Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Lamentations

This week’s book is just what we all need for those post-Easter back-to-work blues. Last week we talked about Jeremiah’s grief at the destruction of his city of Jerusalem and, deeper than that, the dying of a whole culture, and we noted that, unlike many prophetic books, Jeremiah’s contains several passages in which he pours out the grief of his broken heart. If, as is traditionally assumed, Lamentations is from his pen, we get the full horror of his devastation in these five chapters.

Lament is not something the church has always been good at, at least those more hopeful and upbeat sections of it. But like other kinds of literature in the Bible lament has its form, and its rules. This book uses the form of funeral poems, cast in typical lament structure, and it is a book from which we can learn much.

I am indebted to a very helpful Grove Book called Sowing in Tears by Paul Bradbury[1]. Subtitled ‘How to Lament in a Church of Praise’ it makes the point that charismatic churches can be so focussed on future triumph that present suffering can easily be downplayed or excluded altogether from the church’s worship and spirituality. After all, we should all be walking in faith and victory. He examines ‘Lament form’ and uses it as a framework to contain both sorrow and hope, just as the author of our book does.

Lament

So we begin with an extended description of just what it is that has gone wrong. The city is devastated and deserted; worship has ceased, her enemies have triumphed over her and have plundered her; the few people remaining are close to starvation, and nobody cares. Like the prophet the city is without comfort or help. Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to judge those who have caused all this distress.

In chapter 2 the blame shifts, and there is a recognition that God is actually behind this devastation, which is seen as punishment. The Lord has done exactly what he said he would do. Chapter 3 becomes more personal as the author talks in greater detail about what all this has done to him personally. But then in what is the purple passage of the book hope springs up in 3:21. At least God has not destroyed us altogether: because of his love, mercy and faithfulness hope remains. The appropriate response, therefore is patient submission and waiting. But then the lament theme re-emerges and what looks like Jeremiah’s personal suffering at the hand of those who found his message unacceptable is recounted. Chapter 4 is more of the same, reminding us that even though hope springs up briefly it has not yet fully overcome the need to mourn. The final chapter is a prayer to the endlessly reigning God to restore the people’s fortunes, but the poignant coda adds ‘Unless you have utterly rejected us’.

Lamentations is a powerful book, too little preached on, and too dominated by the church’s love for the short nice bit in chapter 3 with little acknowledgement of the reality of the rest. Paul Bradbury’s advice to us is to use the lament form, which moves from deepest devastation to hope to prayer as a ‘container’ for our griefs and sorrows. Certainly it is appropriate that we resist all attempts to jolly us, or those we stand alongside in their suffering, towards resolution before we have been given the chance fully to lament our woes. Without a full expression of the experience of the pain of suffering and loss, any attempts at rushing people towards hope and joy are very likely to be superficial. Lamentations gives us a good framework: it is a book which needs to be preached and prayed far more than it is.

[1] Grove Worship Series W193 (Cambridge: Grove, 2007)

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Jeremiah

This far through our odyssey we’re beginning to get a broad overview of OT history. We’ve seen the judges and the monarchy, the decline and fall of Israel and the exile in Babylon, and then Ezra and Nehemiah’s return and rebuilding in Jerusalem. This big picture will be helpful to keep in mind as we explore the remaining prophetic books, each of which will be positioned somewhere in this story.

Jeremiah has the reputation of being the most miserable of the prophets, and it is easy to see why. His ministry crossed the time before and into the exile, and his words fall pretty much into two halves, firstly warning the unrepentant Israelites that it has become too late for repentance: they simply have to accept their punishment at the hands of Babylon and suck it up. Then, as Jerusalem falls and the people are carried off, he turns to speaking to the ruling classes in exile, telling them that God was still in control and would fulfil his purposes through them if they just kept the faith. Meanwhile the peasants who remained in the now devastated Judah were encouraged simply to accept their lot and wait patiently for God’s salvation.

This is familiar stuff – Jeremiah was roughly contemporary with Isaiah of Jerusalem, and had a similar if much harder message. Isaiah believed that repentance and salvation were still possible, while Jeremiah’s message was that the nation’s apostasy had gone beyond the point of no return. But there are two things which make this book stand out from the crowd. The first is the high proportion of biographical material. Most of the prophetic books give at least some detail about the prophet himself, but Jeremiah has given us not just many narrative details of his career, but also some very poignant outpourings of his own emotions as he is ignored, rejected and persecuted. We also feel something of his pain as the city he loves is razed to the ground by foreign invaders, although nowhere near as much as we are going to feel next week. We are reminded that we are reading about a real person, whose calling from God meant that his life was one of almost complete rejection. The promise from God in 29:11 that he had plans to prosper the people, and that he would not harm them, a purple passage owned by Christians down the years, certainly didn’t seem to be fulfilled in Jeremiah’s own life. We are reminded of the cost of Christian ministry, and the fact that in his love for us God is not committed to giving us an easy life if we obey him.

Rembrandt. The Prophet Jeremiah Mourning  over the Destruction of Jerusalem.

The other significance of Jeremiah’s prophecy is its strong relevance to today’s culture. He ministered at a time when society was literally crumbling and giving way to a new order. Culture-watchers have defined the late 20th century, with the death of enlightenment modernism and the tectonic shift to postmodernity and beyond as a time which parallels the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the settled lifestyle which had been Israel’s since the days of the judges. We watch with Jeremiah at the end of an era; we feel his pain, confusion and uncertainty, and we hear his reassurances that the unchanging God is still somehow in charge, even if, like his original hearers, we find it all a bit hard to believe. Jeremiah makes good reading for Christians who feel that the world is going to hell in a handcart. He validates our grief but yet holds out to us the offer of hope.