There was blood everywhere. The dead child – a baby of about 20 weeks gestation – just delivered, lay at one end of the table. The nurse took the body away. My wife, at the other end, laying in anguish in body and soul, looked up only to ask if the baby was a boy or girl. She was a girl. We were in a clinic in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there as missionaries. Soon after, a fellow missionary recommended that we perk ourselves up with encouraging scriptures – like the kinds of verses they put on posters, with cute cats or people hanging from rock cliffs. I replied, “actually for our Bible reading, we’re in Lamentations.”
Lamentations is probably the strangest book in the Bible to modern Americans, a culture in denial about sorrow. It is dedicated to lamenting. How peculiar. Lamenting, we think, is supposed to be covered up, escaped from as soon as possible. You don’t dwell on it, write poetry about it, linger on its taste, swilling it on your palate to distinguish the various bitternesses. If you have to swallow the bitter, you gulp it down as quickly as possible and then get a spoon-full of sugar. Ever wonder why there aren’t funeral photographers?
Psychologists tell us the first stage of grief when we lose a loved one or are ourselves diagnosed with a terminal illness is denial. The final is acceptance. In between the denial and the acceptance, are various stages that normally can’t be skipped, as much as we may want to. Sometimes Christians will try to use the Bible and pious truisms to avoid an acquaintance with grief. A pastor at my father’s funeral told my mother, “This is a celebration.” No, it’s not. My mother was a widow at the age of 47. Avoiding the grief, passing the mourning, always on a mountaintop with a smile on our face… this is psychologically unhealthy, spiritual malpractice, and not Biblical. Lamentations proves that.
People want a therapeutic god who will offer them the protection and assurance that their rituals and sacrifices pay for and then quietly go away, leaving them to do what they want. That’s the god the Israelites thought they had in the early 6th century BC. God wanted them, they thought, to keep some basic rules. Doing them is like paying your insurance premiums. You get coverage when disaster strikes. In exchange for the rituals and sacrifices, God provides protection, so the false prophets said, then and now.
After all, God had saved Jerusalem before. In 701 BC, Sennacherib led an Assyrian invasion to ravage Judah, besiege Jerusalem, mock the Lord. He boasted that he had Hezekiah trapped “like a bird in a cage.” Then God rescued them. The lesson that the Israelites derived from that, over 100 years later, was that no matter what they did, even if they refused to listen to the true prophets, like Jeremiah, still God would protect them. They had the temple of the Lord. They would say it over and over again, like a mantra: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” (Jer. 7:4.)
It was like a lucky charm, warding off evil, so they imagined. Whenever some doom-and-gloom prophet told them that they had better repent or they would be destroyed, they would shake their heads and refuse to hear a word. They knew better. They were God’s people and they had the insurance policy: the temple. Surely God would never allow His temple to be captured; pagan troops to traipse all over it; to barge into the holy of holies, take the Ark of the Covenant. They had an insurance policy with God. Like a good neighbor, the LORD is there, they said.
The book of Lamentations is the fruit of finally realizing that they had totally misunderstood God. So, it is useful for us today in which many people who are loud and open about their faith, posting cute, pious thoughts about God on their Facebook pages, regular in church or watching their favorite preacher on YouTube, and yet the god they worship is a lot like the god the people of Jerusalem were counting on to save them from the Babylonians, the god whose protection we can procure with a little religion, who keeps us from being acquainted with grief. When that god fails, you’ll have lamentation. Today, we’ll be told to cheer up, look on the bright side, see the glass half full.
Sometimes you don’t need to cheer up. You don’t need to look on the bright side, to see a glass half full. Sometimes you need to walk a mile with sorrow. Robert Browning Hamilton wrote:
I walked a mile with Pleasure; She chatted all the way; But left me none the wiser For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow; And ne’er a word said she; But, oh! The things I learned from her, When Sorrow walked with me.
In Lamentations we walk that mile. That seems so odd to us, in our therapeutic culture. It’s odd to have a book not about avoiding grief but deliberately, slowly walking through it. This is especially the case when we realize that of the five lamentations, all but the last are acrostics. That is, each stanza begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. If you were reading it in Hebrew each lamentation would be obviously, highly organized, intentionally crafted, as if we looked at a poem and saw that the first stanza begins with A then the second with B, then C, and so on all the way to Z. We would know that it was written meticulously. It isn’t merely the spontaneous out-pouring of a pained heart, erupting. It’s thoughtful. Someone, probably Jeremiah, sat down with a pen and had to think, first, “I begin with A – Affliction; then B, broken bones; then C, chains, cries.” For the prophet who wrote this, sorrow was worth craftsmanship. He believed it was worthwhile being acquainted with grief.
Here the righteous prophet is suffering along with them. Why? He didn’t personally rebel against God. He didn’t bow before idols or take slaves or oppress people. He did justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God. Why should he suffer?
Some have taught that Christians will not have to suffer when God judges the world. They argue, it would be unjust for God to inflict punishment on His people along with the world. Again, we get to skip grief. But Jeremiah didn’t. He had to endure it all until he thought he could endure no more.
God’s people have to endure the catastrophes of the world. We have to walk a mile with sorrow sometimes, as in the third Lamentation, until we cry out, “Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall” (3:17.) Wormwood is a kind of sage-brush with its leaves used as medicine and, like a lot of medicine, it doesn’t taste good. It’s bitter. He’s asking God to remember the bitterness he’s had to taste. That’s the prayer of the righteous, who don’t deserve punishment, tasting it anyway because the people around them are being judged. “Remember my affliction.” That’s what Jesus asked us to do for Him, to remember His affliction that He didn’t deserve so that we could be free of affliction that we do deserve.
We can protest “it’s not fair, why should we taste the wormwood and the gall when we didn’t do what brought about the judgment?” But it happens. People live materialistically, taking loans they can’t pay, getting houses too expensive for them. It’s greed; it’s materialism. Then the economy crashes, like it did in 2008. Is it only the greedy and materialistic who suffer? No. Many are swept along into unemployment and bankruptcy. Ethiopia made some horrible economic and political choices in the twentieth century. One result was that our daughter died and there was blood everywhere.
“Remember, God, my affliction and my wanderings,” (3:19) what I’ve suffered because of this catastrophe. Today we’re told to deny it; to forget it. But here, we ask God to see and remember. After all, “My soul continually remembers it” (3:20) – the wormwood and the gall, that bitterness, that horrible taste. If the prayer asking God to remember is bargaining, now we’re back to depression. We’re walking that mile with sorrow.
We’re not in denial. We’re not pretending the diagnosis hasn’t been delivered, that we didn’t put our loved one in the ground, that we’re not unemployed and unsure of where the next check is coming from, that that child who seems to be throwing his or her life away isn’t doing it; we are tasting the wormwood and the gall, the bitter. But . . . just here after 20 verses of lamenting the catastrophe, when it’s gone from the darkest to pitch black, the only glimmer of hope in all of Lamentations:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness!
This, finally, is one of those poster verses. Google this verse and you’ll find lots of pictures of the text imposed over a sunrise or flowers, maybe with hearts, full of cheeriness. But that gives the wrong impression. That makes it seem that these words are just another attempt to dodge walking with sorrow. It would be better to see these words superimposed on a smoldering pile of rubble where the Lord’s temple used to be, the burned out houses of the people of Jerusalem, the dead bodies of priests, the living skeletons of starving children; maybe today, see them over the tombstone of your dear mother, on your cancer diagnosis, on the divorce decree a court serves you, on the dead body of your premature daughter with blood everywhere, over that see the words, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end,” even when it feels like you are about to; “they are new every morning,” even when it feels like you might not make it to the morning. “Great is Your faithfulness!”
Saying (or singing) those words is easy at a glorious sunrise, at the birth of a child, a clean biopsy, a wedding. But that’s not how they were inspired. The prophet recounts the catastrophe; asks God to remember the wormwood and the gall he’s tasted and then, “But I call this to mind,” my confidence. My hope is not perished after all because God’s covenant loyalty, His commitment to be merciful to me, never ends. He is faithful. That is our confidence.
That’s why our hope, what he calls “our portion” (3:24), is not our health, which will give way one day. It’s not the cult of romance, that one love that Hollywood has assured us will complete us. It’s not our money, no matter how much we manage to compile. It’s not our family, our children. It’s not even our religion. The Israelites trusted in their religion, repeating “the temple of the Lord” to wish away warnings of judgment. No. “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul.” You need to be saying that to yourself, now, and when times are at their worst, then you can say, “Therefore, I will hope in him” (3:24.)
This is not denial. The Lamenter has spent 20 verses looking the catastrophe in the face and isn’t suddenly denying it by confessing hope in God’s covenant love. This is the hope in the midst of grieving that Christians have. After we’re done walking a mile with sorrow, we can still say, even if we have to choke out the words, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases . . . The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him.” So that just after you felt your hope from the Lord had run out, still, like a second-wind in a long-distance run, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (3:26.) Wait for Him, even in the middle of this disaster, even in the ruins of a failed religion, in the blood-stained delivery room. Sit in silence, bow yourself down, and like Christ Himself who submitted to beatings, bear it. Sure, it may seem like the Lord has cast you off but it won’t always be that way.
Lamentations doesn’t reduce God to a companion at the beach who carries us through the hard times but doesn’t control those hard times, a therapeutic deity who abandoned creation to work by its own inviolable laws. In Lamentations, God caused the source of lamentation (3:32.) “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (3:38.) When you see that God is the Most High, not the spectator to an out of control world, then you can say, “Though He cause grief, He will have compassion.” So, hope, even when you’re walking a mile with sorrow, when you’re lonely and tempted. Because, “He does not afflict from his heart,” meaning that deep down, He does not take pleasure in the affliction or grief that what He controls brings us (3:33.)
In the cross we see the true temple of the Lord destroyed. We see that when there is blood everywhere and your premature daughter lay dead before you, when the Son gasps, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” you can choke out, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”