In times of high emotion, whether it be anger or sorrow, there tends to be less control over how a person responds. People say things they regret or lash out and cause harm. These actions almost certainly lead to remorse, but without the assistance and reigning-in by others such outbursts are unavoidable.
Lamentations is an example of a period of high emotion; it was written shortly after Israel’s destruction. However, the book takes a different approach than would be expected. The layout of Lamentations is extremely measured and even mathematical in its approach. The book consists of a series of acrostics which follow the pattern of the Hebrew alphabet making twenty-two the dominant number (there are 22 letters in the alphabet, 22 verses in chapter 1,2,4,5, and 66 verses in 3 [a multiple of 22]). How such emotion works alongside this pattern will be discussed below.
Although chapter divisions were added some 1600 years after the New Testament (easily 2100+ years after Lamentations was written) the calculated structure of the book lends itself well to such partitions. Therefore it is justified that we study the book by chapter.
The scene is one of the most disturbing found in the Old Testament. The temple has just been destroyed and what was once the great city of Jerusalem has been laid to waste. The depth of horror this caused emotionally, mentally, physically, and theologically cannot be overstated. In many ways, Jerusalem’s destruction marked the death of their God. (For a fuller understanding one should read the historical books for a Biblical reference to Jerusalem’s importance, as well as Bruggeman’s work on Jewish theology).
The people rant, mourn, and grieve over their fate. Chapter 1 records some of their experiences: deep loneliness (verses 1-2, 16-19, 21), exhaustion (3-4, 13-14, 22), poverty (5-7, 10-11), shame (8, 12), and powerlessness (15, 20). They were hurt deeply and found themselves surrounded without hope.
This beginning chapter does two things. First it displays the mighty justice and terrifying judgment of our God. “The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins” (1:5). What had come upon Israel was a long time coming, God had given her countless warnings yet they refused to listen and repent. As consequence, God remained faithful to himself and for his namesake poured out his wrath. Their pain showed that His word is true, and that to be apart from God was immensely worse than the pleasures they had pursued instead of Him had been good.
Second, in knowing the pain of Israel we see a relation to the pain we endure and a reminder of what Christ suffered. It would be very hard for any of us to imagine the intensity of sorrow Israel felt. We suffer much in this life, but let us also remember from how much we have been spared. Further, Hebrews 4:15 and John 6:33 are of little consequence is we cannot put specific instances to what Christ was put under and overcame. In Lamentations God poured out his wrath. It was that same wrath He poured onto Christ. The difference is that in Lamentations they deserved it; we were the ones who deserved a place in the second lament, but Christ was written into the story in our place. He suffered deep loneliness, exhaustion, poverty, shame and even powerlessness as he gave himself up upon the cross.
As we read of God’s wrath in the Old, let us rejoice that Christ satisfied it for us in the New.