When a parent loses a child, a friend is diagnosed with cancer, or a hurricane sweeps through a city, we’re often unsure how to respond. Some people offer unhelpful clichés in an attempt to comfort, like: Don’t cry or everything happens for a reason. Others avoid saying the wrong thing by backing away and not saying anything at all. One wounds the afflicted, while the other leaves them isolated and alone.
We’re not good at dealing with tragedy.
We’re not good at dealing with tragedy.
When suffering strikes, how should we respond? The book of Lamentations can help us by unveiling the prophetic power of lament. Written by Jeremiah, the title of the book, hkya, means “How” in Hebrew, with the sense here of, How did this happen?! The phrase was used in funeral dirges (2 Sam. 1:19; Isa. 14:4), and this book follows suit—it is a funeral dirge for Jerusalem.
Response to a Tragedy
Lamentations is a response to the greatest national tragedy in Israel’s history—the destruction of Jerusalem. In the sixth century B.C., Babylon invaded Judah’s capital, destroying the temple, killing the nation’s leaders, and carrying her people into captivity. It was a catastrophe of epic proportions.
Israel’s life with God was overturned and capsized. The exile was a religious trauma, as well as a political one. In addition to the death and carnage, Israel’s sacrificial system was demolished, her priests and prophets destroyed, and her national festivals brought to an end (Lam. 2:4-7).
As the people looked upon Jerusalem in flames, the most devastating and obvious conclusion was this: God had left the building.
How does Jeremiah respond? He doesn’t stuff his emotions, stiffen his upper lip, or push his sadness and anger into the closet, but rather cries out in raw agony before God. “My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground ... streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed” (Lam. 2:11; Lam. 3:48 NIV) Wailing like this is woven throughout the book, as Jeremiah brings everything he’s feeling to God.
As the people looked upon Jerusalem in flames, the most devastating conclusion was this: God had left the building.
This heartbroken prophet doesn’t turn away from the gritty details. He describes the before and after of the siege in stark contrast: the children who once shone like the finest gold are now dulled like the crumpled mud of potter’s clay. The princes who radiated like rubies have been reduced to beggars shriveled in soot. Loving mothers are brought to desperation by hunger and—in a particularly graphic image—boil the children they once nursed, feeding on the ones who once fed on them (Lam. 4:1-10).
Jeremiah depicts the city itself as a ravaged woman. Her walls and ramparts grieve, her roads and gates cry out, her inner sanctuary has been invaded by force, and her very architectural foundations groan before God (Lam. 1:1-22).
When tragedy strikes, we have an unhealthy tendency to ignore the pain. Well-meaning friends can offer superficial platitudes, like “Cheer up, God’s on the throne!” While the desire is to help, such words can hurt. Lamentations says there’s a danger in stuffing our emotions or trying to move on too quickly. It’s right and appropriate to reckon honestly with the explosions in our lives.
And to grieve.
Lament doesn’t imply a lack of faith. For Jeremiah, it is because God is on the throne that he is able to cry out so transparently. He doesn’t need to paper over the feelings God already knows are there. When we come before the Great Physician, we don’t need to put bandages over the mortal wounds we carry—that would be ridiculous! Instead, your best move is to open your deepest hurt and confusion before Him.
For Jeremiah, it is because God is on the throne that he is able to cry out so transparently.
Believing God is on the throne gives you freedom to lament the brokenness of our sin-scarred earth. The security of God’s sovereignty makes it safe to bring the greatness of our condition before the goodness of our King.
Unraveling of the Nation
Lamentations’ structure is part of its message. The first four chapters are acrostics, where each poetic verse starts with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Think of those alphabet books for children, “A is for alligator; B is for banana; C is for coyote ...” In English, the poetry of Lamentations would have the feel of something like, All the city is destroyed; Babylon has torn down our walls; Cry out in misery, O Israel; Deliver us, O God.
This gives a sense of order, structure, and continuity throughout the book. All the way, that is, until the end. The fifth and final chapter breaks this pattern. The opening letters for each verse are all jumbled. The literary effect is to introduce a sense of confusion, chaos, and disorder into the flow. The construction of the book is—like the city it describes—crumbling down at the end.
The collapsing structure is a picture of the nation’s unraveling.
And Jeremiah doesn’t tidy it up with a nice bow at the end. While he cries out for God to renew and restore His people, the closing line has the tone of an anguished question: “Unless you have utterly rejected us and are exceedingly angry with us” (Lam. 5:22). Like a good jazz musician, Lamentations doesn’t resolve.
I find hope in this for today. It feels like a bomb has gone off in our culture. Over this last year, the gaps seem wider, the pain deeper, and the tensions stronger than I’ve ever known. The state of our union is fractured and divided, between urban and rural, white people and people of color, the secular and the religious, globalization’s winners and losers. Wherever one lands on the political spectrum, we’re all impacted by the weight of the explosion. Many can’t help but feel, whether conservative or progressive, that our nation is unraveling around us.
Jeremiah offers us a great resource: there is a prophetic power in lament. We often don’t want to talk about problems unless we can fix them, and quickly. But lament gives us the freedom to “sit in it” before God, even if we don’t know how to fix it, or when the resolution will come. Whether the conversation is racial division, violence against women and unborn children, or any of our seemingly intractable political problems, we don’t have to ignore or give pat answers to these challenges. Rather, we can press into them honestly with each other, and bring them together before our heavenly Father.
We can cry out to Jesus with our questions, even if we don’t know the answers.
Lament is a form of protest against the way things are. It calls out the brutality of reality. This is prophetic, because it gives us the strength to speak the truth about difficulties we’d otherwise rather ignore. We can acknowledge uncomfortable realities and inconvenient truths, bringing them together before God, and finding strength in His faithfulness, not in our circumstances.
Hope in the Rubble
And there is hope in the rubble. Lamentations is written in a Hebrew literary form called a chiasm: where the bookends mirror each other, and work their way inward. The author’s main point is found at the center of the structure. So what do we find at the center of Lamentations? The mercy of God.
You’ll notice each chapter is 22 verses long. (The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, so there’s one verse for each letter.) The exception is the third chapter, in the middle, which has 66 shorter verses (or 22 x 3). In the middle of this third chapter, the central section of the book turns to hope in God’s faithfulness, looking upward to find strength in waiting upon the Lord:
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23)
God is good to those who hope in Him, this centerpiece continues. We can endure tragedy amidst our frailty and weakness by leaning upon the strength of the God who will ultimately come to restore and set things right.
And God has ultimately set things right, in Jesus. He is the true Israel, who allowed His body to be torn down brick by brick like the temple of old. At the cross, Jesus allowed the powers of the world to demolish the walls of His body and invade the sanctuary of His presence, like Jerusalem of old. He cried out in lament, Why have you forsaken Me? and His body was carried into the grave.
Jesus has identified with us in our desolation.
Yet He has been raised as our new Jerusalem, and stands at the center of God’s glorious city (Rev. 22:1-5). He sits at God’s throne—His victory shall be our victory, and His peace shall become our peace. So we can look to Him on the throne when tragedy strikes and have confidence in His coming victory. We can cry out in lament to Him today.