Lecture 32: Lamentations
Course: Old Testament Survey
Lamentations is an interesting book. We have some questions about it, but it is also a book most people have not really had a chance to understand. I think if you said to the average church member, “Explain what is going on in Lamentations,” they would have a lot of trouble. I am going to try to use it as a case study in that regard and spend a little bit of extra time on it.
I. Orienting Data
A. Who wrote it?
Most people assume that it is anonymous but there is the possibility that Jeremiah wrote it. Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. Many laments are found in the book that bear his name and which we know he wrote. The vulgate in the Septuagint even gives Jeremiah the honor of being the author of the book, though those may be later additions. The Jewish Talmud, which is a repository of Jewish learning, does as well. You have the reference in 2 Chronicles to Jeremiah as a lamenter but there is nothing per say that says he is. However, whoever the author is, he was an eyewitness to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
If you are an ancient Israelite, you are going to be used to certain things. You are going to be used to corporate laments. Those are things that we have already talked about in connection with the psalms where you have the address, the complaint, the trust, the deliverance plea, the word of assurance and the praise. A corporate lament is the crying out for help by a group, normally by the nation as a whole. Corporate laments usually are from the whole nation. Someone on behalf of the nation writes up the corporate lament, composes it, and says “We” and people readily identify it just as an individual would with an individual lament. Somebody else writes it for you but as it says what your situation is, as it expresses your emotions, it certainly talks for you. It is as if you had written it.
In the lament psalms, as we know, there are only certain types of troubles and trials and so on and you are going to say certain things in certain ways. But in the case of Lamentations, which is not just a lament but is this massive, huge, compound, complex lament, we might well expect many particular historical allusions to things that really did occur. So much that would be known only by an eyewitness is, in fact, found there. Jeremiah is in a nice position to be an eyewitness. If you know his story, if you had a chance to read the introductions to Jeremiah and just know a little bit about him, you would know he was around, he was there, he lived through the siege of Jerusalem, he was a survivor of it, and he would certainly would have had all the skills to compose this lament. However, this does not mean he is the one. Some anonymous prophet may have been called by God to produce this gem.
B. Where would it have been written?
It would have been written in Palestine presumably right after the fall of 586 BC for the for the benefit of those people who had endured it. It expresses their plea for deliverance with all the other elements that go along with that desire.
C. What is it about?
It is about the last days of Judah and Jerusalem. It is a terrible time when you think about the fact that the people had occupied this land for eight hundred or more years. Here is a city that had been captured by David four hundred or so years prior and here is the place where God had caused the temple to be built almost four hundred years prior. All of these wonderful characteristics now gone; everything gone. It is hard when everything you are used to, everything you counted on, everything you believed in is gone. You have seen those pictures on TV of people whose houses have just burned down or an earthquake destroyed them or a storm took away everything they had. It is very, very hard. This is disorienting. The sense of loss and deprivation is very great.
1. The Siege of Jerusalem
I will give you some of the references and you can check them out. They are not elaborate references but are specific enough so that you can pretty well tell what it is referring to. Mentioned throughout the book is the two-year siege from 588 to 586 BC in which the population increasingly experienced the famine, the same siege we know from the Kings and Chronicles accounts. The flight of King Zedekiah is referred to. Toward the end, he and some of his military officers made a desperate attempt on ill-fed and not well-exercised horses to try to get away by night. They wanted to get down to the Jordan Valley and from there perhaps go for help somehow. They were caught and the story of what was done to them was tragic. The looting of the temple by the Babylonians is a big theme that comes up in a number of places, including the Book of Daniel. The burning of the city, the destruction of its walls, the killing off of the leadership.
2. The Exile
The exile is mentioned in each chapter. That, of course, is what the major punishment is. The exile of the people of Jerusalem and of Judah was a thing that represented God’s era of curse. People driven off of the land that was part of who they were. Now, when it is taken away, you have no place to be. That is really hard. Of course they have a location, they are in captivity, but it is not their place, it is somebody else’s.
3. Hope for foreign help
Then references to the hope for foreign help. There were some desperate hopes that maybe the Egyptians or somebody else would intervene.
4. Judah betrayed by its allies
Finally, the fact that Judah was betrayed by its allies. That, of course, is the theme of a book like Obadiah where what the Edomites did to the Israelites especially the Judeans is described pretty clearly. All those kinds of miseries were described. Why write a book that describes all those miseries? Why take the six-part lament form and put it into a giant, great big format that is the biggest lament anywhere in the Bible by far, what are you trying to say? What is the point of this? How does a book like this function in the Bible?
II. Lamentations' Function in the Bible
First of all it is a theodicy. That is a term that I do no think we have used before. Theodicy is an explanation of why what God does is right. Theodicy literally means a God vindication. You even have the greek theodicy in the word vindication the word. The idea here is that because God’s ways are different from ours it is very common that we all say, “What is God doing? or is God doing anything? I can’t believe God is allowing this to happen.” People need theodicy all the time. Any of you who pastor or minister will have this: there will be tragic death in the community and all kinds of people will say, “Why would God allow it to happen to that nice young man? why would God allow those kids to die so young? why does God allow this?” A book like Lamentations may help you educate people about God’s judgment and why He does some of the things that He does. It is not that it is going to answer every question of theodicy but the fact that we have a theodicy in Scripture is of great use.
B. God has not failed
One of its purposes is to say to people that it does make sense that all these thousands and thousands of people have been captured, decimated and deported. It does make sense. There is a reason for it all. God knows what He is doing, He is not just watching while tragedy occurs. In a tragedy people just hate what happens and they feel they are abandoned, they feel they are no longer loved, they feel they are not cared about. That is natural. It answers also the great question, what is the meaning of this horrible tragedy? It is all part of what God said He would do, it is all part of His covenant and He has not abandoned His love. He has not given up on His people. His plan is not over.
C. Need to move on
It also goes on to answer the people’s own questions: What do we do now? Do we still have a relationship to God, how do we view that? What does the future hold? Where do we go from here? Is everything all over? Have we been abandoned by God so that our estate is helpless? Here are some of the other questions it also answers. Is nothing possible and have we been totally abandoned? Have the prophetic words of doom that all the prophets preached come true? If you think about it and are aware of all the evidence, it would be pretty bad if God did not destroy Jerusalem and exile the Judeans since all His prophets had said He would. It has to happen sometime if they keep predicting it. So that is important. There is also, however, a call to remain loyal after the tragedy and not to assume that God has failed.
You have got to appreciate life in the ancient world. The average Jew lived in a thoroughly polytheistic world. Everybody else believed in lots of gods and goddesses and the majority of Jews at any one time either suspected that was true or themselves believed it. From everything we know about Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and what we have in Kings and Chronicles, there was rampant idolatry polytheism going on right in the temple complex. Many Jews would have said this, “Yahweh was our national God.” They would believe in many other gods and goddesses, but they would say Yahweh was the national God. “His job, His special role, was to protect our nation, keep us safe, protect us against our enemies. He might not give us crops, He might not make me healthy, He might not do personal or societal things for us, but His job was political, He was to protect us. He was supposed to get really riled up and fight like crazy if any other nation attacked us but He didn’t. Therefore, is it not reasonable to conclude either that He is a pretty minor god or that maybe there is no point in believing in Him at all anymore? He is a loser god.”
The Babylonian’s literature said very openly, “The god Marduk,” that was the Babylonian chief god, “has defeated all other gods.” That was their belief. They believed that in heaven Marduk had asserted his supremacy and had become the chief god of all heaven and now all other gods were inferior to him. They believed he had made real progress and become a heavy-duty guy and that all other gods had declined by comparison. It made perfect sense to them that Marduk was the winner and that this god Yahweh or whatever his name is, was not much. That is the way they thought and many Jews joined them in thinking that. It just seemed obvious. “Hey, if your nation loses big, everything is gone, you’re totally absorbed into somebody else’s empire, what are you going to say about your national god?” “Well, he’s not much.”
Lamentations helped people understand that God has not failed; He has accomplished what He set out to accomplish. His purposes have been met. It is also important to appreciate that sin has an awful fate, punishment for sin is always deserved, grace and salvation are never deserved. It is a very interesting thing. I do not know if you have ever heard it expressed that way, but if you think about what the Scripture teaches us, punishment from God is always deserved, God’s grace is never deserved. You earn the bad, you never earn the good. That is the fantastic contrast between punishment and grace. People now need to accept the fact that the seventy years of exile have begun. We will talk about that seventy-year factor that we have also alluded to earlier. People need to move on now.
1. From Israel to Judaism
They need to move on from Israel to Judaism. You can speak of Israelites or Judeans prior to 586 BC but afterwards you speak about them only historically. The people who exist after 586 BC are called Jews, so the term Jews comes into play. Now in modern times there is also the term Israelis. People confuse these and use them interchangeably even though it is not correct. The term Judean or Israelite refer to the time before 586, the time before the fall of the city. After that the term Jew may be used at any time until present-day times because you do not even refer to a Jew as a Judean and that means the citizen of a certain nation and that nation does not exist. And after 1947 the term Israeli is also used. Many people get confused and talk about the Israelis in the Old Testament and that is just nonsense. Be careful, the terminology is Israelite in the early period, modern-day Israeli, and Jew in between. Just a chronology clarification so that when you are reading, you realize what you are reading, what people are talking about, which time period they are referring to. That is a need, to move on from Israel to Judaism.
2. From Old Covenant confidence to New Covenant Hope
Also from the Old Covenant confidence that people often had that now is gone because the Old Covenant cannot save them anymore, it condemned them, to a New Covenant hope. There must be now a hope for something special and different not just going back to the old way that leads to destruction but something new.
3. From corporate to individual responsibility
Finally, from the corporate mentality that we are a nation, we have an economy, and we have a king named Zedekiah to individual responsibility. This shift is very powerful. One sees it in several key places in the Book of Ezekiel and so on. Part of it comes out implicitly in Lamentations. People have to now realize that there is not a nation of Israel to be judged anymore, there is a people Israel, but the responsibility for the endurance of that people is partly placed on every individual. You have more and more individual responsibility to please God and to keep His law rather than a sense of corporate responsibility. Both are still around but there certainly is a transition from one emphasis to another.
D. How does God accomplish it
How does God inspiring this writer, whether it be Jeremiah or someone else, to accomplish what he accomplishes? There is a lot of realism and I list examples:
Death, cannibalism, famine, disease and slaughter. There is also the anguish, a great deal of anguish. This is a hard, hard time and the inspired writer is careful to portray that. There is true grief. Grief is when you are sorry for what you have lost and it hurts. Much of that is expressed. Of course, as in any lament, it is a prayer. Everything is being brought before God by a people who are in grief. If you want some parallels, look at Psalms 44, 74, 79, and 80. Corporate laments are often historical. Personal laments tend to be very stereotyped, the corporate laments will be somewhat stereotyped but will also tend to have actual historical references in them. They are about something and you can tell what it is very, very often.
III. Structure of Lamentations
Part of the form is acrostic. What is acrostic? It is doing things alphabetically, going through the alphabet on any particular subject or topic, and this is employed to heighten the lament. If you say, “A it is awful; B it is bad; C it is crummy; D it is a disaster; E it is egregiously painful; F and so on.” There is a sense in which that enumeration both gives an opportunity to say how bad it is in every conceivable vocabulary way you can, but at the same time going through the process is also to some degree what is called cathartic. People say, “Talk about it; let it out.” Not in every case. You have got to do that kind of thing carefully. You do not want to sit next to a person on the bus and say, “You know, I am tempted to strangle people.” You just have to be more careful who you tell, under what conditions and so on. You do not pour out your soul to total strangers, but there is great merit in talking through a problem and describing all of its characteristic. Acrostic poems do tend to help one do that, if it is a problem and if that is what the issue is. This book is acrostic in an interesting way. Chapter 1 has, of course, 22 verses because that happens to be the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. It has three poetic couplets in each verse, each of those poetic couplets is telling the story but only the first of each three begins with a given letter.
So you have the equivalent of Hebrew A starting the first of three couplets in verse 1, then the equivalent of the letter B, the first of the three couplets in verse 2 and so on. Chapter 2 is likewise, but chapter 3 is triply acrostic; AAA, BBB, CCC, DDD, like that. So you get the impression, wow this has built to something and it has. That is very purposely what is going on in the way that the book is organized. It then continues on so that you have in chapter 4 two couplets per verse. That is, of course, a diminution. In chapter 4 only the first of each group of two begins with the acrostic pattern. Chapter 5 is fascinating because it has 22 verse but it is no longer alphabetical at all. When you see it in the Hebrew suddenly you say, “I see what is happening here. It starts off level, it goes way up with a kind of a climatic or crescendo description of the misery, tails off until it kind of fades out with a whimper at the end of chapter 5 and that really is the way it works. If you study the vocabulary, if you study the Hebrew style, all of that fits so that it works that way.
Why that format? First, the enumeration that I talked about, the controlled grief. But also, what is a tragedy? A tragedy is something that starts out a certain way and ends up worse. A tragedy is a downhill thing where the end is worse than the beginning. Even the Hebrew structure conveys that. But that is, believe it or not, very much the way it works in a Shakespeare play; very much that same kind of format. You follow it and you will see that the climatic stuff usually takes place right in Act 3, by the time you get to Act 5 it is short and sometimes those plays end in what seems like a kind of dull, boring way. You wonder, “Boy, that kind of just fades off.” If you watch a Shakespeare play that can sometimes be the case. You say, “What kind of an ending was that?” It is all kind of a way of thinking that many people appreciated for many years; it is a classical way of doing it.
In addition, there is a chiastic structure. We have mentioned the term chiastic before. This is the kind of structure that is concentric. The first and the last elements tend to be the same; the next to the first and the next to the last tend to correspond in some special way; then the next and the next and so on until you get to the middle, whatever it is. In this case it turns out that chapters 1 and 5 are summary depictions of the disaster, chapters 2 and 4 are more explicit, focused with detail on the grimmest, chapter 3 highly intense in subject matter but also, right smack dab in chapter 3, is the wonderful stuff that people know from Lamentations but do not realize it is from Lamentations. You are right in the middle of all this suffering, “I have been deprived, my splendor is gone, my affliction. I remember them all. My soul is downcast within me.” I am reading up to verse 21 in chapter 3, and then all of a sudden this comes, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness,” that is what you suddenly get.
If you are following the Hebrew structure, you can see the book in even greater richness. If you are looking for all it hinges on, it actually hinges on the mercy of God. Has God become unmerciful? No. Has this tragedy for all of its sorrow and grief somehow thwarted the great and wonderful loving plan of redemption? No, not at all, and God’s mercies are ever new. People who turn to Him always have hope. There is never a point where you can say, “Well, in as much as things have gone this way, I see no hope.” You can say it but it is not true. In the Lord, there is always hope whether you are in a jail cell, a death bed, you are drowning like Jonah or anybody else, whether everything seems lost, whether those people you love are lost, at least for the time being, there is always hope.
It is very nice to see the acrostic structure, the chiastic structure, the language, and the imagery within the form. I hope that helps you see that there is this layer upon layer in this book and it is part of the way that someone with God’s ability to put books together can do it. Yet most Christians see none of that and part of your challenge will be to help them see it. As you preach and teach it, try to help convey some of the same data that we have talked about now.
IV. How would you use this book?
How could you use this book? Certainly, you are going to use it like any corporate lament. It is going to be a prayer for deliverance. It is going to teach people to learn to trust and be assured. It is going to give comfort. The psalms that one has in the lament form are not there to make you feel bad, they are there to help you trust in God because they have the address, the trust, the assurance, and the praise elements. They are not all complaint. They are not all deliverance pleas. They are also praise and glorification of God, acceptance of His will. That is not the same as fatalism.
To mourn the destruction of the temple because there is no temple is a historical reminder of the plan of God still used in Judaism. So you have this used even though there was a second temple; it got destroyed too. So Lamentations is seen in Judaism as nicely covering for the fact that the temple, twice now, has been destroyed. It also is part of the New Covenant’s background that the second temple does get built but it is not buildings that you can trust in. The seventy years of exile do come to an end. They come to an end when people have faith in their own personal lives in Christ. Jerusalem is restored, the Messiah does go there, but the heavenly Jerusalem is to come and God did not abandon His people. He had a better thing for them; His Son would come and then the very glory of God that is only reflected in the temple and in the city of Jerusalem where His name dwells now is, as John says, “Right among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father.” God has a better plan with regard to all of the things that Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple represented. That is a long time.
I hope it helped all of us to pay attention to the fact that there is a huge turning point now in history; With the destruction of Jerusalem comes a whole different thing. The prophets we are going to talk about all are now reflective in one way or another and a whole other part of this vast and dramatic change is in the direction of God’s plan for His people, the immediate direction, not the overall. One of the important things that we have mentioned very briefly is this: We now start to deal with quite a number of books that have a date specified for the time that the prophet received the prophecy. That is not done with other books. Before this general exile period you do not get that.
But suddenly now you get prophecies dated. Haggai dates every one of his prophecies. Zechariah dates all his early ones. Ezekiel dates a great many of his, not every single one, but a great many throughout the book. (I have failed in this list to list Daniel because Daniel has some that are dated.)
What is the reason for what I call the countdown? Why such an emphasis on dating prophecies? What is the point? The answer is what Jeremiah predicted twice in Jeremiah 25 and once in Jeremiah 29, that there would be a period of seventy years for Babylon. How does that work? How is this period of seventy years for Babylon to be understood? Not every scholar agrees on this. I am going to give you what I think is most likely, but you will find people who do not agree with this viewpoint. Some scholars have said Jeremiah must have meant that the exile would last a lifetime—seventy years, a lifetime. In Psalm 90 you have it described that a typical lifetime is seventy years or so. Others have said that he means seventy years for the king of Babylon. So we start the seventy years from some point and go to some point but you have got to link it closely to Babylonian history.
I do not think that is really likely. I think most likely is to understand this—that what God has told Jeremiah really is specifically and exactly a seventy-year period and that that seventy years begins with the destruction of the temple in 586 BC. That is the decisive moment. It is one thing for there to have been an exile earlier and even a couple of small token exiles earlier than that. It is one thing for the people to be gone off of the land but it is a big deal for God’s presence to be taken away as Ezekiel sees it happen in Ezekiel 10. It is is very significant when God says, “I’m out of here. I’m leaving,” as He says in the Book of Ezekiel. What the prophets are seeing and saying is very simple, and if you start counting down the seventy years predicted by Jeremiah starting at 586 you are going to end up at 516.
During the exile everybody was kind of watching the clock. They were watching and saying, “This exile starts really with God abandoning us by letting His temple be destroyed and so on, therefore, when will it end?” It will end after seventy years but it is not just that the time is up; obviously it ends with the rebuilding of the temple. So they are thinking, we have only got seventy years until that new temple has to come about somehow and this really does begin to govern their thinking. So that produces a lot of what Ezekiel talks about, and very specifically much of what Haggai and Zechariah talk about. This seventy-year prophecy, I would suggest to you, is not just a kind of general number. Some people have thought it was to be measured maybe from the exile of Jehoiachin in 598 BC down to the finalization of the return of the Jews in 538, but that is really sixty not seventy. There are all kinds of ways of thinking about it. I believe it really is the duration of the destruction of the temple. That is really the point.