What’s the book of Lamentations about really? It is a prolonged response to the destruction of Jerusalem, a momentous tragedy that is in many ways the culmination of the long narrative stretching from Genesis to Kings. Yet once the destruction has occurred, as the prophets have been foretelling, it continues to shape the Israelite people from thereon out.
But the curious thing is that, in simply reading these three chapters, one finds the book light on historical detail. For when this event of the greatest importance finally transpires, the biblical record does not employ the language of history or story at all, so much as the immensely personal response in the form of these poetic laments.
How curious it is that at the moment of despair, when we might well expect an account of the destruction, the Bible instead reports the emotional cost, in such general terms that it resonates with us thousands of years away. Here in the Old Testament we see that divine history, even in its most significant of arcs, speaks in deeply personal terms. And this makes sense if we’re willing to live into the moment, to see ourselves as Jerusalem, much as these chapters speak for the city itself.
“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light . . . ” (Lam. 3:1). Chapter 3 opens with this memorable declaration and drops direct engagement with Jerusalem’s destruction. Of course, the ambiguity has invited plenty of scholarly speculation. But, given the frame, that very ambiguity invites us to identify more closely with this voice and the remarkably individual experience it recounts.
And lo and behold we find in the personal suffering something with universal resonance. And thus we are invited to see the story of a city so close to God’s heart as our own.
The prophet Isaiah declares the coming restoration of Jerusalem with the prediction of a promised messiah and future king. And when that messiah came upon earth, the keenest to recognize him were those who remembered their affliction and wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! The tax-collector, the prostitute, each knew well the ways in which God seemed to have set them against the world and vice versa.
They came to have hope through this Messiah’s teaching. They came to have faith because of the experiences they either saw firsthand or quickly learned of after that one morning when God took a world turned against himself and by the power of the resurrection demonstrated the sheer magnitude of his mercy—its breadth to encompass and forgive each of our sins that we might repent and experience new dawn in our lives whenever the weight of our sin presses against us.
The arc of that story could not be more momentous in world-historical terms, and yet it spoke then and continues to speak in the most personal way.
Are you the man? Can you, a beloved creation of God, feel how, despite that fact, this world is set against you? Perhaps you merely apprehend this sense in a simple longing for God, a hunger for salvation.
Take a lesson from Lamentations and see how little the details matter; for the truth awaits you, apportioned in the bread and wine. Put your hope in him and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord, and you may well find Jerusalem has already been restored in you.