An Introduction to Lamentations
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.
Lamentations, or ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’ in some Bibles, are the songs of sorrow and prayers of repentance for the people of God under his judgement. It expresses Israel’s belief that their pain and misery was from the hand of God in just punishment for their sins.
The dominant theme of the last half of the Old Testament is the exile of Israel. Their rejection of the Lord as their God and persistent disobedience to his law meant that as due punishment they would be expelled from the land he’d given them (see Deuteronomy 28:58-68). It is important to note that contrary to what many Christians think about the nature of the Old Testament relationship between God and his people, the sins for which the people would be punished weren’t matters of personal or even corporate holiness and morality. It’s not as though if everyone proceeded to steal, lie and disobey their parents that God would visit them with fiery judgement.
Leviticus chapters 1-5 prescribe various sacrifices and rituals for the remission of sin and reconciliation of community. Psalm 51 confesses sin and gives expression for our guilt at offending a holy God. However all these things fit in the context of a covenant.
Some readings of the Ten Commandments start with Exodus 20:2. That is to say, the foundation of Israel’s relationship with God is his saving work accomplished entirely for God’s purposes which Israel had done nothing to merit. As a result of this, Israel were commanded to love and to fear the Lord. Moses insists that the remembrance of this is the whole purpose of the Law when he says:
If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, then the LORD will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting.(Deuteronomy 28:58-59, emphasis mine)
The Law existed so that the people would remember the Lord. It is their apostasy and idolatry which results in their judgement, not their breaching of moral codes (though is is clear in the Prophets that immorality and oppression went hand in hand with Israel’s rejection of the Lord).
Adultery is the reason God rejected his people, not their breaking of the house rules.
It was not as though Israel simply did too many things God didn’t like. It was as though Israel stopped caring about God altogether. Less like a disobedient child, more like a wife who walks out on the family.
As so the normal practice of sacrifices, rituals and prayers isn’t enough to bring the people back into communion with the Lord. No, this foundational rejection of God as their salvation and redemption and only hope must be remedied by rediscovery, not just remembrance.
Reading Lamentations, I see the song of an embittered nation. It is a cry which must be familiar to God’s ears (Exodus 3:7). The slave-song which moves the heart of God. This time, Israel are trapped in bonds of their own making.
The Lamentations are not mourning for the lack of God. The people lament because
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.
The Lamentations are the cries of a people who know how fearsome it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
I’ve found these songs to be the perfect lyrics for my own song of mourning. Though I am not at the mercy of foreign empires, I am a slave to my own rebellion and a captive to the desires of my heart. Like Israel, I know this bondage comes not from my inability to achieve some level of morality, but from my opposition to the Gospel and refusal to see the beauty of grace displayed most clearly in the Cross of Christ.
I hope to spend a few days reflecting on these songs, writing about how they’re giving expression to some of the wounds in my own soul and perhaps give voice to the hurts of others.
In all of this I want to rediscover the grace of God. Like Israel who were renewed through the exile, perhaps I will find new mercy and strength. How did they know God in hardship? Can I know the same?