The Bible is always a serious book and The Lamentations are five particularly bleak chapters. Lamentations is a supplement to the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah has been systematically and persistently pessimistic about the future of Judah and its capital Jerusalem since the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 626BC. In prophetic oracles and acts he prophesied the besieging and fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in the face of all attempts by the authorities to silence him or promote a more optimistic narrative. The LORD has determined to send his people Judah into exile because of the their determined and ongoing unfaithfulness to him. The Lamentations are Jeremiah’s response to the Fall of Jerusalem in 587BC. It is full of the deeply biblical conviction that God acts in history and in particular to fulfil his promises to prosper or punish Israel in line with their faithfulness or faithlessness to the covenant.
It contains both literal (1.1-4; 4.10; 5.2-14) and figurative (1.6, 9, 13) descriptions of the terrible aftermath of siege warfare. To Jerusalem’s physical sufferings are added the utter hopelessness of her situation – a desolation heightened by the glory from which she has fallen (2.15; 4.1-2). Jeremiah is clear that the fall of Jerusalem is the LORD’s work (1.12, 18; 2.1-8, 17). This does not excuse those whom he has used to overrun his people – Jeremiah longs for the Lord to bring them to justice (1.22; 3.64ff).
Despite being ‘right all along’ and being persecuted for it, Jeremiah neither gloats nor says ‘I told you so’. Rather he walks the way of terror with the people of Judah and cries out to God as he shares his people’s pain. The affliction of the City is his affliction too (1.9; 2.19f; 3.5.1ff) – this is the particular theme of the middle chapter. There are brief notes of hope for the Lord’s restoration. In the middle of this central chapter we find the book’s longest, most famous and most hopeful passage: ‘the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases…for the Lord will not cast off forever.’ (3.22-33). But a lament is not first of all a prayer for reversal of fortunes – it is a cry of anguish to God that he should see the sheer terror of a people’s sufferings.
The book’s final two verses are painfully poignant as the prophet admits he still doesn’t know whether his people have plumbed the depths of God’s wrath. Only restoration of the people’s relationship with the LORD will make any real difference (5.21). Then he can pray: ‘Restore our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us and you remain exceedingly angry with us.’ (5.22)