If you ever spend time in Lamentations, you may well agree that it makes for fairly grim reading: you don’t necessarily come away feeling uplifted. But the Bible doesn’t shrink from lament, and it includes some of most powerful words of scripture: think of Job, two thirds of the Psalms, most of the prophets and even some of Jesus’ words.
Lament is powerful because it describes the human condition. It refuses to sugar-coat reality: I think of it as looking at the gap between the world as it should be (and how God created it to be) and the world as it is today, and giving voice to the grief of that gap.
Don’t you love the fact that God, in his Word, makes space for our grief? He allows us to cry out ‘It shouldn’t be this way’. He sits with us in our suffering (Psalm 34 ‘The Lord is close to the broken-hearted’).
In Lamentations Jeremiah (I’m assuming he’s the author) voices Judah’s pain over the devastation of Jerusalem in 586BC: over the loss of city, Temple, religious ritual, infact all that the Israelites hold dear – as well, of course, as the huge loss of life. Jeremiah launches straight in: ‘How deserted lies the city, once so full of people. How like a widow is she….bitterly she weeps at night…she is in bitter anguish…All the splendour has departed from the Daughter of Zion.’
The setting of Lamentations is clearly God’s judgment on the defiant, habitual sin of the Israelites. ‘’Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so become unclean…the Lord brought suffering on me in the day of his fierce anger.’ God is enacting the covenant curses introduced by Moses – just read Deuteronomy 28.
Perhaps the epi-centre of God’s wrath is his destruction of the Temple ‘The enemy laid hands on all her treasures; she saw pagan nations enter her sanctuary – those you Lord had forbidden to enter your assembly.’ God in his wrath has destroyed his sanctuary. Remember in Ezekiel 10, when God’s glory departs from the Temple? This gives God no pleasure: he ordained the Temple as his dwelling-place on earth with his people. He promised Solomon in 1 Kgs 6:13 ‘I will live among the Israelites and will not abandon my people Israel’. Yet, to all intense and purposes, God seems to have given Jerusalem over to sword, famine, plague.
Here is suffering that’s visceral, overwhelming. Ring any bells in today’s context?
Let’s pause here for a moment to reflect on the effect that Covid-19 is having on our world. We know only too keenly the human cost: families bereaved, livelihoods lost, hunger threatening millions. There’s an emotional cost that we’re only just beginning to count.
Harvard Business Review wrote an article on the grief of Covid-19. I quote: ‘We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has.... This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We’re also feeling anticipatory grief about what the future holds. We’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety. This is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.’ Perhaps the macro level grief is new but not the micro level grief.
A friend in Australia sent me this article, with a superscript, as someone who suffers from chronic illness. She said she hasn’t personally felt the bite of social distancing because for her it’s an ongoing, daily reality; a daily grief; a daily sense of disappointment in all she’s missing out on; a daily sense of isolation and loneliness. And for her it doesn’t have an end date.’
Her words resonate with us as a family. Our youngest daughter, Sophie, has had chronic migraine for five years now and, humanly speaking, it has devastated her life and prospects. Suffering or struggle, with multitude of presentations, is a daily reality for a majority of the global population, even outside the context of Covid-19.
In our personal struggle for the past five years, I’ve been learning a transformational truth: that God knows the depth of our despair – that it’s a ‘deep as the sea’. God is not angry or impatient at our sadness but actively invites us to ‘pour out our heart like water’, to give space to our brokenness, in a broken world, before him. For me, lament is not so much about wallowing in self-pity or disappointment, as it is about learning to see the goodness of God first, and our pain through the filter of his covenant love.
Amazingly, we’re gradually discovering that we can make peace with our grief, so it becomes a spiritual discipline which builds our faith. When we refer our lament back to God, it becomes active rather than passive; positive rather than negative; a place of waiting and expectation, of learning and preparation.
With Lamentations’ chiastic structure (ABCBA), we find the dramatic climax in the middle of the book: Lament is not the last word. Through the first half of chapter three Jeremiah sounds just like Job, describing God’s relentless wrath. Then there’s a change in tone: ‘I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.’ These things are in the past. Lamentations is not simply an empassioned, spontaneous outburst. It’s a book composed with studied care (we all know its clever multi-acrostic structure. We are served up with profound theological lessons and achingly personal insights.
‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ Seemingly these words run counter to all else in book but actually they inform and shape it. In his goodness the Lord does not abandon his people.
When God destroyed the Temple in 586BC, it cost him dearly but his perfect justice demanded it. Almost 600 years later he paid another price because of sin, when he gave his beloved Son over to death. On Good Friday, the Temple curtain, torn in two from top to bottom as he died, completed the transaction: Jesus replaced the Temple. He is the new temple, the locus of God’s presence with his people, by his Spirit. Jeremiah could only see, from a distance, a shadow of the reality we now enjoy: fulfilment of the promise that the Lord will never abandon his people.
The book begins in lament and it ends in the hope of God’s restoration, a yearning for God’s best. So we, in this Covid crisis, are encouraged to sit with God and express to him our individual and collective grief – he doesn’t want us to repress or deny it. But it’s not the last word: we don’t grieve as those who have no hope. There’s meaning in our suffering. There are lessons and growth to be had in the waiting. As the popular worship song says, ‘There is strength in our sorrow, there is beauty in our tears, and you meet us in our mourning with a love that casts out fear. It continues ‘You are working in our waiting, you are sanctifying us….Even what the enemy means for evil, you turn it for our good and for your glory.’
I leave you with something to reflect on: how is God working in your waiting, how is he sanctifying you? How is turning it for your good and for his glory?