By Reggie Kidd
Without sugar-coating reality, the Bible carries about it an irrepressible hopefulness, a stubborn embrace of a sense that glory and goodness will finally prevail, no matter what. The ugliness of judgment is pregnant with the promise of redemption. Suffering does inspire the singer. Punishment prompts the poet. Nowhere is that more evident than in the book of Lamentations. At no time in our lifetimes has that been more needed than now in a time of pandemic.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people.” – Lamentations 1:1
This first chapter of the book of Lamentations is one of the most gruesome in all of Scripture. The “weeping prophet” Jeremiah (by tradition, the author of Lamentations) looks out over a city he loves, left desolate in the wake of the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.—like the ancient world’s version of a bombed-out Dresden or Hiroshima or Aleppo. Jeremiah imagines Judah/Jerusalem as though she had been bride to a husband, Yahweh, who now is dead to her: “How like a widow she has become.” Worse, she had given herself to false lovers who had failed to care for and protect her. And now she has been violated by despoilers (“she has seen the nations invade her sanctuary”), only to be promptly tossed aside (“her uncleanness was in her skirts”—Lamentations 1:9,10). It’s among the ugliest scenes Scripture ever describes. It’s nearly unbearable to read.
However, the writer of Lamentations does what only a great artist can do: create haunting beauty from something grotesque. Thus, the book of Lamentations, one of the most artfully crafted series of poems in all of Scripture, provides some of the most exquisite language for carrying to God our anguish and grief over human suffering.
“The Lord has become like an enemy…” – Lamentations 2:5
In the first chapter, Lamentations portrays Jerusalem/Judah violated & kicked to the side of the road. It is a pathetic, pitiable sight.
In the second chapter, Lamentations turns to a different subject: God. The picture is jarring. Yahweh has “bent his bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe… he has poured out his fury … he has demolished without pity” (2:4,17). He “withdraws his right hand from” his people because of emotions that are difficult for us to accept: the Lord is angry, merciless, wrathful, burning like a flaming fire, furious, fiercely indignant, scornful. (See the cascading terms in verses 1-4, 6-7.)
This is supposed to be the loving, rescuing, redeemer God, right? Instead, this sounds like the “fire and brimstone” God of caricature that keeps people away from church—like a cosmic Thanos, who has had his Infinity Gems taken away.
But… if God isn’t at war with that within us which is at odds with him, we are lost. The long story of redemption is one of God’s implacable enmity, not towards us, but towards the sin that destroys us. His rage at our sin can only be appeased by the bloody mess of Christ’s Cross.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…” – Lamentations 3:22
Lamentations frames all the ugliness within God’s irresistible plan to bring splendor out of it all. And so, the book of Lamentations imposes an elegant poetic grace on the ugliness of judgment, through the design of the verses. The book utilizes the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in an acrostic pattern to describe God’s fury at sin, as though to say that judgment runs from “A to Z.” Judgment has a beginning. But it also has an end.
Grace Meets Grief
The climax of Lamentations occurs in its very center (often the case in Hebrew poetry), where we find this lightning bolt of grace: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end… Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam 3:22-33).Words of comfort for God’s people back then, and for God’s people now as well.
Edith McNeill’s lovely and simple rendering of this verse in song has been with us since the 1960s: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” In a time when our society was convulsing with conflict over race, poverty, war and peace, God was bringing renewal to many churches like Edith’s Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal) in Houston. And it was songs like hers that helped many see the beauty of Jesus and the power of God’s love in the midst of strife and hopelessness.
We live in another time of devastation and uncertainty. It’s in just such a time as this that songwriters and worship leaders thrive, drawing praise from parched souls. May the Lord give you courage to tell the paradoxical truth… and grace to create, like Jeremiah in Lamentations, beauty from ruin.