Posts tagged ‘Lamentations’

Lamentation and Restoration

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Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled. Our carefully curated posts on social media often show only the best moments of our lives, any pain being artfully disguised behind filtered photos of smiling faces in exotic places. At funerals, we often hear about how a deceased loved one would not want those left behind to cry. Instead, they would only want a celebration! And, of course, there is the ubiquitous answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” Any answer other than “fine” may draw some disinterested eye rolls. After all, the question is not really a request for information, but the product of polite social expectation. Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled.

And yet, in the Bible, there is a whole book called “Lamentations.” It describes the despair and despondency of the Israelites after their nation falls into the hands of the Babylonians and they are carried off from their homes into exile. The book opens with a haunting picture:

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

The capital city of Israel, Jerusalem, once the center of Israel’s life, now lies abandoned. So Israel laments.

But Israel does not just lament over an empty city. Israel also laments over her own sin, for she knows that her exile is a divine punishment for her rebellion:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have all seen her naked; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. (Lamentations 1:8-9) 

In very picturesque language, Israel describes the blight of her sin and the resulting plight of her people. It is brutal.

So, what is Israel’s way forward? Is this the end of her story? We know the answer is “no.” She, however, is not so sure. Lamentations ends like this:

Restore us to Yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:21-22)

Israel is hoping for God’s grace, but she is not sure of God’s grace. She wonders if God has not rejected her forever.

Ancient Israel is not the only one who sometimes doubts God’s grace. We do, too. I have talked to many people over my years in ministry who struggle to believe that God’s grace could be for them. Their guilt feels too heavy. Their sin seems too deep. They truly wonder if God would ever, or even could ever, help people like them.

When Jesus is speaking with His disciples, He says to them, “The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12). And Jesus is rejected – on a cross. He is rejected by men and, ultimately, by God as He takes on Himself the sins of the world – all of the things that God rejects. But because God rejected Jesus then, we have the promise that He will not reject us now. He will always restore us, even when we fall into sin. He will always invite us to return, no matter how far we stray. We have no reason to wonder about God’s grace. It is for us.

Lamentations ends with a doubt about whether or not a nation’s sin can be forgiven. We, however, have received a confident answer to that doubt in Christ. There is no sin too great for grace.

September 23, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Holy Week Sorrow and Celebration

Right now in my personal devotions, I am reading through the book of Lamentations, a sorrowful song written by the prophet Jeremiah, which describes Israel’s defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Some of the language Jeremiah uses to describe Israel’s demise is grotesque and gut wrenching:

  • The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst. (Lamentations 4:4)
  • Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become dry as wood. (Lamentations 4:8)
  • The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. (Lamentations 4:10)

Clearly, this is a tragic, despairing time.  Indeed, even for a professional prophet such as Jeremiah, who has seen much sin and tragedy, the despair of the exile seems overwhelming.  And Jeremiah places the blame for this despair squarely at the feet of God.

In chapter 3, Jeremiah laments his plight:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long. He 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. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; He has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, He shuts out my prayer; He has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; He has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; He has made me desolate; He bent His bow and set me as a target for His arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; He has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes. (Lamentations 3:1-16)

Notice the pronoun Jeremiah employs again and again to describe who is responsible for his misery: “He.”  “He” has brought Jeremiah misery, trouble, pain, and despair.  It’s “His” fault that Jeremiah’s plight is what it is.  Who is this “He”?  None other than God, of course.  God has afflicted Jeremiah in the most miserable of ways.

And yet, even in his misery, Jeremiah has not lost all hope: “But 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 Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).  Jeremiah believes that finally, ultimately, God’s steadfast love will prevail.  Indeed, it’s interesting the way Jeremiah describes this steadfast love just verses later:  “Though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32-33).  Though God does afflict and grieve people because of their sin, Jeremiah says, He does not willingly do so.  God’s will is not to pour out His hot wrath, but His steadfast love.  The Hebrew word for “willingly” is milibo, a word meaning, “from His heart.”  Thus, Jeremiah is saying that from God’s heart does not come affliction.  Rather, from God’s heart comes His steadfast love.  God’s will is wrapped in love.

Luther describes God’s wrath at sin and God’s will of love by making a distinction between the “alien” and the “proper” work of God:

We must know what is meant by the work of God. It is nothing else but to create righteousness, peace, mercy, truth, patience, kindness, joy, and health, inasmuch as the righteous, truthful, peaceful, kind, joyful, healthy, patient, merciful cannot do otherwise than act according to His nature. Therefore God creates righteous, peaceful, patient, merciful, truthful, kind, joyful, wise, healthy men…But He cannot come to this His proper work unless He undertakes a work that is alien and contrary to Himself…Therefore, since He can make just only those who are not just, He is compelled to perform an alien work in order to make them sinners, before He performs His proper work of justification. Thus He says, “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.” (AE 51:18-19)

God must judge us before He can justify us, Luther says.  His alien and His proper work go hand in hand.  Thus, both God’s alien work of judgment and God’s proper work of love are needed in Jeremiah’s life.  And both God’s alien work of judgment and God’s proper work of love are needed in our lives too.  But lest we forget, through faith in Christ, God’s proper work prevails!

The alien and the proper work of God meet most clearly in the death and resurrection of Christ, which we remember during this Holy Week.  Luther explains:

God’s alien work is the suffering of Christ and sufferings in Christ, the crucifixion of the old man and the mortification of Adam. God’s proper work, however, is the resurrection of Christ, justification in the Spirit, and the vivification of the new man, as Romans 4:25 says: “Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification.” (AE 51:19)

God judges His Son on the cross, killing Him for the sins of the world.  This was not something He delighted in doing – it was alien to Him – but it was necessary.  For Christ’s crucifixion satisfied God’s righteous wrath at sinners…sinners like you and me (cf. Romans 3:25-26).  And with God’s wrath satisfied through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, God could now move to His proper work:  Giving to His children His steadfast love which never ceases.

This Holy Week, spend some time meditating on both the alien and the proper work of God.  For both are needed.  But finally, one prevails!  For God’s work does not end in an alien way.  Rather, it ends in its proper way.  It ends in our salvation through faith in Christ.  Praise be to God!

April 19, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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