I suppose it would be usual to start the year on a positive note. Not here! Christian Hedonists, joyseekers... turn to Lamentations at the start of 2008! Songwriter Neil Bennetts writes about laments. "when I hear the voices of theologians or songwriters insisting on the language and form of lament in gathered worship, I am naturally cautious." Should we lament? What place lamenting in the Christian life?
In recent weeks I've been studying the book of Lamentations ahead of opening it with members of my team this term. I expect I'll blog a number of times on this over the coming weeks. It's five poems, mostly acrostic, mostly of 22 verses (except ch3 which has 66, and ch5 that is not acrostic). They express the experience of the community of God's people undergoing judgement, under divine-wrath as they're sent into exile by Him for their sin. This is experiential theology. If 2007 was a year for 'recovering the glory of penal substitution', contending for the reality of divine wrath at sin, and the cross as propitiation then in 2008 come to Lamentations and feel a little of what that much debated, often denied, wrath felt like when it fell on God's rebellious people.
One of the many questions about this book is what place can it have for a Christian? Before we can find answers to that question we have to hear it as it is - the heartcry of God's people under judgement. Where 2 Chronicles 36 reveals the folly of God's people as they ignored his word and were exiled, Lamentations reveals the gutwrenching heartbreak and pain of going through that experience. Unimaginable. Their experience is recorded for us and it must be instructive, useful and able to direct us to Christ. Somehow. Come into Lamentations and catch the emotion of this bitter song. Whatever has happened it is awful. The city is broken:
Lonely. Fallen. Bitter weeping. Abandonment.
Afflection. Restless. Distressed. Oppressed.
Degraded. Mocked. Defiled. Groaning.
Despised. Sorrowful. Stunned. Bound.
Crushed. Desolate. Deceived. Sickened.
Running through the poem is a repeated refrain of 'no comfort'. (v2, v9, v16, v17, 21) - witnessing the pain of being so opposed and yet without comfort is deeply disturbing in itself. Being in the situation must have been even worse. Watching her suffering, helpless to do anything about it we're bound to ask how did this situation arise? The answer is shocking - v5: 'the LORD has afflicted her'. Why? 'for the multitude of her transgressions'. This terrible affliction is suffering from the hand of God for her sins. This is punishment. For some this is outside the bounds of acceptibility, but this is the confession of those who suffered it.
The confession is repeated:
v12 - 'the LORD inflicted'
v14 - 'the Lord gave me into the hands of those whom I cannot withstand'
v15 - 'the Lord rejected all my mighty men'
v15 - 'The LORD has trodden as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah'
v17 - 'the LORD commanded against Jacob'
Undeniably these terrible things came against the city from the hand of God. That horrific image of people thrown into a winepress that is repeated in Revelation 14 makes me shudder. Yet in this situation she says: v18 - 'the LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word'. She looked for help from her old lovers (19) [idols], and the leaders but none came. All she can do is to turn to the same LORD who has afflicted her for help. She has sinned - rebelling againsts God's word brings God's wrath deservedly.
v9- 'LORD, behold my affliction'
v11 - 'look LORD and see'
v20 - 'look, O LORD'
Under the wrath of the LORD it is to the LORD that she turns for comfort. Still it is not found and her stomach churns and her heart is wrung but now she cries for justice - the same punishment she has faced to be given to others. The Christian may quickly say - I will not pass through such judgement because Jesus bore wrath for me. Phew. No lamenting! But, I wonder whether we should dwell there a little before leaving it behind. Not least we see here something of wrath on many, which is only a tiny fraction of the wrath borne by Jesus. How his cry of desolation is given depth by these laments! The full-favour of God is all the richer when we see the full-wrath of God poured out.
Lamentations is Christian Scripture not because we can distance ourselves from it but because it shows the horror and seriousness of sin that required such horrific, destructive wrath to be poured out by the covenant keeping, slow-to-anger LORD.I should face the same terror that the city faced and yet I don't. For me, comfort is found. For me the wrath has been turned aside - and how thankful I am not to face such wrath. But, justified, comforted, saved, I need to dwell in the courts of Lamentations and feel the terror of divine wrath as I enjoy the benefits of the gospel. Lamentation is depth. Lamentations is ballast. Lamentations helps turn superficial happiness into deep rooted joy. The LORD was rightly wrathful toward me but he provided comfort for me by the death of Jesus in my place. Lamentations calls me to survey the cross.