This lesson is the second of three that highlight the Books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. The order of the lessons is chronological and thematic. The first covered Jeremiah’s word about the coming judgment of the Lord against Judah and Jerusalem. This second lesson covers the fall of Jerusalem and the Book of Lamentations. The final lesson will return to Jeremiah and look at his teaching of the New Covenant.
To understand the Book of Lamentations, one must come to know what it was like during the final days of Jerusalem before Nebuchadnezzar breached her walls. The days before her destruction marked the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s words about the coming famine, pestilence, and sword. They were dark days and full of terrors and horrors.
As the armies of Babylon advanced through the land of Judah, the word went out to enter the fortified cities. One of the early words in Jeremiah declared that this would happen, “Declare in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say, ‘Blow the trumpet in the land;’ Cry aloud and say, ‘Assemble yourselves, and let us go into the fortified cities’” (Jeremiah 4:5).
And so the population of the cities increased overnight. Among those streaming into the “safety” behind the walls were nomadic tribes such as the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35:11). Of course, it was the function of the city to provide such protection, but one must still imagine the impact of such drastically increased numbers during a long siege.
Lodging: Let’s imagine the annual Passover crowd that would descend upon Jerusalem. There would, of course, be rooms in the city, but many would stay in the outlying towns in guest rooms and so forth. During the siege, even the people in those towns would come into the city seeking shelter. It is reasonable to assume that the city would soon fill with makeshift shelters to accommodate those unable to find or afford the cost of an inn or a room. There would be people everywhere you looked. Many would become quickly destitute.
Food and Water: Jerusalem had an internal water supply. What people could eat, however, would be limited to whatever supplies the city had stored for such an emergency. Regardless of how the leaders rationed the food, the finite supply would run out.
Fuel: Except for fresh vegetables, fruit, and nuts, most of the food people eat requires cooking. Perhaps some meat could be eaten raw, but grains are hard for humans to eat without some form of cooking. Eating uncooked grain is like eating un-popped popcorn. How useful, really, is uncooked flour? It is reasonable to suppose that wood would disappear long before the food.
At this point, it is worth reading what the Lord told Ezekiel and asked him to do regarding the coming siege of Jerusalem:
“But as for you, take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt, put them in one vessel and make them into bread for yourself; you shall eat it according to the number of the days that you lie on your side, three hundred and ninety days. Your food which you eat shall be twenty shekels a day by weight; you shall eat it from time to time. The water you drink shall be the sixth part of a hin by measure; you shall drink it from time to time. You shall eat it as a barley cake, having baked it in their sight over human dung”
Then the Lord said, “Thus will the sons of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations where I will banish them.”
But I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I have never been defiled; for from my youth until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has any unclean meat ever entered my mouth.”
Then He said to me, “See, I will give you cow's dung in place of human dung over which you will prepare your bread.”
Moreover, He said to me, “Son of man, behold, I am going to break the staff of bread in Jerusalem, and they will eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and drink water by measure and in horror, because bread and water will be scarce; and they will be appalled with one another and waste away in their iniquity” (Ezekiel 4:9-17).
And so we see the people crammed into Jerusalem’s alleys eating rationed food, drinking rationed water, cooking over their own excrement. Add to this the anxiety that increases each day. Beyond the walls, the attacking enemy has fresh food, fresh water, and time. Your only hope is that some other event calls the enemy away before the siege engines are finally built.
Lodging, food, and fuel are certainly important issues in this city under siege. But there is more.
Garbage: No one can really collect and take garbage outside the city for disposal. Much of this, of course, might lend itself to solving the fuel problem, and there will be no wasted food to throw out.
Human waste, sanitation, and hygiene: There is no taking it outside the city. As indicated above, some of it can be used for fuel. Beyond that, however, people will not be able to keep themselves clean, their utensils clean, their clothes clean, or anything clean.
At this point, it becomes easy to envision what Jeremiah meant when he told the people that famine, pestilence, and the sword were coming. Once you have a city crowded with makeshift shelters of unwashed malnourished people, you have a recipe for the rapid spread of disease. Smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, etc. could erupt with nothing to stop the spread. This brings us to the final logistical problem.
Corpses: People will begin to die – some of natural causes, but eventually disease will take its toll. What do you do about the dead? I have no information about what they really did, but I can imagine some options. I do not think that they would attempt storage. Perhaps they threw them over the city wall. As Jeremiah wrote, “Speak, ‘Thus says the Lord, “The corpses of men will fall like dung on the open field, And like the sheaf after the reaper, but no one will gather them”’” (Jeremiah 9:22).
Eventually the situation in the city becomes very desperate. Especially when the food finally runs out. I have gone to great length here to describe the dynamics of a besieged city, because the Book of Lamentations represents one person’s coming to terms with the terror and horror of being there. Here is what he says about the famine and its effects:
All her people groan seeking bread; they have given their precious things for food to restore their lives themselves. “See, O Lord, and look, for I am despised” (Lamentations 1:11).
My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled; my heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, when little ones and infants faint In the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, “Where is grain and wine?” As they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom (Lamentations 2:11, 12).
“Arise, cry aloud in the night at the beginning of the night watches; pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord; lift up your hands to Him for the life of your little ones who are faint because of hunger At the head of every street. See, O Lord, and look! With whom have You dealt thus? Should women eat their offspring, the little ones who were born healthy? Should priest and prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord? (Lamentations 2:19, 20)
The tongue of the infant cleaves to the roof of its mouth because of thirst; the little ones ask for bread, but no one breaks it for them. Those who ate delicacies are desolate in the streets; those reared in purple embrace ash pits (Lamentations 4:4, 5).
Their appearance is blacker than soot, they are not recognized in the streets; Their skin is shriveled on their bones, it is withered, it has become like wood. Better are those slain with the sword than those slain with hunger; for they pine away, being stricken for lack of the fruits of the field. The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people (Lamentations 4:8-10).
We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the wilderness. Our skin has become as hot as an oven, because of the burning heat of famine (Lamentations 5:9, 10).
The siege of Jerusalem lasted from the winter months in Zedekiah’s ninth year as king to the summer of his eleventh year. This works out to be about eighteen months of an increasingly terrible situation.
Now it came about in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, camped against it and built a siege wall all around it. So the city was under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then the city was broken into, and all the men of war fled and went forth from the city at night by way of the gate between the two walls which was by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city. And they went by way of the Arabah (Jeremiah 52:4-7).
Now on the tenth day of the fifth month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodyguard, who was in the service of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every large house he burned with fire. So all the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down all the walls around Jerusalem (Jeremiah 52:12-24).
The last chapter of Jeremiah records the end of Jerusalem. When the food supply failed, the siege engines of Nebuchadnezzar also broke through the city walls, and the war was over. Most of the survivors were packed off to Babylon, but the poorest of the poor were left in the land. Time does not permit the telling of their story, but it, too, is tragic.
Let me ask you, how did you feel when you saw the smoldering remains of the World Trade Towers as the rescuers began to pick their way through the rubble? Now, imagine a whole city, and that it was your home, and that it was the place where the Lord God had established the Temple to bear His Name. Nebuchadnezzar has burned it all.
Someone, who was there through the siege and fall, wrote the Book of Lamentations. He saw the destruction and the famine and the disease. He saw women who ate their own children. In writing Lamentations, he comes to terms with those memories and the place that the Lord God had in their making. Many hold that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, and that is certainly possible. But I would submit to you that it really does not matter. The grief and the emotion Lamentations expresses belong to all of us. I will, therefore, simply refer to the author as “the author.” I do this not out of disrespect for Jeremiah, but to help promote Lamentations as a universal poem of grief.
Lamentations begins with one pithy statement that seems to tell it all. It captures our attention and draws us in. This profound opening begins a process of grieving over the lost city and the lost temple.
How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
She has become like a widow
Who was once great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
Has become a forced laborer! (Lamentations 1:1)
Lamentations is, of course, a series of “laments.” The lamentations progress from grief at arm’s length – to grief up close and personal – to grief shared in community. Throughout the work, the memories of the recent events in Jerusalem play counterpoint to issues that the author must confront. As he seeks to find meaning, he finds the basis for discovering hope.
The author of Lamentations uses subtle literary devices to underpin his message. There are three that are clearly important and all, but one, are easily discerned in an English translation. First, the author uses acrostics to demark sections of the work. The acrostics are not all perfect, however, and we must understand that the author is speaking within the variation. Second, each section has different arrangements of its verses within the acrostic pattern. Third, there are changes in the pronouns and points of view. I will first cover the first two of these devices in the next section and cover the third device when I take a chapter-by-chapter look at the book’s contents.
An acrostic is a series of sentences whose first letters either spell out a message or run through the alphabet. The first chapter of Lamentations contains 22 verses, and each verse begins with the next Hebrew letter in sequence. One might fiddle with the English translation and carry the acrostic over. It would look something like the following:
Alas the city that was full of people sits alone . . .
Bitterly she weeps in the night and her tears are on her cheeks . . .
Cast away under affliction and under harsh servitude, Judah has gone into exile . . .
Desolation marks her gates, no one travels to Zion . . .
Enemies prosper and have mastery over her . . .
Besides the acrostics, each verse in chapter 1 contains three related thoughts. For example, the first verse contains these three thoughts:
1. How lonely sits the city that was full of people.
2. She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations.
3. She who was a princess among the provinces has become a forced laborer.
The second chapter of Lamentations is an acrostic with a “twist.” The twist is best shown by laying out 22 letters in the English alphabet to represent the starting Hebrew letters:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O Q P R S T U V
The acrostic in chapter 2 still contains 22 verses, and each begins with a different letter in the Hebrew alefbet, but two of the letters are reversed in their sequence; note the P and the Q. In the Hebrew, it is ‘U’ and ‘p’ that are reversed. There are several possibilities to account for this reversal. It would draw attention to itself to the Hebrew reader, and it creates an imbalance. By altering the accepted structure ever so slightly, the author tells you that things are not right. There has been a “reversal” of fortune in Judah and Jerusalem. The accepted order is broken. Things are not what you expected.
Like chapter 1, the verses in chapter 2 are also triplets.
Moving to chapter 3, we find that there are 66 verses. Each verse has a single thought. This chapter is also an acrostic, but note its form in an English rendition of the first 6 verses:
Affliction I have seen because of His wrath.
Away from light into darkness He has driven me.
Against me He has turned His hand all the day.
Breaking my bones and wasting away my flesh.
Besieging me with bitterness and hardship.
Black and dark are the place in which I dwell.
Here we see that each successive Hebrew letter is the beginning of 3 verses in a row; 3 verses per letter times 22 letters yields the 66 verses in chapter 3. But note that this chapter also contains the same acrostic reversal as chapter 2 where the 3 verses that begin with ‘p’ precede the 3 verses that begin with ‘U’.
Chapter 4 contains 22 verses. Each verse contains 2 related thoughts and each verse has an acrostic arrangement identical to chapter 2; i.e., 2 letters are reversed.
Chapter 5, which is the last chapter, has 22 verses each, of which, contains a single thought. Even though there are 22 verses, there is no acrostic pattern in this chapter.
To summarize these structural elements in Lamentations’ five chapters, note the following chart:
Number of Verses
Two letters reversed
Two letters reversed
Two letters reversed
In literary terms, I believe the author of Lamentations invokes this structure to emulate the cycle of tears during a time of mourning. In the collapse of the acrostic pattern, there is a loss of control. The triplets moving to 66 singletons emulate a building of intensity as grief swells in the chest. The shift to doublets and then just 22 singletons show a loss of energy, and then quiet. As we shall see in the chapter descriptions, this is the pattern of the words, but it is marvelous to see how the author uses the physical structure of the book to underpin his words and ideas.
Lamentations flows from grief at arms length to up front and personal. The first chapter talks about the recent events in Jerusalem in a detached manner. In my own mind, I even imagine the chapter as a breaking news event from the WJER newsroom. Verses 1 through 11 can be made to sound like an on-scene reporter describing the recent events. Verses 12-16, in typical news fashion, presents the microphone to devastated Jerusalem herself to speak firsthand of her suffering. In verse 17, the camera moves back to show the outstretched arms of Jerusalem in grief, while in verses 18 through 22, she continues to speak of her sorrows. While this musing is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it connects with some realities about the chapter; the tone of Lamentations 1 is factual. The author, or observer, may or may not have been part of the events. And although it invokes sympathy in the reader, personal grief is kept away. Notice how this meshes with the perfect acrostic structure in chapter 1. The author is trying to keep himself together by pushing the events away. He is in denial.
Chapter 2 changes the situation for the author. The realization that it was the Lord, Himself, that brought such destruction breaches the walls of the author's defenses, and he is once more in the thick of personal memories. The first ten verses describe what the Lord has done to the city. Verse 11 marks the point where we know that the author was there, “My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled; my heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” For the remainder of this chapter, the author is pressed by the memories of what he saw as the city went down.
The first ten verses are very significant. They ascribe to the Lord all the devastation that has come upon the land. It is the Lord who has “swallowed up,” “thrown down,” “profaned,” “cut off,” “burned,” “bent His bow,” “destroyed,” “rejected,” “despised,” “abandoned,” etc. Verse after verse tells of the terrible wrath from the Lord that has befallen the city and its people. But not one word is mentioned of Babylon or Nebuchadnezzar. These verses do not describe the permissive will of God, but the direct determined will of God. The author is working to deal with such knowledge.
Lamentations 1 provides hints at the reasons for the destruction, but the second chapter is descriptive of that destruction by first focusing on what the Lord has done, and second, by focusing on what the author has seen.
In this chapter, the author succumbs to the events, and the full weight of his grief crashes on top of him. As you read the first 18 verses, you can see him sinking into despair and depression until he says in Lamentations 3:18, “So I say, ‘My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord.’” Like chapter 2, the author sees his personal affliction as being from the direct hand of the Lord.
In verses 19 through 26, however, there is a reconnection with the essential character of the Lord that is incredibly significant.
Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord (Lamentations 3:19-26).
Immediately after crying out that his strength and hope are gone, the author speaks a simple and short prayer, “Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness.” The response in his spirit could not be more profound or dramatic. The Lord both remembers and visits to bring hope. The words that have been part of great hymns and songs come from the answer to this prayer, “The Lord's lovingkindness indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The contrast between verses 18 and verses 21-22 could not be greater. The author’s self-pity and self-centeredness dissipates, and he begins to turn his attention first to the next generation
(verses 40 – 47) and then to community (verses 48 – 66).
What the author comes to know in chapter 3 is that the Lord prefers to show mercy. It is the Lord's terrors that are only for a moment. Therefore, the immediate events that he is facing are the anomaly, not the days of grace and mercy. He realizes the Lord had shown great mercy in the past and that He will show great mercy in the future. This, by the way, is exactly what Jesus demonstrated during His earthly ministry. Although He never compromised His message and never glossed over sin, he always welcomed a sinner in need of mercy and forgiveness. And so Lamentations 3 gives us a core truth.
Let me help you connect with this further. Read through and follow these steps:
1. Close your eyes.
2. Picture yourself standing in the smoking rubble of the ruin of the World Trade Towers right after the dust settled.
3. Say to yourself, “The Lord's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”
Is this exercise crazy? How much more did the author of Lamentations overcome to find hope in this truth? He is at Ground Zero in Jerusalem, his home city is gone, his people are gone, he has seen inexpressible horrors, and he knows that the Lord did it! If this truth rescued him from despair, how much more can it rescue us from the situations that we face?
I am struck by the suddenness of the reversal from despair to hope and the recognition of the preeminence of God's mercy. I am inclined to believe that the author experienced the presence of the Lord in response to his prayer. He was in a situation that was beyond all logic. To come to him as an “instructor” and say, “Cheer up, God is merciful,” would hardly bring a change of attitude. Such truths as these require the manifested presence of the Lord to carry them. In other words, it was not logic that brought these amazing thoughts into his head and caused such a turn for hope. It was his apprehending the presence and character of the Lord that made it sink in.
Chapter 4 does not have the energy of the previous chapters. Unlike chapters 1 and 2 with their 22 triplet verses and chapter 3’s 66 single verses, chapter 4 contains 22 doublets. The first 16 verses again recap the last days in Jerusalem, and the last verses contain words of national confession and national hope. But the emotional energy that drove chapter 3 is dissipating, and the tears are beginning to dry out. Unlike the first chapter that is on the outside looking in, or the second and third chapters that is the man alone in his grieving, this fourth chapter contains the confession of the nation.
Lamentations’ last chapter is a national appeal. Like the fourth chapter, it is exclusively communal. It is a chapter of humility. The nation asks the Lord to turn His face to them and see their condition, and then they ask for restoration. To this day, the last verses represent the plea of the children of Israel in exile. You can see both hope and impatience, and a certain lack of certainty about the future.
Except for the principles of grieving and God’s mercy that Lamentations contains, the book is much more for the Jews than for the Gentiles. It is hard for us to appreciate what it is like to be a nation dispersed among the nations and whose homeland lies in desolation. To know this is to understand why, among the Jews, the Book of Lamentations has a special place in the summer when they remember the loss of the first and second temples. It is during this time that Lamentations has an annual reading. This day of remembrance is known as TISHA B’AV or in English the 9th of Av.
Jeremiah 52:12, 13 identifies the tenth day of the fifth month as the day that Jerusalem and Solomon's temple were torn down and burned. Second Kings 25:8 identifies it as the seventh day of the fifth month. It would seem that TISHA B’AV splits the difference. Given that the task of wrecking a city is not reasonably completed in a single day, the difference in the dates is inconsequential. What they agree on is that the events occurred in the fifth month, which is the month of Av in the Jewish calendar. TISHA B’AV is the day when the Jews remember the loss of both Solomon's temple and the second temple. In their respective years, it was around this day that:
On the evening before TISHA B’AV, a Jew will eat a last meal alone and then fast during the day in an attitude of mourning. During the day, they will read from Lamentations.
Lamentations expresses grief and, by example, teaches us how to deal with it:
1. Nothing is outside the Lord's command and control. If the author of Lamentations could ascribe the destruction of his home and the exile of his people to the Lord, we can acknowledge His actions in the tragic events that come to our lives.
2. The Lord is full of lovingkindness and mercy. It is important to remember that it is the Lord's mercies that are new every morning.
3. It is okay to remember. It was good for the author of Lamentations to write down for himself and posterity the horrors that he saw. It is pointless to try to forget them; the images will remain too strong. We also know that repression seems to cause worse problems. So it would seem that remembering and communicating the pain and realities behind our grief is appropriate and healthy. I believe that the recognition of the Lord's mercy can be an important element in helping face these things.
4. Moving beyond ourselves to see and come alongside the sufferings of others aids the process. Once you recognize personally that God renews His mercies and lovingkindnesses in our lives, you should have the will to train the next generation and enter into community.
However, we do live in this age, and it is and will continue to be full of tears. The events of September 11, 2001, have left us shaken. The likelihood of further incidents is high, and who knows which of us will have personal cause to pour out our hearts in grief. That is why we always look to the return of our Savior and the new age that He will create. But for now, in this age, we can take comfort in Paul's perspective,
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
319 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Donald E. Curtis at Community Bible Chapel, on September 30, 2001. Don is an elder at Cobb Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Kennesaw, Georgia. You can e-mail comments and question to /email.asp?email=curtis.