Hope In The Midst Of Catastrophe
The book of Lamentations consists entirely of poetry, with each of its five chapters being separate poems. Apart from Ch.3 each chapter has 22 verses, the same as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and in Chs.1, 2, and 4 the first word of each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet in sequence.
§ We cannot rule out the possibility that this poem originated with Jeremiah, but it is presented in such a way as to conceal its origins.
The backdrop for Lamentations is the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian emperor, Nebuchadnezzar, in 586BC. Historical accounts of these events are given in 2Kings 24-25 and 2Chronicles 36, and also in Jeremiah, but here we encounter the raw details of the personal tragedies which lay behind the generalised summaries found elsewhere. Lamentations is written against the background of the carnage and destruction experienced in the ruined city of Jerusalem.
The paramount question facing the community was religious. Their previous pattern of belief had been shattered. In retrospect it was evident that the Lord’s action against them had been justified, but there remained a lack of clarity as to where that now left them. Had God finally and completely broken off his relationship with them? Would there be an end to the indignities imposed on the community? To the agony? To the desolation? Could there possibly be a way forwards to restoration?
Through the measured structure of its poems Lamentations seeks to stem the swirling bewilderment and dismay which afflicted Zion, and to erect a framework in which thought can occur and where, perhaps, hope can be regained. The poet’s careful presentation and his astute words of challenge and consolation also enable subsequent generations to extend legitimate comfort and in many later situations of disaster, disorder and despair. The book addressed the needs of those who survived the collapse of Jerusalem as they struggled to cope with their interminable suffering and their intense grief. Each chapter of the book is set against this sombre background of catastrophe and agony.
§ Chapter 1 describes the destruction and misery of Jerusalem, particularly in contrast to her former glory.
§ Chapter 2 emphasises that the catastrophe had occurred because of the Lord’s wrath, and so the only hope of relief for the city must originate with him.
§ Chapter 3 has a more personal formulation, arguing the relevance of the poet’s own experience. Though repeating many of the themes found elsewhere in the book, it especially centres on the existence of divine ‘steadfast love’, which gives a genuine basis for hope for the future.
§ Chapter 4 seems to descend from the pinnacle of faith achieved in the previous chapter by plunging back into the harrowing details of the catastrophe.
§ Chapter 5 is prayer throughout, ending with the affirmation of the Lord’s eternal rule and his righteousness, and the plea that he intervene effectively.
‘It is significant to note what the poet does not invite us to do, and that is to sit in judgement on Jerusalem. He makes no attempt to condone her past rebellions and sin. The justice of what the Lord imposed on her by acting against her is accepted (though not it would seem its severity and prolongation). What the poet does do – and invites us to participate in with him – is to feel along with her, and in an attitude of sympathy and love to see if anything can be done to relieve her distress by pointing out a way back to enjoyment of a harmonious relationship with God. It was a time of uncertainty, and the poet does not allow that uncertainty to be resolved by easy words. The future would be determined by the character and purposes of God’.
He wishes to enable the community to move on. It was not through oversight, but with a purpose, that the Lord had preserved them as survivors in the ruins of Zion. Lasting recovery requires recognition of the character and purpose of God, and also the response of repentance from a community which had so drastically failed to maintain its covenant allegiance.
Note on Application
Note Prof J L Mackay’s application of the passage to the New Testament church, particularly the reference to the church at Ephesus which had “lost its first love” [Rev.2] and the threat of the “removed lampstand” [Rev.2:5].
- God is the vine-dresser who removes branches that do not bear fruit [Joh.15].
- The example for a church which has lost its first love is the godly sorrow and repentance that Paul speaks of [2Cor.7].
- Ultimately, the message of Lamentations calls for us to centre our theological thinking on the character of God himself. It confronts us with the reality of the wrath of God, and reminds us that the tensions which arise from God’s holy revulsion against sin cannot be resolved apart from the cross of Christ.
- God as the divine warrior has set himself against sin and the powers of darkness to the extent that he wages war against his people when they fall into sin.
- It is only because Jesus Christ has defeated the enemy that the victory has been won [1Cor.15:57; Col.2:15] and reconciliation with God accomplished [Eph.2:16; Col.1:22].
- Catastrophe – national failure; spiritual failure; personal failure.
- Reflection – move from ‘introspection’ to ‘remembering the Lord’
- Hope for the Future – ‘character and purposes of God’.
- THE DARKNESS OF AFFLICTION [3:1-18] >>> THE CATASTROPHE
No longer does the poet portray himself as an observer of Jerusalem’s trauma, nor does he permit us to hear personified Zion as she expresses her grief and perplexity. Instead it is emphasised that there is here a new perspective: a male figure looks inwardly and speaks of his personal suffering.
1. The Agony of the Suffering
The poet is not conscious of any intimacy with the Lord, whose name is not even uttered, but at the same time he cannot escape from the all-pervasive and constricting control God has over his life.
a. The Judgement of God
The poet suffers the judgement of God personally: “seen affliction by the rod of his wrath” [3:1].
§ The darkness: “he has led me and brought me into darkness…” [3:2].
§ Alienated from God’s favour: “surely against me he is turned…” [3:3].
§ The severity of the affliction: “my flesh and my skin has he made old…” [3:4].
b. The Bitterness of Famine
The poet endures the consequences of famine: “my flesh and my skin waste away…” [3:4].
§ His environment has been turned into one of hostility: “besieged and surrounded me with gall and travail” [3:5]. This suggests the activity of an enemy erecting siege works about a city.
§ The intensity of the suffering is compared to imprisonment and the darkness of the dead: “he has set me in dark places…” [3:6].
c. The Confinement
The imagery of a prison or a grave is further developed; there is no possible way of escape: “he has hedged me about that I cannot get out” [3:7].
§ גָּדַ֧ר - “hedged” [3:7], ‘to build a stone wall’; ‘to block’;
§ נְחָשְׁתִּֽי - “chain” [3:7], ‘bronze fetters’;
i. The Spiritual Confinement
Prayer to God meets with no evident response: “when I cry and shout…” [3:7-8].
§ אֶזְעַק֙ - “cry” [3:8], ‘to call out’; ‘to summon’;,
§ וַאֲשַׁוֵּ֔עַ - “shout” [3:8], piel, ‘to plead for relief’;
§ שָׂתַ֖ם - “shut out” [3:8], ‘to obstruct’; ‘to cause an activity to be ineffective’;
§ תְּפִלָּתִֽי - “prayer” [3:8], ‘petition’; ‘making request to God’;’
§ The obstruction is well constructed and permanent: “inclosed my ways with hewn stone” [3:9].
d. The Pursuer [3:10-11]
God pursues the poet like a wild animal: “he was unto me as a bear lying in wait…” [3:10].
§ He is the helpless victim: “he turned aside my ways and pulled me in pieces…” [3:11].
§ He is the archer’s sitting target: “he has bent is bow and set me as a target…” [3:12].
e. The Abandonment
i. The Ridicule
He was the object of ridicule: “I was a derision to all my people…” [3:14].
§ The sufferings which came upon Jerusalem had falsified their superficial religion.
§ The covenant people are now scoffing at the poet’s continuing faith in God: “the theme of their mocking song all the day” [3:14].
ii. The Intensity of Famine
The intensity of the famine: “he has filled me with bitterness…” [3:15].
§ The graphic picture: “he has broken my teeth with gravel stones…” [3:16].
§ The utter destitution of living at the city rubbish dumps: “he has covered ne with ashes” [3:16].
So far, the speaker has not denied the existence of God, but his language has reflected his spiritual estrangement from him. he has talked throughout about God, but only as “he” – a distant, faceless, implacable foe.
§ Here the poet makes no mention of personal sin, only of divinely imposed catastrophe.
§ Apparently he has been caught up in the judgement of the nation as a whole, and through that experience his faith is being tried by God.
2. The Reaction
In v.17 there is a transition from a description of the nature of the suffering being endured to the speaker’s despairing reaction to his dire situation.
a. The Lost Peace
The poet is no longer a picture of vitality: “thou hast removed my soul far off from peace…” [3:17].
§ וַתִּזְנַ֧ח - “removed” [3:17], 3rd feminine singular, ‘reject’; ‘take from one place and put in another’;
§ The suggests that the subject of the verb is not God; instead, his ‘circumstances’ have robbed him of peace’
§ נַפְשִׁ֖י - “my soul” [3:17], ‘the life force of the individual’;
§ מִשָּׁל֛וֹם - “from peace” [3:17], ‘inward calm and equilibrium’;
b. The Lost Happiness
The poet has lost any feeling of happiness: “I forgot prosperity” [3:17].
§ נָשִׁ֥יתִי - “forgot” [3:17], ‘not recall information from memory with a focus that an action will not be taken, whether to respond in help or punishment’;
§ טוֹבָֽה - “prosperity” [3:17], ‘good’; ‘what make life pleasant and desirable’; objectively, the blessing bestowed by the covenant King upon his people: “the goodness of your house…” [Psa.65:4].
§ His memory of past privileges intensifies his present distress…
§ He cannot be a rest with himself since he knows he is the target of divine hostility.
3. The Transition
In v.18 we arrive at the bleakest vista in the entire poem, and yet, surprisingly, it is here that the first glimmer of light appears.
a. The Spiritual Life
The poet continues to set out his ongoing reaction to his situation: “my strength and my hope is perished from the Lord” [3:18].
§ נִצְחִ֔י - “my strength” [3:18], ‘glory, majesty’; combines the two ideas of ‘perpetuity’ and ‘splendour’;
§ What he probably has in view here is the loss of all that gave him special status before the Lord; ******
§ The Lord had withdrawn himself and his promises; life in its deepest and meaningful form had come to an end…
§ וְתוֹחַלְתִּ֖י - “my hope” [3:18], ‘expectation’; ‘positive future prospect’;
b. The End
Surveying what has afflicted him he can arrive at only one conclusion - the special relationship is over and so to is ‘my hope in the Lord’: “is perished from the Lord” [3:18].
§ אָבַ֣ד - “perished” [3:18], qal perfect, common word for ‘to die, pass away’;
§ מֵיְהוָֽה - “from Lord” [3:18],
The impact of suffering is aggravated when the believer is no longer aware of the closeness of God, and
§ Here, however, as the poet explores the depths of his misery, he has been compelled to use the name Yahweh, the covenant name of God. He is the living reality that intrudes into the downward spiral of gloom and despair.
§ The prophet’s reflection has at last brought him to think about the previously ‘un-mentioned’ Lord:
§ The poet has never doubted that God exists. What has overwhelmed him is the problem of reconciling his present situation with a positive view of God’s attitude towards him.
- THE DAWNING OF A NEW DAY [3:19-20]
The poet’s introverted chain of thought now starts to be oriented towards the Lord…
1. The Prayer
a. The Plea for Divine Intervention
The poet’s plea: “remember my affliction and my misery…” [3:19].
§ זְכָר - “remember” [3:19], qal imperative, ‘to recall information or events’;
§ When Yahweh remembers, He acts to rescue his people: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant…” [Exo.2:24].
b. The Reason
The poet sets out his hopelessness as the reason for divine intervention: “my affliction and my misery…” [3:19].
§ עָנְיִ֥י - “my affliction” [3:19], the primary idea is ‘to force’, ‘to try and force submission’, ‘to punish or inflict pain upon’; ‘state of hardship and trouble’;
§ וּמְרוּדִ֖י - “my misery” [3:19], ‘state or condition of going from place to place with no particular plan, as a condition of poverty’; “Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old…” [1:7]; homelessness: “the poor that are cast out to thy house…” [Isa.58:7]; >>> the emphasis here on the lack of abode!!!!!!!!!!
§ לַעֲנָ֥ה - “wormwood” [3:19], ‘a very unpleasant substance to consume, which may make one sick, either a root herb, leafy plant oil, or liver-bile; wormwood’;
§ וָרֹֽאשׁ - “gall” [3:19], ‘a substance which will harm or kill a living organism, usually made of plants’;
§ The “wormwood and the gall” looks back to the harsh diet the Lord had appointed the speaker [3:15].
§ Physically, he has suffered the ravages of famine; spiritually, a loss of vitality because his hope in God languished…
§ The afflictions and God’s wrath [1:3, 7, 9; 2:2];
2. The New Resolve
The faith which aroused him to call on the Lord spurs him to think through the implications of his act of prayer. If the Lord can be brought into the picture, then his situation should not be conceived as one of unrelieved doom and gloom.
a. The Circumstances
The recognition of the bitterness of his own experience: “my soul has them still in remembrance…” [3:20].
§ נַפְשִֽׁי - “my soul” [3:20], ‘the life force of the individual’;
§ - “still” [3;20],
§ זָכ֣וֹר - “remembrance” [3:20], ‘to recall information or events’;
§ וְתָשֹׁ֥֯יחַ - “humbled” [3:20], ‘to cause to collapse’; ‘to humble’;
§ He is overwhelmed with depression: “why are you cast down, O my soul?” [Psa.42:5].
b. The Resolve
i. The Focus
There is a conscious decision to bring back into his thinking what had previously enlightened his spiritual life: “this I recall to mind…” [3:21].
§ זֹ֛את - “this” [3:21], demonstrative pronoun, reference to ‘the considerations which he will subsequently set out, a controlling perspective in his life’;
§ אָשִׁ֥יב - “recall” [3:21], hiphil imperfect, ‘to return, bring back’;
§ אֶל־לִבִּ֖י - “my mind” [3:21], ‘to my heart’; ‘the cognitive aspect of his inner being’;
§ This hope is derived from faith grasping the revelation God had give of his own character and of his power to transform even the bleakest of situations
ii. The New Horizon
The transforming influence of this perspective: “this I recall to mind…” [3:21].
§ עַל־כֵּ֥ן - “therefore” [3:21],
§ אוֹחִֽיל - “hope” [3:21], ‘to wait’; ‘to put hope in’; ‘confident expectation’; “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…” [Job.13:15]; ‘a well-grounded and enduring anticipation of blessing’;
The poet’s new resolve to consider his circumstances in the light of what is known about the Lord [3:20-24].
§ Despite the emptiness and despair which had engulfed the poet, he recognises that another side to the matter is to be found in the nature and dealings of the Lord himself:
- THE CHARACTER OF GOD [22-24]
The heart of the message of Lamentations is found in [3:22-24], which is based on the key disclosure of the Lord regarding his character as expressed in Exodus 34:6-7.
1. The Steadfast Love of God
The poet’s confidence swells as he focuses on God, not on self. This is the route to genuine hope.
a. The Hesed
The controlling idea in the verse: “the Lord’s mercies…” [3:22].
§ חַֽסְדֵ֤י - “mercies” [3:22], plural noun, ‘loyal love’; ‘devotion’; ‘a love and affection that is steadfast based on a prior relationship’;
i. The Concept
It is difficult to find an adequate English rendering of the word:
§ The idea of “love” initiates the covenant relationship; the idea of hesed, חַֽסְדֵ֤י, maintains and gives continuance to the covenant relationship’.
§ The idea of חַֽסְדֵ֤י denotes the quality of the relationship between two parties as being one of goodwill and mutual concern by which a favourable inner disposition reveals itself in practical acts of assistance and support for the other party.
§ This frame of mind and its complementary actions are not one-of displays of kindness, but constitute an enduring bond of fidelity.
ii. The Fall of Jerusalem
As regards the situation after the fall of Jerusalem, the question naturally arises as to whether it is possible for the poet to appeal here to the ‘covenant love’ of the Lord.
§ Had not the sin of the people, and the outpouring of God’s wrath upon them, annulled the covenant relationship: “we are (not) consumed…” [3:22].
§ They had broken the covenant: “which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband to them” [Jer.31:32].
§ The curse of the covenant would come upon the people when they disobeyed the Lord’s commandment [Deu.28:29].
§ God’s level of commitment to the relationship has not been affected by the judgement he has to bring on them. The חַֽסְדֵ֤י is in the plural in this verse, highlighting the multiplicity of the expression of God’s hesed, and emphasising the intensity of God’s love.
b. The Continuance of God’s Covenant
i. The Repeated Acts of Hesed
The acts of steadfast love: “they are new every morning…” [3:23].
§ חֲדָשִׁים֙ - “new” [3:23], ‘pertaining to that which is recent’; ‘pertaining to something not previously known’; presents the note of ‘surprising, unanticipated provision’;
§ לַבְּקָרִ֔ים - “every morning” [3:23], ‘early part of the daytime period’;
§ Each day presents a struggle for which there is no surplus from the previous day’s supplies;
ii. The Preservation
If their rebellion had signalled the abrogation of all that the covenant involved, then the Lord’s anger would have ensured that there would be no survivors: “that we are not consumed…” [3:22].
§ לֹא־תָ֔מְנוּ - “not consumed” [3:22], ‘to have an activity, event or state no longer continue’;
iii. The New Covenant
It is in the context of the catastrophe of the exile that the new covenant comes to the fore:
§ The possibility of restoration follows closely after the covenant curses: “it shall come to pass…call them to mind…return unto the Lord thy God, that the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity” [Deu.30:1-10].
§ Jeremiah: “the days come that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…” [Jer.31:31].
§ Ezekiel: “I will take you from among the heathen and gather you…” [Eze.36:24ff].
§ Jesus: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood…” [Luk.22:20].
§ The establishment of the new covenant: “he takes away the first that he may establish the second” [Heb.10:9].
The very fact that there is a remnant, albeit one that is barely clinging on to existence, provides a reason for supposing that the Lord’s dealings with them have not terminated.
§ The very fact that the community has survived to any extent at all it itself an indication of the Lord’s mercy…
2. The Character of God
a. The Motherly Love of God
The situation is traced back a step further: “it is of the Lord’s mercies…” [3:22].
§ רַחֲמָֽיו - “his compassions” [3:22], ‘deep, inner feeling based on some natural bond; ‘mercy, pity, favour’;
§ From the root word for ‘womb’, the term has overtones of the intensity of a mother’s love for her child’: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?” [Isa.49:15].
§ which speaks of the mother’s love for her nursing baby:
§ לֹא־כָל֖וּ - “fail not” [3:22], ‘come to the end of an event’;
b. The Faithfulness of God
The poet at last arrives at a personal address: “great is thy faithfulness…” [3:23].
§ רַבָּ֖ה - “great” [3:23], ‘many’; ‘great in number, size’;
§ אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ - “faithfulness” [3:23], the basic root idea is ‘firmness, certainty’; ‘trustworthiness, steadfastness’;
§ Describes behaviour that is reliable and consistent, never deviating from the norm whatever the occasion, and it and related terms are frequently used alongside hesed to point to the committed nature of God’s love: “Thy mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reaches unto the clouds…” [Psa.36:5]; “For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endures to all generations” [Psa.100:5].
§ אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ - “thy faithfulness” [3:23], the first direct address to God, the poet now ‘naturally addresses the Lord rather than speak about him’;
c. The Revelation of God’s Character
The poet leans back on the revelation of God’s character given to Moses:
§ The name of the Lord: “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth…” [Exo.34:6].
§ The continuance of God’s covenant love: “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity…” [Exo34:7].
The characteristics of God open up the possibility that, alongside the vexation of rejection and pain, there may be hope for unmerited intervention from the God who has not changed [3:24].
3. The Hope of Divine Favour
a. The Portion
To these grand truths regarding the Lord the poet responds by setting out his personal appropriation of them: “the Lord is my portion…” [3:24].
§ חֶלְקִ֤י - “portion” [3:24], ‘share of something’; ‘allotment’; ‘a part of something, implying it is assigned’.
§ נַפְשִׁ֔י - “my soul” [3:24], ‘the life force of the individual’; ‘his being at its very core’;
i. The Levites
The idea of “portion” relates to the land that was allotted by the Lord to each Israelite as his inheritance.
§ The Levites were not allotted territory in the way that other tribes were. To Aaron the Lord had said: “I am your portion and inheritance in the midst of the Israelites” [Num.18:20].
§ In practical terms, this meant that the priests survived by receiving a portion of the offerings made at the sanctuary by the other tribes.
§ This image for enjoying a particularly close relationship with the Lord and depending on divine provision for survival became a metaphor for a truly God-centred life which was able to survive in times of difficulty and crisis: “God is of mine inheritance and cup the portion…” [Psa.16:5].
b. The Hope
The end result: “therefore will I hope in him” [3:24].
§ עַל־כֵּ֖ן - “therefore” [3:24],
§ אוֹחִ֥יל - “hope” [3:24], hiphil imperfect, ‘wait for’; ‘extend period of time in place or state implying a hope of resolution of some situation’; “And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove…” [Gen.8:12]; “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…” [Job.13:15];
§ לֽוֹ - “in him” [3:24], ‘to him’;
What had changed is the speaker’s outlook. The anguish and the physical deprivation remain, but now he confidently awaits a time when the wounded relationship will be fully healed and enjoyment of divine favour restored.