Memorials are important. Some of you may have visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC, or the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, or the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These memorials are moving because they capture moments of traumatic loss in ways that help us to process them while honoring those who were lost. Memorials are designed to help people to remember, to mourn, and to learn.
This morning, in our study through the Bible, we come to the book of Lamentations, and you could say that the book of Lamentations is a memorial. It is a memorial that looks back to the traumatic loss that was suffered by the Jewish people when Jerusalem was destroyed, and it’s designed to help us to remember, to mourn, and to learn.
We’ve talked a lot about lament over the past few months, and along the way, we’ve looked at some of the lament psalms. But Lamentations is not just a lament; it is the longest lament in the Bible. Like the lament psalms, this book shows us what it looks like when someone who is suffering and in pain calls out to God, lays out their complaint, asks God for his help, and then trusts that God will do what is right.
But one of the reasons that Lamentations is so valuable is because of what the book does not do. It doesn’t answer all of our questions. It doesn’t resolve the pain of God’s actions quickly or neatly. It doesn’t communicate things in a way that is tidy or even comfortable. And it certainly does not downplay the significance of the struggle or the pain.
Lamentations is not a linear book. By that, I mean that it doesn’t show us that when someone is in pain or suffering, here are the steps you take and, in the end, here’s out it turns out. Because let’s be honest, life rarely works like that. Life is full of ups and downs and it’s not always predictable or easy to manage. Suffering doesn’t follow a formula, and people don’t always move through the five stages of grief in an orderly manner. In the midst of our pain — the emotions, the questions, the struggles, the fears and frustrations are all very real and at times, not very easy to process.
Which is why the category of lament is so helpful to us. It gives a voice to those emotions and struggles that we feel as we direct our thoughts toward God. As we’ve said before, lament is something that only God-fearing people can do because it is a prayer that pours out our heart to God. Lament mourns what has happened in our lives, it anchors us in what we believe, and it looks with hope to the day when God will make all things right.
So, let’s take a look at this video which will give us an overview of the book of Lamentations, and then I’ll be back to talk about the relationship between brokenness and hope.
As the video pointed out, chapters 1 and 2 of Lamentations give us a graphic description of the fall of the city of Jerusalem. We learn about the devastating consequences of sin, and how some of our suffering is the result of God’s justice.
Chapter 3 is where we see the glimmer of hope. This is where that verse appears that we are most familiar with because of the song that we sing. Beginning in verse 22:
“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 3:22-24)
It’s a beautiful passage, but it’s not the one that I’m going to focus on this morning. Both chapters 4 and 5 contain some glimmers of hope – more so than chapters 1 and 2 – but they are still rather dark. God is faithful, but life is still painful, and, in the end, everything is not perfectly reconciled.
Chapter 4, in particular, shows us the relationship between brokenness and hope. Jeremiah reflects on how broken the people really are. When Jerusalem was destroyed, God tore down his people in such a way that only hope they had left was in him. God broke his people so that he could rebuild them. He took away everything that that they used as crutches so that they would have no choice but to lean on him.
The Bible talks a lot about the importance of being broken.
In Psalm 51, after David has poured out his heart to God confessing his sin, he says, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17)
In Psalm 34, “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:17-18)
In Psalm 134, “[God] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 134:3)
When I talk about being broken, I mean those times when God removes the objects of our trust so that we are forced to trust in him. These are the times in your life when your “crutches” in life have been kicked out, and your only hope is God.
Sometimes, brokenness can come about because of our own sin. Sometimes it can come about because of someone else’s sin. But, very often, it can come about because of the general brokenness in this world. But, regardless of how we get broken, the result is the same: brokenness makes us aware of our need for God.
I would imagine if I went around the room this morning and asked you all to think about a time in your life when God removed those things in your life that you used to lean on and trust in, I’m sure that each and every one of you could tell us a story. A time when everything you trusted in fell apart. A time when you felt totally out of control of your own life. A time when God placed you in a situation where you felt deserted and alone.
And if you can relate to what I’m talking about, then I hope that I can help provide you with some hope and comfort from Lamentations chapter 4.
In chapter 4, there are 22 verses, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And in this chapter, Jeremiahs focuses on the brokenness of God’s people, the Jews, and points out how all of those things that they used to trust in had been destroyed. At the time this book was written, there was no longer any hope in their way of life, their leaders, or other nations who might come and rescue them. The nation of Israel came to the point where they had nothing to hope in except God. Let’s see how this plays out:
1. They Could No Longer Trust in Their Way of Life
Israel had always been proud of her status as God’s chosen people. There was something special about this nation, their temple, and their place in the world. But now, when Lamentations was written, the glory of Israel had completely faded. The “glory days” of the past were long gone. If you compared what Israel was like during the days of David, Solomon, Hezekiah, or Josiah and then compared it with their current situation, it would have been utterly shocking. Everything in Israel had gone downhill.
The first verse in this chapter begins, “How the gold has grown dim” (Lamentations 4:1). Which could mean one of two things. First of all, since the beauty of the temple was its gold, this could have been a reference to the city’s destruction. Jerusalem lay in rubble, and her gold (or at least, what was left of it) was covered with dirt and dust.
Or, it could be that this gold was a figure of speech for the people of Israel. At one time, the Jews considered themselves to be “gold” and “precious” and all the other nations to be of lesser value.
Verse 2 actually seems to point toward this second meaning. “The precious sons of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, how they are regarded as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands!” (Lamentations 4:2). An earthen pot was the most common of all containers. There was absolutely nothing special about an earthen pot. You might say that earthen pots were the Tupperware of their day. They were cheap and disposable. Israel went from being something worth its weight in gold to something that was virtually worthless.
In verses 3 and 4, we see how terribly the people of Israel treated each other. “Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young; but the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness. The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them.” (Lamentations 4:3-4)
Jeremiah says that the Jewish people treated their own children worse than a jackal, a wild dog. He compared Israel to an ostrich, which is notorious for leaving her eggs unprotected. In Israel, there were children dying of thirst and begging for food, with no one willing to share or to help.
In verse 5, “Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple embrace ash heaps.” (Lamentations 4:5). The present reality of Jerusalem is so much worse than the past. The nation used to feast on all sorts of delicious food and be clothed in fine garments. But now there is only death and destruction.
In verse 6, Jeremiah says that what happened to Jerusalem was worse than what happened to Sodom. While Sodom’s destruction was quick and relatively painless, Israel’s suffering lasted much longer.
In verse 9, Jeremiah says it would have been better to have been killed in battle than to have to endure the suffering of his day. Things got so bad in Jerusalem that mothers were forced to eat their own children to survive.
In verse 10, “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.” (Lamentations 4:10). Folks, we like to think that, with everything that has happened over the past few months, we have reached a low point in this country and that things can’t possibly get any worse. Lamentations reminds us that that things can get a lot worse. I can’t begin to imagine being so hungry that you start eating your own children, but that’s where Israel was. They reached the absolute bottom. Everything that made life so wonderful had been taken away from them, and they had nothing.
And verse 11 tells us why all this happened. “The Lord gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations.” (Lamentations 4:11). All of this suffering was because God was disciplining his children because of their rebellion. And, as a result, Israel fell apart at the seams. Everything was ruined. The glory days weren’t just gone; they were dead and buried. Israel, as a people, as a nation, and as a culture, was wiped out. They were a broken people.
2. They Could No Longer Trust in Their Leaders
In times of crisis, people tend to look to their leaders to deliver them, to give them hope, and to lead them to better days. But in verses 12-16 we see that the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people had been completely discredited. The people had absolutely no confidence in those who used to lead them.
In verse 12, we see how shocking the overthrow of Jerusalem was. “The kings of the earth did not believe, nor any of the inhabitants of the world, that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem.” (Lamentation 4:12). If you had taken a poll asking, “Is it possible that Israel could be wiped out?”, 100% of the responses would have said, “No, it will never happen.”
But it did happen, and Jeremiah reminds us that one of the reasons for their destruction was the failure of their leaders. In verse 13, “This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous.” (Lamentations 4:13).
The false prophets didn’t listen to Jeremiah, and they kept telling the people of Israel, “You don’t need to worry, everything’s fine.” But things weren’t fine. The people weren’t following God, and the spiritual leaders didn’t warn the people or call for them to repent. In fact, they themselves were guilty of the shedding of innocent blood, most likely the murder of prophets like Jeremiah whose messages they hated.
As a result, the people were so repulsed by their leaders that they kicked them out of the city! In verse 15, “‘Away! Unclean!’ people cried at them. ‘Away! Away! Do not touch!’ So they became fugitives and wanderers; people said among the nations, ‘They shall stay with us no longer.’” (Lamentations 4:15)
It’s interesting that the priests were the ones who used to say to other people, “Away! Unclean! . . . Do not touch!”, and now, that’s what everyone else is saying to them. The spiritual leaders were rejected by the people.
And verse 16 reminds us that all of this was the Lord’s doing. “The Lord himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.” (Lamentations 4:16)
So, Israel’s way of life was destroyed. Their leaders were worthless. There was nothing left in Israel that gave them any hope. But perhaps there might be another nation that could help them.
3. They Could No Longer Trust in Their Neighbors
Part of Israel’s pattern in the past was that she was quick to rely on neighboring nations to bail her out of her troubles. Time after time, God warned his people not to put their trust in those nations, but instead to trust in the Lord.
During the siege of Jerusalem, the Jews hoped that Egypt would come to their defense and end the Babylonian occupation. In fact, at one point, the Egyptian army marched close enough to draw some Babylonian forces away, but any hope of being rescued by Egypt was quickly dashed. There was no one left to help them. The Babylonian army could not be stopped.
In verses 18 and 19, Jeremiah describes the terror, the fear, and despair that the people felt during the siege and the destruction that followed.
“They dogged our steps so that we could not walk in our streets; our end drew near; our days were numbered, for our end had come. Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the heavens; they chased us on the mountains; they lay in wait for us in the wilderness.” (Lamentations 4:18-19)
There was absolutely no way for anyone to escape, not even the king. The people of God were mocked by their neighbors and none of them lifted a finger to help.
Can you feel just how broken the people of God are in chapter four? Their entire nation has come apart at the seams, and there doesn’t seem to be anybody, either inside Israel or outside, that can make things better. God has removed every single crutch that they could possibly rely on. And he left them with only one hope.
A Faithful God
The only hopeful words in this entire chapter appear in verse 22, “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer . . .” (Lamentations 4:22)
Israel’s only hope was found in knowing that God was the one responsible for their judgment and their future, as a nation, was still in God’s hand.
God has this nation of people so broken that the only hope that they have is that God will bring an end to their punishment and that their exile will not last long. In other words, this nation is at the mercy of God. But that’s not a bad place to be when life is hard, disappointing, or painful.
God promised that he would eventually bring his people back to the promised land. They would not remain in exile forever. He promised to keep his covenant promises to them, and in their brokenness, the faithfulness of God is all they have left to put their hope in.
I don’t know where God finds you today. Perhaps some of you can relate to the picture we’ve seen here of the people of God being utterly broken. Maybe you can look at your life and see the ways that God has removed the crutches of your life. And perhaps there are even some of you who can resonate with the feeling of being deserted by God. Maybe you have thoughts like these:
- I wasn’t supposed to still be single at this point in my life
- My marriage wasn’t supposed to end this way or to be like this.
- I was supposed to be able to retire with the money I had set aside in savings.
- My kids were supposed to turn out differently. I raised them the right way.
- I thought by this point I wouldn’t still be dealing with the same sins or struggles or issues.
- I was hoping that my church ministry would have a bigger impact on people.
In other words, life hasn’t turned out exactly like I that it would. Some of those things I counted on haven’t worked out. If you can relate to any of that, my prayer is that, after reading lamentations 4, you can see your situation differently. And if any of those things have broken you and forced you to reach out to God for help, then they’ve accomplished exactly what God wanted them to accomplish.
You see, brokenness that forces us to turn to God is not wasted. Pain that leads you to trust in God alone is not pointless. The important thing, though, is whether we are willing to accept the brokenness that God brings into our life knowing that it brings us something better: God Himself.
You see, God broke Israel because Israel’s trust wasn’t in God. He refused to allow her to continue down the path of rebellion against him. He loved Israel too much to allow her to go her own way. And that kind of perspective on brokenness changes everything. It actually makes you thankful that God has brought you low because of what it brought you to.
In Luke 4:18, Jesus said, “He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted”, and what comfort there is in knowing that. When we are weak and powerless, God is there to give us strength. When we lack wisdom, he will supply it. When we admit that we cannot heal ourselves, and we fall to our knees and ask God to take over, we are on the road to recovery.