“In the midst it all…”


Scripture: Lamentations 2 and 3

Reader: Ariel Pacpaco

A number of years ago researchers performed an experiment to see the effect hope has on those undergoing hardship. Two sets of laboratory rats were placed in separate tubs of water. The researchers left one set of rats in the water and found that within one hour they had all drowned. The other rats, though, had been periodically lifted out of the water and then put back in. That second set of rats stayed alive and swam for over 24 hours. Why? The researchers concluded that it wasn’t because that second group of rats had been given a rest, but because they had been given hope! Those swimming lab rats believed that if they could stay afloat a little longer, possibly, just possibly, someone would reach down and lift them up, rescuing them. It gave them hope to have someone bigger than them helping them.

Jeremiah spent 40 years being opposed by people. His life was one of grief and turmoil. He was not liked. He was opposed and mocked. But he stayed faithful to God in continually prophesying what God had said to him, warning the people that God would allow Jerusalem to be destroyed if they did not repent of sinning.

Let’s face it: Jeremiah’s message was not well-received. Those who believed him were few and far between. Where did he get the strength and hope to keep on preaching, to keep on swimming, to stay afloat, as it were. We will find that out today. After 40 years of hearing God’s message given through Jeremiah, the Jews – and, Jeremiah – watched in horror as they saw his words of forewarning be fulfilled.

In 586 B.C., Jerusalem was destroyed and most of its people taken away into exile in Babylon. The people couldn’t believe it happened! The psyche of the people was crushed, as is seen in Psalm 137, written by one of the exiled Jews in Babylon: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137:1-3)

What a sad scene! But, Jeremiah had not been the only one prophesying that message of warning to the Jewish people. As far back as Moses, centuries earlier, words of warning had been stated to them: “Stay faithful to God and life will be good for you in the Promised Land. Sin and you will be kicked out of the land and your precious capital city will be destroyed.” The people ignored the warnings and complacency set in, though, as the centuries went by and there was no exile or destruction. So, when the warned disaster did actually happen, it was a huge surprise to the people. Deep sadness set into their souls, and an ongoing psychological wound was placed inside the Jewish people’s hearts that never left them. It is revealing that

In the Old Testament, the destruction of Jerusalem is written about four times (and, forewarned about hundreds of times). Its destruction would be a scar the Jews would never get over. The Jews never wanted it to happen, again.

From that year, 586 BC, forward, through their exile in Babylon, and then their return to the land and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple took place, the Jews were determined that such a catastrophe would never happen, again. And they convinced themselves that God would not allow Jerusalem nor his “Second Temple” to ever be destroyed, again. They were “safe”, was their thinking!

Yet, in the New Testament, Jesus, in Luke 19, as he approached the city on Palm Sunday, warned the people about a coming second destruction of Jerusalem: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)

Have you ever been with a person who has been so traumatized by a past event that they just can’t get over it? They can’t get past it, or let it go. The Jews were like that with the destruction of Jerusalem. They were obsessed and traumatized by it having happened. They all thought, “Never, again!” But their city would be destroyed, again.

An aside: because of the absence in the NT of any mention of Jerusalem’s 2nd destruction, many scholars conclude that the entire NT must have been written before its’ destruction in 70 AD. But, it wasn’t mentioned because it was still a future event at the time of the NT author’s writing of their letters and books. Remember, those documents were mostly written by Jewish people (The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were two exceptions, both written by a Gentile, Dr. Luke).

Going back to the Book of Lamentations, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem was not just a big event, it was the key event in the lives of Jews from the 6th century BC onwards. As an example of that,

Lamentations describes the results of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. in vivid (though stylized) detail. The book has the flavor of personal experience and eyewitness testimony, particularly in the descriptions of death and starvation in Lamentations 2 and 4.

As we mentioned last week,

Tradition holds that Jeremiah, an eyewitness of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., was the author of Lamentations, and that he sat in a cave overlooking the destroyed city while writing Lamentations (right at the time of, or soon after, its destruction).

We also learned that there are 5 chapters in Lamentations, with each chapter being a separate poem, with the 5 separate poems joined together by their author to create the Book of Lamentations. They are poems of sadness focusing on Jeremiah’s sorrow over the loss of Jerusalem and the exile of his people. Thematically and spiritually, they are like a mountain, with chapter 1 having Jeremiah write while deep in a valley of despair, then chapter 2 seeing him climbing out of that valley of despair and trudging upwards, like up a mountain, and then, in chapter 3, seeing him continuing to climb up and finally, in the middle of the chapter, thus in the exact centre of the book, reaching the mountain peak, where he can see things more clearly and gain some hope to keep on going on in his life’s journey. So, again,

Chapters 1 and 2 of Lamentations are pure laments, ascending to chapter 3, the high point of the book, which is a declaration that apart from having God in the middle of one’s life, this world is filled with endless trouble and meaninglessness. Chapters 4 and 5 descend from that spiritual truth back to lamenting, reminding us that there is no happy ending in a life without God’s presence.

Also, we saw last week that with those 5 chapters or poems,

Each chapter is an acrostic poem, with each verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This structure, using the entire Hebrew alphabet, matches the poet’s intent, which is to give full expression to the suffering of his people and the sorrows of his own soul—in effect, to offer a lament “from A to Z” (or, from aleph – the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – to taw, the final letter).

By using an acrostic form going through the entire Hebrew alphabet, there is a totality, from A to Z, so to speak, describing the entire experience of life, in the stated laments in the poems.

Chapters 1,2,4,5, are 22 verses long. Chapter 3 is 66 verses (3 sets x 22 lines).

One more thing: Lamentations was read or sung in the Second Temple worship services. The people put a meter or beat to Lamentations as they read or sang it. We do the same thing in English, reading with a beat or a meter. For example,

In English, “iambic pentameter” is the most common meter in poetry. Containing ten syllables, it has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (like a heartbeat, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM. da-DUM).

Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th century father of English poetry, wrote down the first iambic pentameter poem in his ground-breaking book, The Canterbury Tales. William Shakespeare later used iambic pentameter in such plays as Romeo and Juliet. Well, ancient Hebrew had poems that had certain meters or beats to it.

Lamentations utilizes “qinah meter”, a meter commonly used to mourn the dead, as in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 27. This rhythm is based on lines of two unequal parts, three words then two words on the beat, three accents, then two, thereby creating a limp, as if the reader is walking haltingly along behind a funeral procession.

Let’s try that out…clap/clap/clap (on one beat) and clap/clap on the next beat. It is fascinating to think about the worshippers at the Temple reciting Lamentations to that meter, that beat. In any case, this sermon needs to focus on the message, so, as we saw last week,

The first poem of lament (chapter 1) outlined Jeremiah’s grief as well as that of the city of Jerusalem (personified as a human lamenting).

Today, we will go on to reading portions of chapters 2 and 3.

The second poem of lament (chapter 2) explains the Lord’s anger from His perspective and then Jeremiah’s.

Listen for that as we read from it in just a moment.

The third poem of lament (chapter 3) flows from Jeremiah’s lament about his own distress to his remembering that God is faithful. That gives him hope and strengthens him.

Ok, Ariel Pacpaco will read for us, starting in chapter 2, a lament explaining the Lord’s anger and Jeremiah’s sorrow.

How the Lord has covered Daughter Zion with the cloud of his anger! He has hurled down the splendor of Israel from heaven to earth; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger. The Lord determined to tear down the wall around Daughter Zion. He stretched out a measuring line and did not withhold his hand from destroying. He made ramparts and walls lament; together they wasted away. (Lamentations 2:1,8)

That it was God, and not the Babylonian army nor King Nebuchadnezzar, who orchestrated the destruction of Jerusalem was entirely mind and soul-numbing to Jeremiah.

My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms. (Lamentations 2:11,12)

As the Babylonians laid siege to the city, with nothing, including food and drink, being allowed into the city, starvation slowly overwhelmed Jerusalem’s citizens. Chapter 4 describes in gruesome detail the slow death of a dying people, but chapter 2 mentions it, as well. It was a scene of total horror, and it affected Jeremiah terribly.

The hearts of the people cry out to the Lord. You walls of Daughter Zion, let your tears flow like a river day and night;
give yourself no relief, your eyes no rest. Look, Lord, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? (Lamentations 2:18,20)

By this point in the book, Jeremiah has started to climb out of the valley of despair, and the first real hint of that happening is that here at the end of chapter 2, he is starting to not just wallow in the mud of despair, but to begin a conversation with God, praying to Him, crying out, “why, Lord?”, in effect, which frankly is sometimes a good starting point in one’s prayers and conversations with God.

I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.
I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So, I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.” (Lam. 3:1-5,14-18)

Being a prophet, a spokesperson for God, will mean being mocked, will mean seeing and experiencing affliction. But now, Jeremiah has climbed up the mountain to a point where he is starting to see clearly.

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (Lamentations 3:19-26)

Remember those lab rats that drowned because they had no helping hand from above, versus the lab rats that survived, being in the very same situation, because they got help from above, from someone more powerful than them, from a greater being who gave them hope and strength to go on? That is what it is like for us humans. When we remember that God is with us, that He will never leave us, that He is faithful and that we can trust in Him, then we will be able to carry on. It is “good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.”

It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young. Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope. Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him and let him be filled with disgrace. For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. (Lamentations 3:27-33)

No matter what the situation, wait upon the Lord, for truly He desires for no permanent harm, affliction, or grief to come to anyone. Any troubles He does allow to come are for our benefit, that we would stop the harmful things we are doing and sit back, take a deep breath, and then carry on, knowing that we are not “cast off from the Lord forever”. Jeremiah’s conclusion while on the mountain peak was this:

Let us examine our ways and test them and let us return to the Lord. (Lamentations 3:40)

On the way down the mountain, Jeremiah begins to fall back into depression but he is still surviving for he realizes as he recollects:

My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees. What I see brings grief to my soul
because of all the women of my city. Those who were my enemies without cause hunted me like a bird. They tried to end my life in a pit and threw stones at me; the waters closed over my head, and I thought I was about to perish. I called on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit. You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.” You came near when I called you, and you said, “Do not fear.” You, Lord, took up my case; you redeemed my life. (Lamentations 3:49-58)

Life can be tough for most, but for those who know God, it’s also good.

Jeremiah’s solution for hopelessness is to look up to God and to remember His faithfulness.

By contrast, life without God is too often marked by hopelessness. What Jeremiah teaches us is that there are no hopeless situations; there are only people who have grown hopeless about them.

In the early 14th Century, Dante Alighieri wrote about the afterlife in the epic poem called, “The Divine Comedy”. In the part about Hell, which Dante called, “Inferno”, he described an inscription over the entrance to it which read, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

Would anyone want to live such a life? You don’t have to. That was Dante’s take on life. It is accurate, if God is not with you. But, we have to say that what we learn in the Book of Lamentations is that, far from being in a hopeless situation,

In contrast, Jeremiah’s message is that God is here, in the middle of everything, both good and bad, and so you can have hope.

Someone once said, “You don’t know God is all you need until God is all you’ve got. That’s how it was for Jeremiah. So, here are his final words to us today, based upon what learned as he reflected on his life:

  1. God loves you.
  2. God remains faithful.
  3. God will save you.

Those are critically important facts to know. We are not needing to be swimming, flailing around, forever. We have a helping hand, God’s helping hand, from above. We have hope, after all. We can be at peace, as a result. Amen.

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