Maybe I’m a little odd, which could easily be debated, but I love not only the Old Testament but I specifically love texts that we tend to overlook. Books like Joel that speak of judgment, truth, and hope. I love Zephaniah and the prophetic voice that speaks of the message of the Day of the Lord (judgment) as well as trying to return the Southern Kingdom BACK to God. I love Habakkuk and its prophetic message (once more to the Southern Kingdom) of not only Babylon’s coming but His voice TO God and his struggle with what God is doing. Which is probably why, out of all the Old Testament books, the book of Lamentations is my favorite. I love the honesty, the heart-break (which feels odd to say), the challenges and questions that are tossed out to God, and I love the hope that is there. A hope that may seem hidden and yet sometimes in the middle of the darkness hope is the brightest – and yet we fail to see it. In short, I love the book of Lamentations because it gives broken believers the hope we need in this broken world. But, before we get into this very short book (only 5 chapters long) let’s get some backstory and context to help us along.
A Point of Consideration
An important step to take with any piece of scripture is to find out the backstory and context. As much as it is possible we want to know who the author is, where the writing takes place, who are they writing too (or concerning), what is the situation, and then anything else we can find out. The reason is that while every written word in the Bible is important, while every written word declares, and speaks of, Jesus Christ, in order for us to fully understand what is going on and why it’s important for me today we actually need to know what is going on! Application becomes a struggle when we have no knowledge of the reasons for the writing. Understanding how to fully drink in the words, and in a proper way, cannot take place if we don’t know the context. These words meant something to people long ago and in order for us to understand their relevance today, we must put ourselves into their shoes, their context, their time, and their place.
So here’s an example that has NOTHING to do with Lamentations but has everything to do with it as well. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 that “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” As a minister, this is one of those texts that people quote to me that they would love to have as their wedding text. This is a text that I see plastered on gushy plaques, printed on beautiful expensive paper, and misquoted all over the place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful text that speaks of love and kindness. Paul reminds his listeners on what love really looks like and all that it does – but it’s not a text about me and my wife Michelle. It’s not a text that speaks of love you should feel as you enter into my home or receive from me and my family when we break bread together. Can it be used in these? Sure. Can it be used in weddings? Yup – and I’ve used it in those situations. But Paul doesn’t write to love birds here – he writes to the church in Corinth. A divided church that needed help BEING a loving body. All books of the Bible need this careful attention if we are going to FULLY understand what in the world is going on – ESPECIALLY when we come to uncomfortable texts. Texts that speak of death, having to eat other people (Lamentations 4:10), and much much more.
Backstory and Context
First off, it’s important to recognize that the Bible is made up of different “categories” of writing. We have the Old Testament starting off with the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), we have History books (Joshua-Esther), Poetry (Job-Song of Solomon), Prophetic (with Major and Minor prophets that go from Hosea thru Malachi) and then we have the New Testament with History (the Gospels) and the letters (which we call “epistles”) and finally ending in Revelation which is “End of Time Prophecy”. So where does Lamentations fit? Well, right there in at the beginning of the prophetic books is where we’ll find it – and while this is prophetic it’s also poetic as each of the 5 chapters are poetic in form as line and stanza count come into play – as well as acrostics and other beautiful written styles that we lose in English translation. And while many prophetic voices, as well as historical accounts, build off of one another here in Lamentations each poetic writing stands alone.
The author of these 5 prophetic-poems is unknown although tradition has that it’s Jeremiah – especially since we have a mentioning in 2 Chronicles 35:25 that speaks of a “lament for Josiah.” Outside of that this book just doesn’t say, “To the people of Jerusalem, from Jeremiah… the one who walked these city streets…” We may WANT that but we don’t get those words. What we DO know is that the author was an eyewitness to this account as their words are here to not only paint a picture of the pain and suffering that is seen but also walk the reader through the city and all of her destruction.
So what is the backstory in Lamentations? Well, the author writes concerning Jerusalem and her fall (sometime around 587 BC but almost up to the rebuilding of Jerusalem by 516 BC) to the Babylonian invasion that has killed, destroyed, taken captive, enslaved, and abandoned the people of Jerusalem. From the people to the buildings and to the Temple of God – the city, and all that is within her, has been affected by this neighboring powerhouse. Everything they have ever had has been taken away, destroyed, and tossed aside. Thus these writings feel like a eulogy but also come across with anger, grief, sadness, and hope. And while the author recognizes the sin of the people, the truth that they have wanted nothing to do with God, they still cry out for God to remember them, restore them, redeem them, and act to save them. And so throughout these 5 chapters the author walks us through their broken city, opens our eyes to the atrocities that took place and are now taking place, and continuously cries out to God in lament for this once beautiful city of God. And yet through it all they still declare the faithfulness, compassion, love, and hope of God.
So What Does This Mean For Us?
So why is this book so important and yet why is it also so ignored by believers? I think in one way we must acknowledge that many churches, and people, would rather here happy biblical stories. We don’t like to sit in uncomfortableness. We don’t like to hear of starvation, anger, punishment, and people shaking their fists at God. We declare that God is big enough and he can handle anything we throw at him, even our lamenting-grieving-anger – but that still sits uncomfortably with us. So instead of reading about people who were angry, instead of affirming that I can be angry with God with things seem out of control and working against me – we try to make people feel good and happy. But last I checked life wasn’t full of goodness and happiness. Life is hard. Which means if life is hard we need to speak of those hard situations. And for me, if I declare that all things are within God’s hands then I need to turn to him when I’m angry as well as happy. The book of Lamentations allows us to really grasp WHY Jesus comes, the restoration he brings, and the answers to all our pain and sufferings that we endure today and the eternal hope we have of peace as promised, and given to us, in Christ.
I also think we tend to avoid some of these books, like Lamentations, because we just don’t know what to do with it. How do you preach on a book that leaves so many unanswered questions? How do you preach on a book where God seems to be absent? How do you preach on a book that ends with “unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lamentations 5:22)? We like things neatly packaged and ending well. We like Pauline Epistles, as well as the other epistles because they end with hope, love, and grace to the believers of God. But that there is the point. Grief is a real truth for many people. Questions of “where are you God?” are real questions that are asked by Believers all around the world each and every day. Destruction and anger, grief and sadness, and the ever-present reality of death faces all of us – so why WOULDN’T we read Lamentations? THAT is where I land. This is a beautiful book that really challenges the reader to be honest with their feelings, be honest with their questions, and give them all to God.
So with THAT being said I pray that this time in, and thru, the book of Lamentations is challenging, encouraging, reflective, edifying, and hopeful. That as you read this book you’ll be open to allowing YOUR struggles with God to be voiced as well but that you’ll also begin to recognize that the God of grace that we worship responded to the fall of Jerusalem, and the fall in your life, long before they even took place. We affirm the redemption of God’s people through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior (Colossians 1:13-14). And all of that took place long before we needed it (Ephesians 2:1-10).