CRIES OF DESPAIR Lamentations 1–5
“See, O Lord, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious” (Lam. 1:20).A sense of despair over some great loss is no stranger to any human being. Yet reflection on our tragedies can offer us important insights, and do much to restore hope.
The author lamented the lost splendor of Jerusalem (1:1–22) and the pitiless destruction of its inhabitants (2:1–22). Understanding this to be a consequence of sin, the author dared hope in God (3:1–66). The punishment, though great, will end (4:1–22), and a humbled Judah may be restored (5:1–22).
Understanding the Text
“Like a widow is she” Lam. 1:1–11.
This first poem personifies Jerusalem. The city is compared to a widow who has lost touch with all her children. She is not only alone but is ignored by old friends, and ridiculed by heartless neighbors. All she has is memories of better days. But for her, remembering is bitter. The memories only drive home her loneliness and cause her to weep bitter tears. What a penetrating insight! Like Jerusalem, many human beings live selfish, sinful lives. Wealth or beauty or power makes them popular for a time. But, when these are lost, such people find themselves deserted and alone. How much better the humble, loving individual, who quietly serves God and others, and when widowed is surrounded by a loving family and caring friends. “My sins have been bound into a yoke” Lam. 1:12–22. Have you ever noticed how so many people think of “freedom” as release from moral restraint, or the right to do whatever wrong thing they want? Jeremiah pointed out that Judah’s insistence on following pagan gods and sinful passions was not freedom, but captivity! Each sin was like another branch, being tightly woven and bound together in the shape of a yoke that would rest on Judah’s neck and become an unbearable weight. Seeing Jerusalem’s and Judah’s suffering, the observer was to trace its cause to rebellion against the commands of her righteous God. If we take this message to heart, we will never make Judah’s mistake and suppose that sin, which binds us for judgment, offers a way to be free. Knowing that sin is the cause of our suffering may cause a “torment within” that matches all outward afflictions (v. 20). Yet acknowledging sin is a first, and necessary, step toward restoration. “The Lord is like an enemy” Lam. 2:1–22. The author is right in adding “like” to his description. God had done to Jerusalem and Judah what an enemy might do. God destroyed Judah’s strongholds, and multiplied her mourning (v. 5). He destroyed her temple (vv. 6–7). He exiled her king and people (v. 9). And these acts caused utter anguish. Speaking as an eyewitness, the author said, “My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city” (v. 11). In all of this the Lord had “done what He planned” and “fulfilled His word” (v. 17). He “summoned against me terrors on every side. In the day of the Lord’s anger no one escaped or survived” (v. 22). What a challenge for faith when God acts “like an enemy.” It is then we must remember that despite whatever tragedy strikes us, God is not our enemy. In the case of Judah, the cause of God’s action can be traced back to persistent sin. In our times of suffering, we may not find such a clear-cut reason. Yet, even—and especially—if we are uncertain about the cause of our suffering, we can hold tight to the truth this phrase in Lamentations affirms. God may act like an enemy, but our enemy He is not! “Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins?” Lam. 3:34–66 The author of Lamentations was a realist. He didn’t try to explain away suffering, muttering that of course God wouldn’t do anything as terrible as bring on the destruction that shattered Judah and Jerusalem. Too many today try to “protect” God by denying Him the power. “God was just as sad and surprised about what happened as you are,” they say, in a futile attempt to comfort. Not the author of Lamentations. He simply, and with firm conviction, said, “The Lord has decreed it.” He said something else too. If tragedy is indeed punishment for known sins, then on what basis can a person complain? God is a moral judge: He ought then to punish sins! If tragedy should strike, it’s wise for us to acknowledge God’s sovereign control of events, and then look first to ourselves. If we are aware of serious sin in our lives, then we can follow the prescription found in verses 40–42: Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord. Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say: “We have sinned and rebelled and You have not forgiven.” If unconfessed and unrepented sin was the cause of our suffering, we can expect God to hear this prayer. But even if sin was not the cause, we can remain confident that God will respond to us as He did to the author of Lamentations in verses 55–57: I called on Your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit. You heard my plea: “Do not close Your ears to my cry for relief.” You came near when I called You, and You said, “Do not fear.” “Your punishment will end” Lam. 4:1–22. We cannot really imagine the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem, graphically described here in verses such as 9–11. Yet the portrait is not intended to solicit sympathy. Instead the picture of suffering drives home the immensity of the sin which caused God to crush His own, dearly loved people. Any horror we feel should be horror of sin, and the source of our relief is the conviction that, for God’s people, even sin—caused sufferings will end.
The Man Who Has Seen Affliction(Lam. 3)
It’s not very impressive when a person who has known nothing but blessing tries to comfort a sufferer. How can the rich understand poverty? How can the child whose parents loved him understand the abused? How can the woman with a husband and children understand the widow’s loss, or the divorcee’s pain? It’s far more meaningful when we hear words of comfort from a person we can identify with: from a fellow sufferer. This is why the author’s words in Lamentations 3 are so powerful. He immediately identified himself as “the man who has seen affliction.” Here was someone who spoke about suffering from firsthand experience. To make sure we know he understood, he even went on to show how extreme his suffering had been. Then, when we realize that here is an authority, a person who can fully identify with us, he said, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed” (vv. 21–22). The author of Lamentations would understand whatever suffering you or I are called to experience. And after listening to our complaint, he would speak bluntly to us, and say that God’s “compassions never fail.” He would remind us, “They are new every morning,” and would invite us to praise the Lord, telling God, “great is Your faithfulness.” The author, as a “man who has seen affliction,” would give us one more piece of advice. He would tell us to say to ourselves, as he did when the pain was greatest, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for Him.” As we wait in faith, we will be sustained by the conviction that sustained Jeremiah. We too know, despite everything, that “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” (vv. 25–26).
Suffering saints through the ages counsel us to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.