Week commencing 24th September 2017   With a PDF found here

Notes for next Sunday’s sermon on Lamentations 3 “Compassion which never fails.”

DAY 1: Read 2 Kings 23:24-27, and 24:10-25:21

It might seem an odd way to start this week’s study on compassion by talking first about God’s wrath. After all, who wants to think about God as an angry God? We want him to be a big teddy bear, always gracious and kind and patient. Of course, though, when we do, we’re making God into how we want him to be, rather than recognizing him as the ultimate Lord of All. Besides, Biblical history shows us how God’s character, in his holiness and righteousness, extends compassion in ways we might not want or like.

That’s what’s happening in the backstory to Lamentations. We see in the reading of 2 Kings the devastating consequences for God’s people when they—again—did what was evil in his sight. Like a disobedient child who provokes and badgers his parents until finally they discipline him, the people of Israel had pushed God too far. Even though King Josiah tried to make amends for his wayward people, scripture tell us, “Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger which burned against Judah.” And what did the Lord do then? He removed Judah from his presence.

The city was overthrown and decimated, sending Judah into captivity. Lamentations, then, is the response to that fall. No wonder it begins, “How lonely sits the city/That was full of people!” (Lamentations 1:1). The Hebrew word here is hkya (‘Ekah), translated, “How,” or “Alas.” So Alas. The dark city in question, Jerusalem, that once knew God’s favour now sits in ruins. Though Biblical scholars aren’t certain as to the author of Lamentations, most point to Jeremiah because of how he walked through the streets and alleys of the Holy City and saw nothing but pain, suffering, and destruction in the wake of the Babylonian invasion of 586 BC. What is described in 2 Kings 25 somewhat dispassionately is now in Lamentations revisited with raw descriptions of loss, pain and anguish. There is no comforter, everyone is alone, and we have arrived at one of the darkest moments of Israel’s history. “Alas” indeed should be our response to God’s wrath.

DAY 2: Read Lamentations 1 & 2

As one scholar put it, “At one level the divine anger is acknowledged to be right. At another it remains simply unendurable . . . yet the fact remains that the anger of God and the suffering it produces are overwhelmingly shocking realities from which only God himself can give relief. The book of Lamentations, more than any other Old Testament book, shows us God’s wrath as a directly experienced reality.”

In response to that reality, Lamentations is a book that portrays intense public and corporate grief yet ironically it is also one of the most orderly works in the Old Testament. The five chapters contain one poem each of 22 verses, except for chapter 3, which has 66. The reason is that each of the poems is based on the Hebrew alphabet with its 22 consonants. But you don’t need to be a Hebrew scholar to know that the poetic writing is fitting for a deep emotional response to such sorrow. We hear the groaning of the people in these first two chapters, the bitter weeping and cries, with no sign of comfort or relief anywhere. The splendour of Israel has been completely upended and everyone is vulnerable now in this wasteland. Why? Because “the Lord has rejected his altar and abandoned his sanctuary. He has handed over to the enemy the walls of her palaces.” In other words, the Lord has removed his protective hand on the city and for his people; their wounds are “as deep as the sea.” Because of their disobedience, they have been become captives to their own evil desires.

And yet the writer looks to the Lord to remember their plight. He calls on the people to cry out to God and he asks God to consider the atrocities that have happened because of his anger. These two chapters remind us how grave the consequences of sin are, and how God’s compassion nonetheless sometimes allows us the lessons of such awful and self-inflicted suffering. Sometimes, such consequences are the only way we learn that He alone is God. He alone is to be obeyed. Help us, God, to see that your compassion does not always look like what we think it might. In fact, it looks like the cross.

DAY 3: Read Lamentations 3: 1-23

The third poem (chapter 3) begins with the writer personalizing his observations. “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.” We see the terrible existence of living without God. Indeed, the absence of God brings nothing but despair and affliction.

Yet in the shadow of such stark contrast, we come to the heart and centre of the book, the very foundation for the righteous life to which God calls his people. For in between all of the laments and destruction, beneath all the consequences of sin and the wrath of a Holy God, we hear the voice of hope! It is as if the writer has run out of his own resources and he finally remembers his afflictions, determined by circumstances and wandering, but it is too great to bear any longer. And then he makes a deliberate choice (v21): “Yet this I call to mind: Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed.” No matter what has befallen him, or what he has received as just judgment, he calls to mind God’s love and it does not allow him to be consumed by the evil of his heart or the brokenness of the world. Because he has called this to mind, therefore, he has hope!

And everything changes as a result! “Hope is reborn with the realization that even to be able to lament is a gift. For to weep is to be alive and to that extent, at least, an object of divine grace: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed. And with that the great covenant words that had always defined God, rise to the sufferer’s mind again in quick succession: great love, compassion, faithfulness . . Judgment was part of the covenant relationship, but did not bring it to an end. The continuance of the relationship was guaranteed by the compassion, love and faithfulness of God on which it was founded.” And through Christ’s brokenness on the cross for us, that covenant of hope expressed in God’s compassion remains the foundation for our lives today!

DAY 4: Read 3:21-5:22

Every morning, no matter what the headlines say, no matter what the doctor’s visit reveals or what our families are going through, we are not consumed. Why? Because of the Lord’s great love! His compassion never fails. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, the Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

Grounded firmly in this reality of God’s love and compassionate hope, the rest of Lamentations reveals a changed heart, a perspective that looks outward and weeps for others who have turned their backs on the Most High. The poetic images remind us of the Lord’s goodness as the focus has shifted from the desolate city to the broken-hearted individual. But the mockery of those who ignore God is prophetic in its warning as well and as one commentator suggests, it draws attention to the connection between the destruction of the temple (and the city) and the crucifixion of Jesus. “Christ crucified is the God-given replacement for Jerusalem and the temple.” Jesus took the wrath of God for our sin that we may live in his unfailing mercy and love!

So Lamentations reminds us of the importance not only of mourning over our sin but of asking the Lord for His forgiveness when we fail Him. “Alas” unto us if we turn from him. And yet we call to mind the great hope we have when we come to him with sorrows and broken hearts! “Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. (3:32)” Do you believe this? May we rest in the reality of his unfailing mercy, and in the new hope it gives us each morning.

Resources: Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther, by Barry G. Webb;
ESV Study Bible Commentary; “Overview of Lamentations” by Chuck Swindoll.