When the Promises of God Are All You Have

There are signature moments in our lives, markers between before and after. A big move, the death of a loved one, a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child, a terrible fire. Occasionally we realize, in the middle, that our world will be different on the other end. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it is tragic.

What Has Been Lost

In Lamentations 4, we are reading the after of one such moment. A large part of lament is noting how much now is different than it was or should be. In this chapter-long prayer, the author calls out many unremarkable facets of life which are upside-down as a result of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of Babylon.

Gold is tarnished and holy stones are scattered (Lam 4:1). The remaining men, though “precious sons,” are regarded as no more than “earthen pots” (Lam 4:2). Infants and children are starving, with nursing mothers treating their children no better than wild jackals (Lam 4:3-4). Even those who were rich are living in refuse and dying (Lam 4:5).

Signs of Judgment

There is a clear reason everything has been overturned. Behind Babylon’s tactics is the wrath of God; it was his hot anger that kindled a fire in the city and consumed it (Lam 4:11).

Jerusalem is receiving a punishment worse than Sodom—shocking, since the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was the most notable destruction of cities in the Old Testament to that point. (This story is in Genesis 18–19.) The punishment is worse because it is drawn out; Sodom was destroyed in a moment, while the residents of Jerusalem are slowly dying of hunger (Lam 4:6, 9). Jerusalem deserved a harsher punishment, in part, because they were God’s people with his word and his temple; the residents of Sodom had not known the Lord.

These verses reveal specific aspects of divine judgment, horrible as they are. The women of Jerusalem boiled and ate their young children—this was both an act of compassion on the babies and a desperate search for food. This was a curse foretold in Deut 28:53. We also read one reason for this judgment: the prophets and priests have sinned horribly in the city (Lam 4:13). The people cried “Unclean!” at them as they wandered through the streets (Lam 4:14-15). These religious leaders were banished from the city by God himself, scattered among the nations (Lam 4:15-16).

False Hopes

As the Lord brought judgment to Jerusalem, some of their false idols came to light.

Historically, the siege of Jerusalem was paused for a time when it was thought that Egypt would intervene. Judah had been hoping for rescue, but this hope never came; Egypt turned out to be “a nation which could not save” (Lam 4:17).

Judah had also been hoping in Zedekiah, their king when the city was attacked by Babylon. This is mentioned in Lam 4:20, where the king is referred to as “the Lord’s anointed.” The people thought he would protect them, that they could live “under his shadow,” but he, like so many others, was captured.

Waiting on the Judge

At the end of Lam 4:20, the writer is in a miserable state. With the fall of Jerusalem, so very much has been lost. God himself has been judging his people through the Babylonian army. The people are without prophets, without priests, without temple, and without food. And their hopes (in Egypt and in King Zedekiah) have come up empty. What is left?

Much remains! The writer falls back on the promises of God.

Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom,
you who dwell in the land of Uz;
but to you also the cup shall pass;
you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare.
The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished;
he will keep you in exile no longer;
but your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will punish;
he will uncover your sins. (Lam 4:21–22)

The author of Lamentations knows who God is and what he has promised. Even though they are part of his plan, those who brutalize God’s people will themselves be punished. The cup of judgment will pass from Israel to Edom (another nation in the area).

More hopefully, God’s wrath against his people is finite, and he will keep them “in exile no longer.” This is not some idle wish—this is a rock-solid promise of God. (See Jeremiah 31, among other places.) This fits squarely with God’s character and his love for his people (Lam 3:31–33).

God’s promises are a life raft, and with this particular promise, the call is to trust in the Lord and wait. This is not new! We have seen previously that waiting for the Lord is a large component of seeking him (Lam 3:25–26).

We May Have Sorrow, but We Always Have the Lord

Though a request is a common component of lament, there is no bold request in Lamentations 4. The author’s distress is severe and obvious; he is calling the Lord’s attention to his troubles and reminding himself (in the presence of the Lord) that God’s promises are true. God is trustworthy and we can—we must!—rely on what he says.

Of course, this is true for us too! In our distress or suffering, we must not rely on our health, our optimism, our bank account, our reputation, our friends, our safety, or any sort of harmony in our life. We can, however, look to the Lord and his promises!

In an upcoming article, I plan to write about a few of God’s promises that we can call to mind in times of anguish, pain, and discouragement. It may be a good exercise, until then, to search the Scriptures yourself and search out the promises of God which are yours in Jesus. These are precious.

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Banking on God’s Justice

What characteristic of God do you turn to for hope? Many people (with good reason) would mention his steadfast love. Others might point to his faithfulness or his sovereignty.

The author of Lamentations heads in a different direction. He banks on God’s justice.

God’s Justice and Control

We’ve already looked at the first half of Lamentations 3, so this article will focus on the second half of that chapter (Lamentations 3:34–66).

In verses 34–36 we read a list of things of which “the Lord does not approve.” Crushing prisoners, subverting lawsuits, and denying justice to people—God is utterly opposed to all of it.

One reason he can oppose these violations is that he is in control. No one can issue commands unless the Lord is behind it (verse 37). He brings both good and bad to those on earth (verse 38). Because he is just and sovereign, no one can claim ill treatment when they suffer punishment for their sins (verse 39).

Let Us Return to the Lord

We read something shocking in Lam 3:42: “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” We cannot bear to think of God not forgiving!

The order in this passage is crucial. The poet sees the surrounding destruction and devastation as evidence that God has not forgiven. This is the reason the people must return to the Lord! The author is NOT saying, we have returned and God has not forgiven. No—the abundant evidence of God’s anger is the reason the people must turn back to their Sovereign Lord. Because God has not forgiven, we must return!

God uses dramatic tactics to get through to his people. He pursues and kills them (verse 43). They cannot pray (verse 44). Their enemies taunt and destroy them (Lam 3:46–47). The people are panicking (verse 47). The author weeps uncontrollably because of the pitiful state of God’s people in Jerusalem (verses 48, 49, 51). The only relief from this sorrow will come when the Lord sees and takes notice of those who are broken-hearted (verse 50).

I’ve seen this truth in my life and I’ll bet you have too. We long for pleasant, peaceful times, but it is far too easy in those calm waters to forget God altogether. When the skies darken and the waves are high—then we realize we are not in charge, we are not self-sufficient. That shock brings us to our senses so that we soberly seek the Lord. In fact, that image of sobriety and inebriation is a little too accurate: prosperity and comfort often bring about a hedonistic stupor and a cloud of self-deception. This is why there are so many warnings about wealth in the Bible and why God uses suffering and sorrow to bring his people back to himself.

What does such a return to the Lord look like? It must include self-examination (verse 40) and confession of sin (verse 42). Genuine repentance occurs on the level of both affections and actions (“hearts and hands,” verse 41).

God Has Taken Up My Cause

The author of Lamentations writes more personally in verses 52–66. It seems he suffered much in his physical body (verses 52–54).

A wonderful story unfolds in this brief discourse! The author called on the name of the Lord (verse 55) and the Lord heard this cry (verse 56). God not only heard, but he came near and calmed the poet’s fears (verse 57). Let’s not rush past the kindness and mercy of God in this response—meeting this man in “the depths of the pit” and with just the reassurance he needed.

The author now uses God’s past response as fuel for future prayer. He knows God has taken up his cause (verse 58) and has seen all the violence of his enemies against him (verses 59–60). God has heard their taunts and their plots (verse 61). Because God is just, because he is in control, and because he has already come near, the author of Lamentations can ask the Lord to judge his cause (verse 59).

The poet has confidence that God will do exactly this, that he will repay his enemies (verse 64), curse them (verse 65), pursue them and destroy them (verse 66). God had been pursuing the Israelites (verse 43) in an effort to turn them back to himself. Now, according to his promise, God will pursue the enemies of Israel. The author hopes in the Lord because the Lord is, among other things, perfectly just.

Our Hope Also Lies in God’s Justice

Like the Israelites stuck in Jerusalem after the siege, our hope is tied to God’s justice. (It does not depend on his justice alone, but without God’s justice our hope crumbles.)

Christians believe that when Jesus died on the cross, he really took our sins upon himself. And because God is just, even though Jesus was perfect, those sins of ours demanded punishment. Our hope that we will not suffer judgment for our sins lies in the fact that God dealt with them—perfectly, finally—in Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.

Additionally, when we grieve injustices in this world, we can still have hope. We can (and should) work for temporal justice for our neighbors near and far. And we can trust that God will deal with all sins according to his eternal justice.

God is kind. He is holy. He is patient and good and unchanging. He is also just, and his justice means that everything will be set right in the end. You can bank on that!

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How to Find Hope When Hope Has Perished

The book of Lamentations is not dripping with hope. I suspect many avoid the book because it seems so dreary and somber.

But there is hope for God’s people in Lamentations.

My Hope is Gone

Chapter 3 in Lamentations takes a different turn than chapter 1 or chapter 2. God’s judgment earlier was corporate, focused on Israel as a people. In chapter 3, things get personal.

Instead of mourning the destruction of the city or the loss of the temple, now the writer cries out at God’s attacks on his person. God has broken his bones (verse 4), made him dwell in darkness (verse 6), given him heavy chains (verse 7), and even shut out his prayer (verse 8). God is like a lion or a bear hiding in wait for him (verse 10); the writer is a target for God’s arrows (verses 12, 13).

In the start of this chapter, we have an inversion of the way we usually think about God on the side of his people. This writer sees God’s hand against him (verse 3), and instead of protection and joy God has brought him bitterness and tribulation (verse 5). This sorrowful cry escalates until his soul is bereft of peace and he has forgotten what happiness is (verse 17). At the peak of the lament, the writer confesses that both his endurance and his hope have perished (verse 18). Bleak, indeed!

This may seem like an off-limits prayer. Earlier chapters were filled with complaints about the state of the people and city after God brought judgment. Here the writer trims away all of the decorations and strips it down to this crushing truth: God has done terrible things to me.

I Will Yet Hope

The wonderful, memorable verses from Lamentations 3 must be read against this harsh background. What does a person of God do when hope has perished?

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:21–24)

The key to our understanding and application of verses 22–24 is found in verse 21. How do we harvest hope from a hopeless situation? We don’t. We remind ourselves (“call to mind”) of what is true that we cannot see.

Lamentations shows us that hope does not come from a change of circumstances. Rather, it comes from what you know to be true despite the situation in front of you. In other words, you live through suffering by what you believe, not by what you see or feel. (Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds Deep Mercy, page 110)

We look around and witness devastation, we feel God’s arrows pointing at our necks, but we know he is full of mercy. We know—from our own experiences walking with him and from countless episodes in the Bible—that God’s steadfast love never ceases. He is so, so faithful—great is his faithfulness!

How wonderful: God’s mercies are new every morning! This doesn’t mean that his mercies are different from one day to the next. Rather, his mercies are fresh every time the sun rises.

Right now is a good time to plan how you will call to mind what is needed. We store and practice and prepare now for the desperate times later. Reading and memorizing the Bible are more than appropriate disciplines here, but so is something like gathering stories of God’s faithfulness from your own life and the lives of others. Ask your friends to remind you how faithful and loving God is. Christian biographies can also be a good source of stories about God’s faithfulness.

Seeking the Lord in Hope

The first half of Lamentations 3 ends with instruction on how to seek the Lord in hope. The punch line here may not be what you’d like to see, but it is anchored in God’s character.

The author tells us, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lam 3:25). Among other things, this means that seeking the Lord may involve more than waiting, but it does not involve less. As much as it grates against our human impulses, we must wait on the Lord. This is a good practice for God’s people to learn even from their youth (verse 27).

Why can we wait? Why can we rebuke our flesh when it insists that things must happen right now? Soak in the beautiful answer found in Lam 3:31-33. God may cause grief to his people, but that is not what makes his heart beat (verse 33). He “will not cast off forever” (verse 31); “he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (verse 32).

With the author of Lamentations, we must return to the theme of God’s steadfast love. His steadfast love is the grounds for our hope; his Son Jesus has secured our hope.

While the author of Lamentations felt the judgment of God personally for his transgressions, Jesus felt the judgment of God personally for our transgressions. Jesus suffered, cried out, and waited on the Lord—all for us. He hoped that God would raise him from the dead to new life. And that same new life awaits those who follow this same suffering, steadfast, risen king. This is the real hope everyone needs.

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The Lord Has Become Like an Enemy

Most Christians don’t have a problem seeing God’s hand in the blessings of life. Give us a new job, a narrowly-avoided accident, or an energizing time with a friend and we’re eager to point to God as the giver.

It’s harder for us to see God bringing difficulty our way. How can we attribute bad circumstances to a good God?

The author of Lamentations did not have this modern problem. As he sits in the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem, he knows for a fact that God has done every bit of it.

So Much Devastation

The poet of Lamentations 2 looks around and sees his city destroyed. And though Babylon is directly responsible for the fires and the rubble, he knows this is God’s work.

God has “broken down” the defenses of the city (Lam 2:2) and “cut down” its might (Lam 2:3). He has “swallowed up all its palaces” and “laid in ruin its strongholds” (Lam 2:5).

Even the destruction of the temple can be traced back to the Lord. God “laid in ruin his meeting place” (Lam 2:6). He has “scorned his altar” and “disowned his sanctuary.” He delivered this holy building “into the hand of the enemy” and they “raised a clamor in the house of the Lord” (Lam 2:7).

Through this work, God was not removed. He was angry. In the first ten verses of this chapter alone, notice the words that describe God’s posture toward his people: anger, fury, burned, killed, without mercy.

At one point it must have seemed unthinkable for God to stand against his people like this. But now, “the Lord has become like an enemy” (Lam 2:5). The author does not take the easy road, writing that God allowed this or that tragedy. No, God “did not restrain his hand from destroying” (Lam 2:8).

This chapter contains some of the most vivid, forceful, specific language in the Bible about God’s judgment on Israel. If the prayer of Lamentations 1 could be summarized as Look at what has happened to us, then chapter 2 takes a harsh turn: Look what you have done to us!

Reasons for Judgment

We don’t have a detailed list of the sins of Israel in this short book. But chapter 2 offers a few details.

The prophets have failed the people. They have seen “false and deceptive visions.” They “have not exposed” the people’s iniquity, but have instead spoken “oracles that are false and misleading” (Lam 2:14).

In his response, God has not acted out of character or against his promise. “The Lord has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word which he commanded long ago” (Lam 2:17).

The Response to Judgment

This chapter is filled with weeping and lament. Here we have a profound example: We can mourn our circumstances to the Lord even when God is the one who brought about our mournful circumstances.

It is not wrong—in fact, it is deeply right—to cry out to the Lord in the midst of pain and tragedy that are the result of God’s judgment.

The repeated prayer in Lamentations 1 is a request for the Lord to see the poet. That is also the author’s main request in this chapter: “Look, O Lord, and see! With whom have you dealt thus?” (Lam 2:20)

But now the request to be noticed acknowledges God’s hand in the devastation. The end of this verse captures the layers of grief, surprise, and horror: “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?” (Lam 2:20)

While few of our hardships can be traced with certainty to our guilt, all suffering exists because of the fall of humanity into sin. This chapter helps us understand that crying out to God is good, even in the midst of judgment. How much more, therefore, is it good for us to lament when we are not necessarily directly to blame?

The Laments of Jesus

Because God is just, sin must be judged. And for every Christian, this is what Jesus accomplished. His sufferings were greater than those of the residents of fallen Jerusalem. His agony was deeper than we could imagine. In the unthinkable way that God became like an enemy to his people, God confronted Jesus as he was “made sin” in his final hours (2 Cor 5:21).

On the cross, our Lord lamented being forsaken by God (Matt 27:46). He could just as easily have cried, “With whom have you dealt thus?” (Lam 2:20)

Called to be Lamenting People

The white, western church is deeply uncomfortable with lament. Our calls to worship, our songs, our congregational prayers bear little resemblance to Lamentations. Though we often suffer, we have swallowed the lie that our lives and our words to God should be nothing but celebration.

But it is good to grieve over sin and its consequences. In this way we agree with God—our broken world needs redemption.

As we turn to God, let’s acknowledge him as the good, sovereign king who justly brings consequences for sin. When we feel that sorrow, and when our neighbors bend under that same weight, we can bring this anguish to God.

He will hear. He will see.

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Look and See, O Lord!

In the midst of any prolonged suffering, we feel a natural desire for relief. We want the pain to go away, the grief to recede, the devastation to subside.

But there’s an earlier, more fundamental need we have as humans in mourning. We want to be seen.

Lamentations

The book of Lamentations in the Bible is filled with urgent cries of agony. Assumed by many to be written by Jeremiah (though never identified internally this way), Lamentations is a book of five laments about the destruction of Jerusalem. As an agent of God’s judgment on his people for their sin, the nation of Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C. After destroying the temple and much of the city, the Babylonians led most of the residents away to captivity.

This was a heartbreaking, disastrous situation for all Israelites. The prayers recorded in the book of Lamentations were written by one of the people left behind, and they were used in Jewish worship services for decades afterward. These prayers are filled with loss and anguish, and they teach us as God’s people how to process grief in his presence.

Requests in Lamentations 1

lament is a genre of prayer found in the Bible which usually contains complaints, requests, and expressions of trust in the Lord. Not all of these ingredients are found in all laments, but most laments include at least two of these elements.

It’s not hard to find the complaints in the first chapter of Lamentations—they’re everywhere. This is easy to understand, as the city and temple have been leveled. All that the Jewish people knew and held dear was reduced to rubble.

The requests in this chapter are more scarce. In fact, before the last two verses, there is only one petition I see, and it appears three times.

“O Lord, behold my affliction”

In verse 9, the author writes, “O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”

The Israelites have “sinned grievously” (verse 8) and Jerusalem has fallen in a public and embarrassing way (verses 8–9). There is no one to comfort her (verse 9). The Lord “has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (verse 5).

“Look, O Lord, and see”

In Lamentations 1:11, we read, “Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised.”

The nations have entered unlawfully into the Lord’s sanctuary and have taken “precious things” (verse 10). The people are starving, groaning as they search for bread (verse 11).

“Look, O Lord, for I am in distress”

In verse 20, we read, “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.”

The Lord has “inflicted” sorrow in his “fierce anger” (verse 12). The author writes in detail of the painful physical judgment God has brought on his people (verses 13–15). There has been no one to give comfort (verses 16, 17).

A Desire to be Noticed

As painful as suffering can be, loneliness amplifies this hardship. Agony is more acute when it is held in private and not seen or acknowledged by others.

Here is the root of these requests. Before asking for relief or deliverance or restoration, the author of Lamentations wants to be seen by the Lord.

This is something we should be praying for ourselves and our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ: “Look, O Lord, and see!”

Jesus, Our Lamenter

The book of Lamentations is bleak territory. With some minor exceptions, it doesn’t feel hopeful. I’d wager no verses from Lamentations 1 appear on a Hallmark card.

And yet, when we understand how all of the Scriptures point to Jesus, there is much we can learn from this rich book.

The author of Lamentations understands the connections. God is holy and the people have rebelled. So God has brought the judgment for sin he promised. The people are lamenting because they are suffering the consequences of their sin.

This probably doesn’t sound like Jesus yet, but remember what he screamed on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)

Jesus knew the pain of judgment for sin. He knew loneliness. He knew what it was like to look in vain for comfort. Piped through the right speakers, Jesus’s cry on the cross sounds a lot like “Look, O Lord, and see!”

If you are a child of God, Jesus has suffered and lamented for you. Jesus is evidence that God has looked and seen!

Do Unto Others

We can now lament—even more fully than the author of Lamentations—because we have a lamenting Savior. Christians have the comfort of the Holy Spirit because, for a time, Jesus was without comfort.

We know how vital it is to be seen and noticed, to have our pain recognized and named. Entering into the full suffering of humanity, Jesus knew the same, so we have a sympathetic advocate in heaven when we pray.

The application for us toward our friends and neighbors here is obvious. We must learn to notice and acknowledge the suffering of others. We can lament on their behalf, asking God to look and see and comfort.

When we encounter our neighbors’ grief, it may be raw and wild. We don’t need to offer advice or platitudes; often our presence is enough.

And a lament to God for our neighbors—with our neighbors—may point more persuasively to Jesus than a sermon could.

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