“And What of God’s Mercy?” Reflections on Lamentations 3:19-33
by Lawrence Downing
By Lawrence Downing, February 10, 2014
Children’s bedtime stories do not include passages from the Book of Lamentations. Mothers do not find it satisfying to tell their children the terrors that fell upon Jerusalem and the agony the destruction of this great city brought to its inhabitants. Where is the attraction in verses that describe the city, once filled with people, that now like a widow, weeps in the night? She is surrounded by her lovers, but they provide no comfort. Her friends have turned against her. No one gives a rip about her festivals or her religious rituals. Her fouled dresses no longer cover her nakedness. Little wonder people are appalled at her demise and no surprise that Uncle Arthur skipped over this book when writing for children.
As the city’s inhabitants consider their plight, Lamentations records that their self-esteem collapses and they conclude they are worthless. There is not sufficient strength left to resist the evil that now enmeshes them and weighs them down. No wonder, they conclude, that God has acted against them; their suffering, in their eyes, is a just payment for their rebelliousness.
The anguished cries that arise from a people who have suffered extreme loss echo through time. Consider Israel’s loss: The once grand temple is an ash heap. What may have been of greater distress than the loss of real estate was the people’s loss of confidence in their religious and political leaders. Despite assurance to the contrary, priests, prophets and people have been taken captive or killed. The poet writes his laments in response to what he understands to be God’s punishment upon the nation of Israel and its people. Through poetry, he expresses his anger, fear and grief to the Lord. His lament is the Book of Lamentations.
Lamentations is the anti-Job. Job proclaims his innocence. He cries out to God demanding an answer to why he, an innocent, suffers. In contrast, the people of Israel, in response to their loss, acknowledge their failure to abide by the covenant. Their negligence has brought about their suffering. They plead for mercy. They are in shock that the Lord’s judgment has taken such a severe turn!
Priests and prophets proclaimed Zion would be forever triumphant. The temple, they assured people, was God’s everlasting dwelling place. The services administrated by the high priest in the most holy place were believed to be perpetual. The nation had found comfort in the proclamation that the city of Jerusalem would be an ever-bright light to the nations. The peoples’ hopes now lay in a shamble. The promises shattered as the city walls. What is left?
The Book of Lamentations even today has a special place in Jewish tradition. Tisha B’Av ("the ninth of Av") (eleventh month of the civil year and the fifth month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar, usually July or August on the Georgian calendar) is an annual fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the subsequent exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel and other tragedies. It is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar; a day which is destined for tragedy. All pleasurable activity is forbidden. Even reading Torah is prohibited, for reading Torah is a delight. On this day the Book of Lamentations is read.
Lamentations invites us to learn from a nation’s experience and to participate in the people’s attempt to comprehend the realities of life. All who have experienced loss, and all of us have, can join with them in their struggle to comprehend what they believe to be God’s fierce anger against them. Their hopes and assurance of a better future have come crashing down round them. It is a troubling and lonesome time when one acknowledges that God has caused such grief to envelop the very ones he has loved and cared for since the days of Abraham. Are they not his elect, his remnant, and the apple of his eye? What anguish! The people acknowledge they have pushed their God to the necessity of demonstrating love by such severe punishment.
This punishment, awful as it is, brings the people to ask their God to remember whom he has judged. The covenant relationship itself brings the people to the point of hope in God, for it is this ancient covenant relationship that has revealed and established the nature of God in Israelite history. Punishment does not negate covenantal relationship. God’s people remain God’s people.
We may debate if it be God who initiated and perpetuated these deeds. The poet’s voice was sure: God’s hand is in these events! Lamentations stands as a forceful acknowledgment that suffering is a part of life. The one who experiences events as recorded in this poem is well acquainted with loss and suffering and has walked through the dark valley where at every turn is found a challenge to one’s faith. Glib answers will not suffice when doubt pummels us. Our voice joins those from that ancient time when in a great lament, God’s people cry out.
The passages from Lamentations are the transition from identifying the severe losses of the past to confessing and reaching out to God’s future and his faithfulness. In poetic form is found the proclamation of assurance that, as in ages past, God sees, hears, knows, and remembers Israel. There is hope for a new beginning, a renewal of faith. The poet has determined this for himself; he shares his discovery with his people. He takes upon his person the role of representative for his fellow sufferers. He confronts his despondency and moves beyond to a place of confidence that God will remember his covenant and not abandon his people in their time of need. It is instructive to read Lamentations 2:18, “My endurance has perished, and my hope from the Lord.” The author confesses he has lost hope in Yahweh. This lost hope is recovered only as he remembers God’s covenant remembering and God’s covenant mercies. In the verses that follow, he will dismantle his sense of defeat and express triumph that God’s infinite compassion and love endure.
Now that the writer has identified God’s covenant remembrance, he can express assurance that God will start anew. Sins will be forgiven and God’s compassion and mercy will extend toward faithful Israel and all humanity. This “newness” is not something that has never existed before. It is a renewal of what had once been—like the dawn of the day. It is this thought that inspires the poet to write the words that live on in the hymn, “Great is your faithfulness.”
Lamentations 3:24 expresses the poet’s conclusion: “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul; therefore I will hope in him.’” The poet has moved from despair to an emerging hope. He reverses what he has so recently stated and forges a path that leads to assurance. He has renewed confidence. He has based his belief in God’s character and the conviction that God will remember his covenant and restore Israel.
We might end our thoughts at this point. We have seen, in part, a nation’s hurt and hope. So let the story rest. Scripture is not well served if it only is an ode. God’s word is not a tidy history but a sword that reaches to the quick. Consider how this story intersects with ours. Each of us at one time or another has experienced loss and the emotions associated with loss. Every person has experienced disappointment, pain, anger, disillusionment and grief. The loss may have been trivial: we misplace our keys or cell phone. Other losses have more harsh and lasting impact: Our plans for the future crash down about us. We lose our job. A parent dies. A relative or friend is stricken with disease. We lose a spouse or child. A marriage or other significant relationship ends. For others, it may be a loss of faith. When these and like calamities strike, “And what of God’s mercy?
When our world crumbles before our eyes, where is God? “What are we to learn from this?” The writer of Lamentations reflects on his plight and that of his people. Where can he place his hope? There is but one answer that satisfied: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (2:22).
Our questions often await answer. We have a statement of faith, “The Lord is good,” coupled with two qualifiers. The first: “…to those who wait for him.” The second: “…to the soul who seeks him” (3:25). This is not God seeking the lost. The initiative for recovery lies with those who desire rescue. The Lord is waiting to be found. And, continues the poet, “It is good that we wait silently for the salvation of the Lord” (3:26). There is, states this verse, benefit to practicing silence. Listen! Await that still small voice. Wait in silence and be patient for the salvation of the Lord. An admonition we do well to heed.