Alone in Sin without a Comforter
June 23, 2019 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Lamentations | Weeping in Darkness; Waiting for Mercy
Last fall our family went to DC. We visited several museums around the mall. Also the Lincoln Memorial. Then just down from that was the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. A lengthy granite wall hosts more than 58,000 names of Americans who gave their lives in service. As you approach this memorial, though, the atmosphere becomes very different. A brass statue of three soldiers stands across from the wall staring at this sea of names. The solemn look on their faces is unforgettable. A somber seriousness fills the visitors. The memorial sends a clear message: war is dreadful. Never forget those who gave their lives; but also never forget war took them.[i]
Likewise, Lamentations stands as a sobering memorial. The face of lady Zion weeping is unforgettable. To read the book is to sit with her in one of Israel’s darkest, most dreadful moments. Important lessons are to be learned here. But to understand the lessons, we need to understand the book.
For starters, we need to know the background. Where does it fall in Israel’s story? Lamentations is a response to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. If you want a summary, 2 Kings 25 is your place. Babylon holds Jerusalem under a cruel siege. For three years they starve the people. Then they ransack the city, burn the temple, rob its treasures, kill the people, rape the women. The only survivors get hauled to captivity or turned into slaves. The city of Jerusalem, the city where God dwelled, the city of Israel’s hopes and dreams—that city lies in ruins.
The tragedy leads anyone to ask, “Wait, aren’t these God’s people? Isn’t this God’s city? What’s God doing? Where’s God at?” These are God’s people, but a people with whom God entered a covenant. That covenant explained the terms of their relationship with God.[ii] If the people obeyed the Lord, the land would be their inheritance, they’d have rest from their enemies. But if the people rebelled, God would send them unspeakable curses and drive them from the land.
When we read Lamentations, the suffering is not of the innocent like that of Job. In Lamentations, it’s deserved suffering beneath the covenant curses. That’s crucial to remember when we apply Lamentations as those who belong to the new covenant in Christ. It’s not always a one-to-one correlation with the types of suffering we may experience. But there’s still so much to learn.
The way God’s people cry when the bottom falls out, when the dark clouds suffocate every hope—this book gives you words. It doesn’t stifle the sufferer. It gives her a voice. It teaches her how to weep in darkness while she waits for mercy. It gives us a language when it feels like God slams the door and bolts it shut in our face. It’s real and it’s raw. The Lord inspired these cries to teach us how to trust him in the severest pain. That’s how one author described a lament: “prayer in pain that leads to trust.”[iii]
But these aren’t just any prayers. They’re carefully crafted prayers. It’s poetry, as you can see by the way it’s printed. But what you can’t see in the English, is that Lamentations contains five poems, and the first four are acrostics. You’ll notice 22 verses in chapter 1. That’s because there are 22 characters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse begins with the next letter in the alphabet. This acrostic pattern continues for chapters 2, 3, and 4. The only difference is that chapter 3 triples the pattern forming the climactic point that recalls God’s steadfast love.
Why these acrostics, though? Why use the Hebrew alphabet like this? Simply put, he’s explaining their sorrows from A to Z.[iv] It’s as if he’s saying, “Here’s all the pain in its fullness.” In fact, when he finally gets to the last poem in chapter 5, the acrostic pattern is hardly there and it’s shorter. Still 22 verses, but each verse has fewer lines. It’s as if the pain of the previous chapters so overwhelm, he can’t keep it together any more. He’s spent. All that needs to be said has been said. Now he must trust the Lord to act. The literary structure itself conveys what we often feel when we lament.
A Lonely Woman without a Comforter
That’s a bit about the book. Now to its content. If you’re a child who likes to draw the sermon, you might draw a lady sitting alone in a dark place, crying. She’s very sad, desperate. I say that because the author personifies the city of Zion as a woman. The first half of chapter 1 describes her primarily in the third person—someone looks in from outside. In the second half, we hear her cries directly in the first person. Let’s read chapter 1 and then return to answer four questions.
1 How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
4 The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate; her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.
5 Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper,
because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
6 From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed.
Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture;
they fled without strength before the pursuer.
7 Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction
and wandering all the precious things that were hers from days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was none to help her, her foes gloated over her;
they mocked at her downfall.
8 Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans and turns her face away.
9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future;
therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter.
"O LORD, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!"
10 The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things;
for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade to enter your congregation.
11 All her people groan as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.
"Look, O LORD, and see, for I am despised."
12 "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
13 "From on high he sent fire; into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet; he turned me back;
he has left me stunned, faint all the day long.
14 "My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
by his hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck;
he caused my strength to fail; the Lord gave me into the hands of those whom I cannot withstand.
15 "The Lord rejected all my mighty men in my midst;
he summoned an assembly against me to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah.
16 "For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed."
17 Zion stretches out her hands, but there’s none to comfort her;
the LORD has commanded against Jacob that his neighbors should be his foes;
Jerusalem has become a filthy thing among them.
18 "The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples, and see my suffering;
my young women and my young men have gone into captivity.
19 "I called to my lovers, but they deceived me;
my priests and elders perished in the city,
while they sought food to revive their strength.
20 "Look, O LORD, for I am in distress; my stomach churns;
my heart is wrung within me, because I’ve been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it’s like death.
21 "They heard my groaning, yet there is no one to comfort me.
All my enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it.
You’ve brought the day you announced; now let them be as I am.
22 "Let all their evildoing come before you,
and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many, and my heart is faint."
What happened to Zion?
Four questions. First, what happened to Zion? Zion is Jerusalem and the temple mount where God reigns with his people. As Psalm 48 says, she’s beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth, the city of the great King. But great tragedy has struck.
Zion is an abandoned city.
Scripture often depicts Zion using the image of a bride. Zion is the Lord’s bride. So it’s fitting that Lamentations uses the image of a woman. However, this woman isn’t celebrating a wedding. She’s in deep distress. The first word of the book is “How?!” It’s this baffling cry. Someone looks on her in utter dismay. She mourns as a widow. Once she was full of people; she was great; she was a princess. But now she sits alone.[v] Exacerbating the loneliness is that she’s also enslaved. It reminds us of Israel once in Egypt. Just as she cried bitterly then, so she weeps bitterly in the night here. She’ inconsolable. Tears are always on her cheeks.
Even more, her lovers refuse to comfort her. Quite often the prophets use “lovers” when describing Israel’s adultery. She was to be faithful to the Lord, her husband. He loved her. But the people had affairs with other “lovers.” Meaning, they chased after other gods; they leaned on other governments.[vi] But these lovers abandoned her. Unlike the Lord, they weren’t faithful. She sits in tears, but they walk away. They got what they wanted from her and leave. Even worse, her best friends deal treacherously with her. Imagine sitting in your grief and loneliness. You need your friends. You wait for them to come, only to discover they all hate you now.
Zion is also a cursed city.
In verses 4-6, we find a great reversal of their history. God had rescued Israel from slavery, scattered their enemies, brought them securely into the land. But what do we find here? Verse 3, “Judah has gone into exile…under hard servitude.” They’re back in slavery. She also finds no resting place—that’s the reverse of what she found under Joshua. Her pursuers have all overtaken her. Her enemies prosper, verse 5. Verse 6 describes her leaders fleeing like a deer before its hunters, and the deer can’t find a getaway.
Much of this language appears in the covenant curses of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.[vii] In other words, the covenant curses have fallen on the people. The situation is so bad that even the roads to Zion mourn. They groan. Once they were full of travelers coming to worship, coming to celebrate God’s goodness at the festivals. But the curses have turned the city into a ghost-town.
Zion is also a violated city.
In grief memories of good things sometimes bring more hurt. Why? Because the good things are gone. So also in verse 7, the people are homeless and have only memories of precious things. Verse 10 explains the precious things in part: “the nations entered her sanctuary.” All the gold of the temple. All the ornate instruments used in worship. All the bronze alters and precious stones. Babylon packed it up and hauled it off. You can read about that in 2 Kings 25.
In other contexts though, like Hosea 9:6, the destruction of Jerusalem also included “their precious children.” So it’s possible that we’re dealing not only with precious items but precious people. Her children stripped from her arms.
Then, to heap pain on top of pain, we read this in verse 8: “…all who honor her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness. She herself groans and turns her face away. Her uncleanness was in her skirts…[verse 10] The enemy stretched out his hands over all her precious things, for she has seen the nations enter her holy place.” I can’t go into much detail because children are present. But essentially, the nations have their way with this woman. Then they bring her out in public to expose her and mock her. She can’t even lift her head. Her shame is too great before everyone’s laughter.[viii]
Zion is also a starving city.
Verse 11, “All her people groan as they search for bread. They trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.” Verse 19, “My priests and elders perished in the city, while they sought for food to revive their strength.” In the moment when she needs her leaders most, they die in the streets from starvation.
Zion is a city without a comforter.
Abandoned, cursed, violated, starving. What does this woman need? She needs a comforter. She needs someone to hold her, someone to cover her nakedness, someone to protect her from the mockers, someone to strengthen her. But no one comes. Five times we’re told she has no comforter. Verse 2, “she has none to comfort her; verse 9, “she has no comforter;” verse 16, “my eyes flow with tears for a comforter is far from me;” verse 17, “there’s none to comfort her;” verse 21, “they heard my groaning, yet there’s no one to comfort me.” Suffering is at least more bearable when you have a comforter. Zion, though, is a city without a comforter.
Who did this to Zion?
Who did this? That’s our second question. Who put her in this state? At one level, we can say Babylon did. The nations did. Verse 5 says, “Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper.” Verse 10 says, “the nations entered her sanctuary.”
But that isn’t the full picture. Notice verse 5: “the Lord has afflicted her.” When she cries to the Lord in verses 12-15, notice the major Actor. Verse 12, “Look and see if there’s any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”
Verse 13 tells more: “From on high he sent fire; into my bones he made it descend.” Using Babylon, God burned the city to the ground. Even worse, the pain entered her bones. The force of God’s displeasure makes her internally miserable.[ix] She goes on, “he spread a net for my feet; he turned me back; he has left me stunned, faint all the day long.” Babylon would use nets to capture people trying to escape. The point here, though, is that the Lord is the real trapper. Babylon is just his instrument. The Lord even pushes them backwards into the trap. Try as they may, they can’t escape.
Verse 14, “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck; he caused my strength to fail; the Lord gave me into the hands of those whom I cannot withstand. The Lord rejected all my mighty men in my midst.” Just to clarify. The point isn’t that God is absent and it just so happens their mighty men fall. No. The point is that the Lord is the one “in my midst;” he is actually present but defeating them. His presence once protected the city; now his presence had become a terror within the city.
It goes on, “he summoned an assembly against me to crush my young men; the Lord has trodden as in a winepress the virgin daughter of Judah.” The image is one of the most gruesome in Scripture. It’s another way of saying that the sword of judgment had fallen. Blood runs in the streets, much like the grapes excrete their juice when trampled underfoot. The Lord has crushed the people.
Why did the Lord cause Zion’s downfall?
Why? That’s question three. Why did the Lord cause such tragedy? Answer: to glorify his righteousness in judging sinners. Look at verse 5: “because the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions.” Verse 8, “Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy.” Verse 20, “my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.” Lamentations isn’t the people raising their fist at God to say, “We don’t deserve this!” No. It teaches people to confess their sin, to hate the sin that brings judgment, and then to trust God’s righteous character.
Verse 18 makes that attitude even clearer: “The Lord is in the right.” Or better: “Righteous is the Lord, for I have rebelled against his word.” God explained what would happen to them if they rebelled against his word—judgment, curse, abandonment, no rest, no peace. If God just stood by and pretended their sin wasn’t a big deal, his righteousness would be called into question. But that’s not an option on the table. God is righteous. He must punish covenant breakers. He must remain faithful to his character, faithful to his covenant word. That’s why Zion fell. To glorify God’s righteousness in judging sin.
What does this mean for God’s people?
Last question: What does this mean for God’s people? As we look on this memorial, as we see the tears on Zion’s face, how should we respond? C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it’s His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[x] When we look on Zion’s pain, what message is God shouting?
Repent and renew your hatred for sin and its horrific consequences.
Part of the message is repent and renew your hatred for sin and its horrific consequences. Twice lady Zion calls the nations to look and see. Verse 12, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see, if there’s any sorrow like my sorrow…which the Lord inflicted.” Verse 18: “The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word; but hear, all you peoples, and see my suffering.” Why? What should the nations see? That awful punishments fall on covenant breakers.
And if they listen carefully, they’d find themselves included in that group of rebels. Look at verse 21: “All my enemies have heard of my trouble; they’re glad that you’ve done it. You’ve brought the day you announced; now let them be as I am. Let all their evildoing come before you, and deal with them as you’ve dealt with me because of all my transgressions.” Exile wasn’t only judgment on Israel. It taught the nations: God judges covenant breakers. On this side of Adam, that’s everybody.
According to Isaiah, the nations grew arrogant. They didn’t take Israel’s downfall to heart.[xi] We can’t follow them. We must look at Zion’s pain with more sensitive eyes. Do you see the awful consequences of sin? Do you see what happens when you turn to other lovers? Do you see how they leave you miserable in your shame? Do you see how they weigh you down like a heavy yoke? Do you see that your hope can’t rest in other gods or governments? Check the history: they’ve got great track record for ruining people.
The Lord alone and his word is our hope. Lamentations teaches us to weep over sin. Lament is how godly sorrow talks. Find a Christian that hates their sin and loves God’s righteousness, and their prayers will sound like this book. What does James say? “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.” Lamentations wakens us to the heinousness of sin. Look how it invites your destruction! Then bring that sin before the righteous Judge.
Bring your laments to the Lord who meets us in the darkest moments.
Which leads to another response: bring your laments to the Lord who meets us in the darkest moments. Lamentations exists to supply the faithful with prayers while they wait for God’s mercy in the darkest circumstances. God inspired these laments. He inspired the cry in verse 9: “O Lord, behold my affliction.” Or verse 11, “Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised.” Or verse 20, “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress.”
Why would God inspire prayers like that and then preserve them in Scripture? Partly to give us a language to speak when darkness falls. Even if that darkness falls as a result of sin, God desires we cry to him like this. You might be alone. You might feel abandoned. You might weep bitterly in the night. You might be sitting in your shame. Sin has wrecked you. But you can cry, “Look, O Lord, and see! I’m in distress.”
You might hate that God’s enemies prosper. You may see the culture growing dark. You may see destructive heresies harming the church. But you can protest, “Look, O Lord, let all their evildoing come before you!” Lament is how we speak to the Lord when dark clouds suffocate hope, when comfort is far away. It helps us remember that God meets us in our sorrow, in our pain. Even more, he sent his Son into our pain. He became the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He cried to his Father in the garden. He lamented from the cross, while enduring a punishment infinitely greater than anything Zion knew; and he did it for all of us. To take our place beneath the wrath of God. Our God meets us in the darkness. So bring him your lament.
Rest assured that God has brought us all comfort in the person and work of Christ.
Then, when you do, let me reassure you of his comfort in Christ. Strikingly, the Lord remains silent in Lamentations. Zion cries for him to look and see, but an answer doesn’t come. She needs comfort but no comforter comes. The book reads like we often feel: “Where are you, Lord? Don’t you see me?” And then silence…
But that doesn’t mean God’s answer never came. Eventually, God sent a prophet named Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy extended beyond the exile; and in Isaiah 40:1 we find these words: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Can you imagine how good those words sounded to those mourning in exile? Some never got to hear them. A new exodus, a greater saving work was coming. Six more prophecies then unfold in Isaiah, each using this same word: comfort.
In Isaiah 49:13-22, God would have compassion on the afflicted; he’d again fill the lonely city with a redeemed people from all nations. In Isaiah 51:3, he’d make Zion’s wilderness like Eden and her desert the garden of the Lord; “joy and gladness will be found in her.” In Isaiah 52:9-10, all the ends of the earth would see God’s salvation. In Isaiah 54:11, a new Zion would come; and all who belong to that city would be taught of God. In Isaiah 61:2, the comfort is the year of the Lord’s favor; he’d comfort those who mourn and give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes. Then finally in Isaiah 66:13, the Lord comforts Jerusalem as a mother comforts her child.
In other words, Isaiah’s promises of comfort are the answers to the cries for comfort in Lamentations. Even better, we know their fulfillment in Christ. Comfort is impossible when sitting in shame, but Christ comes to remove our shame and clothe us with splendor. Comfort is impossible when we bear that heavy yoke of sin, but Christ comes to remove that yoke from our necks—he breaks the power of sin! Comfort is impossible when God is our enemy, but in Christ God has loved us even while we were still enemies—even better, we have peace with God through his cross. Comfort is impossible when enemies prosper, but Christ will destroy all our enemies when he comes again. Comfort is impossible with tears on our cheeks, but in Christ’s kingdom God will wipe every tear from our eyes; and there will be no more crying nor pain anymore.
We have good news in Christ. Isaiah’s days of comfort have dawned for the people of God. And so we find the church in Acts “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” Or this one from 2 Thessalonians 2:16, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace—may he comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” Or 2 Corinthians 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” He “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Did you get that? Until the kingdom comes, God’s comfort doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. But it does mean we don’t sit in suffering alone and without a comforter. In Christ, God is our comforter. That’s amazing! Because of Christ’s work, our greatest suffering is behind us—there’s no wrath left for you. Which means no matter what we face, God is with us to comfort us and give us all we need to endure the suffering of this present evil age. And you know what? He also saved each of you to bring his comforts to one another. That’s what Paul said: “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
In Christ, God not only becomes our chief Comforter; he also gives us to one another to share in his comforts together. Your shoulders are for each other to cry on. Your ears are for each other to listen. Your eyes are to look on those in distress and to weep in darkness while waiting for God’s mercy. Your mouths are to give each other words in grief, like “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
As we turn to the Lord’s Supper, as you eat the bread together and drink the cup, remember that just like lady Zion, we too sat alone in sin without a comforter. But now in Christ, we have the God of all comfort.
[i]The experience is my own, but I got the idea for the analogy from Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 90.
[ii]Moses explained it from Sinai and then repeated that covenant in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
[iii]Vroegop, Dark Clouds, 28.
[iv]Barry G. Webb, Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, NSBT 10 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 61.
[v]She’s much like the lepers who sat alone, cut off from God’s assembly (Lev 13:46).
[vi]E.g., Ezekiel 23:5 says “she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians.” Similar imagery appears in Ezek 16:33, 36, 37; Hos 2:5, 7, 10, 12-13.
[vii]Lev 26:17, 36, 37; Deut 28:43, 65.
[viii]See Ezek 16:36-39 to help with the imagery.
[ix]Jeremiah 20:9 uses the same imagery to describe what would happen to the prophet if he didn’t speak God’s word.
[x]C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper, 2001; reprint), 91.
[xi]See esp. Isa 47:6-11.