The Background of Lamentations
Author and Date
The author of this literary masterpiece is unknown. Lamentations provides eyewitness testimony of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC in vivid, poetic detail. It was likely written between 586 and 516 BC, with an early date being more probable.
The key passage in Lamentations is 3:19–24, which affirms that belief in God’s mercy and faithfulness is the key to a restored relationship with God. Forgiveness is possible even for people who have deserved God’s judgment (Lamentations 1:18). Hope, not despair, is the central theme in Lamentations.
Lamentations was most likely written to be prayed or sung in worship services devoted to asking God’s forgiveness. Such services began as early as the months after the temple’s destruction in 586 BC (Jeremiah 41:4–5). They continued after the temple was rebuilt during Zechariah’s time (c. 520 BC; see Zechariah 7:3–5; 8:19). In later years, Lamentations was read and sung as part of annual observances marking the temple’s destruction.
Lamentations presents many key theological realities from an important era in Israel’s history:
1. It includes memorable prayers that confess sin, express renewed hope, and declare total dependence on God’s grace.
2. It is the only book in the Bible written by a person who actually lived through the divine judgment the Bible often refers to as “the day of the Lord” (see Joel 2:1–2; Amos 5:18; Zephaniah 1:14 –16).
3. It provides great insight into the nature of pain, sin, and redemption.
4. Like so many other Old Testament passages, Lamentations teaches that Jerusalem fell:
a. because of the people’s sins (1:18);
b. because they rejected God’s Word sent through the prophets (2:8, 14, 17);
c. because their leaders led them astray (4:13).
5. It affirms God’s never-ceasing mercy (3:19–24; compare Deuteronomy 30:1–10). Readers can know that God never gives up on his people, even when they sin greatly.
6. Lamentations agrees with the Psalms that prayer is the way to restore a broken relationship with God. It also shares the Psalms’ emphasis on God’s sovereignty (see Psalm 103:19).
7. Like many of the prophets, Lamentations warns of the “day of the Lord.” This is the day when God judges sin. That day has already occurred in historical events like the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. It will occur again at the end of time as the final “day of the Lord.” People need to take seriously the warnings about such days of judgment.
I. How Lonely Sits the City (1:1–22)
II. God Has Set Zion under a Cloud (2:1–22)
III. I Am the Man Who Has Seen Affliction (3:1–66)
IV. How the Gold Has Grown Dim (4:1–22)
V. Restore Us to Yourself, O Lord (5:1–22)
The Global Message of Lamentations
Jewish tradition tells us that Lamentations was written by Jeremiah, though no author is identified in the book itself. Regardless of who wrote it, the historical events of Lamentations overlap significantly with those of Jeremiah. The key event in Lamentations, as in Jeremiah, is the capture and destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 BC.
The Catastrophe in Lamentations
Such a disaster in the life of God’s people cannot be overestimated. The author of Lamentations recounts some horrific circumstances taking place in Jerusalem as the city starves, yet the greatest disaster is the apparent failure of God’s covenant with Israel. The entire Old Testament has been gradually working toward the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3—promises of blessing, descendants, and land. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people to Babylon, the third of these—the promise of land—appears to have failed. And not only are God’s people failing to enjoy promises made to them, but they are also now failing to be a light to the nations. Instead of bringing God’s saving purposes to the world, they are being conquered by a godless nation.
The Hope in Lamentations
Lamentations points to the people’s sins as a reason Jerusalem is falling (Lamentations 1:18), as well as leaders who have failed (Lamentations 4:13) and people who have refused to follow their leaders. Even in the midst of this low point in Israel’s history, however, hope remains. At the climax of the book, God’s covenant faithfulness is affirmed and celebrated. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lamentations 3:22). God “will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lamentations 3:32).
This steadfast love is expressed ultimately in the coming of Christ, the great hope of Old and New Testament believers alike. Those who trust in the Lord can know, when facing adversity, that they will never be forsaken by their Father, because Jesus hung on the cross and cried out in lamentation and was forsaken by his Father. We can know that God has not “utterly rejected us” (Lamentations 5:22) because God’s own Son was rejected in our place. And one day, because of Christ’s restorative work, the city that was destroyed 2,500 years ago will come down out of heaven, restored and remade, in glory and beauty (Revelation 21:2, 10–11).
Universal Themes in Lamentations
The Reality of Pain
Lamentations has much to say about pain. God seems to be absent, and his promises seem to be forgotten (Lamentations 1:12; 2:1). Indeed, God himself is inflicting this pain upon his own people (Lamentations 2:1–8; 3:32). Women are being raped (Lamentations 5:11) and are even boiling and eating their own children (Lamentations 2:20; 4:10). The cause of all this pain is unmistakably clear: the people have sinned (Lamentations 1:5, 8, 14). They “have been very rebellious” (Lamentations 1:20). Yet while Lamentations speaks of pain resulting from a very specific historical event, the dismay and despair that resound through its pages are universal experiences in this fallen world, right up to the present time. Indeed, God’s own people often suffer greatly due to their loyalty to Christ (Matthew 10:16–25; Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12).
The Certainty of God’s Mercy
Just as pain is a global and ever-present experience, however, so too is God’s mercy for those who trust him through Christ. Although it recounts suffering as bluntly and awfully as anywhere in the Bible, the high point of Lamentations is its spelling out of a steady trust that “the Lord is good to those who wait for him” (Lamentations 3:25), for “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22). As surely as judgment awaits the faithless, mercy awaits the faithful—those who look to God, waiting on him, trusting in his Son, and yielding themselves to him.
The Importance of Godly Leadership
As in the book of Jeremiah, so in Lamentations we see that it is those who were called to lead God’s people who are largely responsible for misleading them. We read that it was “the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests” (Lamentations 4:13) that resulted in the Lord giving vent to his wrath and pouring out his anger on Jerusalem (Lamentations 4:11). In Lamentations as well as around the world and down through time, as the leaders of a people go, so go the people. As we learn from the judges and kings of Israel earlier in the Old Testament, wicked leadership breeds corporate wickedness, while godly leadership breeds corporate godliness.
The Global Message of Lamentations for Today
The central message of Lamentations for the church today around the world is that of God’s sustaining grace in the midst of suffering. One thinks of global poverty and mismanagement of wealth, various kinds of assault on the dignity of the human individual, and conflict at the level of the family all the way up to international conflict. Persecution, too, is as widespread and as volatile as ever it was before. More than 200 million people in over 60 nations today are socially sidelined and denied various human rights due to their loyalty to Christ.
Mere words of encouragement are not enough in the face of such difficulty. Much better is social and political advocacy and solidarity, even as we “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Beneath all such activity, however, stands the greatest hope of all: God’s unfailing, unstoppable mercy toward his beloved people. The Lord himself sovereignly oversees all that his children go through, yet “he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lamentations 3:31–32).
God draws near to his suffering saints. Indeed, in Jesus Christ, God has drawn closer to us than could have been imagined—he has become one of us, sharing in all that we suffer in this fallen world (Hebrews 2:14–18; 4:14–16). Remembering him and his cross, and the glory into which he entered and into which we too shall enter (Romans 8:17), we trustingly submit to him and his fatherly governance of our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world today.