Total Destruction, Total Redemption - Lamentations 1:1-22
This is our first Sunday looking together at the Old Testament book of Lamentations. It’s called “Lamentations” because it consists of five poems that are laments, or expressions of grief. To “lament” means to mourn or grieve. The poet of Lamentations was grieving the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. For years, the prophets of God had warned the kings and people that worshipping false gods and adopting the evil practices of the neighboring nations would bring God’s judgment. They mostly ignored the warnings, and finally judgment came in the form of the Babylonians, also called the Chaldeans. The warning went all the way back to the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, these were books of law given to the people of Israel as God formed them into a nation when Moses was their leader. So at this point, God turns them over to their enemies, and Lamentations is a first-hand account of the pain and despair of the event.
First-hand accounts are powerful. For instance, we can read WWII history and learn about Hitler’s awful invasions of countries such as the Netherlands. These were terrible acts, and a general historical account will affect you on one level. But when you read a personal account of the terror, that can have a much more profound affect. For instance, in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” we learn about the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands from the perspective of a young girl who experienced it. This affects us on a deeper level.
In the Old Testament book of 2 Kings we have a historical account of the destruction of the country of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem. It sounds terrible. But we also have the personal account in Lamentations, which not only describes the events but does so in an artistic fashion. Art is powerful. When it’s produced by those who endure great suffering. It offers an even more vivid look into what took place. Visual arts, songs, and poems affect us deeply, causing us to meditate on another person’s emotional experience. That’s what we have in the poetry of Lamentations.
Now, as I said before, the destruction of Judah was a long time coming, but most of the people, including most of the kings, never took it seriously. They had grown used to their sin, making alliances with other nations and relying on their own power instead of relying on God. As a result, they had turned their backs on the one true God and trusted in what was visible and tangible. Which, of course, is human nature. We tend to underestimate the seriousness of things we can’t see or touch.
For example, how often is the seriousness of storms such as hurricanes underestimated? A recent study done by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that hurricanes with female names cause more deaths than hurricanes with male names. Can you guess why? Well, it appears that people fear female-named hurricanes less than male-named ones. An article states, “In other words, a hurricane named "Priscilla" probably wouldn't be taken as seriously as a hurricane named "Bruno," which might spark more fear and prompt more people to flee. I guess the study says some interesting things about the minds of American people, but whether male or female-named, we’ve all heard of hurricanes that take the lives of people, some of whom underestimated the seriousness of the danger.
In a similar way, it can be hard to comprehend the seriousness of sin. We don’t naturally understand the totality of its destructiveness. But we learn from the redemptive history of Scripture, that God comprehends the destructiveness of sin, and he takes it very seriously. And by “redemptive history” I mean the thread that runs from the beginning of the Bible to the end, which follows the work of God in redeeming or saving people from sin and death.
Because God takes sin so seriously, we learn that we should as well. In fact, underestimating the destructiveness of sin not only hinders our ability to know God and to worship him, but it also hinders us from living our lives to the fullest. The destruction of Judah is a vivid picture of that. But why exactly does God take sin so seriously, so much so that he subjects these people to this severe destruction?
Page 6 in the worship guide lists three reasons from Lamentations 1. God takes sin seriously because it utterly destroys security, dignity, and sympathy. We’ll look at each of these, but keep in mind that in light of what God has done through Jesus, which we’ve already sung about this morning, we know that though sin may utterly destroy these things, but Jesus has utterly restored all of them through his life, death, and resurrection. Even the poet of Lamentations understood this to a degree, because the hope in God’s love is expressed later on in the poetry.
And because this is the first sermon in the series, I want to point out something fascinating about this book, because it helps us understand it. Lamentations is laid out in a very symmetrical fashion. You engineers and artists and designers can appreciate this. There are 5 poems. The Bible labels these as chapters. Poems 1, 2, 4, and 5 all contain exactly 22 verses each. Why 22? Well, there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of verse 1 in poem 1 begins with the first letter of their alphabet. And then each following verse begins with the next letter of their alphabet. That’s the basic structure, although there are minor changes that we’ll talk about another time. The alphabet structure seems to communicates that even in the chaos of devastation, there is still a sense of order to the world. Also the structure hints at a sense of completeness. One scholar writes, “We might say, ‘Everything from A to Z as been said on the subject.”
Now the middle poem, poem 3 or chapter 3, is different. It contains 66 verses, 3x as many as the other poems. The first 3 verses start with the first Hebrew letter, the next 3 with the next Hebrew letter, and so on. But right in the middle of the poem, which is the middle of the whole book, the poet places the central message of the book and really of the whole Bible. It says 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.” The “steadfast love” is very important to understand. It refers to God’s unwavering covenant faithfulness toward the people he has redeemed. It’s the favor that he extends to them, not because of their good works, but because of his grace—his unearned favor. Grace is not only a New Testament concept. The believers in the Old Testament were saved by grace also. And so in spite of the chaos and confusion all around, this is the hope of the believer: the unending grace of God. Now let’s look at Lamentations 1.
First, God takes sin seriously because it utterly destroys security. (v.1-6)
Often in poetry, the writer will repeat certain words or phrases to make a point. The most repeated words in chapter 1 are “all” and “none.” Their security or protection from invaders and enemies is completely gone. Verse 2, “among all her lovers she has none to comfort her;” the false gods and neighboring nations are compared to adulterous relationships. So the people have cheated on God. It says, “all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.” So what Judah thought was security really wasn’t security at all. Verse 3, “her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.” Verse 4, “all her gates are desolate.” Like most major cities in the ancient world, Jerusalem was surrounded by great walls with strong gates for security. But those are gone now. Jerusalem was once strong and held great festivals,
but verse 4, “none come to the festival.” And verse 6, “all her majesty has departed.” The king and leaders have either fled or been captured. They can no longer provide security for the city. And if a city isn’t secure, it can’t stand.
In September of 1941, journalist Clarke Beach wrote these words in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper: “A Japanese attack on Hawaii is regarded as the most unlikely thing in the world, with one chance in a million of being successful.” Earlier in the year, an editorial in that same paper stated, “This week a high officer in the U.S. Army remarked that he knows no place under the American flag safer than Hawaii—more secure from the onslaught of actual war.” Of course, Hawaii was not a secure as they thought. A few months later, December 7, would be the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When God turned the people over to their enemies, he gave them over to what was true all along. In their sin, they had no real security. Sin opens the gates to all sorts of evil.
Do you sense that in some area of your life, sin is making you vulnerable? Could your relationships or your future be in danger? Because this is what sin does—it ruins everything. We think we have it under control, that we have our arms around it, when really it has it’s arms around us.
Next, sin utterly destroys dignity. (v.7-11)
Without a doubt, from the beginning of the human race, God bestowed dignity on people. Genesis 1 states that God made humans in his own image, which is to say, they were his representatives on earth, and with a special connection to him above all other created things. And sin marred that image. Humans naturally turned against their Creator. They grew suspicious of Him. And with that rebellion and suspicion came great shame. This shame and loss of dignity is embodied in the fall of Jerusalem. Notice verse 7, “her foes gloated over her; they mocked at her downfall.” Verse 8, “Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness.” The city and its people are humiliated. They are treated as less than human by their invaders. Anything that was sacred has been disgraced. Verse 10, “The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things” the treasures of the temple of worship were carried away and the temple was torn down. The temple was given to the people by God; it was the place of his presence with them. And notice verse 11, “all her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food.” Their dignity is gone.
Think for a moment about those who love you the most and whom you love, those who will one day say goodbye to you when you pass away. All they will have is their memories of you and any possessions you leave behind. You may leave them things that have great monetary value: a home, a car, land, money. But also, you’ll leave them things that don’t have any exceptional worth perhaps a seashell you once found on the beach, or your favorite book. Whatever it is, to the average person it would mean nothing. But to your loved one, it’s very valuable. Why? Because it belonged to you. It was special to you. And when they hold it and show it to others, they will think of you. And so it’s priceless. You gave it worth.
The people of Judah belongs to God. He made them in his image. He gave them dignity; he gave them worth. But they spent all this time resisting him, and as it turned out, they were resisting the source of their dignity. Now they have what they pursued—separation from that source of dignity.
Do you realize that to embrace sin is to reject the dignity ascribed to you by your Creator? You don’t need some false god to give you worth and value. Your value isn’t based on how you look or where you live or how much money you make. Your dignity is not found in your education or reputation or a romantic relationship. It doesn’t come from your role as father, mother, husband, wife, child, pastor. Dignity comes from having been created in the image of God. Therefore all people have dignity. And though sin damages that image, Jesus restores it. Jesus supplies lasting dignity.
And finally, sin utterly destroys sympathy. (v.12-22)
The people of Judah would find zero compassion from others as they suffered. Verse 12, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” So their neighbors offer no sympathy. And even God has withdrawn his sympathy. Verse 14, “the Lord gave me into the hands of those whom I cannot withstand.” Verse 16, “I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me.” No one to comfort, no one to sympathize. Verse 17, “Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her.” The poet even acknowledged the sin. Verse 18, “the LORD is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word.” And verse 21, “They heard my groaning, yet there is no one to comfort me. All my enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it.” The enemies see the people of Judah as finally getting what they deserve. You’ve probably followed, to some degree, the revelations of sexual misconduct by several powerful men in Hollywood. Things that have been kept secret are coming to light. And what seems to be a common trend is that there is no public sympathy for these men. People say things like, “He finally got what he had coming to him.” Why? Because when you’ve done wrong and you’re found out, people want to see justice served, especially when an individual gets away with something for a long time. There is a sense of relief when the guilty finally have to pay. I’m sure if you think for a minute you can think of someone who has done you wrong, someone who perhaps has not had to pay the piper yet for these things they did. And you don’t have sympathy for the person. You wish for justice. What the people of Judah endure here in Lamentations is not presented as injustice. By the poet’s own admission, it’s justice. And so there’s no pity for them in the consequences of their sin.
Don’t we all have thoughts and desires that, if they ever came to light, would embarrass us and bring excruciating shame on us? They would provoke various responses from people, of which sympathy would not be one. And we all say and do things at times that are disgraceful. Things that would not compel people to say, “wow, I’m so sorry for you.” Instead they would say, or at least think, “You disgust me.” I know I’m guilty of such things in my life. What about you?
As I said earlier, we have to read this account about Judah in light of what Jesus has done. What we learn in the New Testament is that the life of Jesus mirrored the life of the nation of Israel. Basically, Jesus is the better version of Israel. He’s the true version. In Exodus 4 in the Old Testament, when God instructed Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, God told Moses, “you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son.” Israel late spent 40 years in the wilderness, being tested by God. They failed, they disobeyed. After all, they were mere humans. But God the Father sent his son, whom Romans 8 calls the “firstborn among many brothers” to live the life that the people of Israel, and all of us, could never live for ourselves. And so Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, during which he was tested. And while Israel had failed; Jesus succeeded. Like Israel, he even endured an exile. In his humiliating suffering and death, he was treated like a terrible sinner. Compare him to God’s people here in Lamentations. He was stripped of security: overtaken and led away as a captive. He was stripped of dignity: beaten, mocked, insulted, stripped naked. And he was stripped of sympathy: sure there were those who felt sorry for him in his suffering, but he received no sympathy from his captors or the crowd.
But Hebrews 7 tells us why he endured this, though unlike Israel and all of us, he had done no wrong. It says, “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.” Jesus utterly restores our security, dignity, and sympathy. The totality of sin’s destructiveness is cancelled out by the totality of his redemption.