Thou, O LORD, abidest for ever; Thy throne is from generation to generation. Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, And forsake us so long time? Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; Renew our days as of old. But thou hast utterly rejected us; Thou art very wroth against us (Lamentations 5:19-22).
The impact of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Babylonians, along with the exile to Babylon, upon the people of God can hardly be overstated. These events would completely rattle every aspect of the common theology and worldview of the day. In the ancient Near East, blessings and conquest meant your god was happy with you; plagues and defeat meant your god was angry with you. And yet here Judah experiences plague, pestilence, violence, complete devastation, and even exile, which to many would have meant as much a separation from the god of their land as much as it mean separation from their country. Formerly, even when things looked bad, the Temple of YHWH in Jerusalem remained; now, even that was gone. The complete humiliation of Judah posed major theological challenges: if YHWH is the God of Israel, how could YHWH allow these things to happen? Was YHWH powerless against the Babylonians and their god Marduk? If YHWH is punishing us, why does He do so in ways that give the other nations reason to blaspheme His name and thoroughly disrespect Him? How can YHWH be our God and care for us when we have been brought so very low?
God provided a lot of warnings to the people beforehand through the prophets; God would again speak to the people to comfort and encourage them after the events took place. There is less written from and about those actually experiencing the event and its immediate aftermath: some of the psalms seem to come from this period (e.g. Psalm 44), and we get some indication of events from the book of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 39:1-44:30). Yet it is the voice of Lamentations which provides a moving and visceral response to these tragic events. The author of Lamentations describes what happens, and understands why the tragedy was necessary. Nevertheless, the author wrestles with the pain, suffering, misery, and the question of God’s presence and concern for His people.
The book of Lamentations is a masterpiece. Its author, over its first four chapters, expresses the pain, anguish, and distress of Jerusalem and its people, and does so using acrostic patterns (each verse or couplet of verses begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet). Yet it is in the fifth chapter that the author breaks out of the convention and pours out his soul before God. He pleads for God to see their reproach and describes their humiliation (Lamentations 5:1-18). Yet, in all this, he remains convinced of God’s existence and authority (Lamentations 5:19). He wants to know for how long YHWH will continue to turn away from His people and abandon them to their humiliation; he asks YHWH to turn back to His people so His people will turn back to Him and all may be renewed (Lamentations 5:20-21). The author recognizes the present distress, and concludes with his understanding of the situation: YHWH has rejected His people and remains angry with them (Lamentations 5:22).
It comes as no surprise that Lamentations is not one of the more popular books of the Bible: it is not a happy book. Lamentations is full of the types of things which we humans generally seek to avoid: pain, distress, misery, suffering, and the attempt to try to make some sense out of why it happened and where God is in the midst of the pain. We know that there might be a time when we might experience something of the sort, but we certainly do not look forward to it. We would rather continue to live as we are living, seek to focus on the happier parts of life, hope we avoid as much suffering as we can, and trust that if suffering comes we will somehow find a way through it.
But then moments of suffering come. Perhaps we will be fortunate and be able to endure them without too much distress. But what will become of us if we experience a time of intense suffering far beyond anything we might have imagined? Doubts and fears will arise. Hope might be extinguished; despair may turn to cynicism. The confidence held in one’s view of God and how one looks at the world might be strongly shaken. Many in such a condition, even if they recover physically, never do so emotionally and spiritually.
This is why it is important to understand the value of strong theology even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even on account of suffering. We can see this from the author of Lamentations. He has seen and experienced terrible evils which most of us can only imagine with dread and terror, terrible things done by the pagan nations against the people of God, and yet his faith is firm and resolute. He recognizes that God remains sovereign and in control. He has perceived that God is angry with His people and punished them and he does not seek to find fault with God because of it. He is able to maintain the hope that God will turn back toward His people and renew them as of old.
When we do not maintain that strong theology while suffering, we will be tempted to fall away. The same distress which the author of Lamentations rightly understands to be God’s chastening is understood by others as the consequence of turning away from the Queen of Heaven (cf. Jeremiah 44:15-19). While many Jews remained faithful to God in Babylon, we will never know how many others could not handle all the distress and pain and the challenge to their worldview and just assimilated into Babylonian culture, assuming that since the Babylonians were successful, their gods and perspective were clearly right, and their former belief in YHWH was wrong. Such people have been made invisible historically, no doubt swept up in every successive change of empire and belief in Mesopotamia. They attached themselves to the way of the world; their fate will be as the world.
Times of suffering will come. Our faith will be tested as through fire (1 Peter 1:3-9). Perhaps our sufferings will be manifestations of God’s discipline (cf. Hebrews 12:4-11). Perhaps our suffering will come on account of our trust in God in Christ (cf. Luke 6:22-23). Or maybe our suffering will not come with an explicit reason; it will just be. That suffering may be so severe as to shake our confidence in everything which we used to believe was true. How will we respond to such distress and calamity? Will we be able to maintain our confidence in God and His goodness toward His people? Will we find a way to maintain our hope despite our distress and pain? At that time we will perhaps gain a better appreciation for the message of Lamentations, and seek to take refuge in the same hope which sustained the author of Lamentations even when it seemed that there was no hope left. Let us stand firm in God and trust in Him in good times and in bad, when suffering or well, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry