You, O Lord, reign forever; Your throne endures for all generations. (Lamentations 5:17)
My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments. (Proverbs 3:1)
So, when things go bad, we just need to learn the lesson God intended, repent of our individual sins, and then be rescued from the trial. Right?
Not so fast.
The writer of Lamentations (again, presumably Jeremiah) found hope by recalling to mind the steadfast love of the Lord in chapter 3. And then came chapters 4 and 5.
Repentance and forgiveness made Jeremiah right with the Lord, but the nation was still under judgment and as a resident of Jerusalem Jeremiah was not spared. Th calamities of chapters 4 and 5 are WORSE than the first two chapters. I’ll spare the details, but imagine the worst of human behavior and magnify it exponentially (or read the chapters for yourself).
Jesus told his disciples (including us) that hard times (tribulation) are part of living in this world. Even though we are OF another kingdom, that is, the eternal kingdom of God, we are subject to the rulers and natural laws of earth.
Natural law (sickness, weather, gravity) does not disappear when we choose to follow Jesus. Human nature (selfish to the core) is the thing we all fight against in ourselves and see in others during times of chaos (pandemic hoarding comes to mind).
Part of Jerusalem’s sin was corrupt teaching (Lamentations 2:14) and bad governments (Lamentations 4:12). Certainly we have plenty of both in 2020. But collective wrong-doing is not an excuse for lazy faith. In fact, individuals must be more diligent than ever in proclaiming the love and mercy of God. Jeremiah never swayed from his commitment to proclaiming the truth, even as he suffered with the nation.
Do not be discouraged when the storm continues to rage even when you know you are right in your personal relationships with God and others. Chaos is the default for this world, but the Lord reigns forever. As bad as things may be (or get), and as long as hard times last, they will NOT outlast God, who is ETERNAL.
When times are hard, even the faithful suffer. As long as we are in this world, whatever disasters strike, from pandemics to wars to natural catastrophes, we can expect to endure along with all of humanity. The prophet in Lamentations (presumably Jeremiah) described his own suffering with the people under the Lord’s judgement. He broke down his suffering into four realms: 1. Suffering is physical (v.4) 2. Suffering is psychological (v.7) 3. Suffering is emotional (v.15) 4. Suffering is spiritual (v. 18)
Jeremiah wrote about his physical suffering first, describing the effects of hunger, disease, and broken bones on his body. For us, pain is the easiest form of suffering to understand because we all experience it. We may not remember the pain of being born or the scrapes, bumps, and bruises that come with childhood, but we do remember our most recent experience with pain, whether it be an occasional headache or a chronic condition. For those who survived the Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem, physical pain began with hunger and for most, continued in slavery. Enduring physical pain is exhausting and demoralizing. Today, physical pain may be reduced by medication, but its debilitating effects may still cause us to question God’s purpose for our lives.
Isolation causes psychological suffering. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic served as a reminder to every person on the planet that we are created for community. A video chat cannot replace companionship. Loneliness has long term physical repercussions, including sleep changes, altered metabolism, and even neurocognitive effects (Ellis, 2020). Jeremiah described his isolation as impenetrable walls and heavy chains with no way of escape.
Emotions affect the way we perceive the world. It’s how we are wired as humans. We feel deeply. Emotions allow us to connect to each other with empathy and love and authenticity. But our emotions can also make us feel things that aren’t real. When times are hard, we tend to follow our emotions and feelings rather than reason and logic. The prophet here felt his suffering was God laying in wait to pounce on him like a bear or a lion does its prey. He felt torn to pieces, taunted by others and cowering in ashes. The recent protests in the US revealed the emotions of many of my Black brothers and sisters who feel much as Jeremiah did: they feel tormented, ridiculed, unheard, and without value. The suffering is real and is runs deep.
The worst possible kind of suffering is suspecting that God has abandoned us. Jesus himself dreaded being separated from the Father, even asking whether there was another way to make atonement for our sins in order that we might be reconciled to God (Matthew 26:36-46). Jeremiah’s soul was bereft of peace to the point where he had forgotten what happiness felt like. This deep spiritual suffering leaves us hopeless and, if not resolved, can have dire consequences. Spiritual suffering is hell.
God makes a way where there is no way
After 20 verses painting a picture of his suffering, the prophet comes to his purpose in writing: BUT THIS I CALL TO MIND (v.21). Those are powerful words.
BUT THIS. There is an end to suffering. There is more than the current crisis. There is something greater at work.
I CALL. It is not a new revelation. We can access the greater lesson. We can call on the Lord; he has redeemed us and called us by name (Isaiah 43).
TO MIND. Suffering is real, make no mistake. But what Jeremiah wrote is a reminder to all of us that we do not have to focus on our suffering. God has given us minds that we can train to endure the physical, psychological, and emotional strains on our lives, especially in bad times.
What exactly did Jeremiah call to mind?
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases (Lamentations 3, v.22). Never. Even in the chaos of devastation, the Lord is good to the souls who seek him (v.25). His mercies are new EVERY day (v. 22). Hope comes when we recognize that every solace we may need is available to us (v. 24). His compassion and steadfast love means He will not cast us off forever; He is with us (v. 31-33).
In the meantime, our response is to examine our own ways and thoughts to root out anything that separates us from the Father (Lamentations 3:40-42; Psalm 139: 23-24), lifting up hearts and hands in repentance and lament. The Lord will come near when we call on His name (Lamentations 3:57) and let us see that He is with us and for us, even in the middle of the mess.
It reminds me of the William Dawson (1937) song, “Ain’a That Good News.” Suffering is part of living in this world, but there’s “a Savior in-a that kingdom” whose compassion will redeem us!
” Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:2-3).
“The Lord has done what He purposed; He has carried out His word” ( Lamentations 2:17).
God made clear His expectations for his people through Moses (Leviticus and Deuteronomy). At the top of the list was keep the Name of the Lord holy by not worshipping idols. Other expectations were to ensure justice for everyone, from the lowest slave to the king. Everyone was to be held accountable to the Law. God was also clear about the end result of disobedience: utter destruction. Generations after Moses, after multiple rescues and second chances, God followed through by letting His holy wrath pour out like fire (Lamentations 2:4), laying waste to the city like an enemy (v. 5).
Jerusalem was prosperous and beautiful, a princess among nations, but she turned from the Lord and took satisfaction in her wealth and idols, listening to the words of false and deceptive teachers and kings. Finally, God did what He told them He would do if they persisted in sin (Lamentations 2:17; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28; Jeremiah 51).
God is the true and just sanctifier (Leviticus 22:31-33) who sees the violence of the wicked among his people, and He will sweep them away (Proverbs 21:7). False teachers who did not call out sin for what it was led people away from the Lord. They still do. And the people of Jerusalem learned that trusting treacherous teachers is dangerous. The same is true today. The Church in the US has largely been lazy, calling people to God not because they need to repent over sin, but to join with social movements or prosperity doctrines that make people feel happy.
Jerusalem had to be utterly and corporately destroyed for God to get their attention. The US is crumbling by corruption from within, and as always, the devastation is corporate, not individual. Why is there evil in the world? Because people choose themselves over the Lord.
“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me” (Lamentations 1:16).
“By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil” (Proverbs 16:6).
When cities are destroyed, all the people who live there pay the price. Jerusalem was devastated by Babylon; other places crumble by corruption from within. individuals desperate to hold onto power are ultimately confronted by the people they oppress. It doesn’t matter where in the world it happens; tyrants will be challenged. Sometimes the oppression is overt: police brutality, government control of production and distribution of goods, and persecutions are examples. Other times the quest for power is stealthy, couched in words of compassion or justice or protection. This approach is far more dangerous; people get swept up in a feel-good message and they don’t consider the source, the purpose, and the ultimate mission of the movements. In both overt and stealthy demands for acquiescence to some form of human power and dominance, the end result is tumult, chaos, and violent upheaval. It might be local (recent events in Seattle), national (protests that led to riots in major cities across the US in the Spring of 2020 or the Arab Spring of 2011), or international (any war in the history of the world). Wherever and whomever is involved, the damage to people and property is devastating.
The empty streets and ruined buildings that follow destruction wrench the heart and turn the stomach. Grief has a physical component that compounds the emotional, psychological, and spiritual. The author of Lamentations felt the full weight of grief as he surveyed the damage wrought by Babylon. His response is mirrored by our own when we witness violent devastation by one group of people upon another. It feels hopeless and we feel helpless.
Hopeless and helpless represent the natural state of humanity without Jesus. No amount of legislation can change the hearts of people. No motivational speech can instill love toward one another. Government cannot make people good. When the Church and believers trust the systems of humans for salvation, they turn those systems into idols. Government, legislation, law enforcement, and the like are tools of protection put in place by God. They cannot save anyone’s soul, nor are they truly and consistently just.Iniquity (sin) can only be atoned for by steadfast love and faithfulness, two things no human on this earth can achieve.
God, in His love and mercy, made a way, interceding by offering His righteousness and salvation in Jesus (Isaiah 59:16; Romans 5:7-18). Even when it seems like the wicked are prevailing, the Lord hears our lament and our authentic repentance, both for our individual sins and for the sins of a nation (Lamentations 1).
The Church must lead the way to individual and national repentance. The Church must lead the lament for our times. And we who are believers must recognize that we may be part of the problem. In our own repentance and lament, we may see how God intends to do a work in us and through us, even when the days are dark.
I have been broken by the events of 2020, and I feel like I need to take a short break from Psalm 119 to examine the most profound lament of the Old Testament in light of the current Church and culture in the US.
I did some background reading on Bible.org, BibleScripture.net and in the Tony Evans Bible Commentary. Context is always king when it comes to any kind of literary analysis, and especially so for Bible study. As I am writing this, many cities in the US are reacting to an alarming number of murders of black people by racist white men. The most recent, and the one that set cities ablaze was the videotaped murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, and only stopped when the man was unresponsive. It was cruel and violent and vile behavior. What made it even worse is that the officer was looking for someone else, someone who was accused of forgery.
This kind of behavior by anyone is evil, but law enforcement officers are supposed to be held to a higher standard. Most officers are good men and women, committed to protecting communities and the individuals who live there. Sadly, only a few power-hungry individuals (both legal and judicial) can ruin the relationship between police officers and the people they serve. Several recent officer involved deaths have not be prosecuted or investigated properly, and in Georgia, Ahmaud Arbury was stalked and murdered by a white father-son duo who claimed Arbury looked like someone who had been burglarizing their neighborhood (he was not a suspect, nor is there any evidence he had anything to do with any misbehavior). The last time I checked, laying in wait and ambushing a jogger is intent. Vigilantism is illegal, along with being immoral, yet until a video surfaced of the murder, neither men had been charged.
These events, and others like them, are leading the US toward destruction, and we are witnesses to it. The undercurrent of sin as acceptable behavior will not be long tolerated by a holy God. When believers justify the actions of murderers or rationalize the injustices that are continually revealed, they participate in the sin that will result in the chaos and rage that cities like Minneapolis are living in this week.
Lamentations is the heart cry of a witness to the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar. The burning of the city was devastating, and the destruction was complete. The historical account is recorded in 2 Chronicles 36, and Jeremiah’s protection from it in Jeremiah 39. Chuck Swindoll preached a series on Lamentations in 1980, and his background work is stellar. I recommend starting with his words here. It is interesting to listen to Swindoll’s application points in 1980 and to think about where we are now. It’s more evidence that the Word of God is timeless.
The Heart of the Matter Most of us have never been involved in a mop-up scene after a battle or following a calamity. But those who have can testify that it is one of the most painful and pathetic experiences a human can endure. The ravages of war and the consequences of disaster are usually beyond belief or description. Few are those who can capture the tragic scene in words. Jeremiah was one of the few. His brief, biting journal of what he saw and felt following the fall of his beloved nation is contained in this short book. It is one of the most vivid reminders in all the Bible of that verse in Galatians: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (6:7). And so will a city. And so will a nation.
Swindoll, C. (1980) God’s Masterwork, Volume Three Poets, Prophets, and Promises—A survey of Job–Daniel Lamentations: A Prophet’s Broken Heart A Survey of Lamentations. Charles R. Swindoll, Inc.
As believers, we must join the lament for the sins of our country and our churches. We must lead the way for repentance. As Tony Evans (2019) wrote, “When God is your biggest problem, He is also your only hope” (p. 721). We, as the Church, must lead the way to racial reconciliation by demonstrating the love of Jesus in all its facets: care, compassion, speaking truth, serving one another, and standing with all our brothers and sisters against injustice and evil.