Is Lamenting Biblical?


Lamentations 1

Reader: John Renfree

The dictionary definition of the word “lament” is:                                     

 1. To express grief for or about; to mourn.                                           

2. To regret deeply; deplore.                                                                                      

3. To grieve audibly; wail.

Do you ever “lament”? Perhaps a family member’s decisions? Your own financial ill-decision making? A relationship? The state of our nation or world? Many Christians have bought into the theology that a Christian should be always joyful, never sad or depressed; that it is sinful or shows a lack of faith to ever be depressed or down. But is that so? Is lamenting biblical? Before David became the king over Israel, God had told him seven years earlier that he was to be the king, but the problem was that there was already a king: Saul. David’s colleagues were mystified that he would not allow them to ever speak of doing harm to King Saul. First, Saul’s son Jonathan was David’s best friend, but, more importantly, David would not lift a hand against Saul for he was still “God’s anointed one”. So, David patiently waited, while at the same time, fleeing from Saul as he was trying to kill him. The thing is, David’s actions were proven right. While fighting against Philistines, Saul & Jonathan were killed. People thought David would rejoice. No!

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament…“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen! Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold. How the mighty have fallen in battle!” (2 Samuel 1:17,18,23-25)

David lamented without hesitation or shame. But that was not the only occasion on which he wrote poems of lament. Indeed,

One third of the psalms, a word that ironically means “praises”, contain laments, written by King David and others.

Those laments focused on the sad state of the nation of Israel or the author’s own troubled life. A couple of centuries after David, the prophet Elijah, who was constantly at odds with the then-king of Israel, Ahab, and his evil wife, Jezebel, and their 450 priests of the false god Baal, engaged in one of the most famous laments in the Bible. The setting was that Elijah had decided on a “once-for-all” showdown with those 450 priests. He arranged for bulls to be slaughtered and placed on an altar. Elijah challenged those priests:

“You call on the name of your god, Baal, and I will call on the name of the LORD YHWH. The god who answers by fire – he is God.” (1 Kings 18:24)

Those 450 priests called on Baal from morning to noon and then up until the time of the evening sacrifice but nothing happened.  

So, they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. (1 Kings 18:28)

Elijah mocked them, “Have you had enough?” And, then YHWH God did as Elijah asked Him to, sending down fire from heaven to consume the slaughtered bulls. By the way, a similar thing happened last week in the desert of Nevada at the annual evil and perverted Burning Man Festival. It’s rare to see actual biblical-level events occur in everyday life, but that is apparently what happened at Burning Man over the weekend. An unprecedented downpour of water happened at the exact moment a giant pagan effigy was about to be set aflame. The 73,000 attendees were flooded out and forced to walk 5 miles to safety. Christians have prayed for such a thing to happen there for 20 years, so it was gratifying to see it happen. In any case, back to Elijah’s time, the gathered Israelite people responded to Baal’s non-power versus YHWH God’s power by capturing, then killing the 450 priests of Baal.

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So, Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So, he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19:1-13)

Did God reject Elijah for his “woe is me, what is the point of living?” lament? No. God provided food and drink Elijah’s body, and spoke to him in a gentle whisper. Reading on, we will hear God and Elijah speaking, again, but note this next conversation starts off with exactly the same words, an indication to us that repetition in laments is fine. 

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”    (1 Kings 19:14-18)

Taking on the evil of this world or the wrongdoings done to us or by us, is never easy. But God never leaves us on our own. Elijah had felt alone. God reminded him that there were 7,000 other people who had not bowed down before or kissed Baal. That, no doubt, refreshed him.

Friends, our world is a place of woe. Author Mark Vroegop writes, “In reality, we step into this world with a cry. Although none of us remembers the moment, the first sound we uttered after leaving the warm and protected confines of our mother’s womb was a loud protest. We enter, wailing. To cry is human.”

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield gained fame by using his “I don’t get no respect” line”, humorously claimed, “I got no respect on the day I was born. The doctor picked me up and smacked me. I found out the nurse, she then got in a few smacks, too”, but we can empathize with his joke for really life is filled with trouble from the very first day we were  born. The apostle Paul explains why:

Creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:19-28)

We 21st century Western Christians aren’t familiar or comfortable with laments offered in singing or praying. Our worship services tend to be “lament-lite”, again quoting Mark Vroegop. But lamenting gives people of faith a voice in suffering. In fact, God invites us to speak up, to not suppress or keep in our feelings of lament. Lamenting is biblical. As we go to the Book of Lamentations, there are 3 obvious questions to ask. First, who wrote it? Few people could speak and even fewer could read in the Hebrew language by the first century BC, so 70 Jewish translators got together and translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek and their finished product became the bible that people then used right up to the time of Jesus. In that book, The Septuagint (which means, ‘The Translation of the 70’), we are told the traditional understanding of who wrote the Book of Lamentations.

The author of the Book of Lamentations is not stated within the book itself but the first century BC Greek Septuagint introduced the Book of Lamentations with these words: “And it came to pass, after Israel had been carried away captive, Jeremiah sat weeping, lamented, and said…”

And, then it starts in on chapter one with Jeremiah being the author. Certainly, we know from the Book of Jeremiah, that he was an eyewitness of the destruction of Jerusalem, its city walls, houses, the king’s palace, and God’s Temple, as well as of his fellow citizens exiled to in Babylon. The Book of Lamentations is his response to that sad tragedy. A 2nd question is, when was Lamentations written? Well,

Jerusalem fell in mid-July, 586 BC, the temple was burned in August, and the people were sent into exile shortly after. Jeremiah wrote Lamentations while those events were painfully fresh in his memory, thus before his own forced exile to Egypt in 582 BC.

For the previous 40 years, Jeremiah had prophesied a coming and tragic judgment and destruction of Jerusalem, a reality that could be avoided if the people would repent of their sins of worshipping and serving Baal and other false gods but they refused to repent or turn to God. As they kept on sinning, they scorned Jeremiah for preaching doom but when destruction came, Jeremiah’s response was not an, “I forewarned you,” but, “I weep for you, our city, and our nation.” The third question to ask about Lamentations concerns its structure. 

Structurally, Lamentations was written in a way that encouraged easy memorization, being a set of 5 poems of lament, one poem corresponding to each of its 5 chapters. The chapters are acrostics, with each verse beginning with a word that starts with each successive letter of the 22 letter Hebrew alphabet, going from Aleph (the first letter) to Taw (the final letter).

It’s like an English poem 26 verses long, and the first verse begins with a word (e.g. apple) starting with the letter A, the second verse begins with a word (e.g. bacon) starting with the letter B, and so on, consecutively down to Z (e.g. zoo) and thus through 26 verses, creating a poem starting with the next letter and word in succession. 

Now Lamentations itself is 154 verses long, divided up with 22 verses in chapters 1,2,4,5, and 66 verses in chapter 3.

So, chapters 1,2,4,5 has 22 verses that correspond with the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. But Chapter 3 is different. It is the central point of the entire book, physically and spiritually. The Bible has different acrostic poems. Let’s look at the most famous of them. 

Turn to Psalm 119, the most well-known of several acrostic poems in the Old Testament. Before verse 1 it says, א Aleph. At the start of verse 9 it says, ב Beth. 8 verses later comes the third letter, ג Gimel and on and on to ת Taw, the 22nd and final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

That pattern of a word starting with the next letter in the Hebrew then goes for 8 verses for that letter. This is patter that goes from the first 

letter to the final letter. 22 x 8 verses, thus totalling 176 verses in Psalm 119. Lamentations is like that, starting with a word using the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and going through all 22 letters, in order. Later Jews memorized the entire book and recited it annually in the Temple worship services on the day assigned to reflect on the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. So,

Lamentations contains 154 verses, 22 in each of chapters 1,2,4,5 while in chapter 3 there are 66 verses (3 verses for each letter).

Chapter 3 is the focal point of the book. Jeremiah’s laments ascend, and climb in volume through chapters 1 and 2, only to discover in chapter 3 that God is with them in their lamenting which reads in the exact middle section of the entire book, “Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father. Morning by morning, new mercies I see: All I have needed Thy hand hath provided – Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.” Chapters 4 and 5 then descend from that spiritual high and return to lamenting. You should know that the Book of Lamentations has no happy ending at the conclusion of the book. Chapter 5 ends with sorrowing. And I think that the life lesson and main point for learn in this book. Live is not easy. It is disappointing and painful, and that is true for all humans, but if God is the central point you meet in the middle of your troubles and laments, you will be ok. Ok, chapter 1:

1. Aleph – How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She

who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.

2. Beth – Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks.

Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her.

All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.

3. Gimel – After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place.

All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

4. Daleth – The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her young women grieve, and she is in bitter anguish.

5. He – Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins.

Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe.

6. Waw – All the splendor has departed from Daughter Zion.

Her princes are like deer that find no pasture;

in weakness they have fled before the pursuer.

7. Zayin – In the days of her affliction and wandering Jerusalem remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into enemy hands, there was no one to help her.

Her enemies looked at her and laughed at her destruction.

8. Heth – Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have all seen her naked; she herself groans and turns away.

9. Teth – Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. “Look, Lord, on my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed.”

10. Yoth – The enemy laid hands on all her treasures; she saw pagan nations enter her sanctuary—those you had forbidden

to enter your assembly.

11. Kaph – All her people groan as they search for bread; they

barter their treasures for food to keep themselves alive. “Look,

Lord, and consider, for I am despised.” (Lamentations 1:1-11)

The first half of chapter 1 we just read records Jeremiah’s personal feelings of lament over what has happened to Jerusalem but, in the second half, Jeremiah changes the tone to being that of personifying the city of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is thus heard lamenting, as if it were a human being expressing a lament of sorrow and loss. 

12. Lamedh – Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the Lord brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?

13. Mem – From on high he sent fire, sent it down into my bones.

He spread a net for my feet and turned me back.

He made me desolate, faint all the day long.

14. Nun – My sins have been bound into a yoke; by his hands they were woven together. They have been hung on my neck, and the Lord has sapped my strength. He has given me into the hands of those I cannot withstand.

15. Samekh – The Lord has rejected all the warriors in my midst;

he has summoned an army against me to crush my young men.

In his winepress the Lord has trampled Virgin Daughter Judah.

16. Ayin – This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears.

No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit.

My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed.

17. Pe – Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her. The Lord has decreed for Jacob that his neighbors become his foes; Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them.

18. Tsadhe – The Lord is righteous, yet I rebelled against his command. Listen, all you peoples; look on my suffering.

My young men and young women have gone into exile.

19. Qoph – I called to my allies but they betrayed me.

My priests and my elders perished in the city

while they searched for food to keep themselves alive.

20. Resh – See, Lord, how distressed I am! I am in torment within,

and in my heart I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious.

Outside, the sword bereaves; inside, there is only death.

21. Shin – People have heard my groaning, but there is no one to comfort me. All my enemies have heard of my distress; they rejoice at what you have done. May you bring the day you have announced so they may become like me.

22. Taw – Let all their wickedness come before you; deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my sins. My groans are many and my heart is faint.” (Lam. 1:12-22)                

The Book of Lamentations is thus a memorial of Jeremiah’s sadness and deep grief. And, yet, in the midst of his despair, Jeremiah remembered and reflected on the fact that God was yet faithful to him and to his people. Life is like that. It starts off hard, it ends with challenges, and yet, if one recalls God to me and recalls on his mercies which are new every morning we will remember or even discover for the firs time that God is faithful to us. We need to be honest with Him in our lamenting. When we are honest and unwavering, God is there for us. That will give us strength to carry on. But we need to remember God. Otherwise, we will be down, depressed, and defeated in our lives. So, please, lament to God! It is biblical. Don’t wallow in the mud as that brings you and others down. But, biblically lament. Talk to God openly and honestly. We want to be spiritually healthy. Lamenting is a large part of that journey to spiritual health and wellbeing. We will learn of this fact more next week when we continue on through the Book of Lamentations, reading through chapters 2 and 3 next time. In the meantime, I pray for God’s peace and sustaining power in your life. Let’s pray…

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