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The Nation’s Plea
Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 2: Prophets of Restoration
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 25, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Lamentations 5
Key Verse: Lamentations 5:21
- Describe the historical context of the book of Lamentations.
- Summarize the reasons for the people’s mourning.
How many sermons or lessons have you heard on Lamentations? In all probability, not many. As the writer of the lesson pointed out, Lamentations has been largely neglected in favor of texts that call us to joyful worship. Even in personal devotional time, Lamentations is often bypassed in favor of almost anything else. Simply stated, we don’t like to dwell on pain, which is what Lamentations does.
However, we are reminded that remembering tragedy, as important as that is, isn’t the only purpose of Lamentations. This book can also teach us much about our relationship with God – if we let it.
The book of Lamentations reflects the period of about 586-538 BC, the period of Babylonian captivity. Assyria had taken the northern tribes of Israel into exile earlier, in 722 BC. “Only the tribe of Judah was left” (2 Kings 17:18). But despite the warnings of many prophets, Judah continued in sin (2 Kings 21:10-15). The writer of Lamentations, commonly taken to be Jeremiah, had warned Judah for many years that God’s judgment was coming (Jeremiah 25:2-11).
As instruments of God’s wrath, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC (2 Chronicles 36:15-20). Many who were left alive were carried into exile while the weak and the poor were left behind to contend with foreign settlers.
The book of Lamentations consists of five independent poems, all centering, though in different ways, around one common theme: the calamities that befell the people of Judah, and especially of Jerusalem, during the siege and subsequent capture of the holy city.
Note that the five poems of chapters of Lamentations do not shy away from describing that devastation and its aftermath. Lack of food resulted in starvation and even cannibalism (Lamentations 2:20; 4:10). Those who did not die by the sword were weak with hunger and disease.
We are informed that for all the chaos of the setting Jeremiah was very intentional in the literary forms he used when writing this book. The first four chapters are all “acrostics.” This means that each verse begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in consecutive order. In English, this would mean beginning the first verse with A, the second verse with B, etc. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, thus there are 22 verses in each of chapter 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 is somewhat different with 66 verses because the
“acrostic” format appears there three times.
It is suggested that this tight orderliness was perhaps a way for Jeremiah to organize what he saw. And, if so, it is a subtle hint that, though on the surface all seems lost, order still exists – or at least “could” exist again.
The fifth poem, which is Lamentations 5, has the requisite number of stanzas, but no attempt at alphabetic arrangement is discernible (no acrostic pattern). That is not accidental, since it is the same length as chapter 1, 2, and 4. It is thought that the discontinuance of the careful pattern seems to mimic the ebbing fortunes of the people. For all their cries to God, no help seemed to be forthcoming (Lamentations 3:44).
Though the acrostic pattern disappears in Lamentations chapter 5, Jeremiah continues to use characteristic Hebrew repetition. Piling on synonyms is a way Hebrew poetry emphasizes a point. And this characteristic is evident throughout the lesson text. The effect is to give a full account of the pain of the people, who speak as one here.
Asking God to “remember” is not primarily a plea for him to recall information, but for him to act. “Look and see” both echo “remember.” Putting these three verbs together conveys a sense of urgency for God to see what is happening to his people and to act without delay.
The phrase “what has happened to us” suggests that the people saw themselves as passive recipients of the tragedy that has befallen them while the phrase “our disgrace” runs parallel (compare Psalm 44:13-16).
But the people’s circumstances were because of their sins, not mere twists of fate. Lamentations 1:5, 2:14, and 3:42 tell the whole story.
We now see the results of Judah’s sins. Here the people do not recount the events of invasion as they did in Lamentations 4:16-20. Instead, they describe the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual conditions of survivors in an occupied land.
Strangers possess their inheritance, their land, and their homes. Spiritually and emotionally they are abandoned, fully displaced “orphans” (v.3). Imagine how devastating it was for that inheritance – with all its God-ordained safeguards – to be lost to “strangers” and “foreigners.” The land falling into the hands of people who were outside of God’s covenant jeopardized Judah ever receiving it back.
Orphans (fatherless children, not necessarily motherless) and widows were protected people under God’s covenant (example: Deuteronomy 10:18). They were to be taken under the wing of the community so they could thrive in less than ideal conditions. However, in a horrible reversal of fortune, God’s judgment has created widows and orphans in Judah, just as he warned (Exodus 22:24; Jeremiah 15:8; 18:21).
5:4-5: Physical conditions of life are dreadful. They have to pay for the produce of the land, for water and wood that belonged to everyone but are now controlled by their occupiers. They are fatigued and weary from forced labor, from the yoke of slavery on their “hard driven” necks (v.5). Occupation makes slaves of them and turns routine of daily sustenance into enormous burdens.
5:6-7: Verse 6 interrupts the complaint to interpret the people’s plight. They have contributed to their current condition by having made a pact with the foreign powers of Egypt and Assyria. They have given their loyalties to another, not to God. This language brings prophetic attacks on foreign entanglements. No nation can save them; only God can. The sins of their ancestors must include these alliances for which the present community must bear the punishment.
Those who lifted their voices in their lament certainly felt the shock waves of the sings of previous generations. But throughout those generations, God had warned about judgment. Even more, God had promised to relent from punishment when the people repented (see Jeremiah 18:7-8; Jonah 3:4-10).
The Babylonian exile, shocking in its scope, marked the end of God’s patience. Lamentations is witness to how bad that judgment was. However, God did acknowledge that the Babylonians had overstepped their role in carrying out his decreed judgment and would themselves be punished for that (see Isaiah 47).
5:8-15: The perilous predicament of the occupation returns to the center of the people’s complaint. Slaves have become their rulers. The slave rulers may refer to a puppet government or to appointers of the occupying nation, or they may signify the topsy-turvy nature of the current social order. At any rate, slaves are people unprepared and unsuitable to lead, and they have replaced Judah’s proper rulers.
Danger lurks at the simplest circumstances of daily life. Perhaps because of military or palace presence or because of general chaos in the society, the people obtain food at the “peril of their lives” (v.9).
Even the people’s appearance has changed – their skin has blackened – because of hunger that burns and destroys their bodies. Women are not safe; virgins are raped. Princes are hung by their hands. Being executed in such a public way such as implied here was a grave indignity. The spectacle of their (prince’s) death was meant to remind the people of their powerlessness.
Elders are shown no respect. It seems likely, given the parallelism of the two lines in verse 12, that the dishonor offered them was also public execution.
Typically, it was female slaves who were the ones to grind grain. But this task has fallen to “young men” who would be better suited to different tasks. In contrast, “boys” are given work much too difficult for them. The image is that of falling under their burden of sins – the weight of its punishment.
In verse 14, the people turn from their descriptions of the horrors of their external world to its impact upon their spirits. Grief abounds, but it makes them tired and numb. Joy is gone, and mourning replaces dancing.
In Jerusalem, the elders congregated at the main gate to decide legal cases. The fact that they are gone speaks to the complete upheaval of the government. The lack of “music” further reveals the cultural upheaval that is evident throughout the book.
Now, in Psalm 30:1-3, the psalmist rejoiced in God’s deliverance from enemies and sickness. The exact opposite is seen here. The conquered people suffer from both, with “joy” turning to “mourning.” How utterly hopeless their current situation seemed!
verse, “The crown has fallen from our head,” summarizes the societal and governmental upheaval that the people have experienced. Though “the crown” represents the monarchy, the monarchy itself represents Judah.
Verse 16b follows with “Woe to us for we have sinned.” These mourners had claimed that they suffered from previous generations’ sins (Lamentations 5:7). Here they take responsibility for their own sin. The word “woe” expresses their grief.
The truth is, these people finally echoed the words of Pogo in the old Walt Kelly comic strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”
In verses 17 and 18, we see that weakness of “hearts” and “eyes” result from the fate of “Mount Zion.” This place once had great significance. Now the presence of “jackals” in the heart of the city marks the profound desolation of Jerusalem.
Abruptly (v.19) in the typical style of laments, the speakers utter words of assurance in the midst of their suffering. They address directly the blind God, the One whom they are begging to remember and to see (v.1): “You Lord,” they say “reign forever.” The power of the divine ruler endures, and the divine reign still stands. Just knowing that God’s presence can be counted on can be a source of comfort, even if in the current moment he seems far off.
The late Bishop Bevel Jones told me once, “Hal, there will be times in your ministry when you’ll get down on your knees and ask, “God, are you really there?” I remember when I was a very young minister and had just conducted the funeral of a little five-year-old girl who had died of bone cancer. I had been through all the agonies of that family. When the funeral was over and I went back to the parsonage, got down on my knees and asked, “Lord, are you really there?”
Of course, I took comfort in the fact that I wouldn’t have been on my knees if I hadn’t thought that God was there.
5:20: But for the speakers in the final poem of Lamentations, assurance of divine rule is not reassuring. Rather than continue with hopeful and flattering words of praise, they hurl their angry, unanswerable questions at the divine ruler. “Why do you keep forgetting us,” they ask. “Why have you forsaken us these many days?” Knowing that God is from generation to generation makes the question of his forgetting or forsaking all the more painful.
In verse 21, language of turning speaks of repentance. The people did not trust themselves to “return” to the Lord as they should. And certainly, their history proved that they struggled to return to God on their own. For this reason, then, they asked that God would give his grace to them by turning them himself. However, the ultimate answer to the plea of this half-verse before us is found in the church, where “we are transformed by the renewing of [our] minds.”
Though the “days of old” were full of disobedience, there were days when God showered his people with blessings in the land he had given them (Deuteronomy 28:1-13). We are informed that the desire was not simply to renew those days but for transformation by the repentance of the people.
Thus, after fleeting experience of hope, the people turned once again to what they feared was true. Could God be so “angry” with them that he would “utterly” reject them forever?
In Lamentations, scholars tell us, God is present but hiding. The wonder of this biblical book is its daring honesty about the One who hides behind clouds, seems to turn away prayers, and will not pay attention. We are informed and we see that Lamentations articulate a theology of absence and abandonment that is almost contemporary in its longing and emptiness. In its poems, however, Lamentations build a sacred space where suffering is seen, acknowledged and borne witness to. And to some degree, that in itself may be of comfort.
There is still something else of great importance here. Lamentations helps us find language to tell God the very deep, very real pain that we remember or still experience. The book serves as an invitation to take those things to God.
As Paul wrote, “Neither death, nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).
Though the inclusion of Lamentations in the Bible may seem strange, it does give evidence of the truth of Paul’s assertion. No siege, no famine, no cannibalism, no destruction, no forced labor, no exile could separate God’s people from his love.
God demonstrated this love in Jesus Christ, making a way for all people to turn to the Lord and experience his blessings. Through Jesus’ great suffering, we have become partners with all those people who one day will be freed from all suffering (Revelation 21:4).
Resources for this Lesson
- What is the best course of action to take in light of whatever or whomever is now oppressing you or a loved one?
- How would you comfort and guide someone who feels forgotten by God?
- What is your strongest “take” from the book of Lamentations? Why do you think the book is included in the Bible?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 289-296.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI” pages 1013-1015; 1067-1072.
- “The Abingdon Bible Commentary,” pages 709, 713.