Jeff Smith

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Jeremiah's Lamentation


Lamentations is one of those obscure books of the Old Testament that we don't give much attention. While we flock to Psalm 23 and congregate around the Proverbs, Lamentations sits alone, not far off, waiting for us. And yet books like Lamentations, Philemon and Zephaniah are no less a part of God's word than Genesis or Romans. The theme of Lamentations is actually quite pertinent and valuable today, for it speaks of a physical decay resembling the spiritual decline of our own great nation.

Jeremiah's Lamentation

Around six hundred years before Christ, after Israel had fallen to Assyria, Judah also descended into the pits of corruption and sin. The youthful prophet Jeremiah had begged his nation to understand the fate of Israel and turn back to God and yet, she would not (Jer. 5), and now, shortly after good king Josiah was killed in battle by Pharaoh Necho, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had come to power and conquered Judah (2 Kings 24:3-4).

He took the new king and his family prisoner and looted the house of the Lord for its treasures, leaving only the poorest people in Judah to tend the scarred land (2 Kings 24:11-16). Nebuchadnezzar insulted the humiliated nation once again by installing his own puppet ruler as her king (2 Chron. 36:11-16). Finally, God's patience wore out. The nation was doomed and all the righteous people there who would repent had done so; the time had come to end it all.

Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city for two years, cutting off its supply of food and causing a great famine (2 Kings 25:1-3). Then, at last, he broke through the city wall and took more prisoners and commenced the final awful chapter in a storied and glorious history in 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar burned the house of the Lord and king's house, then all the houses of Jerusalem, and broke down all the city's walls (2 Kings 25:9-11). Total annihilation and humiliation.

The writer of Lamentations, thought to be either Jeremiah or a contemporary, sums up Judah's turn of fate quite well in Lamentations 5:15-16: "The joy of our heart has ceased; Our dance has turned into mourning. The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned." The proud way in which Judah once wore her relationship with God had been humbled by heathen. A nation of unparalleled splendor had been turned to one of unsurpassed affliction (Lam. 3:18), riches beyond man's dreams reduced to a crippling poverty (4:5).

The writer is frank, though troubled, about the reasons God allowed this tragedy to rain down upon his people and kingdom. His nation had turned against its true ruler, the God of heaven (1:20). She had committed sin and, in return, suffered worse punishment than even Sodom, for that city of the plain had been conquered in a moment of brimstone and Judah had been picked away over a period of excruciating decades (Lam. 4:6).

The punishment was worse because Judah had received greater blessing than Sodom and turned back to mire. Judah's leaders had not been servants of God, but of the flesh -- prophesying falsely and perverting justice (4:13, 2:14). Jeremiah did battle with these false prophets who cried, "‘Peace, peace,' when there is no peace." Yet the false prophets made the people feel confident and raised their self-esteem to untold levels while Jeremiah tried to force them at least to consider that they really were in a mess. Jeremiah and the few righteous folks in Judah were, in a sense, caught in the middle of a difficult situation, even for God. His righteousness and just nature require him to hate sin and to punish it after a period of longsuffering rebuke. Righteous people are protected by God, as Jesus protected them by prophesying about the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and in the book of Revelation protected them when God was about to punish Rome, but, still, the wicked must be dealt with justly (1:18).

Like the martyred saints in Revelation, the Lamenter cries out for retribution on wicked Babylon that did evil, though according to God's knowledge. God did not force Nebuchadnezzar to do this but God did use it to punish his people; Nebuchadnezzar would have to be punished for freely doing evil. The writer's soul sinks (3:20) as he reflects upon his loss. Imagine if America were to fall tomorrow to the Chinese and all our history from Washington on down were wiped out; how would we feel to see an invader stomping on our flag and beating our President and sending us back to work in the rice fields of Asia?

But lastly, there is a very positive response from the weeping writer, one we would expect from a man of integrity and conscience like Jeremiah. He honestly recognizes that the destruction of Judah was right and that good can come of it if the people will confess their sin and turn back to God at last (1:8-9 and 5:16-21). Although the chastening of the Lord is unpleasant, bearing it patiently will bring renewed blessing (3:26-30, 39).

Judah was at her absolute lowest point, where utter darkness swallowed up the light and the future looked quite bleak. Those who continued to refuse God or blame him for their fate would live the rest of their lives in bleakness; those who turned to God would see light at the end of the tunnel. Even in a chasm of despair, a servant of God has hope, for the Lord is in control (2:17), is longsuffering (3:33) and is just (3:2-25). This hope, coupled with penitence, was to be realized. The invaders and their accomplices would be judged (4:22) and a remnant of Jews would survive, rebuild a smaller Jerusalem, and continue incubating God's scheme of salvation through the Hebrew bloodline.

A Spiritual Version of the Same Sad Tale

Like Judah and Israel before her, man today enjoys the richness and fullness of God's blessing from conception of life. From the brilliance of gestation to a bright, full world all around us, God sends rain and sunshine on all as he tends to his garden, all creation. But man can become so full of God's blessing that he begins seeking forbidden fruit and goes astray as Eve and the Exodus pilgrims for whom the tree of life or manna from heaven became too common. So man's strength is weakened by temptation and indulgence as in Judah. The wall of defense around his heart begins to crumble and soon, the devil charges in and assumes control. People who know God's will, like those old prophets, beg and weep, pleading with one not to go into the path of destruction, but still, many stumble in.

Deals are brokered with the devil, like those between Nebuchadnezzar and his puppet kings plucked from Judah, and every deal lands man in spiritual poverty and despair. It is the tragedy of sin and the spread of error.

God sees his children stray and attempts to deliver stern, yet loving correction (Heb. 12:5-11). History says that Jeremiah's countrymen were taken into captivity and made slaves to serve a sovereign rightfully not their own; we see man taken into slavery by sin (Rom. 6:16). Still it is an even worse tragedy when a Christian is reclaimed by the devil, coaxed out of grace by the lure of sinful pleasure (2 Peter 2:18-22).

How should a man respond to such a predicament. With lamentation!

It is not a popular doctrine in the age of self-esteem at any cost, of humanism. It is not a doctrine you will hear in school or even most churches today. Still, it is the Bible doctrine, so you must choose between God's wisdom and your own. Jesus extolled the greatness of mourning over sinfulness; James recommended a justified breakdown of self-esteem and pride when sin interfered with man's fellowship with God: "Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom" (4:9).

Recognize why your life is filled with despair and tragedy, why your ambition for peace and joy remain unfulfilled. James suggests that the root is friendship with the world, a secular fellowship that automatically earns enmity with God (4:4). Learn the hard lesson of humility and bow before the Lord. Do what the Lamenter did: mourn over sin and its consequences while turning to face God with humbled heart and bowed head.

There is hope for the sinner who mourns over his mistakes. There is no hope for one who is so seared by sin that his conscience is immune to the pricks of rebuke (Eph. 4:19). Judah was revived seventy years later with the work of Haggai, Zechariah and Zerubbabel. Sinful man is revived by dying with Christ and being raised with him to newness of life (Rom. 6:1-13). "This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast" (Heb. 6:19).

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