Lamentations is filled with images of destruction, loss and grief. Strangely, in the middle of this sobering book, the writer asserts that God is faithful.
It was a time of incomparable grief and confusion. How could anyone declare that God was faithful when He had not delivered His people from the invading enemy?
The handful of Jews who remained in the land had seen personal property confiscated or destroyed, and they had lost friends and family to famine, disease and warfare. They had lost their country. Their beloved capital city Jerusalem was destroyed, and God’s temple lay desolate.
Yet, in the middle of Lamentations, a book of national mourning written shortly after this destruction, a remarkable passage asserts God’s faithfulness. To understand how anyone could have such hope, we must first look more closely at the events that led up to this moment.
From faithfulness to destruction
In 609 B.C., a little more than two decades earlier, Judah’s last righteous king died. According to the biblical account, Josiah’s death came at the hands of Pharaoh Necho (2 Kings 23:28-29). Though righteous, the Judean king foolishly opposed the Egyptian army, which was on its way north to help the remnants of the Assyrian army make their last stand against Babylonian forces at Carchemish.
At this time, the tiny kingdom of Judah was caught between the superpowers of the time—Egypt to the south, and the rising Babylonian threat to the north. The four kings of Judah who followed Josiah became enmeshed in power politics, neglecting the only real security they had, the Almighty God! Rather than listen to God’s warnings, as issued through His prophet Jeremiah, these kings tried to play the major powers against each other.
Jeremiah, who was quite young when he was called to be a prophet during Josiah’s reign (Jeremiah 1:2-6), continued in his role through the tumultuous decades leading to the destruction of the nation. Warning after warning went unheeded. The result was catastrophic, but the prophet survived, witnessing the very destruction he had prophesied.
As God’s prophet who dealt directly with the last kings of Judah, Jeremiah was in a unique position to see what had happened to the nation and to understand why. He may well be the author of Lamentations, though the book itself does not indicate who wrote it.
Lamentations as poetry
Now that we have considered the events that led to this calamity, we should look at the book of Lamentations itself. It is a book of mourning, but it is also a book of poetry. Hebrew poetry has some characteristics that can help us recognize the author’s intent.
Regardless of what befalls an individual, he or she must remember that God is faithful. He acts in judgment, but He also extends grace and mercy to the humble and obedient (Isaiah 66:2).The most striking feature is that the first four chapters are acrostic (each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet). Explaining why the author may have chosen this technique, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible notes, “By proceeding from aleph to taw the author achieved an emotional catharsis, a complete statement of grief” (Vol. 3, p. 863). (Aleph and taw are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet.)
Another factor is the imagery of the book, which is quite dramatic. For instance, the writer personifies Jerusalem as a widow (Lamentations 1:1), or as a woman spreading her hands in unanswered prayer (verse 17; Zion is another name for the city, based on its geography).
And there are many shocking descriptions of the horrors the survivors had experienced, or at least witnessed. During the siege of the city, children begged for food (Lamentations 4:4), but even worse, mothers “cooked their own children” (verse 10).
What is more significant poetically is the chiastic (inverted parallel) structure of the book. Hebrew poetry often pairs components of a poem in this way. The first and last parts are paired, as are the second and next-to-last items, the third and third-from-last, and so on. The idea is to make the reader work toward the most important element, which is in the center of the structure.
Many scholars see the book as having this type of structure. Though there is no universal agreement on the specifics of that structure, we can see that when the author of Lamentations boldly declares, “Great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23), the placement of this thought is no accident. It comes close to the center of the book, emphasizing the concept.
God’s faithfulness to His word
Lamentations is not only an expression of grief, but also an acknowledgment of the cause of all Judah’s suffering. The people had rebelled against God (Lamentations 1:18). They refused to heed the warnings God sent through Jeremiah, so God “afflicted” the nation (verse 5) for its sins (verse 8). The book does not blame the Babylonians for destroying the temple. It recognizes God as the One who did “violence to His tabernacle” (Lamentations 2:6).
The book’s author concludes that none of what happened was due to capricious anger. He very clearly states, “The LORD has done what He purposed; He has fulfilled His word which He commanded in days of old” (verse 17). This is an important thought leading up to the declaration “Great is Your faithfulness” in the next chapter.
We humans tend to think of God’s faithfulness only in terms of blessings He has promised. But God has also promised punishment for those who disobey, and He is true to His word, whether blessing or warning. More than a century before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, Isaiah wrote, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
Unfortunately, God’s faithful children can get caught in events around them because they live or work among the disobedient. They may suffer when they have done nothing to deserve such punishment. Jeremiah certainly suffered, yet he remained faithful to God.
Response of the faithful
Chapter 3 moves away from national mourning to personal mourning. The first part is a catalog of ways in which the author feels abandoned by God. The writer feels “surrounded . . . with bitterness and woe” (verse 5) and claims that God ignores his prayers (verse 8). He has even come to the point at which hope fails (verse 18).
Then, almost as though willing himself to remember, the author sets the stage for his profound declaration, saying, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope” (verse 21). After reading more than two chapters of grievances, the reader is stunned by this statement. How could someone cling to hope so tenaciously?
He does so by remembering the past and looking beyond the present. He does so by remembering the character of the God he has worshipped all his life. He remembers that he has personally survived the catastrophe because of the “LORD’s mercies” (verse 22), and he once again asserts that “the LORD is my portion” (verse 24).
It is in the midst of these two verses that the writer gives us what is most important to remember—words addressed to God in a moment of humble acceptance: “Great is Your faithfulness” (verse 23). Regardless of what befalls an individual, he or she must remember that God is faithful. He acts in judgment, but He also extends grace and mercy to the humble and obedient (Isaiah 66:2).
Is God faithful today?
The writer of Lamentations set a wonderful example of faith in the midst of great trial. He did not blame God for the troubles of the nation, though it seemed that God had abandoned him personally (Lamentations 3:1-20).
We, too, might question why God has seemingly abandoned us. When we feel that way, we can pray to God directly about it. He wants us to communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings to Him. But, like the writer of Lamentations, we have to remember God’s past faithfulness (verse 21).
Lamentations actually provides some practical advice for anyone in this situation. First, we must be patient. We must be willing to “wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (verse 26). In fact, we are told three times in three verses (verses 25-27) that waiting is good.
The next three verses describe the second step—adopting an attitude of humility before God. Recognizing that “God has laid it on him” (verse 28), the writer prostrates himself in total submission, putting “his mouth in the dust” (verse 29). He is willing to accept whatever comes his way (verse 30).
The third step is understanding that “the Lord will not cast off forever” (verse 31). When we face setback, loss, grief and anguish, we should will ourselves to remember God’s faithfulness. We should wait on God. We should humble ourselves in reverent submission. And we should understand that God will not ignore our plight.
These are important thoughts at all times, but especially as our world draws closer to the end of the age. We might find ourselves watching the inevitable collapse of a sinful world, just as Jeremiah watched the inevitable collapse of a sinful nation. And that is the very time to declare to God, “Great is Your faithfulness!”