Lecture 26: Lamentations, Confession and Faith
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Well, there is an end to God’s patience. For generations and for centuries Judea, the Southern Kingdom, refused to repent of their sin which means that eventually their sin must be punished and so, in 586 B.C., God raised up the Babylonian nation. They came down and destroyed Jerusalem and conquered the nation. And, as is often the case, sorrow for sin does not come until it is too late. The Book of Lamentations was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.
What is a Lament?
Lamentations is what is called "the national lament." It is a lament in that it is an expression of sorrow, a deep sorrow, for sin. It is confession. But it is national in the sense that the author is confessing for the nation as a whole. Now, what is true of a sinning nation is true of sinning individuals, but as you read through the verses you will see that Jeremiah, the author, is speaking for the nation and therefore it is a national lament for their sin. It is not so much a lament over their punishment. I mean, they are in the middle of their punishment as the Babylonians destroyed the city, took a lot of the people and dispersed them among other countries, and the punishment is quite severe. But that is not the focus of the lament. The focus of the lament is on their sin, not their punishment, and how their sin forced God to punish them. If you want to know what true confession, what a Biblical lament looks like, then the first five chapters of Lamentations are the best example there is. The book is actually anonymous; no one claims to have written it. Tradition has been, from a long, long time ago, that it was Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s book is mostly about the stuff leading up to the exile. Lamentations would be his expression of sorrow for the nation after the exile had occurred. It is made up of 5 poems and each poem has 22 verses, and in fact, most of the poems are an acrostic. The first letter of the first word in each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So Lamentations 1:1, the first word begins with an “aluf”, Lamentations 1:2, the first word starts with a “bate” and so forth and so on. What is interesting, though, is that when you get to the third poem, to the middle, it does not have 22 verses; it has 3 times 22 verses (66).As is often true of Hebrew poetry, the main point that the writer is trying to make is right in the middle. So it is in the middle of these 66 verses that we are going to see the most important, the central affirmation, that Jeremiah wants to make in this book. It is a passionate book.
You cannot read this book and not be moved one way or another. At first it sounds like Jeremiah is just wailing and gnashing and crying out to God, but then when look at the structure, the acrostic poems, the number of verses, all the deliberateness that went into writing Lamentations, then you realize that what has happened is that Jeremiah has come to grips with the sin and he sat down and thought it all through and is deliberately expressing his sorrow and the other things that the book expresses. It is not just some kind of wailing but it is a very deliberate, passionate expression of his sorrow for sin and the other things that are in the book.
Authentic Confession Begins With Honesty
Lamentations starts were all good confession starts. It starts with being honest. Jeremiah starts chapter 1 by admitting that things are really bad. Look at just the first four verses: “How lonely sits the city [Jerusalem] that was full of people; How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations; She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks. Among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her. They have become her enemies. Judea has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude. She dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place. [That is the exile.] Her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion [another name for Jerusalem] mourn For none come to the festival. All her gates are desolate. Her priests groan. Her virgins have been afflicted and she, herself, suffers bitterly. You see, Jeremiah is being totally honest. There is no attempt to whitewash the situation. There is no attempt to put a good face on things. There is no desire to ignore the pain. And there is not even any attempt to minimize it. He is being honest as he starts his confession by honestly saying that things are really bad. My favorite verses, along these lines, is Lamentations 3:45 where Jeremiah says to God: “You have made a scum and garbage among the people.” It is one of the more honest statements, I think, in Scripture. The word we use for this kind of confession today is “brokenness.” When we talk about brokenness, we are talking about someone not making false pretenses, not someone putting on appearances, but someone who is honest and who is authentic and is pouring out his heart to God. It is the kind of confession we see in Lamentations 2:11 where Jeremiah says: “My eyes are spent with weeping, my stomach churns, my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people; because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city.” They were starving. There was actually even cannibalism, Jeremiah tells us. This is honest confession, isn’t it? This is not trying to candy coat anything, but say this is the way things are. So Jeremiah starts with that kind of honesty.
Authentic Confession Is Also Honesty About the Cause
Part of authentic confession is also honesty about the cause. It is not just saying, “Yeah, things are really, really, really bad.” But confession and brokenness have to do with saying, “This is why things are so bad.” And Jeremiah, once again, is bluntly honest about the cause for all the pain going on. Jeremiah says that they sinned. There is the S-word for you. “We sinned. We deserve God’s punishment. It is our fault.” There is zero victim mentality in the book of Lamentations. There is no pointing the fingers, except back at himself and he accepts full blame for what happens to him. The nation, through Jeremiah, is saying, “We are not going to blame anyone else. It is ''our'' fault. The fault lies with us and we accept the blame.” It is all the way through Lamentations but just a couple of verses: Lamentations 1:5: “Her foes have become the head, [In other words, the foes of Jerusalem are now ruling over Jerusalem.] “Her enemies prosper [Why?] because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions. She sinned. Jerusalem sinned and so she is being punished. Verse 20: “My heart is wrung within me because I have been very rebellious.” Chapter 5:16: “Woe to us for we have sinned.” Part of authentic confession is honesty about the cause and Lamentations is blunt honest. They sinned, they deserved the punishment, and therefore they will accept the punishment. It is interesting that in Lamentations there are places where Jeremiah says, “You know, there were other forces at work. There were other things that pushed us towards it," but never does he blame any of those other forces. You need to hear that up front. Never does he blame them, but it is interesting that he points out that there were other forces. There were other people involved, in other words. It can be seen repeatedly through the book, including in 4:13 and following, but at 2:14: “Your prophets [the Jewish prophets] have seen for you false and deceptive visions. They have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, But have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.” There were false prophets in Israel and instead of speaking God’s truth, they spoke lies. In the words of Paul and Timothy, they tickled people’s ears. They did ''not'' expose the people’s sin, and because they did not expose people’s sin, their restoration was not possible. Did you see that? They have not exposed your iniquity, they have not brought light to your sin in order to, or so as a result, restore your fortunes. There is no way to restoration. There is no way to wholeness with God unless there is confession of sin and the function of the prophets is to expose sin so that people would see it and they would confess it and they would be restored. I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to Forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But if we do not confess, there is no forgiveness and Jeremiah is trying to make the point; the prophets are supposed to point out the sin so that you can confess the sin. God has no statute of limitations. Think about that. God has no statute of limitations. If we refuse to confess our sins, He will not forget our sins. But with Biblical preaching comes exposure of sin, and with exposure of sin through the power of God’s Spirit, we are lead to confession. With confession and repentance comes divine forgetfulness; that as far as the East is from the West, so far He has forgotten, so far has He moved our sins away from us. He has forgotten our sins and He will remember them no more and we move into restoration. But it starts with an awareness of sin, whether it is through prophets or preaching, and it moves to confession and if you do not have that then you cannot ever get to restoration.
So there were false prophets. There were those who refused to preach sin, who refused to identify what the real problem was; they had the keys and they kept the doors locked and did not let anyone through. Be that as it may, Jeremiah never removes the blame off of himself. He never moves the blame off the people who actually committed the sin. In this context, notice who never, ever gets blamed. In all the wailing and gnashing and finger-pointing back at their selves, who was never blamed in Lamentations, for anything evil? God. God never gets blamed for anything when it comes to true confession. It is easy to blame God. Especially when things are not going well and the pain starts to intensify, it is easy to blame God. When it gets harder and more painful, we start to get frantic and look to blame something or someone and, you know, Heaven forbid that it would be me, it’s always got to be you…and you…and then ultimately, of course, it is always God’s fault. That is kind of human tendency. However, there is absolutely none of that in Lamentations. In one sense I feel bad for God, because there are so many people who think of God, as just a divine Policeman who is called to stand by the side and let us do whatever we want, but the minute that something bad is going to happen, He is supposed to sweep in with his guns blazing and keep us from getting hurt, and then as soon as that is done, he rides off in His squad car and we can live any way we want. "Why would God let something this bad happen?!" Well, why not? That question does not exist in Lamentations. Lamentations understands that it is not God’s fault; it is my fault. Lamentations 1:18: “The LORD is in the right, For I have rebelled against His word.” God is in the right; it is my fault. And, in fact, as Jeremiah goes on, he says, “You know, God is just doing what He said He was going to do. I mean, this shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone.” Back in Deuteronomy, Chapters 27 and 28, when Moses the Children of Israel have come into the Promised Land and God says, “There are two ways that you can live. If you will love me with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, if you will live within the Covenant, if you will be obedient to My word, then I will heap blessings and blessings upon you. But if you do not love me with all of your heart and you break the Covenant and you live outside the Covenant and you disobey me, then there are going to be curses. There is going to be punishment. This is going to happen, people,” God says through Moses. You can see that Jeremiah understands that in Lamentations 2:17, “The LORD has done what he purposed; He has carried out His Word which He commanded long ago. [That is Deuteronomy.] He has thrown down without pity.” So the punishment is my fault. God is simply doing what He said. God is not to blame. But it even goes one step further than this. One of the interesting themes in the Book of Lamentations is that God is absolutely sovereign, that God is absolutely in control and Jeremiah goes way out of his way to emphasize that God is punishing. There is to be no question about this at all. This is not like some big country, some big bully, who came and conquered us and God was powerless to do anything against it. The punishment that we are going through is because God is punishing me for my sins. He is not to blame, yet it is He who is doing it. This is evident in many verses, but look at 3:4-6: “He [meaning God] has made my flesh and my skin waste away. He has broken my bones. He has besieged and enveloped Me with bitterness and tribulation. He has made me dwell in darkness Like the dead of long ago.” There is zero question in Jeremiah’s mind that God is in control and is punishing people for their sin, just like He promised He would do, and yet it is 100% my fault. Now, I do not know what kind of models of confession and brokenness you have, but this is Biblical confession. This is ''true'' brokenness; of being honest before God; Yes, it is really bad. Yes, I have sinned. Yes, it is my fault. Yes, it is right for You to punish me, just like You said that You would.
The Center of the Lament is Faith
Fortunately, that is not all there is. We have looked at the contents of chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5, but right smack dab in the middle, in the most important place of Lamentations, in the center, is the most important thing that Jeremiah wants to get across about lament, which is faith. That is where Jeremiah is going with all Biblical laments, all this Biblical expressions of sorrow of sin and saying “It hurts!” It all centers on faith. There are laments all the way, for example, through the Psalms, where the Psalmist just wails and gnashes his teeth at how bad things are and how much it hurts and how enemies are trying to kill me and on and on, but You are my Rock, You are my Salvation. That it is in the midst of the pain that the Psalmist always cries out in faith and that is exactly what is going on in the Book of Lamentations. Jeremiah is not just sitting around crying “Woe is me! Woe is me!” Right in the middle of the hurt and the pain, the voice that cries the loudest is his voice of faith. Jeremiah is very honest. He says “God, this is what it feels like. My bile is pouring out.” He is very honest in his confession, but then once he has said how he feels, then he confesses, then he proclaims what he knows to be true. What he knows to be true by Faith.
Look at Chapter 3, starting at verse 21. This is the part that should be highlighted in Lamentations in your Bible. He has gone through all the afflictions, all the woes, the wormwood and the gall and all that stuff and then in verse 21 he says, “But this I call to mind” (Jeremiah is saying “despite all the pain, despite all the emotions, despite all the hurt, I am going to make a conscious, deliberate decision of the will. I am going to use my mind; I am going to use my heart.) “This 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 thy faithfulness. The LORD is my portion, says my soul, Therefore I will hope in Him. The LORD is good to those who wait for Him; To the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” Jeremiah and our hope is not based on what we feel. Our hope is not based on emotions, as important as they are. Our hope is not swayed by circumstances, but rather our hope is based on what we believe by faith to be true. And this is, after all, is what pleases God. It is without faith that it is impossible to please God. This is what He wants of you and of me, especially in the midst of hurt and pain, even when it has been self-induced and God-ordained. Even in the midst of the worst kind of situation, He wants us to respond in faith and to still say that I believe. That is not easy. It is not easy in the midst of pain to make a deliberate act of the will and to say, "Nevertheless, I will still rejoice in God my Savior.” But again, that is what Philippians 11 is all about, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That is what faith is.
So Jeremiah says, ”I will call this to mind. This is what I am going to hang onto. This is what gives me hope in a difficult world.” What is it that he holds on to? What is it that Jeremiah is clinging to for all he is worth? He is clinging to God/ He is clinging to the character of God. He is clinging to what he believes to be true, what he knows to be true, regardless of circumstances. And what does he know about God? He knows that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. He knows the steadfast love of the LORD, “hesed.“ "Hesed” describes the love that God has for His children, that He has gone into relationship with His people. He has established a covenant with us, and what controls, what motivates, what binds us together is God’s “hesed”; His steadfast love. Jeremiah understands that even when He is having to punish His children, His love never wavers. It never ceases. He knows that God is a God of mercy and even in the midst of punishment that mercy never runs out. There is always more mercy in God than there is sin in you and in me and we cannot exhaust God’s supply of mercy. Why? Because they are new every morning. We wake up every morning and it is as if God’s reservoirs are full of love and full of mercy, no matter how difficult it has been. Jeremiah hangs onto the fact that God is a faithful God. That his faithfulness if great! Even when it is difficult and life hurts, God is not going to vary and move around and change. He is always going to be there. He is always going to be faithful to His word. The one thing that God cannot do is to be unfaithful to Himself and He will always be faithful. Jeremiah understands that in the midst of the hurt and the pain, even when it is self-induced and God-ordained, that salvation still belongs to our Lord and to no one else. So he says, "I will wait. I will wait quietly because I know that salvation lies in no other name but that of God, that of Jesus Christ." We are fretters and worriers by nature.
My maternal grandmother, Grandma Mac, used to worry and worry through difficult situation, and when it was all over she would say to my Mom, ”See, it just goes to show that if you worry enough everything works out.” I don’t think she believed it, but she said it a lot. We are fretters and worriers by nature. That is just part of what it is to be human. It is part of the bad part, because we want what we want when we want it. But Jeremiah is saying that people of faith, especially in the midst of pain, are people who will sit down and quietly wait for God to act. Now that is hard to say in the midst of pain. It is hard to say, “God, I will believe that You are who You say You are, that You are going to do what You say you are going to do. I believe that You have steadfast love. I believe that You are full of mercy; I can never exhaust Your mercy. You are faithful. You are the sole source of salvation. Life right now really hurts, but I believe. I do not feel like it, but I believe and I am going to sit and I am going to quietly wait for You to act. I will confess my sin. I will certainly repent; and then I will wait. You see, that is faith and it is one of the most powerful pictures of faith I know of in the Bible. Please hear this. Nothing has changed from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3. Jeremiah has not had some revelation, he hasn’t had a change of mind, things haven’t all of a sudden gotten better. Nothing has changed. In fact, just the opposite. Everything in Chapters 1 and 2 is headed to Chapter 3. Everything is Chapters 4 and 5 is just repeating what he has already said, but the heart of the lament is Chapter 3. Jerusalem is still living in the midst of pain and anguish and it is in the midst of our pain and it is in the midst of our anguish that the voice that must cry out the loudest is the voice of faith. The voice that says, “I am going to hang on to God. I am going to hang on to what I believe to be true. I don’t care what I feel like. I don’t care what is going on. I don’t care what the circumstances are, I know that God is a God of steadfast love. I know He is a God of mercy. I know He is faithful. I know there is no other name, given among Heaven whereby men must be saved and that name is Jesus Christ, and that is all that I need. I am going to hang on to it." That is Biblical confession. That is Biblical brokenness.
You know, it is all fine and good to talk about God’s love and mercy and faithfulness and salvation when everything is hunky dory, isn’t it? (For anyone under 40 that means things are going well.) You know, the marriage is working, the kids are doing well, got a promotion at work, the neighbor is keeping the trash out of your yard. When things are going well, yeah, it is kind of fun to talk about these things, but it is in the midst of pain that you find out what you really do believe and what I really do believe and the message of Lamentations is, ”Cry out! It is okay! It hurts! You are not fooling anyone. You are certainly not telling God something He doesn’t know! He knows it hurts. Agree with Him. It is bad! It hurts! I did it! I deserve it! You are true to Your word. You are punishing me. Great is Your faithfulness to me, my LORD and my God. That is Biblical confession. That is faith. That is Habakkuk faith. Remember Habakkuk 3:17: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines." Remember, Habakkuk is looking forward to the devastation that Jeremiah is now living in, the devastation of the Babylonians. “The produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls." Even if I am not accepted at school, even if no one likes me, even if I get cut on the freshman team, even if I cannot get a good grade at school, even if I cannot get a promotion, even if my spouse cannot stand the stench of me. No matter what is happening, no matter what, "I will rejoice, I will rejoice in the LORD. I will take joy in God my salvation.” Biblical confession and Biblical brokenness is messy. It is not neat and clean. It generally involves a lot of liquids, whether it is your bile pouring out (fluids in your body cavity) or whether it is your tears or your snot, confession is not pretty. It is messy. It is a thing of the heart and that is the way it is supposed to be. At the same time that it is messy, it is absolutely freeing. Are you and I not freed when we finally bring our sin to light and we say, ”God, you have known it all along, but I am going to tell it so that it is clear. I have sinned. I have done what is wrong. I deserve what is happening to me. O God, You are the sole source of my salvation. You and You alone hold the keys to restore my soul.” That kind of confession is freeing; it brings things to light, it breaks the power. Yes, it is messy, but it is the path to freedom. It is the only path to freedom. There is no freedom apart from confession of sin and repentance and faith in Him. None whatsoever.
“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentation 3:22-23).
- Have you ever known sin to go unpunished? Has there ever been sin without consequences? We know ultimately all sin will be fully punished at judgment, but doesn’t most of it get punished to some degree while the person is still alive?
- Have you ever seen true lamenting? How did it make sin and confession more real to you?
- Have you ever sat down and given thought and structure to your pain before expressing it? If you have been a little more deliberate, would it have had any different impact on you?
- What happens when you are not honest about sin and its obvious devastation? Can you think of a time in which you tried to ignore it and it wouldn’t go away?
- It is part of our basic makeup to play the victim, to blame anyone and anything except for ourselves. How can we learn to be absolutely, painfully honest about our own responsibility in our own sin and the God-ordained punishment?
- Has blaming God ever helped you? How can you help someone who is in the midst of pain and blaming God to direct attention to himself or herself?
- Think through some difficult time in your life, perhaps even right now, and discuss how affirming your faith in God in the midst of pain would be the right and best and most helpful think to do.