“The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly” (Lamentations 1:4).
This coming Sunday we will embark on a seven-week journey through the book of Lamentations – “Hope in a Hopeless World.” This may be the first time that you’ve ever gone through the entire book.
The book of Lamentations at first appears to be nothing but a lengthy “downer.” However, as we start to understand its purpose and point, it becomes profitable, for it is the very Word of God. It was written by the prophet Jeremiah (2 Chronicles 35:25), probably just after the fall of Jerusalem. It aptly expresses the instruction that we are given to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), in a particular way and for a particular purpose. The purpose is to put words to genuine repentance, to empathize with the pain of a person attempting to come back to God “from the dark paths of sin,” so that they might find that God’s mercy and love are “new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23), the key text of the book.
The first chapter is filled with “mourning with those who mourn.” The city is “lonely” (1:1), tragically because it was once “full of people.” A sacked city has an eerie loneliness to it. Imagine walking through Manhattan at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and finding not a person, not a car, nothing. You can imagine the city feeling “lonely.” The city itself asks, “Where has everyone gone?” To put it in more modern terms, Jeremiah sings a song of lamentation while his “guitar gently weeps,” as George Harrison sang.
Even more tragically, by contrast “her enemies prosper” (1:5). It is one thing to be defeated, it is another to see those who defeated you doing well. It is pouring salt into the wound. Part of what makes this worse is actually looking and remembering how good things used to be: “Jerusalem remembers…all the precious things” (1:7). Like a rich man who has fallen into poverty remembers his Rolls-Royce, Jerusalem remembers her precious things.
But in the midst of lament, there are real signs of genuine repentance. Discipline is producing its fruit. “Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy” (1:8). She is calling out to God, if not yet in perfect honesty: “Look, O LORD, and see, for I am despised” (1:11). And she says, “The Lord is in right, for I have rebelled against his word” (1:18). She realizes how mistaken she was before: “I called to my lovers, but they deceived me” (1:19). “You have dealt with me because of all my transgressions” (1:22). Jerusalem is beginning to realize that she has done wrong against God.
Of course, it is better to repent before things become disastrous. But if you do find yourself in a ditch, the first thing to do is stop digging. Look around and ask yourself what got you into this hole. It is easy to look outside us to explain our dilemma, but most often it comes from within. The only way out is to look up to God himself, turn back to him, acknowledge your sin, and in due time, you will find that his mercies are new every morning, and great is his faithfulness (3:22-23).
And the aim of repentance is not so you won’t feel guilty any more. It is to rest in the forgiveness of God so that we can grasp Paul’s exhortation to us in Philippians 2.
“Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life…” (Phil. 2:14-16).
May the Lord hear our cries for mercy, and may we together come to know the great faithfulness of our God in a richer and fuller way.