Why I Love Lamentations
31 For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
Lamentations may be one of the darkest and grief riddled books in the Bible. In the summer of 587 B.C., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. It was a horrific event overflowing with human suffering. In the Hebrew Bible, the book is called Ekah, which means, "How." Here, in its first words we get a glimpse of the pain that the book wrestles with.
When Lamentations 1:1 says, "How lonely sits the city that was once full of people," the author is calling us to witness the decimation of a city that was once filled with people. It is a call that requires us to look upon the extent of their suffering. Tens of thousands have died of famine, pestilence, and sword. City walls that once stood proudly have been cast down like the Twin Towers that once graced New York's skyline. Lives have been snuffed out or forever altered. Those that have survived count grief as their only possession.
With a storyline like that, you might be surprised to learn that I genuinely love the book of Lamentations. Here are three reasons why.
1. Lamentations reminds us that our pain is not unbounded nor is it without purpose.
You can't see it in English, but Lamentations is one of the most meticulously structured pieces of literature in the Bible. Chapters 1-4 are acrostic poems. Acrostic poems are alphabet poems where each verse begins with the corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapter 3, the heart of the book, amplifies this pattern with three verses per letter. Even chapter 5, though not an acrostic, nods its head to the acrostic formula by having 22 verses, one verse for every letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This structure teaches us something important. It teaches us that our pain is not unbounded not is it without purpose.
Lamentations reminds us that our grief is a river and not a flood. Floods destroy crops, homes, and communities precisely because the waters have left their channel. Rivers are bounded. They carry the same water, but it is ordered. It stays within its banks. So, fields are watered, towns spring up, and commerce happens. So it is with our pain. God does not allow it to wash over us like a flood, though it often feels that way. Instead, he puts limits on our suffering and saturates it in purpose. Remember Paul's thorn in the flesh from 2 Corinthians 12? It was not unbounded, rather, it was confined. And it was not without purpose. Instead, its purpose is clear – to preserve Paul's relationship with God by keeping him humble. Whatever pain you suffer, it is not random. It is ordained and governed by the God of the universe to accomplish his good purposes in your life (Rom 8:28).
2. Lamentations teaches us that God keeps his promises
The covenant blessings and curses found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27-28 form the theological backdrop of Lamentations. God had taken Israel as his own. He had promised to bless them if they would remain faithful to him. However, should they turn from him, he promises to discipline him. In Leviticus 26, this discipline escalates in intensity until finally God declares that, in his fury, he will discipline Israel sevenfold for her sins (Lev 26:28). In sending the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem, God is keeping his promise.
That is an uncomfortable and perhaps controversial topic. Many will say that God did not cause the fall of Jerusalem but merely allowed it. But that is not what the author of Lamentations says. Rather, he says that "The Lord has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity, he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes (Lam 2:17)." The author of Lamentations identifies God as the source of his grief and affliction (3:32-33). But how is this good news?
It is good news because it reminds us that God is trustworthy – he keeps his word. The parent who fails to follow-through in discipling her child is also the parent who will fail to follow through in blessing that child. God is faithful in all his promises (Psalm 145:13). And so, we learn to trust his word. We hear the words of warning, see the consequences disobedience brings, and we are made wise unto salvation. We read of God's promises to bless his people and we trust that he will always prove faithful to those promises. All the promises of God have their yes and amen in our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1:20). That yes and amen can be counted upon because they are based in the very character of God.
3. Lamentations reveals God's heart to us
Lamentations plainly and bluntly declares that God is the one who has brought destruction upon Jerusalem. But look at the words of Lamentations 3:31-33. They tell us that God's disposition toward us is one of forgiveness (he will not cast off forever) and abundant compassion. They say that God's is not miserly in his compassion. Rather, he gives it freely. God does indeed cause grief but not from his heart. The heart of God longs to forgive, to show compassion, to love abundantly.
Lamentations gives us this incredible look at the very heart of God. It tells us of a God of love who upholds justice by punishing sin. This flows right into the metanarrative of all of Scripture. You see, there is another place in the Bible where we see the love of God meet the justice of God. It is found at the cross. Paul tells us in Romans 5 that Christ died for the ungodly. It goes on to say that his death reconciles us to God and saves us from God's wrath. At the cross, God kept his covenant promise to punish sin by pouring out his holy justice and wrath on Jesus. And at the cross, we see God's steadfast love for his people as he showers them with forgiveness and compassion.
Few of us have experienced the kind of societal devastation that Jerusalem did that summer. Yet we have all felt pain and many of us have felt it deeply. Lamentations gives us hope because it reminds us that our God is holy and keeps his promises. Lamentations teaches us to live faithfully before God in the midst of pain by reminding us of God's forgiveness, compassion, and love.