Lamentations (Overview)

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A: Lonely Zion (Lamentation 1), 66-line Acrostic Poem
B: The LORD’s Anger (Lamentations 2), 66-line Acrostic Poem
C: The LORD’s Compassion (Lamentations 3), 66-line Acrostic Poem
D: The Glory Has Gone (Lamentations 4), 44-line Acrostic Poem
E: Turn Us Back O LORD (Lamentations 5), 22-line Acrostic Poem

Timeline (586 BC)

Introduction to Lamentations

The book of Lamentations is a eulogy for Jerusalem, a funeral dirge for the lonely city. Historically it has been attributed to Jeremiah but the text itself is anonymous. After hundreds of years of prophetic warnings and countless opportunities to repent, the curses of the covenant are finally fulfilled. God warned in Leviticus 26:31-34 that if Israel persisted in her rebellion, then the following would take place:

I will lay your cities waste and bring your sanctuaries to desolation,
and I will not smell the fragrance of your sweet aromas.
I will bring the land to desolation,
and your enemies who dwell in it shall be astonished at it.
I will scatter you among the nations and draw out a sword after you;
your land shall be desolate and your cities waste.
Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate and you are in your enemies’ land;
then the land shall rest and enjoy its sabbaths.

This curse comes to pass as Babylon mercilessly destroys the city. This is the end of the world as Israel knows it. At the same time this judgment is falling, the faithful saints are being preserved in Babylon. Daniel has ascended to high command; Ezekiel is prophesying near the Chebar Canal, and men like Mordecai have heeded the words of Jeremiah to build houses, plant gardens, have children, and seek the peace of the city wherein they dwell. Although the fall of Jerusalem is a tragic and horrific event, it is also a vindication of who God is as the covenant keeping LORD. God is keeping His Word. He has shown Himself to be exceedingly patient, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, but from the perspective of those who have experienced injustice at the hands of Jerusalem, God’s forbearance could be cause for complaint, will justice ever come? The temple had become a den of thieves, false prophets abounded, priests were profane, slavery, oppression, and sexual debauchery went unchecked, the law of the covenant totally ignored. To cry out for justice was to cry out for the destruction of Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her (Matt. 23:37).

The Literary Structure of Lamentations

Lamentations is a highly poetic and carefully arranged book, and its literary structure helps reinforce its message. There are five distinct poems that correspond to the five chapters in our English Bibles. The first three chapters are long acrostic poems with exactly 66 lines. Like Psalm 119 and Proverbs 31, an acrostic takes you through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph to tav). This acrostic form can take different shapes, but it signifies a certain fullness or completeness by its usage. This is the “A to Z” of Jerusalem’s downfall. Chapter 4 is a shorter acrostic poem of 44 lines, and then the final chapter is only 22 lines and is non-acrostic. Employing this acrostic pattern allows the writer (and reader) to give full vent to his grief while also restraining and channeling it through this poetic mold.

There is also in the structure of these poems a “dying out” or “cutting off” rhythm. Rather than a perfect parallel or 3:3 pattern where A-B-C is matched by A′-B′-C′, Lamentations follows a 3:2 pattern, where the A-B-C sections are matched by A′-B′, but the C′ section is missing. In English this would be kind of like saying “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are [something that doesn’t rhyme with blue].” The pattern creates an expectation of rhyme and or matching of the meter, but then cuts off before it gets there. You can find this pattern at both the granular level of certain verses, and in the structure of the whole book: there are three long acrostics, followed by a shorter acrostic, followed by an even shorter non-acrostic. It is as if the book itself is falling apart.

A third literary device that helps express the totality of grief and judgment, is the shift in perspective throughout these poems. The first half of chapter 1 uses the third person feminine pronoun “She,” to describe Zion as a lonely widow, a princess who has now become a slave (Lam. 1:1). In the second half of chapter 1 there is a shift to the first person singular “I,” “For these things I weep; My eye, my eye overflows with water; Because the comforter, who should restore my life, Is far from me” (Lam. 1:16). In chapter 2, the perspective shifts again to the third person masculine “He.” God is the one who is carrying this out judgment, “The Lord was like an enemy. He has swallowed up Israel, He has swallowed up all her palaces; He has destroyed her strongholds, And has increased mourning and lamentation In the daughter of Judah” (Lam. 2:5). Next comes a brief section in the third person plural “they” in which the people of Israel are described. Then the rest of chapter 2 moves to the second person feminine singular “you” as the author addresses daughter Zion directly, “How shall I console you? To what shall I liken you, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I compare with you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For your ruin is spread wide as the sea; Who can heal you?” (Lam. 2:13). In chapter 3 it gets even more personal, as the poet expresses his own anguish under God’s rod of wrath, “He has led me and made me walk In darkness and not in light. Surely He has turned His hand against me Time and time again throughout the day” (Lam. 3:2-3). This section anticipates the climax of the book in Lamentations 3:21-32, where hope is held out for those who trust in the LORD. After this climax, the lament continues along with this pattern of shifting perspective. The final chapter ends in the first-person plural “we,” “Turn us back to You, O Lord, and we will be restored; Renew our days as of old, Unless You have utterly rejected us, And are very angry with us!” (Lam. 5:21-22). Lamentations gives us grief from every possible angle, this is a panorama of lament that begins from a distance, moves inward, and concludes with a united corporate confession.

How To Grieve

One of the questions to ask as we read Lamentations is, “How does Lamentations teach us to grieve?” In 2 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul gives us a distinction between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation that is without regret. But worldly sorrow produces death. He also says in 1 Thessalonian 4:13, that we should not sorrow as those who have no hope, but to grieve as those who believe in the resurrection of the dead. We can see both principles at work in Lamentations. The climax and center of the book is an exaltation of God’s goodness and the promise of hope (Lam. 3:21-33), and the final verses of the book are plea for repentance (Lam. 5:19-22). These are the hallmarks of godly sorrow.

Something else to consider as we read Lamentations is that Jerusalem is getting what all of us deserve. The wages of sin is death, and those who die in their sins will be cast into the lake of fire, to burn forever. The destruction of Jerusalem in all of its horror is just a foretaste of what Hell will be like for those who do not repent. This book is a warning of what happens to those without faith, to those who walk contrary to God’s commands and harden their hearts. Apart from the restraining grace of God, we too would commit all kinds of evil. We don’t even know how sinful we are. It is hard to imagine a mother eating her own children as described in Lamentations 4:10, but this is the kind of hard-heartedness that anyone is capable of when they are given over to desperation and depravity. From this perspective Lamentations is a pillar of salt, a warning to those who love the world more than Christ, or as Proverbs 8:36 says, “Those who hate Me love death.”

The gospel is a message of salvation through judgment. The cross comes before the crown, death before resurrection, humiliation before exaltation, sorrow before gladness. Lamentations teaches us that God does not afflict His saints willingly, or from the heart (Lam. 3:33). Although the righteous, like Jeremiah, may experience God’s temporal judgment, He works in and thru those circumstances for our eternal good. As it says in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” When God shatters our world and lays us low, He does this for our good, to make us more like Jesus.

Let’s close by summarizing how Lamentations teaches us to handle suffering and grief, what does godly sorrow look like?

Lamentation 3:21-23
21       This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
22       Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
23       They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
24       “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I hope in Him!”

1. Godly sorrow remembers the character of God. It calls to mind His past faithfulness, His compassion, that His mercies are new every morning. Godly sorrow preaches to our own soul that “The Lord is my portion.” No matter what the Lord takes from us, He is the possession we cannot lose. When we lie upon our death beds and say farewell to family, friends, and all our possessions, we should be able to say with the Apostle Paul that death is gain. God does not take from us without giving us something better. He weans us off our worldly pleasures to stir our affections and appetite for heaven, for glory, for a new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells. When the Lord is our portion and nothing can separate us from the love of God, we can have hope that is invincible, a hope that does not put us to shame (Rom. 5:5).

25       The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
To the soul who seeks Him.
26       It is good that one should hope and wait quietly
For the salvation of the Lord.
27       It is good for a man to bear
The yoke in his youth.
28       Let him sit alone and keep silent,
Because God has laid it on him;
29       Let him put his mouth in the dust—
There may yet be hope.
30       Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him,
And be full of reproach.
31       For the Lord will not cast off forever.
32       Though He causes grief,
Yet He will show compassion
According to the multitude of His mercies.
33       For He does not afflict willingly,
Nor grieve the children of men.

2. The second thing we should do in suffering is wait quietly for salvation. There is a time to pray and cry out for deliverance, and there is also a time to be silent and hope. When we are in bitter distress, we often say things we do not mean, and so it is better to restrain our lips than to run the risk of blaspheming the providence of God. As it says in verse 38, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed? Why should a living man complain, A man for the punishment of his sins?” Ultimately, whatever we are experience is still better than we deserve. We cannot understand God’s providence, or why He does what He does, but faith hopes in Him nonetheless. Faith clings to His Word and the promise that salvation will come, but we must be patient in waiting for it. This is the lesson of Job and the example of Jeremiah. The Apostle James holds these men out for our imitation: “My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful” (James 5:10-11). So in suffering, meditate on these promises as you silently wait for salvation.

The last thing Lamentations prescribes for us comes in verses 40-41:

40       Let us search out and examine our ways,
And turn back to the Lord;
41       Let us lift our hearts and hands
To God in heaven.

This is echoed in the closing verses of the book (Lam. 5:21)
21       Turn us back to You, O Lord, and we will be restored;
Renew our days as of old.

3. When we are under God’s affliction, it is good and wise to examine ourselves and confess whatever sins we find. Not every suffering is the direct result of our personal sin, Jesus was perfect and suffered more than all of us. But suffering often reveals the hidden idols of our heart, the lusts we cherish, the vices that tempt us, the virtues we boast in, and the good things we love but in a disordered or disproportionate way. Suffering has a way of bringing to the surface things that we would rather not deal with, but this is how God purifies his beloved. The glorious grace of the gospel is that God delights to take away our ugliness, to give us beauty for ashes, and to clothe our nakedness. All we must do is turn to Him. So in suffering, confess your sins, turn to the Lord, hope in Him, for He will not cast us off forever.