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by Peter Pett
COMMENTARY ON LAMENTATIONS.
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
This is a book of laments concerning the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, written by one who was almost certainly an eye-witness to the events. These lamentations are often called ‘the lamentations of Jeremiah’, and were seen as such in Jewish tradition, the first indication of this being in the LXX. But, in fact, they are anonymous. In the Hebrew the simple title was ’eykah, that being the first word in the book. Most, however, would agree that the writer was certainly contemporary with the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath because of the passion that the words convey and there is nothing in them that would deny them to Jeremiah. There are indeed indications of his style within them, and they express similar feelings to his own. Furthermore we do know that Jeremiah was practised in the art of the composition of lamentations (2 Chronicles 35:25). But in the end, in spite of these facts, we cannot be sure, and it is not really important. What matters is that they represent the voice of true prophecy.
In the Hebrew Bible, Lamentations is found within the third and last major division of the Old Testament, which is known as the "Hagiographa" or "Writings" (as against The Torah and The Prophets). It comes between Ruth and Ecclesiastes and is the third book of what is known as the "Megilloth" or "Scrolls", which is a section of the Hagiographa consisting of five books used on special fast days. “Megilloth” consists of The Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. The Jews read each of these books on different special feast or fast days each year, namely at Passover, Pentecost, the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem, Tabernacles, and Purim. In the Hagiographa the Megilloth comes after Job, Proverbs, and Psalms and precedes Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
Lamentations is in the form of Hebrew poetry, mainly in acrostic form. In chapters 1, 2 and 4 (which each have 22 verses) each verse begins with a consecutive letter in the Hebrew alphabet (as indicated in brackets in the text), whilst in chapter 3 (which has 66 verses) the first three verses begin with aleph the second three with beth, and so on through the alphabet (again as indicated in the text). A similar acrostic phenomenon can be found in some Psalms (e.g. Psalms 111-112; Psalms 119:0, and Proverbs 31:10-31). Interestingly in chapters 2, 3 and 4 Pe comes before Ayin in the order of letters, whilst in chapter 1 we have the usual order of Ayin followed by Pe. This may indicate that the order of the letters in the alphabet was not firmly established at that time, something which is evidenced from alphabets scratched on pottery by schoolchildren where the same phenomenon occurs, or it may simply remind us of the fact that in the use of the acrostic the alphabet was not always slavishly followed (see e.g. in Psalms 25:0; Psalms 34:0; Psalms 37:0; Psalms 145:0). The threefold repetition of the different order, after the traditional order in chapter 1, must, however, surely be seen as significant, even if we do not now what that significance was. In view of his own differing usage it may suggest that the writer had a special reason for it, probably not discernible to us (e.g. samek pe ayin tsade might indicate ‘a threshold of wood’, being a reminder of the Temple). The non-use of the acrostic form in chapter 5, despite it also having 22 verses, might also be seen as deliberate.
The reason for using the acrostic form was probably because the writer wanted to express the completeness of his lament (he was giving the A to Z, compare the Alpha and the Omega), and possibly also because he wanted to bring out the completeness of his and his people’s penitence. As the reader or listener progressed through the alphabet they would become more and more aware of the completeness as they moved on from letter to letter throughout the alphabet. Nothing was to be seen as missing from the lament. Rather than being superficial therefore this arrangement expressed depth of meaning. The lack of it in chapter 5 may have been deliberately intended to leave the lament open ended, indicating a hope that there was yet a future for Jerusalem, in that one day His anger would cease.
It is important to recognise the background to the lament. Jerusalem, the Holy City, lay in ruins, still inhabited by the poor, but with its status wholly diminished and itself unimportant. The Temple, of which Judah had believed that God would never allow it to be defiled (e.g. Jeremiah 7:2 ff), and which was intended to be a beacon to the world of God’s truth (Isaiah 2:2 ff), was now a burnt out mass, with the holy hill empty and bleak. Whilst worship was probably still carried on there, it would have been of a very limited kind, on a makeshift altar beneath the open sky. But all on which Judah/Israel had laid such store was gone. YHWH had fulfilled the curses of Leviticus 26:0 and Deuteronomy 28:0 to the letter.
But one important point brought out by the writer is that it was not that YHWH had failed to protect His Temple. It was that He Himself had determined on its desolation, and had brought it about. For outsiders it was just an event in history, the consequence of the greed of empires, and of the fact that Jerusalem had offended her God.. But for believers it was in itself a just act of God. He had warned them of what would happen if they disobeyed His covenant. And now it had happened. As a centre of the worship of YHWH Jerusalem was no more.
And the reason why the writer was reminding his people of this was so as to bring them to repentance. He wanted them to recognise the deep significance of what had happened. That is one purpose of a lamentation. It not only allows people to release their grief, but also brings home the lesson to be learned from the cause of lamentation. In a similar way it should be for us a reminder that when God warns us of coming judgment we need to take it seriously. Most of us are far too glib about our sins and about coming judgment, just as Judah/Israel had been. We need to remember that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and that a day of reckoning for our failures is coming, even on those of us who are His redeemed people (1 Corinthians 3:11-16; Romans 14:10; etc).
One of the abiding lessons of Lamentations is, of course, that God is working out His purposes through history, and that sometimes the very lowest point is reached, and that God allows it. It is bringing out that God is sovereign in history. Many Christians have known times when they were almost in total despair and have wondered why God did not do something. It was so with the prophet, and with Jerusalem. It appeared to be the end. But we need to learn from Lamentations to remember the bigger picture. We are to see that what we experience is in fact rather the chastening of a God Who is concerned to root out sin (Hebrews 12:3 ff), and Whose ways are not understandable to us. One day Jerusalem would rise again and it would become the city where the ultimate Sacrifice was offered to God and from which the Good News of salvation would go out to the world. And once that was accomplished, while its usefulness would be over, the Temple would be replaced by the living Temple of Christ and His people (Lamentations 2:19; Lam 2:21 ; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:20-22). And Jerusalem would be replaced by a heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:25-26; Hebrews 12:22). In that sense Jerusalem was eternal.
One further point should be made. If we find the theology of Lamentations difficult to handle it is because our view of God is superficial. For there is no avoiding the fact that such things do happen, and that God allows them. Any view of God that we take which does not take these things into account is unrealistic. It is a constant reminder of the fact that ‘the wages of sin is death’. It is true that God is love, but He is also pure light. And that light exposes and hates sin. His love can thus finally only be experienced by those who respond to His light by recognising their sinfulness and throwing themselves on His mercy. Then they will discover that He is love indeed.
Pattern Of The Book.
It is when taken as a whole that the book offers hope. Chapter 1 is full of deep despair and brings out the sad condition of Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion, both from the prophet’s point of view and her own, whilst acknowledging that they are receiving what their sin deserves. Chapter 2 continues the despair but emphasises that what has happened to them is due to the wrath, anger, fury of YHWH. However, in chapter 3, although the gloom still continues, light breaks through.
Thus in Lamentations 3:21-42, which are literally central to the whole book, we find a series of statements about God’s goodness and faithfulness, together with a cry that He will act in due time. In their adversity believers must keep their trust firmly in God, for ‘great is His faithfulness’ (verse 23). His compassions do not fail (verse 22), and while He has punished severely He has not done it willingly (verse 33). Furthermore He has not forgotten those who are truly His own. Thus they can wait patiently for Him to act in ‘salvation’ (verse 26), for He will not cast off for ever (verse 31). They must recognise that both ‘good and bad’ come from His hands, simply because as a just God He must punish men for their sins. They must therefore not complain at what is happening to them (verse 39), but must lift their hands up to Him in expectation (verse 40-41), whilst acknowledging their present situation (verse 42).
From then on in chapter 3, and again in chapter 4, the book reverts to its gloomy outlook, and chapter 4 closes with a warning to Edom that it too will suffer for what it has done (verses 21-22). But it does at the same time assure Judah/Israel that their sufferings have reached their height, with no more to come (verse 22). Chapter 5 continues the gloom, but it has a note of hope near the end. ‘YHWH abides for ever and His throne is from generation to generation.’ The inference is that the sufferings of the present time will yet turn into future blessing, and that they can therefore call on Him to turn them to Himself once their period of punishment is over (verses 19-21). But that must not mean that they overlook the fact that for the present they are still rejected and aware of His anger against them (verse 22).
The book divides up into five chapters, each seemingly a separate work from the others, and yet brought together because of their common motif to form a pattern, central to which, as we have seen above, is the certainty of YHWH’s faithfulness to His own. They are on the whole a cry of despair over what has happened to Jerusalem, made by one whose heart was torn by what he had seen and experienced, and yet they also give an explanation as to why it has happened. That is why, in spite of their mainly negative stance, they offer hope for the future, with that hope exemplified in Lamentations 3:21-42.
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