Most people refer to this book of the Bible as The Lamentations of Jeremiah, because most scholars agree it was written by the prophet Jeremiah. But these aren’t the lamentations of Jeremiah. They are the lamentations of God. Oh, Jeremiah might have also been distraught over what happened to his nation, but I believe the anguished heart cry here is all God’s.
The more I read of the Bible, the more I’m convinced that we can’t just stuff God into the little boxes we’d like to put Him in. There’s the “Gentle, Meek, and Mild” box—but God isn’t always gentle, meek, or mild. There’s the “Fire and Brimstone” box—but God doesn’t always appear with fire and brimstone. As much as it seems we’d like to paint our picture of God either black or white, He persistently defies being painted with one type of brush.
If there is any box we can stuff Him into, I believe it’s the “Love” box—but the way that looks in action is markedly different, depending on the circumstances.
Having just gone through 52 chapters of Jeremiah, I think I’ve heard just about every warning possible. I think I’ve heard every sternly-worded, threat-laced, If you do that again, I’ll spank you! there is. God is a tough talker. And, make no mistake, He’s also a tough disciplinarian.
But we must never equate those things with harshness. At the center of God’s heart is the most tender spot you will ever find. Any tough words He says or any tough punishments He doles out are for the sole purpose of helping us. He is desperate to save us, and the unfortunate truth is, sometimes He can’t.
When He can’t, you don’t hear, “I told you so.” You don’t hear, “Good riddance.” This is what you hear: “Oh, oh, oh . . . How empty the city, once teeming with people. A widow, this city, once in the front rank of nations, once queen of the ball, she’s now a drudge in the kitchen. She cries herself to sleep each night, tears soaking her pillow. No one’s left among her lovers to sit and hold her hand. Her friends have all dumped her.” (vs 1-2)
I don’t know about you, but in that lament, I hear shades of, “How can I give you up? How can I let you go?” (Hos 11:8)
I hear, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate!” (Matt 23:37-38)
I hear, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33)
Never, ever think that God doesn’t know or care about your pain. He cares more deeply than any other person you know, because He knows you better than anyone else. Your pain is His pain. And even if what you’re suffering is something you brought on yourself, God weeps.
He is never unmoved. He is never untouched.
He has a tender place in His heart for you.
God is like an enemy.
Of all the things you want to say about God, that “He is like an enemy” is not one of them! But neither do I wish to ignore or “gloss over” issues in the Old Testament that may be troubling to some Christians. And when you’re writing a blog about what the Bible has to say about who God is, it seems only fair to tackle the descriptions that seem “bad” right along with the “good” ones.
This chapter didn’t seem to mince words regarding its picture of God: “The Lord is like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel. He has swallowed up all her palaces and destroyed her strongholds. He has multiplied mourning and lamentation for Daughter Judah.” (vs 5)
Does it get any more plain than that? God is like an enemy. But what does that mean? Especially when Jesus—who was God in the flesh!—once said, “I have called you friends.” (Jn 15:15) Which is it? Is God our enemy or our friend?
Well, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that God obviously didn’t want to be Israel’s enemy. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt. He miraculously brought them out of bondage and promised to give them a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey . . . just because. He bent over backwards to make overtures of goodwill to them.
He was their God, and they were supposed to be His people.
Supposed to be.
But God would no more force them into the slavery of being His people than He would have left them in slavery in Egypt. God is about freedom, not bondage—and, yes, that even includes the freedom to reject Him and His way of doing things. But we often don’t consider the consequences of rejecting Him and His way of doing things.
Let’s remind ourselves of what happened when the Israelites first reached the border of the Promised Land and sent spies in to check it out. When the spies came back, they said, “‘We can’t attack those people; they’re way stronger than we are.’ They spread scary rumors among the People of Israel. They said, ‘We scouted out the land from one end to the other—it’s a land that swallows people whole. Everybody we saw was huge. Why, we even saw the Nephilim giants. Alongside them we felt like grasshoppers. And they looked down on us as if we were grasshoppers.’” (Num 13:31-33)
When the Israelites reached the Promised Land, the very first thing they realized was that they were no match for the people who already lived in the land. Compared to them, they were weaker, smaller, and fewer in number. Left on their own against these giants, they were toast!
But their success in the Promised Land was never supposed to be dependent on their own strength. They were to rest and rely on God, who was their strength. He was going to “fight” their battles for them. He was going to remove any obstacles they encountered and solve any problems they ran into. All they had to do was trust Him.
It seems that was the one thing they were unwilling to do.
Thus, the chapter goes on to say, “The Lord has rejected his altar and abandoned his sanctuary. He has given the walls of her palaces into the hands of the enemy.” (vs 7) You recognize this language, don’t you? It’s the language of God’s wrath. His fierce and fiery anger is expressed in His abandoning those who have already abandoned Him. And that’s why the Israelites ended up in captivity to the Babylonians—because they had abandoned the only One who was able to rescue them from that fate.
Does that make God an enemy? Well, perhaps we might bemoan the fact that He would eventually abandon us to an awful fate, even if we’ve chosen it for ourselves. However, what is the alternative? That He would ultimately override our freedom and force us to love and serve Him? Would that make Him a friend?
God restrains evil.
I hear the questions often: if God is so good, why are things in this world so bad? How can a loving God tolerate evil? How can He just let us suffer? Actually, there is much in Scripture to suggest that the assumption behind these questions is misguided. God isn’t sitting back with His arms folded in some distant locale, letting evil run rampant.
On the contrary, as today’s chapter reminds us, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (vs 22-23)
Everything God has done during the course of human history has been for the purpose of restraining evil. Instead of allowing evil to overwhelm us, He has been actively working to retard the effects of sin long enough to give us the opportunity to return to Him. He doesn’t want anyone to be lost!
Revelation chapter 7 uses the imagery of angels “holding back the four winds of the earth.” And in Job, another story that provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the struggle between good and evil, we see that Satan (the author of sin) is powerless to perpetrate any of the evil he plans unless God gives him permission.
From the very beginning, God has been actively restraining Satan’s evil plans. If He hadn’t, we would all have been consumed by now. So, the next time you feel like you’re living in the crosshairs of suffering, remember that if it weren’t for God’s compassion, Satan would have totally crushed you by now.
Even in the midst of the worst tragedies in this world, God is restraining evil.
God keeps dying.
The King of the Jews died a long time before He was hung on a cross at Calvary.
Yes, long before that Good Friday, God succumbed to the longstanding idolatry of His chosen people, and when Jerusalem (along with the Temple) was razed, He died in the minds of all the heathen He had been working so hard to reach. And even if His “death” at that time was just as temporary as the death Christ died on the cross, the total devastation of Israel nonetheless meant that God would have to start all over again in His bid to reveal Himself to humanity.
A few days ago on this blog, I wrote about how the Jews were probably shocked that God allowed His Temple to be destroyed. But now I’m thinking that perhaps it wasn’t only the Jews who were surprised by this, as I spotted this little verse in today’s chapter: “The kings of the earth did not believe, nor did any of the peoples of the world, that enemies and foes could enter the gates of Jerusalem.” (vs 12)
You know, everything God had done for Israel didn’t go unnoticed by the heathen nations. They were well aware of the strength of Israel’s God. Do you remember the words of Rahab? “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Jos 2:9-11)
Rescuing the Israelites from the Egyptians and displacing heathen nations in Canaan were evangelical acts. To minds in the ancient world, a god was only as “real” as his success on the battlefield. If a nation was successful in battle, their god was taken seriously. If a nation was defeated in battle, their god was considered, at best, impotent or, at worst, non-existent. (This is why the miraculous rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—recorded in Daniel 3—caused King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to experience an immediate conversion.)
Thus, for God to allow both His chosen nation and His Temple to be destroyed was for Him to effectively cease to exist in the minds of all those who had come to revere Him through His mighty acts. When Israel refused to return to God, He was stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” If He allowed Israel to flourish, despite their wickedness, for the sake of His reputation, He was putting the spiritual lives of His own people in jeopardy. But if He allowed Israel to experience the consequences of their rebellion against Him, He was, in essence, destroying His own reputation.
And so God “died,” because He valued the spiritual well-being of His children above His own reputation. And, as Bible commentator James Coffman wrote, when Israel was destroyed, “the ancient notion that the physical defeat of any nation meant also the defeat of their god resulted in a terrible resurgence of paganism. Israel’s destruction meant that God would have to begin all over again in his campaign to redeem Adam’s fallen race.”
Incidentally, Jesus was faced with the same choice while on the cross: “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”‘” (Matt 27:39-43)
Jesus’s reputation as the Son of God was in question when He allowed Himself to be hung on a cross, but just as before, God was more concerned about the spiritual well-being of His children than He was about His reputation. He would rather die than lose any one of His children unnecessarily.
God takes the long view.
In the first year of Caroline’s life, I have tried to follow a certain piece of parenting advice I picked up from one of the books I read. It advised: Begin as you mean to go. In other words, that book suggests that parents begin training their children with the long view in mind. This way, training is purposeful and not erratic. For example, if I want Caroline to learn to feed herself in a certain way, I don’t allow her to throw food onto the floor for three months before having to “re-train” her to keep her food on her plate. I start by never allowing her to throw food on the floor. I begin as I mean to go.
What this idea really points out is the contrast between the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, on the days when I’m tired and lack the energy to want to train Caroline, it would be so much easier to just give in and allow her to do as she pleases. The voice in my head tells me it will be easier to get started training “tomorrow.” But that’s never the case. I have learned through much experience this year that, as hard as it may seem at the moment, to train my child with the long view in mind is much, much easier.
I found that contrast in this chapter of Lamentations as well—the contrast between what is short-term and what is long-term. Of course, for most of the chapter, Jeremiah is consumed with what is short-term. The devastation and destruction of Jerusalem are where his eyes are mainly focused, and understandably, it’s difficult for him to see past that.
It’s the same for Caroline when, in a moment of training, I thump her leg because she is trying to climb the stairs. She wails in anger and disappointment, focused only on what is happening in that moment. There’s no possible way she can see the long view as I can, knowing that training her now not to climb on the stairs before she is ready will (1) keep her from injuring herself and (2) reduce the same temptation at future moments. Her short-term discomfort is totally in the best interests of her long-term happiness.
And even as consumed as he is with the short-term, Jeremiah manages a glimpse of the long-term in this chapter: “You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.” (vs 19) I think this is a remarkable perspective to find in the midst of this lamentation. Jeremiah realizes that God’s purposes are eternal and that they are spanning the entirety of human history—from generation to generation. Although God treats each of us as unique individuals, what He is doing in our individual lives is not disjointed or disconnected from the lives of others. No, what God has done in human history in the last 20 generations has impacted me. What He is doing now, during my lifetime, will have a direct impact on future generations. He is weaving all of our lives together in a grand tapestry of mercy and grace.
The whole of human history has been moving toward something—a grand resolution to the great war that has been raging in this universe. Thus, even if and when we perish now in sorrow, God endures, and His purposes endure. Whatever may be our lot in the short-term, our long-term security in God isn’t affected by that. We are secure in Him, no matter what.
So often, however, we get caught up—as Jeremiah did in the first part of this chapter—obsessing over our temporary situation. We would do well to remember that, no matter how bad we think our current plight is, God is still working in our lives, and God never does anything temporarily. Just because we are mired in the short view doesn’t mean that He is. Everything He does is eternal.
He begins as He means to go.
He always takes the long view.