Thoughts on the Lamentations.

1869 370 In reading the Lamentations one cannot fail to be struck with the abrupt introduction of the subject of Lamentations 3. The occasion of the composition of the book is manifest on the surface of it. Jerusalem had fallen a prey to the Chaldeans, the Gentiles had entered those sacred courts and enclosures, which need never have been defiled by the tread of uncircumcised bands; "she hath seen that the heathen entered into her sanctuary, whom thou didst command that they should not enter into thy congregation." (Lam. 1:10.) Jerusalem's desolate condition drew forth the prophet's lamentations; yet a large part of chapter 3 is taken up with a description of his personal sufferings at the hand of his people (for the Chaldeans treated him kindly), while yet Jerusalem was uncaptured. What connection was there between his sufferings from the Jews, and imprisonment in the dungeon, while the throne of David was filled by a prince reigning at Jerusalem, and the house built by Solomon to be very magnifical, was still standing, and the sad calamity which had overtaken the metropolis of the land? It was just this connection which furnished ground for the sorrowing prophet, inspired by the Spirit of God to pen these beautiful poems, some of whose verses have comforted God's saints in many an age and many a trial since.

That Jeremiah was the writer of the book has been generally acknowledged, and internal evidence of it is afforded in the allusions to his own history it contains. He loved Jerusalem well; for, though Anathoth in Benjamin was the city of his birth, understanding as he did what Jerusalem was in God's counsels, bow could he have helped loving her, and that dearly? Her troubles then were a grief of heart to him; and, though he had endured such ill treatment in the city from those high in office, he did not exult over her fall, but tears filled his eyes as he saw the destruction of the daughter of his people, and his heart only found a fitting vent for its feelings in the lamentations he poured forth as dictated by the Spirit of God. Gracious it was of the Lord to allow his afflicted servant this relief, gracious however not to him only, but to others, as surely will be acknowledged some day, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, and all the ways of God in the times that will then be past, shall be meditated on to His glory.

The book consists of five chapters, each chapter being a separate poem in itself. The first four poems are alphabetical acrostics, a device of Hebrew poetry found sometimes in the Psalms: see Ps. 25, Ps. 34, Ps. 37, Ps. 111, Ps. 119, Ps. 145. Each verse in chapter 1, 2, 4, begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, as does each stanza of three verses in chap. 3. Unlike some of the alphabetical Psalms the alphabet is complete in all these poems. Twenty-two letters compose the alphabet, so twenty-two verses are found in chapters 1, 2, 4, and sixty-six in chapter 3, but, whilst the arrangement of chapter 1 corresponds to the regular order of the alphabet, in chapters 2, 3, 4, the stanza commencing with pe precedes that commencing with ain, an arrangement not met with elsewhere. The reason of this inversion of the regular order of the alphabet has not been satisfactorily accounted for. The ancient versions, LXX., Vulgate, and Targum of Jonathan, agree with the order of the Hebrew, but the Syriac in each chapter reverses it, placing 2:17, 4:17, 3:49-51 before 2:16, 4:16, 3:46-48. At an early epoch some scribe of the LXX. wrote the letters of the Hebrew alphabet at the commencement of each verse or stanza, to mark that the poems were alphabetical acrostics; but either from ignorance of the Hebrew, or from carelessness, inserted uniformly ain before the pe stanza, and pe before the ain stanza, thus misleading the reader of the Greek as to the alphabetical order in the Hebrew.

Lamentations 1 opens with a description of the city and country, consequent on the triumph of the Babylonian arms. Full of people once, now as a widow, great among the nations, princess among the provinces, this enviable position Jerusalem had occupied; now she has become tributary, her independence is gone, and her gates, never entered by the boastful king of Assyria, have been thrown down by the Chaldeans. Zion's ways, once thronged with people, are now mourning, because none come to the solemn feasts. Friendless, bereaved, desolate, how changed is her state! Besides all this the adversaries mocked at her sabbaths, or rather at the cessation of all her prosperity and glory. (Lam. 1:7.) Was not this enough to call forth the lamentation of any who loved her? Yet not without reason had all this happened. "Jerusalem hath grievously sinned, therefore is she removed." (Lam. 1:8.) This the prophet owns, nor he only, for from the words in Lam. 1:11: "See, O Lord, and consider; for I am become vile." Jerusalem breaks in, and continues to speak (Lam. 1:17 excepted) to the close of the poem and chapter. She acknowledges her sin before the Lord, and what it has brought on her. Right was it for her to do this. She thus speaks of the past. But what of the future? The acknowledgment of one's guilt, and of the Lord's justice in dealing with a soul, can of itself give no hope for better times, and renewed prosperity in the future. To own one's sin, when under chastening on account of it, is simply to acknowledge the justice of God: but justifying God in His dealings with us can never illumine the heart with the brightness of hope. So throughout this chapter there is no hint of restoration to former favour and blessing, nor any relief to the monotony and heaviness of this widespread desolation. All that she can say of the future is simply this: "All mine enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that thou Last done it: thou wilt bring the day that thou hast called, and they shall be like unto me. Let all their wickedness come before thee; and do unto them, as thou hast done unto me for all my transgressions: for my sighs are many, and my heart is faint." (Lam. 1:21-22.) She has felt that God acts in government, and therefore can look for His dealing with the nations as He has dealt with her. But this is poor comfort certainly. She deserved it, they deserve it likewise, and this is all she here says. The punishment of her enemies was certain. Of her future blessing there is not a word.

In Lamentations 2 the prophet owns the Lord's hand in it all. He has done it, though the enemies of Jerusalem have been the active and willing agents. The hand which has smitten has been discerned, and the present abject condition of the once beautiful and royal city overcomes him. "Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people." (Lam. 2:11.) This leads him to say in the bitterness of his grief, "What thing shall I take to witness for thee? what thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? what shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion? for thy breach is great like the sea: who can heal thee?" At verse 20, in response to the call of the prophet, Jerusalem again lifts up her voice to the Lord, but as yet no ray of hope has come in on the dark and gloomy picture. Her cry was in chapter 1 "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger." The prophet, in chapter 2, asks, "What shall I equal to thee?" and still there is no alleviation of her distress. Where could she find any? who would comfort her? God, against whom she had sinned, had provided for this, and the man, she had so ill-treated as God's messenger to her, is the one from whose experience comfort and hope can be drawn.

Little could Jeremiah have divined what use God make of his trials. He had suffered much. He had experienced cruel treatment at the hand of his own people, because he was God's servant. Now one of God's designs in it all comes out, as the prophet, inspired by the Holy Ghost, recites what his condition had been, so similar to what his nation's was. He had seen affliction by the rod of God's wrath. They, including the prophet, could say, God had covered them with anger. He had known what it was to cry, and shout, and have his prayer shut out from God. The nation could say, "Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through." He had been a derision to his people. They could say, "All our enemies have opened their mouth against us." (Lam. 3:1, 8, 14, 43-45.) One difference however between him and his people was this: he had been brought out of his affliction, they were in theirs. He suffered with them as one of them, but the personal sufferings he speaks of, as God's faithful servant in Israel, were over. One then had been in affliction similar to theirs and had been delivered. This gives hope, and this is the way they are supported in this book. What happened to Jerusalem and the nation was the just consequence of their sins. What would happen to their enemies would be richly deserved. But this could give no hope of an end to her troubles. Jeremiah's history is therefore brought in, that God's goodness to the prophet, in delivering him out of all the trials the ungodly in Jerusalem had inflicted on him, should afford comfort to her heart with reference to the future. For just as her present condition was an earnest of what her enemies must look for, Jeremiah's deliverance was an earnest of what she could expect.

But what was the path he had travelled, and what had been his experience by the way? This was of great importance and interest to her. Hence the prophet speaks of it. To the Lord he had cried, "Remember my affliction, my misery, the wormwood and the gall;" and hope arose from the confidence that God would surely do this. "Thou wilt surely remember that my soul is bowed in me." So some translate Lam. 3:20. Therefore he adds, "This I recall to mind, therefore have I hope." Moreover his continuance in life, whilst bowed under the weight of his troubles, was an evidence of mercy. This point of his past history just fits in with the city and nation's then present condition. Great as were the desolation of the city, and the trials of the nation, they were not consumed. Jeremiah himself, one of them, and others too, alive on earth were witnesses of this. How could they account for this? They deserved to be swept off the earth, but God in mercy had come in. "It is of the Lord's mercy we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not." His justice demanded the execution of the deserved judgment, but His mercy, of which they were living examples, gave hope for the future. So from this point what the Lord is, and can do, is brought in, as before had been acknowledged what the Lord had done to the rebellious city and the sinful people, "because his compassions fail not." What a ground to stand on, what a refuge to fly to — "his compassions!" "They are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness." What a thing it is to find one's only shelter in what He is in Himself. But what can afford more security than this? Jeremiah had learnt this, now the nation must learn it; but in him they had a living example of what is here stated. In a future day the remnant will sing, entering heartily into it, "His mercy endureth for ever." Here they have to count on it, and own it as already illustrated in preserving alive a remnant, that the nation should not be utterly consumed. "God hath concluded them all in unbelief that he might have mercy upon all" is the divine statement in Romans 11, in explanation of His ways with Israel. Here how the consciousness that He is acting in mercy can comfort them in trial is brought out. As long as Jerusalem was occupied with all that God had done to His city and people she was occupied with the punishment of her sins, but when she can think of what the Lord is and how the continual existence of a remnant is a proof of His mercy, hope revives in her heart, and she can look up.

More, however, than this is brought out, for Jeremiah recounts his experience of the benefit of the Lord's ways with him in his adversity, and the result of it all on his heart. "The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him." Thus can the man speak who had seen affliction by the rod of God's wrath. Having passed through seasons of trial, he can tell Jerusalem what he has found, a knowledge of great value. Had he only entered into trial with Jerusalem, he might have stated what he looked for. His expectations might have been just, and his forecast of the future correct, but that would have afforded no comfort like the experience actually gained. So he proceeds, "The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him." To bear the yoke in his youth had been his experience, and he could speak of the good resulting from it. He had proved what it was to hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Jehovah; for the Lord (Adonai) will not cast off for ever; but though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. "For he doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men." What cheering announcements are these, the experiences of one who had been in the deep waters of affliction. But all comfort here is drawn from the Lord's known character — a wonderful rock to stand on, when all that has happened has been only richly deserved. And if the Lord (Adonai), the One who has full authority to act as He will, did not willingly afflict, He did not apt prove of the oppression and injustice practised by men, even though they were the appointed executioners of His wrath. (Lam. 3:34-36.) And, since He was acting, all man's prognostications of evil to his enemies were valueless, when the Lord (Adonai) had not commanded it. None can override His will, none can defeat His purpose.

But as the afflictions of Jerusalem, through instrumentalities caused by the enemy, were the consequence of their sins against Jehovah, they must own them before Him. This the prophet exhorts them to do (Lam. 3:40-42); and doing this he waits in confidence the Lord's intervention on their behalf, as he had cried himself and been delivered. (Lam. 3:49-58.) But deliverance from evils inflicted by man, for the earthly people, involves punishment on their oppressors. This he looks for to fall on those who had afflicted him, and as his experience has been brought forward as a ground of hope for Jerusalem knowing what the Lord is, he can look onward to the future punishment of her rival, Edom, and the end of the punishment of Jerusalem.

Here then his personal sufferings cease to be the theme of the book, since their introduction has done the work they were intended to accomplish. So in chapter 4 we have Jerusalem's present condition contrasted with her former glory, and her future condition confidently expressed, as is that also of Edom, her bitter enemy. For Jerusalem there will be deliverance, for Edom perpetual desolations. (Lam. 4:21-22.) How different now is the prospect. In chapter 1, all that Jerusalem could say was that her enemies shall be like unto her. But since Jeremiah's experience has been dwelt on, deliverance can be predicated of her, and trouble without any hope of alleviation be the portion of Esau's descendants. This the prophet declares.

In Lamentations 5 we meet with other speakers. Emboldened by Jeremiah's own example, who had said, "Remember my affliction," etc., they supplicate God. "Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us, consider and behold our reproach;" and they ground their supplication on the everlasting existence of Jehovah, and the perpetuity of His throne; for it is the action of the throne they must await. What He could do for one of His own in trial has been seen; He abides for ever, He changes not, so they can count on Him for their nation's future deliverance. Justly deserved was all their punishment, so they add, "Turn thou us unto thee, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old." They acknowledge what they are, and the need of God dealing with them in grace; but, side by side with that, they can take up what has been manifested of God's character, and find a hope from it. So the book closes with a description of their present condition; or, as some would read it, with a question ("For wilt thou," etc.), which, after the prophet's recorded experience, admits of but one answer. But the statement or question, which ever may be adopted, is a confession of their grievous failure, a terrible position to be in were there no well-grounded hope of escape.

Thus in this book, which contains no message from God to His people, such as they had often heard, commencing with the well-known formula, "Thus saith the Lord," His character, illustrated by His dealings with one of His saints, gives those in trial confidence about His dealings with His people Israel, a confidence He would have them lay fast hold of, for as soon as they entered the trial, He furnished them with divine language in which they might fitly express themselves; and though travelling a road hitherto untrodden by them, they might learn what has been the experience of one in trial before them, and his deliverance out of it; an example to them how to behave under the chastisement He has inflicted, and a guide to the faithful as to the sure way out of it.