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Lamentations 3:19-26

Introduction

On August 9, 1945, a B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Three days earlier, a similar bomb had destroyed Hiroshima. The fervent destruction that rained down upon the civilians was staggering. Homes, schools, hospitals, churches and businesses were instantly pulverized. Some estimate the combined death toll at 225,000.

Historical context

It would be callous and presumptuous to suggest that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are examples of God’s punishment upon a people. Rather, they are sobering testaments to the excesses of war in the nuclear age, an outcome that must never be repeated. Nonetheless, the shock suffered by the Japanese in 1945 does provide us with some understanding of the trauma that the Jewish people must have felt when destruction came to Jerusalem in 586 BC. They had already endured a months-long siege at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s army. Hunger became so pronounced that Jeremiah lamented: “The children beg for food, but no one gives them anything” (Lam. 4:4b). Cannibalism ensued as mothers cooked their own children (4:10). Finally, on July 10, the Babylonian armies broke through the northern wall. Defeated, King Zedekiah was made to watch the execution of his sons. Afterward – his eyes gouged out – they led him enchained 700 miles to Babylon where he died in prison.[1] Judah’s defeat was absolute, the ruling class taken captive: “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she now lives among the nations, and finds no resting place; pursuers have all overtaken here in the midst of her distress” (1:3). The Psalmist had long ago celebrated the God who had turned the people’s mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11), but now the opposite situation is upon them. Dancing had turned to mourning (5:15) as Jeremiah lead the lament for a punishment that – in the prophet’s estimation – surpassed what was given to Sodom (4:6).

A glimmer of hope in utter darkness

Significantly, Jeremiah never blamed God for the catastrophe. He saw the disaster instead as the inevitable consequence of the sins of a people unfaithful to God, a people who had stubbornly ignored the warnings from Jeremiah and earlier prophets and heeded instead the misleading “all is well” oracles of false prophets who refused to denounce wrongdoing (2:14). The crushing of prisoners and the suspension of human rights are listed among the transgressions that evidenced a spirit of rebellion (3:34-36), leading Jeremiah to tearfully invite the people to examine themselves and return to the LORD (3:40).

The prophet’s hope did not lie in a faithless people but in Yahweh who remains faithful: “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul. “Therefore, I will hope in him” (3:24). This conclusion is not wishful thinking but is grounded in the character of God, in the “steadfast love of the LORD” that “never ceases” (3:22). His mercies that are “without end” and “new every morning” bespeak the LORD’s faithfulness (3:23). The same trust in God’s nature to temper punishment with mercy is echoed in the New Testament: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). It is this trust in the God who always balances justice with mercy – the confidence that unfailing love and truth can meet together, and that righteousness and peace can kiss (Psalm 85:10) – that leads Jeremiah to end the book on a hopeful note, pleading: “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; and renew our days as of old” (5:22). Yet restoration may be a long time in coming. In the interim, we are to wait for him and his salvation in quiet confidence (3:25-26).

From text to sermon

As followers of Christ, there are discipleship lessons to be gleaned from Lamentations:

1. God is not honored by denial. Ecclesiastes 3:4 teaches that there is time for both laughter and mourning. When disaster strikes, it does no good to spin it as blessing. Jeremiah pictures Jerusalem that “weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks” (1:2). Rather than encouraging her to cheer up, he joins in her sorrow, his eyes flowing with tears (1:16). Healing can only begin when grieving is allowed to run its course. There is a time and place for lamentation among the people of God.

2. Corrective measures are evidence of a faithful God. While we must be careful not to consider every calamity punishment from God – as Job’s friends wrongfully did – this does not exclude the possibility that God can discipline those whom he loves, as a father corrects his sons and daughters (Hebrews 12:6). Hard times should always lead to self-examination – like David – to see if there is “any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:24).

3. God’s intention is always to restore us to relationship. Lamentations ends with the prophet’s prayer for things to be as they once were, a faithful covenant people enjoying intimacy with a faithful covenant God (Lamentations 5:22). No matter how faithless we have been, there is a place of beginning again!

[1] Bible History Online, accessed July 21, 2016; http://www.bible-history.com/map_fall_of_judah/fallofjudah_fall_of_jerusalem.html.

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