Assurance in Our Anguish - Lamentations 2:1-22
You may be familiar with Sam Harris.Harris is a prominent and outspoken atheist. He’s written many books on atheism. He also blogs and has a podcast. His opinion is that if the God of Scripture were real, he would most certainly be bad – based on his failure to stop all the suffering and evil in the world. Harris argues that if there was a God, he would end all suffering. And because Christians espouse belief in God, they contribute to the problem. It’s a common question, and maybe you’ve heard some form of it: if God is in control of all things, and if he is good and loving, they why do we suffer?
Now it would be different if the Scriptures painted a picture of a God who allows everyone in the world to suffer except for his “chosen” people. But that’s not what we see in Lamentations 2. What we see is that his “chosen” people are the ones who are suffering, and God is the one who initiated it. As the people of Israel suffered, their rival nations mocked their God and I’m sure many Israelites leveled all kinds of criticisms at God. We naturally criticize God when we experience hardship. The people were enduring God’s judgment because they turned from him and committed all sorts of immorality.
They had been warned and called to turn from their sin, but most of them, including their kings, refused. And so God determined that the nation of Babylon would conquer them as judgment. Their trust in their own strength and the protection of other nations, as opposed to trust in God, would backfire on them. And the poetry of Lamentations, the poet reflects on the tragedy and tries to work through it in his heart and mind.
We read the poems of Lamentations in light of the whole Bible, especially the life and ministry of Jesus. A so we see it in the context of redemptive history, that continuous story running through the whole Bible, Old and New Testament focused on God overcoming sin and death through Jesus. And what we learn is that while we naturally criticize God when we experience hardship, God ordains hardship to help us know him in a deeper, more authentic way.
As I began to prepare to start Lamentations two weeks ago, I received a call from a number I didn’t recognize. It was a woman that my wife and I know from many years ago. She’s a good bit older than me and a very godly and wise woman. She called about a ministry opportunity for me, but as we began to catch up, she told me her husband had battled cancer some years earlier. I said, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” And she said, “yes, thank you, it was difficult, but he’s different now.” She said, “he walked with the Lord before, but his relationship with God is much deeper now.” I could tell that the change was more than she could put into words. And she also said that she had recently had a heart attack. Again, I was shocked. I said, “I’m so sorry.” She said, “thank you,” but again, she spoke of how things had changed between her and God, changed for the better.
It’s the will of God that those who are true believers know him better through great hardship. So, as we face hardship, we can trust him rather than criticizing him. But what assurances does God give us to hold onto as he leads us to this deeper knowledge of himself? The outline on page 6 of the worship guide lists three assurances from God. As we endure hardship, God assures us:
1. that our suffering is meaningful. (v.1-10)
2. our grieving is permissible. (v.11-19)
3. and our questioning is acceptable. (v.20-22)
Being assured of these things, as the poet of Lamentations is, we find not that all of our problems go away, but that our vain love of worldly things is stripped away so that we can give all of our love and worship to the one true God.
Just to refresh your memory, Lamentations consists of five poems in all. The book is laid out in symmetrical fashion, with poems 1,2,4,and 5 being 22 verses each. The writer used the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet to order the verses in an A-B-C format, beginning each verse with the next letter. It’s more than a clever poetic move; he’s finding order even in the chaos of the destruction. And the middle poem – poem 3 – is 66 verses, three times the other poems. Verses 31-33, in the very middle, anchor the whole book so to speak. Those three verses are the central message of the poem and of the whole Bible. They say this: “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; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.” God was clear that this exile and judgment would have a definite end, and those who were faithful believers were hopeful. God assured them of certain things, and we have these assurances as well. So let’s look at them together.
First, God assures us that our suffering is meaningful. (v.1-10)
You notice in this first part of the poem, the repeated phrase is “he has.” All these things are things that the Lord has done. The demolition of Jerusalem and the temple, the destruction of Judah, the downfall of the people – these are things that God has done. Notice verse 1, he has “cast down…the splendor” Verse 2, “broken down…the strongholds” and “brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers” Verse 3, he has “cut down…all the might” and “withdrawn…his right hand” Verse 5, he has “swallowed up all its palaces” and “laid in ruins its strongholds” Verse 6, he has “laid in ruins his meeting place” – the temple, and “spurned king and priest” Verse 8, “determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion” Verse 9, “her gates have sunk into the ground” so the city is vulnerable and weak. And verse 10, “the elders…sit on the ground in silence.” Even their leaders are speechless.
What’s happening here is not a standard thing in the sense that any nation who does not follow God will be judged like this. Israel had a unique relationship with God from the time of Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham to bless his descendants, and through them to bless the whole world. From them, salvation would come. And from Abraham came Isaac, then Jacob who was later called Israel. And the people whose suffering is described here in Lamentations are the physical descendants of Abraham. From the time they were made into a nation under Moses with the laws God gave to them, God had warned them that if they turned to false gods, this would happen. And prophets had warned them for years with messages from God. There isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison between ancient Israel and, say, the United States. Since the time of Jesus, God’s people are not from one nation, but are from every nation. Does that mean that God will not or has not judged America? No, but it means that Israel as a nation before the time of Jesus played a special role in the history of redemption, and part of that role involved their exile.
So, the point here is not that when you suffer, it can only be because God is judging you for something you’ve done. I have to point out here that not everyone in the nation of Israel had rejected God. Some people had remained faithful to him. Yet they had to suffer along with those who had done wrong. Why would they suffer? Partly because they were a single, covenant community. But also they suffered for the same reason that believers suffer today. In Philippians 1 in the NT, the apostle Paul writes, “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” “Granted” basically means to be given something as a gift. Belief in Jesus is a gift; suffering for Jesus is a gift. Also suffering produces something in us. Romans 5, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” And then the apostle Peter tells the churches in 1 Peter 2: “if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
Regardless of how you and I may naturally feel about suffering, the Bible teaches that suffering can and does have purpose. One purpose is judgment. But another purpose is knowing God deeply for his glory and our joy.
I’ve mentioned before British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who was an agnostic for much of his life, and in many ways, had a bad reputation. But he became a believer in Jesus later on and experienced a remarkable change. In his book A Twentieth Century Testimony, he stated this about the sufferings in his life: “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”
Is it difficult for you to believe that your suffering could have purpose? Is it hard to see how God could be good and loving and yet still have this kind of role in it? It’s not the easiest truth to receive. Yet somehow, in a way we can’t fully comprehend, God is in control over all things, including our suffering, but he’s not guilty of harm toward us. He’s doing more than just reacting to the sin in the world and the depravity of humans. Proverbs 16 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” This is why in the Old Testament book of Genesis, Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, was able to say to them years later as he stood over them as a ruler of Egypt: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” You might also read that, “God planned it for good.” Your suffering is not meaningless.
Also, God assures us that our grieving is permissible. (v.11-19)
Look at the poet’s response to what the Lord has done. Certainly, the Lord knew what the response would be. The poet says, verse 11, “my eyes are spent with weeping, my stomach churns” “my bile is poured out to the ground.” Which is to say, “my guts, or emotions are poured out” I was reminded of the saying that someone “cried their eyes out” or “cried their guts out.” Look at the disbelief in verse 13, “what can I say for you, to what compare you?” “your ruin is as vast as the sea.” The poet is talking about his city and his nation. Along and along, so-called prophets lied to the people. Verse 14 says the false prophets, “have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.” God’s prophets would say “repent or their will be judgment.” Then a false prophet says, “hold on, I’m getting something. no, we’re good!” Of course that was what the king and people wanted to hear.
Have you ever received advice that you didn’t want to hear, so you kept looking and found someone who would tell you what you wanted to hear?
Verse 15, those who pass by “clap their hands, hiss and wag their heads.” “Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty?” Verse 16, their enemies gloat, “We have swallowed her! Ah, this is the day we longed for.” Israel/Judah had many haters. And in verse 17 is the affirmation of why God has done this. “The LORD has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago.” The poet is coming to terms with what God has done. Part of grieving is coming to grips with reality. And so the poet instructs the people to grieve. Verse 18, “let tears stream down like a torrent.” Verse 19, “Arise, cry out in the night” “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord.”
People sometime hold in their grief because they don’t want to feel it or deal with it, or they may think that grieving shows a lack of strength or lack of faith. The poet of Lamentations has great faith. But he’s hurting. Crying and calling out to God makes sense. John Paton was a missionary to an island in the South Pacific in the 1800s. Shortly after arriving there, his wife died. And not long after that, his infant son passed away. Can you imagine being there, far from home, and having lost the ones you love most? Paton later wrote that without Jesus and his fellowship during the suffering, “I should have gone mad.” He was grieving the loss of his family, and rightly so.
In God’s economy, grieving is valuable. In a fallen world, it’s permissible and necessary.
Do you see the value of grieving? It’s normal to be confused at times about what God has done or not done. That’s on display in Lamentations 2. As you face hardship, it is permissible to grieve. Could there be something in your life that you should grieve over, but you prefer not to think about it? You’re able to numb the pain somewhat through busyness and other distractions. It’s seems that without grief over the broken things in our lives, we just live on the surface of life. To live deeply is to deal with the brokenness, and you can’t deal with the brokenness without grief. What you need to do is think about those things, grieve over them, and “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord.” Grieving is permissible.
And finally, our questioning is acceptable. (v.20-22)
In these last few verses, the poet takes his questions to God. Verse 20, “With whom have you dealt thus?” Should this happen? Should that happen? This is an emotional appeal to God. He’s asking, “God, is this really necessary?” What we see here is that it’s natural and acceptable to ask God, “why?” Why, God? There are 3 more poems in Lamentations, and looking at all of them gives us the full picture. But as this poem ends, the darkness hasn’t lifted. The questions are answered. Isn’t that how suffering sometimes is? You pray in the night, weep, go to sleep. When you wake up, you remember the pain and the questions. But it’s acceptable to question, and to say to God, “Is this how it has to be?” Often in the Scriptures we hear God’s people ask questions. “How long, God? When, God? Why me, God?”
An episode of the podcast This American Life tells the story of a single father and his young daughter. They had gone through some difficult times, and so the young girl wrote down a list of 50 hard questions she had about life, the difficult kind of questions that we begin to ask when we realize that life isn’t easy. So her dad set out, with his computer, to type up the clearest, most concise answers he could. But the girl later revealed that she wrote the questions, not just because she wanted the answers, but because she wanted her dad. She wanted to talk with him. And the dad answers like I would probably answer. He says, “I talked to you all the time.” But the girl replies: “Yeah, but to me, it's not really the same thing. So a conversation and talking are completely different things. Talking could be a range from, ‘Oh, hey, what's up?’ And conversation is you're deep in thought and you're looking, and you're making eye contact, and you're really enjoying the presence of somebody else.”
Isn’t it true that even if we had all the answers, that wouldn’t be enough? Answers wouldn’t make all the pain go way. Like the girl with her list of questions, what we really need is not just answers. We need a person. Amazingly, these three assurances that God gives us in our hardship are all on display in the life of the person who brings us to God. The life of Jesus shows us that our suffering is meaningful. Jesus suffered for a purpose. 1 Peter 3:18, For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” The life of Jesus shows us that our grieving is permissible. Jesus grieved. Matthew 26 tells us that on the night of his betrayal, on the night before his death, he told his closest friends, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” Stay up with me. Don’t leave me alone. And the life of Jesus shows us that our questioning is acceptable. Jesus asked the Father questions. Again, Matthew 26, Jesus, “fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” It’s as if he’s saying, “Father, is there another way”
And on the cross, Matthew 27 says “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did Jesus think the Father had turned his back on him? No. Jesus was quoting Psalm 22. A Psalm of David. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.” Jesus was crying out on our behalf. He cried out as we cry out. Yet he had perfect trust. As we suffer, we fall into sin against God. Anger toward him. Perhaps we curse him. Our grieving sometimes turns to bitterness. Our questions turn into accusations toward God. What we see in Jesus is one who suffered perfectly, not just for us, but in our place. He saw perfectly the meaning of his suffering. He understood perfectly the value of grief. And he endured, without sin, the lonely pain of questions. He did this so you and I could trust not in our own righteousness, but in him and his righteousness. Admit your need to him this morning. Cry out to him. Trust in him.
Let’s pray together.