How To Tackle: Lamentations
Good afternoon girls! We're delighted to be introducing the second series in our Summer 2016 initiative: Love The Bible.
In these Wednesday afternoon slots, we'll be exploring the more challenging parts of the Bible: the tricky books, gruesome stories, and confusing lists.
Our vision for this series is to equip you to understand these 'difficult' sections of the Bible better, and to engage with God's message within them.
We're off to a cracking start, as the incredible Nell Goddard is with us this afternoon kicking off the series and taking us through Lamentations. Maybe print this post out, or get a notebook and pen out to really engage with it. We're praying this is a valuable series for you all! Lucy x
Let's get started...
Situated between Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Lamentations is an oft forgotten part of the Old Testament, swallowed up by the better known books of the major prophets on either side. In addition, as suggested by its name, it’s not known for being the cheeriest of books – it is made up of songs of lament, with only a few glimmers of hope as the book progresses.
That being said, however, it is one of my favourite books of the Bible, and one which has encouraged and blessed me through a lot of my life. Just five chapters in total, it’s a friendly length, and I have often found it deeply comforting to know that there are books of the Bible which weep with me as I weep, and which acknowledge suffering and pain in a very human way.
I do, however, often find it particularly difficult to come at an Old Testament book with absolutely no idea of its context, history, or actual content. In order to make Lamentations a little less daunting, then, I’ve done a bit of research around these three areas, which will hopefully give you more of an idea of what you’re reading as you sit down to tackle it.
The writing of the book of Lamentations is traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah (for which read: most people think Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, but it’s still a matter of theological debate). Lamentations tends to make a bit more sense if you know something of Jeremiah’s story, and the warnings he gave the Kingdoms of Judah and Jerusalem about their imminent destruction, should they continue to disobey God’s word. We see towards the end of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 39-52) the fall of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah, and Lamentations immediately follows this downfall, and the people being taken into exile. It is commonly believed, therefore, that this book is expressing Jeremiah’s sorrow at this event. The Hebrew title for the book, ‘Ekah, means ‘how’, ‘alas’ or ‘oh’, and was often used for funeral dirges in Ancient Israel.
It’s generally pretty tricky to accurately place the writing of an Old Testament book at a particular time in history, but the general consensus across commentaries I’ve browsed seems to be that Lamentations is composed upon the fall of the city of Jerusalem, which is estimated to have taken place around 587/586 B.C.
Interestingly, if you turn to Jeremiah 39:1-18, you can read about the fall of Jerusalem, and God’s promises throughout its exile. It’s pretty moving stuff! If you’re particularly interested in this historical context, you can also read about the fall of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 24-25, and 2 Chronicles 36.
It is difficult to accurately convey the beauty of the language and the emotional depth of Lamentations without just quoting bits at you, so I would very much encourage you to read it to find out for yourself what it has to offer. In terms of a loose idea, however, each of the five chapters is an acrostic poem in the Hebrew, with a varying structure. The chapters are all 22 verses long except for chapter 3, which is 66 verses in total. If you’re really interested, a number of online or paper commentaries will give a more detailed outline of the nature of each chapter as an acrostic poem, and how it correlates to the Hebrew alphabet.
4. Why does it matter?
Throughout its pages, Lamentations upholds God’s justice and his righteous punishment of sin (after many, many warnings: see the 52 chapters of Jeremiah to understand just how many!), whilst also grieving for all that has been lost, and holding fast to God’s promise of redemption, his faithfulness and his mercy.
This can be seen particularly clearly in Lamentations 3 – arguably my favourite chapter in the whole Bible! – but must be understood and read within the context of the rest of the book. We see more clearly than ever in Lamentations that it is only when we recognise our utter brokenness and hopelessness without God, and the depth of our sin, that we can truly understand the powerful redemption that His grace offers.
Lamentations is not an easy book to read. It describes some horrible things, and depicts the true depths of human despair. On its own and without context, it could be seen to present God as overreacting to Jerusalem’s sin, and bringing unfair punishment on those who do not deserve it. Within the context of God’s self-definition and declaration of his character in Exodus 34:6-7 and alongside his warnings against Jerusalem’s sin through the prophet Jeremiah, however, Lamentations makes more emotional and spiritual sense.
If you can, read Lamentations alongside, or just after, reading Jeremiah. I would heartily recommend praying before delving into this book, and be ready for some seriously emotional stuff. If you personally are struggling with grief, loss, or feeling like God has forgotten you, this is a book which will remind you that you are not alone, and that even in the darkness and the despair, there is hope in a knowledge of God’s faithfulness.
Don’t leave Lamentations without spending some serious time in chapter 3, and I pray that as you read this whole book, you would learn afresh something of God’s righteous justice, and his gracious mercy to you, and to all those he loves.
Nell is a 22 year old theology graduate from Durham university. She's an introvert who likes to talk, she's passionate about friendship and justice, and she really, really likes dogs. You'll find her blogging over at Musings Of A Clergy Child about being the daughter of two vicars, an introvert and a Christian. Her book, Musings of a Clergy Child: Growing into a faith of my own is being published September 2017.