The book of Lamentations is the record of the suffering of God’s people because of the fall of Judah and Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 BC. Today’s passage tells in vivid detail how the city and its people experience God’s judgment because of their rebellion against him. Jeremiah describes his own pain, too.
He writes in vivid detail. Their devastation moves me, particularly the children’s, who die in the streets, infants in their mothers’ arms. Who isn’t moved by the suffering of children? Even Jeremiah, who had no children, is most pained by their suffering. “…children and infants faint in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they faint like wounded men in the streets of the city, as their lives ebb away in their mother’s arms,” 1:5, 2:11-12.
Babylon was known to be cruel. Whether or not they cared to keep families together is anyone’s guess, but my gut tells me keeping slave families together wouldn’t have been a priority. There’s evidence that some Jews rose in class after settling into Babylonian life, but they all started out as prisoners or slaves, (https://www.historyly.com/mesopotamia/babylonian-civilization-facts/). I’m guessing children got separated.
Their grief is layered and textured, described in everything from the laughing of their enemies to the leaders who sit in silence and sackcloth to their billion dollar temple’s burnout, but it’s what I learn about suffering in general and about God in particular from Lamentations that moves me most. 1:7, 21; 1:1, 4; 2:10.
SUFFERING IN GENERAL:
Sin brings suffering that impacts everyone and everything. It’s easy to believe the lie that my sin is just mine to suffer for, but everything I do affects everyone and everything I’m connected to. We’re all connected by a web of community that sin breaks down, and no one is untouched by the effects. It’s as true today as it was in Jeremiah’s: sin affects our communities. Here are some of the ways this idea is alluded to in Lamentations, “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish…This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit…The Lord has decreed for Judah that his neighbors become his foes,” 1:4, 16-17.
Sin keeps us from the comfort and support we might otherwise receive from one another. For all the staggering losses of individual homes and families, the loss of a vital community is crushing. It’s another layer of protection and support gone. This is what Judah has experienced. The most common refrain in this passage of Lamentations is that there is “none to comfort [Jerusalem],” there is “no one to comfort me,” 1:2, 7, 9, 16-17, 21. The king and his sons are exiled or dead; the leaders are stupefied; the prophets have no more visions; the priests perish looking for food; and the walls, gates, and bars that protected the city are gone, along with all homes and buildings. Worst of all, the law is gone, 9-10, 18-19. There’s nothing left to lean on, humanly speaking. We don’t have to experience losses to this extent to feel the brokenness sin brings in our own communities. All we have to do is turn on the news.
God’s people suffer when others suffer. It’s easier to detach from the misery of folks around us than to care about it, especially when what they suffer is their own fault. After all, we’ve got our own concerns. But Jesus said loving our neighbors as ourselves was the second greatest commandment after loving God most.
Katie Davis was a high school senior from Nashville, TN who came back from a two week missions’ trip and changed her mind about college. She asked her parents if she could return to Uganda as a missionary instead. She got folks behind her, went back to Africa, began adopting African orphans as a single woman, and cared for those around her until a whole ministry sprang up with a school and clinic, all of which are still growing. (Hear her story at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TY0YGrGZdR4). When asked why she did it, she said it was because of Jesus’ command to love others as herself. “I don’t want to be starving. And I don’t want other people in the world to be starving either.”
Jeremiah chooses to stay in a ravaged hometown where folks are depleted and defeated, rather than to live at the king’s expense in Babylon. Jeremiah loves his people. He loves them enough to warn them to repent before their disaster hits, and he loves them enough to stick around afterwards. It would be understandable if Jeremiah felt a little smug, maybe even choking down an “I told you so,” now that his words have proven true.
But there’s not a hint of that in Jeremiah’s writing. What comes through loud and clear are his tears. Jeremiah grieves right along with the rest of them, “My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed…,” 2:11. Jeremiah and God have both already surprised me, crying over Moab’s judgment, Judah’s enemy neighbors, Jer 48:31-32. God’s heart is moved when we suffer; ours should be moved when others suffer, too.
GOD IN PARTICULAR:
God ghosts. Jeremiah complains that Jerusalem has no comfort. She’s deserted, like a widow, “bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers, there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies…she finds no resting place,” 1:1-3. God had been Judah’s resting place, her stronghold, in days long past. But his people find no comfort or resting place with him now. Over and over in this passage, Jeremiah says there’s no comfort to be had.
I’m guessing no one cared to find him before things got so awful, but once they did, God checks out. Or at least it felt that way. “How the Lord has covered Zion with the cloud of his anger!” 2:11 Whereas the cloud between them in the past was the pillar of fire at night and a white cloud by day that connected them, now a cloud of anger comes between them. What’s more, “The Lord has rejected his altar and abandoned his sanctuary,” 2:7. God’s left the temple, and as far as anyone can tell, he’s left town, too.
Had God left town? I don’t think so. All of the heartbreak and misery of this catastrophe is right here in God’s word. Jeremiah recorded it because God inspired him to. God wanted the record of how his people suffered because he cared. He wanted them to have it, too, so they might feel comforted knowing he saw all the pieces of it. I think he records it for them to remember how dismal life is without his presence, too. If he saw enemy Moab’s trouble and wept for them, we can be sure he sees the trouble of his own people and weeps their tears, too.
God knows we suffer. God sees. God weeps.
Besides, when Lazarus died, Jesus felt Mary and Martha’s grief to the point of tears, even though he knew he was about to raise Lazarus back to life in the next 15 minutes. Jesus felt their suffering because God did. God may feel distant to us, he might remove a sense of his presence for a season, but he is never not present. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” God is everywhere all the time. He would have to cease to exist to leave us. Jesus promises he’s with us always. We can depend on that promise to stick. After all, he and the Father are one, Ps 139, Mt 28:20, Jn 10:30.
But there are those times when he chastens that he definitely ghosts. I’ve experienced them. It’s a vague sense that something’s not right. Or I can’t find joy. Or reading the Bible becomes a chore again. I’ve felt like God’s gone out of the room, and I didn’t know how to get him back, or like the sun went behind a cloud–where did all the warmth just go? I’ve had to re-believe my faith at times like that, remind myself of what I know is true from God’s word, whether it feels true to me in the moment or not. Asking and seeking him about what’s going on helps me, too.
God wounds. It seems an obvious point to make, that God was the one who brought this judgment to his people. But given Judah’s gullibility to believe in everything from praying to stars on rooftops to sacrificing their children to idols, God doesn’t want them confused about the facts. For one thing, he’s kept Jeremiah with them, the prophet who’s been 100% right, 100% of the time, to keep the truth before them. And the truth is this, God has done it. Everything they’ve gone through, God has brought into their lives. Not only had he been saying over and over for 40 years that this day would come, now he says over and over: this is all my doing. I counted thirty times when God basically says, “I did it.” (Here’s where you can find them, 1:5, 6-17; 2:2-8, 17.).
In a nutshell…
“The Lord has done what he planned;
he has fulfilled his word, which he decreed long ago.
He has overthrown you without pity,
he has let the enemy gloat over you,
he has exalted the horn of your foes,”
I think this is a hard concept to take in, that God brings the bad things in our lives. The “without pity” part hurts to read. Do we really want to say that losing a loved one and rape and child abuse and everything else bad that happens in the world is really God’s doing? And that he does it without pity? This is a sticky spot.
Others wiser than I am have done really good jobs of writing books and preaching sermons about this question. I wrestled with it once when I was trying to resolve a conflict with a friend (https://onetruelove.blog/2019/12/09/the-log/). What I came to was this: either God is in control of everything or he’s not. Did I really want to say there’s anything outside of his control?
I’m not talking about God being the author of evil. I’m talking about his power and sovereignty. I came to realize that believing he brings everything that comes into my life isn’t nearly as frightening as believing that there are things outside of his control. I don’t want to live in a world where God is not in control. That’s more disturbing to me than trusting that he allows the bad, because I also trust that he will use even what’s bad, for my good, Ro 8:28.
As far as treating me “without pity” goes, I’ve come to believe that this is how hard times may feel to me, like God doesn’t care. But his tears say differently, as later in Lamentations Jeremiah writes, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great us your faithfulness,” 3:22-23.
God hears. Jeremiah counsels the people to cry out to God and wail, “let your tears flow like a river day and night; give yourself no relief, your eyes no rest. Arise, cry out in the night…pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children…” He said to stay up all night, to weep and wail. Flail. Do what you have to to get it all said, 2:18-19. Why? Because God’s near enough to hear. He tells us to seek him in our suffering, with whatever words we need to say, for as loud and as long as we need to say them. He wouldn’t tell us to do it if he wasn’t going to be around to listen. Or to care. God is there.
The first time I came across this idea, that God cries with me, comforted me like I’d never been comforted in my life. At the time, I was experiencing tremendous suffering. Believing in God’s weeping with me felt like a hot bath, like a shoulder massage, like a snuggle.
“Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask,” 21.
Paul writes to his friend, Philemon, about his slave, Onesimus, who has become a believer and has been helping Paul while he’s imprisoned. Paul wants to keep Onesimus with him, but he doesn’t because he doesn’t want to do anything without Philemon’s consent. He wants Philemon’s love for Paul to erase any debt Onesimus may have to his master, and for Philemon to receive him back as a family member, not as a slave.
Paul’s tone in this letter is upbeat. He comments on Philemon’s faith and love that have been reported to Paul. He says Philemon’s love gives him great joy and encouragement because he’s refreshed the hearts of God’s people. And while he could tell Philemon what he ought to do, he appeals to him “on the basis of love” to receive Onesimus back as a brother, and I assume that means giving him his freedom..
At the end, Paul says he’s confident that Philemon will do more than he asks.
I love the way Paul believes the best in Philemon in regard to granting his request for Onesimus, and how he’s affirmed him from the beginning in his faith. Paul doesn’t demand or try to convince him. He speaks to the point, begins and ends on high notes, and then ends the letter.
I could learn a lot from Paul about talking with someone about a sensitive subject. The old ham sandwich analogy comes to mind: slide a hard topic in between two slices of praise and affirmation. It’s easier to chew.
This is a psalm of David. I had questions about what David means by “blameless” in verses 2-3 and was bothered by what sounded like rigid perfectionism rather than love and grace. So I checked with Tim and Kathy Keller, who wrote this about Psalm 101 in The Songs of Jesus.
“The claims to be ‘blameless’ (verses 2-3) and to have ‘nothing to do with what is evil’ (verse 4) are not pharisaical delusions of moral purity but a king’s desire for an uncorrupt administration (‘house’ verse 2). He won’t allow slander (verse 5) or dishonesty in his politics (verse 7). He sees justice in the land (verse 8). This is a great set of ideals for all in government. But it also chastens, exposing how far human societies fall short of the vision. Most tragically, we know David and his son Solomon, the greatest of Israel’s kings, themselves violated this standard. ‘Happily the last word is not with David…but with his Son, Jesus. There, there is no shadow,'” p. 248.
I’m realizing that what really matters most when I read your words is you. I breezed right over the first verse and dove right into all the rest that had me worried about not measuring up.
“I will sing of your love and justice;
to you, O Lord, I will sing praise,” 101:1.
If I’d just let that first verse sink in, I’d have had a better frame of mind to read the rest. I want to be so dazzled by you, God, that I let worries about me go. Show me your glory. And take me into worship. I still must think reading your words is mostly about me. Thanks for this reminder to look up, “to you, O Lord, I will sing praise.”
My take away today is God’s hovering over me when I’m hurting, giving me time to feel and heal. I’m not good at giving this kind of emotional space to my people or myself. Thank you for giving it to us. Thank you for validating pain and heartache, for not demanding that we deny it or hurry through it.
Thank you for Jeremiah’s love that shows me yours–faithful and kind, sad and sorrowful, present with your children as we muddle through. Help me to learn what it means to suffer when others suffer. To care that much. I wish I didn’t have to be wounded in order to hear you, but the sweetness of finding you makes it worth it. Well, almost. 😉
I see how Paul gave Philemon time, too, to come around. He didn’t insist or push or even try to persuade. He just said what he wanted and believed the best. Simple.
“I will sing of your love and justice.” I really can’t say enough about either your love or justice on a regular day, but I’m whipped. I’ve had grandboys today and I’m running behind on this post. I’ve run out of words. Here’s what I can say about your love at the end of this day: I’m really, really glad that what connects me to you is what Jesus did, not anything I do or say or write. I can sing and rest. Feel and tell you. Sleep. And trust that because you hold my hands, you’ve also got my back.
Now there’s something to sing about.