God has been teaching me much in my study of Lamentations over the past nine months. I’ll share a short one today: one does not need to be innocent to lament.
I’ve never heard anyone claim that innocence is required for lament, but this sort of statement can be absorbed over years of selective Bible reading. Lamentations smashes that statement to bits.
In my mind, there are two obvious examples in the Bible of crying out for deliverance. The first one is King David.
David wrote a good portion of the Psalms, many while on the run from Saul or other enemies. When he asks God for deliverance, he frequently appeals to his own righteousness. Here’s an example.
The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me. (Psalm 7:8)
David is asking for deliverance in this prayer (see Psalm 7:1), and he cites his integrity as the basis on which God should act.
The difference between righteousness and innocence is an important one; perhaps at another time and/or place. For our purposes it’s enough to note that, in this situation, David’s sin is not what got him into trouble.
The other example of crying out to God that sticks in my head is the Israelites in Egypt. God’s people pleaded with him for deliverance from slavery, and God heard them (Exodus 2:23–25). The Israelites were not a perfect people, but they were being oppressed—this is what prompted their cry.
Lamentations is different. This book of prayers arises from rebellious people who have received just judgment from God for their sin. And yet, this cry of lament is included in Scripture! Blamelessness, righteousness, status as an innocent victim—none of these are requirements to come before God in lament.
The author of Lamentations confesses that the people are guilty and have deserved God’s wrath. (See Lam 1:5, 8, 18, 22. Examples abound in chapters 2–5 of the book as well.) And yet, they still come to God. They still describe what they are experiencing and the accompanying pain and sorrow. They know they are to blame for their situation, and they still ask God to see them. They want to be remembered in their suffering, even when the blame for their suffering falls on their own shoulders.
The requests in Lamentations are sparse. In this way, these prayers are much different than psalms. We might expect multiple cries for mercy, for deliverance, for some way out of the present suffering. But there is really only one request like this, at the very end of the book: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). Even this request acknowledges the guilt of the people.
God wants the guilty to come to him. To keep praying. Even when they suffer as a result of sin. I find this to be incredibly good news! Not because our sorrow or pain is easily traced back to sinful actions or desires (though occasionally that is the case), but because God is so open to our lament that we can come in any condition. Even those who are dripping with guilt, standing in the smoky ruins of a conquered Jerusalem—these believers can lament before the Lord.
This opens the gate for everyone, every last person who looks to the Lord. God will see. I am guilty; I can lament before the Lord.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus underline this truth. Jesus was the friend of sinners, welcoming the guilty even as he hung on the cross.
Because Jesus brings us to God (1 Pet 3:18), we can go to him, taking our praise, confession, sorrow, thanks, and lament, trusting that he hears.