Lamentations is Jeremiah’s response to the fall of Jerusalem, but it’s also a revelation of God’s mercy.

When a parent loses a child, a friend is diagnosed with cancer, or a hurricane sweeps through a city, we’re often unsure how to respond. Some people offer unhelpful clichés in an attempt to comfort, like: Don’t cry or everything happens for a reason. Others avoid saying the wrong thing by backing away and not saying anything at all. One wounds the afflicted, while the other leaves them isolated and alone.

We’re not good at dealing with tragedy.

We’re not good at dealing with tragedy.

When suffering strikes, how should we respond? The book of Lamentations can help us by unveiling the prophetic power of lament. Written by Jeremiah, the title of the book, hkya, means “How” in Hebrew, with the sense here of, How did this happen?! The phrase was used in funeral dirges (2 Sam. 1:19; Isa. 14:4), and this book follows suit—it is a funeral dirge for Jerusalem.

Response to a Tragedy

Lamentations is a response to the greatest national tragedy in Israel’s history—the destruction of Jerusalem. In the sixth century B.C., Babylon invaded Judah’s capital, destroying the temple, killing the nation’s leaders, and carrying her people into captivity. It was a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Israel’s life with God was overturned and capsized. The exile was a religious trauma, as well as a political one. In addition to the death and carnage, Israel’s sacrificial system was demolished, her priests and prophets destroyed, and her national festivals brought to an end (Lam. 2:4-7).

As the people looked upon Jerusalem in flames, the most devastating and obvious conclusion was this: God had left the building.

How does Jeremiah respond? He doesn’t stuff his emotions, stiffen his upper lip, or push his sadness and anger into the closet, but rather cries out in raw agony before God. “My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground ... streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed” (Lam. 2:11; Lam. 3:48 NIV) Wailing like this is woven throughout the book, as Jeremiah brings everything he’s feeling to God.

As the people looked upon Jerusalem in flames, the most devastating conclusion was this: God had left the building.

This heartbroken prophet doesn’t turn away from the gritty details. He describes the before and after of the siege in stark contrast: the children who once shone like the finest gold are now dulled like the crumpled mud of potter’s clay. The princes who radiated like rubies have been reduced to beggars shriveled in soot. Loving mothers are brought to desperation by hunger and—in a particularly graphic image—boil the children they once nursed, feeding on the ones who once fed on them (Lam. 4:1-10).

Jeremiah depicts the city itself as a ravaged woman. Her walls and ramparts grieve, her roads and gates cry out, her inner sanctuary has been invaded by force, and her very architectural foundations groan before God (Lam. 1:1-22).

When tragedy strikes, we have an unhealthy tendency to ignore the pain. Well-meaning friends can offer superficial platitudes, like “Cheer up, God’s on the throne!” While the desire is to help, such words can hurt. Lamentations says there’s a danger in stuffing our emotions or trying to move on too quickly. It’s right and appropriate to reckon honestly with the explosions in our lives.

And to grieve.

Lament doesn’t imply a lack of faith. For Jeremiah, it is because God is on the throne that he is able to cry out so transparently. He doesn’t need to paper over the feelings God already knows are there. When we come before the Great Physician, we don’t need to put bandages over the mortal wounds we carry—that would be ridiculous! Instead, your best move is to open your deepest hurt and confusion before Him.

For Jeremiah, it is because God is on the throne that he is able to cry out so transparently.

Believing God is on the throne gives you freedom to lament the brokenness of our sin-scarred earth. The security of God’s sovereignty makes it safe to bring the greatness of our condition before the goodness of our King.   

Unraveling of the Nation

Lamentations’ structure is part of its message. The first four chapters are acrostics, where each poetic verse starts with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Think of those alphabet books for children, “A is for alligator; B is for banana; C is for coyote ...” In English, the poetry of Lamentations would have the feel of something like, All the city is destroyed; Babylon has torn down our walls; Cry out in misery, O Israel; Deliver us, O God.

This gives a sense of order, structure, and continuity throughout the book. All the way, that is, until the end. The fifth and final chapter breaks this pattern. The opening letters for each verse are all jumbled. The literary effect is to introduce a sense of confusion, chaos, and disorder into the flow. The construction of the book is—like the city it describes—crumbling down at the end.

The collapsing structure is a picture of the nation’s unraveling.

And Jeremiah doesn’t tidy it up with a nice bow at the end. While he cries out for God to renew and restore His people, the closing line has the tone of an anguished question: “Unless you have utterly rejected us and are exceedingly angry with us” (Lam. 5:22). Like a good jazz musician, Lamentations doesn’t resolve.

I find hope in this for today. It feels like a bomb has gone off in our culture. Over this last year, the gaps seem wider, the pain deeper, and the tensions stronger than I’ve ever known. The state of our union is fractured and divided, between urban and rural, white people and people of color, the secular and the religious, globalization’s winners and losers. Wherever one lands on the political spectrum, we’re all impacted by the weight of the explosion. Many can’t help but feel, whether conservative or progressive, that our nation is unraveling around us.

Jeremiah offers us a great resource: there is a prophetic power in lament. We often don’t want to talk about problems unless we can fix them, and quickly. But lament gives us the freedom to “sit in it” before God, even if we don’t know how to fix it, or when the resolution will come. Whether the conversation is racial division, violence against women and unborn children, or any of our seemingly intractable political problems, we don’t have to ignore or give pat answers to these challenges. Rather, we can press into them honestly with each other, and bring them together before our heavenly Father.

We can cry out to Jesus with our questions, even if we don’t know the answers.

Lament is a form of protest against the way things are. It calls out the brutality of reality. This is prophetic, because it gives us the strength to speak the truth about difficulties we’d otherwise rather ignore. We can acknowledge uncomfortable realities and inconvenient truths, bringing them together before God, and finding strength in His faithfulness, not in our circumstances. 

Hope in the Rubble

And there is hope in the rubble. Lamentations is written in a Hebrew literary form called a chiasm: where the bookends mirror each other, and work their way inward. The author’s main point is found at the center of the structure. So what do we find at the center of Lamentations? The mercy of God.

You’ll notice each chapter is 22 verses long. (The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, so there’s one verse for each letter.) The exception is the third chapter, in the middle, which has 66 shorter verses (or 22 x 3). In the middle of this third chapter, the central section of the book turns to hope in God’s faithfulness, looking upward to find strength in waiting upon the Lord:

The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23)

God is good to those who hope in Him, this centerpiece continues. We can endure tragedy amidst our frailty and weakness by leaning upon the strength of the God who will ultimately come to restore and set things right.

And God has ultimately set things right, in Jesus. He is the true Israel, who allowed His body to be torn down brick by brick like the temple of old. At the cross, Jesus allowed the powers of the world to demolish the walls of His body and invade the sanctuary of His presence, like Jerusalem of old. He cried out in lament, Why have you forsaken Me? and His body was carried into the grave.

Jesus has identified with us in our desolation.

Yet He has been raised as our new Jerusalem, and stands at the center of God’s glorious city (Rev. 22:1-5). He sits at God’s throne—His victory shall be our victory, and His peace shall become our peace. So we can look to Him on the throne when tragedy strikes and have confidence in His coming victory. We can cry out in lament to Him today.

 
Related Topics:  Intimacy with God

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19 Your beauty, O Israel, is slain on your high places! How have the mighty fallen!

4 that you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon, and say, How the oppressor has ceased, And how fury has ceased!

4 He has bent His bow like an enemy; He has set His right hand like an adversary And slain all that were pleasant to the eye; In the tent of the daughter of Zion He has poured out His wrath like fire.

5 The Lord has become like an enemy. He has swallowed up Israel; He has swallowed up all its palaces, He has destroyed its strongholds And multiplied in the daughter of Judah Mourning and moaning.

6 And He has violently treated His tabernacle like a garden booth; He has destroyed His appointed meeting place. The LORD has caused to be forgotten The appointed feast and sabbath in Zion, And He has despised king and priest In the indignation of His anger.

7 The Lord has rejected His altar, He has abandoned His sanctuary; He has delivered into the hand of the enemy The walls of her palaces. They have made a noise in the house of the LORD As in the day of an appointed feast.

11 My eyes fail because of tears, My spirit is greatly troubled; My heart is poured out on the earth Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, When little ones and infants faint In the streets of the city.

48 My eyes run down with streams of water Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

1 How dark the gold has become, How the pure gold has changed! The sacred stones are poured out At the corner of every street.

2 The precious sons of Zion, Weighed against fine gold, How they are regarded as earthen jars, The work of a potter's hands!

3 Even jackals offer the breast, They nurse their young; But the daughter of my people has become cruel Like ostriches in the wilderness.

4 The tongue of the infant cleaves To the roof of its mouth because of thirst; The little ones ask for bread, But no one breaks it for them.

5 Those who ate delicacies Are desolate in the streets; Those reared in purple Embrace ash pits.

6 For the iniquity of the daughter of my people Is greater than the sin of Sodom, Which was overthrown as in a moment, And no hands were turned toward her.

7 Her consecrated ones were purer than snow, They were whiter than milk; They were more ruddy in body than corals, Their polishing was like lapis lazuli.

8 Their appearance is blacker than soot, They are not recognized in the streets; Their skin is shriveled on their bones, It is withered, it has become like wood.

9 Better are those slain with the sword Than those slain with hunger; For they pine away, being stricken For lack of the fruits of the field.

10 The hands of compassionate women Boiled their own children; They became food for them Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

1 How lonely sits the city That was full of people! She has become like a widow Who was once great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces Has become a forced laborer!

2 She weeps bitterly in the night And her tears are on her cheeks; She has none to comfort her Among all her lovers. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; They have become her enemies.

3 Judah has gone into exile under affliction And under harsh servitude; She dwells among the nations, But she has found no rest; All her pursuers have overtaken her In the midst of distress.

4 The roads of Zion are in mourning Because no one comes to the appointed feasts. All her gates are desolate; Her priests are groaning, Her virgins are afflicted, And she herself is bitter.

5 Her adversaries have become her masters, Her enemies prosper; For the LORD has caused her grief Because of the multitude of her transgressions; Her little ones have gone away As captives before the adversary.

6 All her majesty Has departed from the daughter of Zion; Her princes have become like deer That have found no pasture; And they have fled without strength Before the pursuer.

7 In the days of her affliction and homelessness Jerusalem remembers all her precious things That were from the days of old, When her people fell into the hand of the adversary And no one helped her. The adversaries saw her, They mocked at her ruin.

8 Jerusalem sinned greatly, Therefore she has become an unclean thing. All who honored her despise her Because they have seen her nakedness; Even she herself groans and turns away.

9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts; She did not consider her future. Therefore she has fallen astonishingly; She has no comforter. See, O LORD, my affliction, For the enemy has magnified himself!"

10 The adversary has stretched out his hand Over all her precious things, For she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, The ones whom You commanded That they should not enter into Your congregation.

11 All her people groan seeking bread; They have given their precious things for food To restore their lives themselves. See, O LORD, and look, For I am despised."

12 Is it nothing to all you who pass this way? Look and see if there is any pain like my pain Which was severely dealt out to me, Which the LORD inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.

13 From on high He sent fire into my bones, And it prevailed over them. He has spread a net for my feet; He has turned me back; He has made me desolate, Faint all day long.

14 The yoke of my transgressions is bound; By His hand they are knit together. They have come upon my neck; He has made my strength fail. The Lord has given me into the hands Of those against whom I am not able to stand.

15 The Lord has rejected all my strong men In my midst; He has called an appointed time against me To crush my young men; The Lord has trodden as in a wine press The virgin daughter of Judah.

16 For these things I weep; My eyes run down with water; Because far from me is a comforter, One who restores my soul. My children are desolate Because the enemy has prevailed."

17 Zion stretches out her hands; There is no one to comfort her; The LORD has commanded concerning Jacob That the ones round about him should be his adversaries; Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them.

18 The LORD is righteous; For I have rebelled against His command; Hear now, all peoples, And behold my pain; My virgins and my young men Have gone into captivity.

19 I called to my lovers, but they deceived me; My priests and my elders perished in the city While they sought food to restore their strength themselves.

20 See, O LORD, for I am in distress; My spirit is greatly troubled; My heart is overturned within me, For I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword slays; In the house it is like death.

21 They have heard that I groan; There is no one to comfort me; All my enemies have heard of my calamity; They are glad that You have done it. Oh, that You would bring the day which You have proclaimed, That they may become like me.

22 Let all their wickedness come before You; And deal with them as You have dealt with me For all my transgressions; For my groans are many and my heart is faint."

22 Unless You have utterly rejected us And are exceedingly angry with us.

22 The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail.

23 They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.

1 Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb,

2 in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

3 There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him;

4 they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads.

5 And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever.

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