Reading: Lamentations 3:1-41

As members of a generation at an end of an age, it would be profitable for us to consider some of the last words of the prophet Jeremiah, who also lived at the end of an age. The book of Lamentations was written probably a few months after the final fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. It was the end of the kingdom of Judah and will remain that way “until He come whose right it is” (Ezek 21:27).

The book of Lamentations is not the last pronouncement by Jeremiah. His last words were to the Jews that remained after the invasion and who had left the land of Judah to go to Egypt (Jer 43–44).

It would appear that these laments of Jeremiah occurred before he was forcibly taken down to Egypt. Each song, therefore, sums up the immediate feelings of both the nation and the prophet as they struggled to come to terms with the enormity of the destruction — when everything they had worked for in their life was now gone.

Although the chapters of Jeremiah are not listed chronologically, the last chapter (52) outlines the facts of what happened to Jerusalem in the end. The siege lasted for 18 months. There was a terrible famine, during which people even ate their own children. The walls were breached, the Babylonians came in, houses were destroyed and all the great places levelled. In summary, the devastation was horrific!

Lamentations, however, gives us an insight into the feelings of the people. It shows the impact that the destruction had on the people who were left. Jeremiah wrote both as an observer and a representative of all the people. This is especially evident in chapters 1–2. When he wrote chapter 3 he spoke under inspiration as an individual.

How could all this happen?

The book commences with the word “How?” How could this all come about? This is the Hebrew word ‘ekhah’, which is probably the title of the book. It is the first reaction of anyone to the worst situations of life. David in his lament over Saul and Jonathan made the statement, “How are the mighty fallen” (2 Sam 1:25).

The Septuagint introduces the book with a statement that Jeremiah sat in the ruins of Jerusalem when he wrote his laments. He was in the centre of the ruins, immersing himself in the fullness of the tragedy: “How doth the city sit solitary” (1:1); “How hath Yahweh covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger” (2:1); “How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed” (4:1). It is as if he found it hard to believe that the complete destruction had actually happened, that God would do this to this extent and upset the nation’s life; and yet the reasons were obvious: God was true to His Word.

We find a list of these reasons in 2 Chronicles 36:14-16. The priests and the people claimed to be religious. They professed to worship Yahweh, but they pursued evil. They coveted their neighbour’s belongings, and willingly embraced pagan idolatry: “For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely” (Jer 6:13). As for the Word of God, anyone who insisted that Yahweh meant what He said was mocked (2 Chron 36:16).

Of course, this wasn’t written for them alone, but for all future generations too! Are we really listening to the Word of Yahweh or do we treat it as being of little importance? Do we say “we need to do things differently now” and fashion our lives on the people around us instead of on the longstanding principles of the Word of God? We may not say that we follow the ideas of the world, but what we do can sometimes contradict what we say.

The characters of the book

We find a number of characters in Jeremiah’s songs who write from different viewpoints:

  • The narrator (prophet)
  • Jerusalem: oppressed and crushed — there are often references to the daughters of Zion, the daughters of Judah, the daughters of Jerusalem, the daughters of my people, the daughters of my city, the virgins of Jerusalem
  • Her enemies
  • Those who pass by: some in amazement others with indifference — they pass by the daughter of Jerusalem in her affliction
  • The man that hath seen affliction (ch 3)

Chapter 1:1-11 appears from the viewpoint of an external reporter; a narrator, overlooking the city of Jerusalem. After this, Jerusalem is depicted as responding to those that pass by. It is as if she asks, “is it nothing to you?”

Hebrew poetry

The structure of the book of Lamentations is that of Hebrew poetry. Like Psalm 119, it uses a style called an alphabetic acrostic, where each verse commences with the next successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Rotherham’s translation, for example, shows the Hebrew letters down the side of the page. With the words translated into English we lose this pattern but then Rotherham has positioned the words in such a way as to give us a bit of the sense of this poetry.

A good example of this is in chapter 3 where Rotherham renders verses 25-27 this way: “Good is Yahweh to them who wait for Him… Good it is both to wait and be silent… Good it is for a man to bear the yoke”. In verses 28-30 he translates: “Let him sit alone… Let him put in the dust his mouth… Let him give to him that smiteth” and in verses 31-33 “Surely my lord will not cast off… Surely though He cause grief… Surely He hath not afflicted from his heart”.

There is a sense of harmony, too, in the book. The community was afflicted due to sin (ch 1–2). The individual was afflicted with the community, despite his innocence (ch 3). The community is inspired by the individual to pray to God and return to Him (ch 4). Then in chapter 5 there is a prayer for God to remember and for the remnant to return to God. The central portion of this book is chapter 3, around which the rest all fits together. It changes direction — from speaking about the city and the daughters of Jerusalem to describing a righteous man who has seen great affliction. In the centre of chapter 3, in verses 22-33, we have a reminder of the faithfulness and compassion of God. This is a critical part of the book: to understand that whatever may happen to us in life, God is good towards His people. Brothers and sisters, let us try and remember this. It should fill our hearts with hope and gratitude.

The contrast between the daughter of Zion and the man of affliction

Before we consider in more detail the man that hath seen affliction, let us briefly consider Jerusalem and the daughters of Zion, the daughters of Judah and Jerusalem and the other titles she goes under, because we will find many contrasts between this man and this daughter.

Was she a faithful woman? No! She had called for her lovers (1:19). All that honoured her saw her nakedness (v8). She was an unfaithful woman, an adulterer, a sinner. She remembered her pleasant things and she was rebellious (1:7,10,11).

In contrast is the righteous man, who waits for the salvation of God: “Yahweh is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in Him. Yahweh is good unto them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeketh Him”(3:24-26). He was like the priests and Levites that did not receive a portion of the land of Canaan because Yahweh was his portion. When the rest of the nation had lost their portion, this man had found his! He was faithful and had not sinned (3:58-59), yet the people had treated him wrongfully; hence his petition that God would plead his cause and acquit him.

Amazingly, despite that, he identifies himself with the daughters of Jerusalem: “We have transgressed and have rebelled” (3:42). He does not remember pleasant things: “Thou hast removed my soul far off from peace: If or at prosperity”(3:17). In contrast with the pleasant things that the daughters of Jerusalem remembered, the man who had seen affliction humbly remembered God’s mercies. He found it important to remember Yahweh’s mercies every morning, and this gave him hope. Notice the five times that the word hope occurs in verses 8-29. For example: “This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of Yahweh’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not” (3:21-22). Every new day is a reminder to us of the compassion and mercy of God and an opportunity to turn to Him.

We find that the good things that come upon this man are because of things that he chooses to do. Rotherham translates 3:25-27 as “good is Yahweh to them who wait for Him, to the soul that will seek Him. Good it is both to wait and to be silent, for the deliverance of Yahweh. Good it is for a man, that he should bear the yoke in his youth”.

The word “wait” (3:25) is important. It means ‘to bind together’. It does not just mean to sit and wait around, but to twist together. This man’s mind is in harmony with the thoughts of Yahweh (see also Psa 25:3; 37:6). Interestingly, 3:26 uses a different word for “wait.” Here it means ‘to be dumb or silent’. This is the effect that considering the goodness, faithfulness and mercy of God brings upon us. We stop complaining and asking why, and instead we are silent!

Jeremiah – the man who had seen affliction

The man that had seen affliction in the immediate context is Jeremiah himself. We find many parallel phrases between the book of Jeremiah and the book of Lamentations. For example:

Jer 15:15 Remember me, and visit me, and revenge me of my persecutors.Lam 3:64 Render unto them a recompence
Jer 15:17 “I sat not in the assembly of the mockers... I sat alone because of Thy hand”Lam 3:3 He turneth His hand against me all the day
Jer 20:2 Pashur ... put him in the stocksLam 3:7 He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out
Jer 20:7 I am in derision daily, every one mocketh meLam 3:14 I was a derision to all my people; and their song all the day
Isa 52:14 His visage was so marred more than any man; 53:2 he hath no form nor comelinessLam 3:4 My flesh and my skin hath He made old; He hath broken my bones
Isa 53:3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with griefLam 3:14 I was a derision to all my people
Isa 53:4 Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflictedLam 3:3 Surely against me is He turned; He turneth His hand against me all the day
Isa 53:6 Yahweh hath laid on him the iniquity of us allLam 3:1 I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath
Isa 53:7 He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouthLam 3:28 He sitteth alone and keepeth silence
Isa 53:8 He was cut off out of the land of the livingLam 3:53 They have cut off my life in the dungeon, and cast a stone upon me

The suffering servant

We also find a number of similarities between the man that hath seen affliction and the suffering servant of Isaiah 52–53, as noted above.

This man who saw affliction and gave “his cheek to him that smiteth him” (3:30) foreshadows the life of the Son of God. He had the same condition that we all have, but he shows us that in the midst of suffering, like Jeremiah, we can still hope in God.

Where do we fit into the thoughts of Lamentations?

As we examine ourselves we should ask ourselves whether we are in any way like Jerusalem, the desolate woman — who is focussed on the world’s pleasant things. Are we inspired by the man that hath seen affliction? Could we be like Jeremiah, too, and inspire others by our attitude to Yahweh, remembering the mercies and compassion of our God every morning?

When others fall, do we stand aloof as the passers-by; or do we sorrow at the mistakes of others; or do we extend mercy to those in need?

What Lamentations can teach us

This remarkable book can inspire us to appreciate the atoning sacrifice of our Lord which will lead us to walk in his steps. It can help us to be afflicted with those that are afflicted; to develop the spirit of waiting on the Lord and to see every morning as a blessing from God.

God is faithful and compassionate. He is true to His Word, bringing deserved punishment on His people, but ensuring that He is doing everything possible to turn them back. We need to emulate the patience and trust of the afflicted, so that we can say with him, “Yahweh is my portion, saith my soul; therefore I will hope in Him” (3:24).