Jerusalem was more than a city, it was a symbol. It was a symbol that this was the place on earth where God lived with his special, elect, chosen people. But because of Israel’s cumulative sin for generations, one generation had to endure horrible punishment, the destruction of the once great city. These songs are hard to read, they talk about people being murdered, women being raped, and children being cannibalized; but it’s a pivotal moment in the story of the Bible and one every Christian must understand.
It’s Not About You
The way we tend to read the Bible today really frustrates me. We read a passage, like Lamentations, and then we jump right to a personal application of the story. See if this sounds familiar: “God punished people for their sin, but he still loved them no matter what. Has there ever been a time when God let you endure the consequences of your sin? But be sure God still loves you no matter. Things will get better for you soon.” That’s really easy to do, but I do not think it’s a helpful way to read the Bible.
The author of Lamentations is singing terribly sad songs about the fact that the people of Jerusalem are bearing the sins of their fathers. Each individual is not just suffering for his or her own personal sin, but for the sins of previous generations. The punishment for all of the injustice, the rebellion, and the idolatry is falling on this particular generation. From the perspective of the author, it looks as if God might very well be done with his chosen people.
Resist the urge to allegorize the text and make it a metaphor about your personal life. Understand that it is part of an epic story into which you will eventually fit, but it is specifically about Jerusalem’s dashed hopes and dreams. God has left his people to starve to death in the streets, because they have rejected his kingship. What happened to all humanity in Eden, has now happened to the people of Jerusalem; the city has been exiled to suffer under the reign and rule of death.
A Few Verses of Hope
There are moments in Lamentations when the reader thinks there is no hope. He seems to believe God might never forgive and restore this people back to their honored place. This is how the book ends:
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
But right in the middle of the book are the most beautiful words of hope, words of confident expectations that God will heal this broken place:
I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
God’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness gives the author hope. In spite of how things look, in spite of the dead bodies strewn in the dust and the stones of the temple lying in ruins, God will once again show his steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness to his people. This “portion” is all the author has left. He has no home, no food, no money, no land. The only thing he has to put his hope in is the character of God.
When Is This Hope Realized?
As we zoom out from this story, we should not think of this hope in God’s “steadfast love” being realized in the return from captivity. When the Jews return to Jerusalem and rebuild, they continue to be harassed by their enemies of the land, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. Most importantly, it was only a small portion of the Jews who returned; most of them remained scattered abroad.
The story of the Gospel is that Jesus is the one to fully and finally take all of this sin upon himself. Not just Israel and Judah’s sin, but humanity’s sin. Jesus drinks the cup for all the nations. And because he does this, the exile finally ends. The curse is finally lifted.
Jesus coming, dying, and being raised from the dead to bring the kingdom, is God keeping his promise to be faithful, to show his steadfast love, and to show mercy. In Jesus, God is showing his faithfulness to the people of Jerusalem, to the lost sheep of Israel, and to all the descendants of Adam.
The author of Lamentations was right to look beyond the destruction and put his hope in God’s steadfast love. Though it took hundreds of years, God certainly did not disappoint. This particular author and all those like him, will be raised from the dead to live in peace and righteousness in the kingdom forever and ever.
Learning to Lament
Before I close, I feel compelled to say, Christians today need to learn to lament. We need to learn it’s ok to admit the stark reality of our circumstances. It’s ok to admit that we hate the way things are in our present evil age. Personally, I hate things like cancer, war, human trafficking, rape, abortion, suffering, child abuse, and death itself. I HATE THESE THINGS!
We need to stop trying to find the “silver lining.” We need to stop downplaying things. We need to admit how much we hate them. We need to sing songs and recite poetry about how much we despise these things. This isn’t being morbid or pessimistic. It is being realistic and biblical.
But in the midst of our lament, we must not forget to praise God and put our hope in him. Jesus gives us the hope, the confident expectation, that all of these things are coming undone and in the age to come they will be no more. We know for sure the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and his mercies never come to an end, so we hope and rejoice in him.
But hope only makes sense, it only works as a bright light, if we are willing to be honest about the darkness. If we continue to act like there is no darkness, then what good is hope to us? Let’s learn how to lament. Let’s learn how to hope.
I love you and God loves you,