Weary Beneath an Angry Cloud
June 30, 2019 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Lamentations | Weeping in Darkness; Waiting for Mercy
In high school I remember welding on a trailer in my dad’s backyard shop. I look up to see a truck enter our driveway. A coworker brought dad home earlier than normal. I made my way to greet him, but noticed something strange. Dad’s eyes were fixed on the house, but his body wobbled this way and that. I was alarmed. Turns out he had vertigo due to an inner ear problem.
Vertigo is that feeling of being off-balance. Like jumping off the Merry Go Round—you’re trying to go somewhere but the world around you is spinning. In Lamentations, you might say God’s people have severe vertigo. They know God is good. But Jerusalem has been sacked. Exile caused unspeakable pain. Now their world was spinning. They stumble through darkness, grasping for God’s goodness over here while being hit with horrific suffering over here.[i]
We know the same vertigo. We too are struck by sufferings that send our world spinning. We know God is good, but this broken world’s pain knocks us off balance. It raises questions, sometimes objections: “Where are you, Lord? How long will you allow this?” Like Israel, we find ourselves stumbling through darkness waiting for mercy.
That’s where Lamentations comes in. Lamentations is a response to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. It exists to supply the faithful with prayers in darkness while we wait for God’s mercy. More of that unfolds today. Chapter 2 continues many themes chapter 1 began. But in chapter 2 lady Zion stays quieter. Not till the very end does she say anything. After chapter 1, she’s weary. Why bother crying if nobody seems to listen? Ah! But somebody does listen in chapter 2. Even more, he enters her pain. He weeps with those who weep and then offers his counsel. Only then does she muster the strength to cry once more. But when she does, it’s clear her world is spinning.
Describing how thoroughly God’s wrath consumed Zion
So there’s progression with chapter 2. It unfolds in three parts.[ii] First, the author describes how thoroughly God’s wrath consumed Zion. Chapter 1 explained why God’s wrath came. To glorify God’s righteousness in judging sinners. He gave the people a covenant. He promised them blessings if they obeyed, curses if they rebelled. They broke the covenant. Now, after centuries of patience, the curses fall with devastating force. Here’s the description from verses 1-10.
1 How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud! He has cast down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger. 2 The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of the daughter of Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers. 3 He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has withdrawn from them his right hand in the face of the enemy; he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around. 4 He has bent his bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe; and he has killed all who were delightful in our eyes in the tent of the daughter of Zion; he has poured out his fury like fire. 5 The Lord has become like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel; he has swallowed up all its palaces; he has laid in ruins its strongholds, and he has multiplied in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation. 6 He has laid waste his booth like a garden, laid in ruins his meeting place; the LORD has made Zion forget festival and Sabbath, and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest. 7 The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary; he has delivered into the hand of the enemy the walls of her palaces; they raised a clamor in the house of the LORD as on the day of festival. 8 The LORD determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; he stretched out the measuring line; he did not restrain his hand from destroying; he caused rampart and wall to lament; they languished together. 9 Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets find no vision from the LORD. 10 The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.
If you thought chapter 1 was heavy, chapter 2 is crushing. Almost thirty verbs fall like hammer blows in the first 8 verses. God stands behind them all. He absolutely shatters the people. Verse 1 says, “the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud.” Once his glory-cloud protected Israel in the wilderness. But this cloud is heavy with judgment. It’s an angry cloud—more like a hurricane. They aren’t safe.
Under this cloud, God humiliated the city without mercy. Note verses 1-3. He has cast down. He has broken down. He has brought them down to the ground in dishonor. Once they had everything. They had the kingdom. They ruled above the nations as if heaven itself was coming to earth. That’s partly the idea behind the footstool in verse 1. Jerusalem or the ark was often called God’s footstool.[iii] Nothing on earth could contain God, but he chose to manifest his rule in the city. But here God intentionally forgets the city. He casts down her splendor.
Once he clothed Israel like a bride with splendor—Ezekiel 16. But now he stripped them of their royal clothes and beautiful jewels.[iv] He also swallowed up without mercy in verse 2. At one time, Israel sang songs about God swallowing up Pharaoh. Now, they’re on the receiving end. The flood of God’s wrath has swallowed them.
In verse 3 the ESV says “he has cut down…all the might of Israel.” Or better, “he has cut down every horn of Israel.” The horn of an ox was a metaphor for the military strength of kings and nations. Israel’s hopes were tied to God raising up their horn, especially the horn of his anointed. But that hope seems dashed to pieces. Even worse, verse 17 says God exalted the might/horn of their foes. He also burned like a flaming fire, consuming all around. Babylon literally burned the surrounding villages to the ground. But even this was but an extension of God’s wrath.
Under this angry cloud, God also ruined them like an enemy. Notice the first lines in verses 4 and 5: “he has bent his bow like an enemy;” “the Lord has become like an enemy.” Israel once sang of God’s right hand in the Exodus. After God drowns Egypt’s armies in the Red Sea, they sing, “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power…it shatters the enemy.” But now that same right hand had drawn back a bow and released countless arrows into the people. The Lord killed all who were delightful to the eye. No wonder the mourning multiplies. The situation confirms what James says: “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Under this angry cloud, God also removed the signs of their relationship with him. God is holy. If anybody meets with God, it must be on his terms. So God ordained a meeting place, an altar to atone for sins, various festivals, and the Sabbath. He also ordained special mediators like priests and the king. Each played a special role as Israel related to God. But many of the priests and kings rejected God’s word; and the people treated the signs like good-luck charms. They wanted the benefits of the covenant without the God of the covenant. So God stripped everything away.
Verse 6, “He has laid waste his booth like a garden, laid in ruins his meeting place.” Basically, he smashed the temple like a garden shack. “The LORD has made Zion forget festival and Sabbath, and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest. The Lord has scorned his altar, disowned his sanctuary.” Even worse, he let the nations turn it into a frat house. There’s no use for going through the motions of the covenant, if there’s no relationship with God. Perhaps a few of us need to hear that again: there’s no use for going through the motions of the covenant, if there’s no relationship with God. He is the goal. He is to be everything. But Israel had forgotten that.
Under this angry cloud, God also destroyed everything protecting them. Verse 8, he laid in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion. He stretched out the measuring line. Sometimes in the Prophets, that’s a hopeful sign. But in this case, the measuring line was a sign of grave judgment. God stretches out the measuring line, not to build the city but to divide it up and destroy it. Gates, bars, everything.
Under this angry cloud, God also devastated their leaders. God scattered the kings and princes among the nations. That’s verse 9. Also, “the law is no more, and her prophets find no vision from the Lord.” The king, especially with the prophets’ help—these mediators were supposed to lead the people by God’s word. Now they have no law; they have no word. They’re left with nothing. All the elders can do in verse 10 is sit on the ground in silence. Once the young women would play through the streets in joyful processions at festivals and wedding days.[v] But here they can only bow their heads to the ground. God has wearied the people beneath an angry cloud.
Multiple times over we hear this phrase: “in his anger;” “in his fury;” “in his fierce indignation.” Passages like these lead outsiders to reject the God of Scripture. “If he’s this brutal and vindictive, I want nothing to do with him,” they say. So we need to be clear. I found David Wells helpful on this point in his book God in the Whirlwind.
He says, “Human anger is often accompanied by malice, vindictiveness, retaliation, revenge, and hatefulness…[God’s wrath] is a pure expression of his holiness. It’s not an outburst of irrational temper. Temper, malice, revenge were seen in some of the ancient gods and goddesses. They could be capricious, bad-tempered, and destructive. God, though, is not…His wrath is instead about restoring to an unchallenged position all that is good, pure, true, beautiful, and right. And it is about removing everything that challenges his rule because it is bad, impure, rebellious, repugnant, or otherwise evil…Wrath is the way in which he upholds the moral order of the universe.”[vi]
So when we read of his wrath burning against Israel, this isn’t the work of a capricious God flying off the handle. No, the Lord’s anger is controlled by his character and used toward good ends—restoring the good, removing the evil. At this point in history, that meant Israel suffered a great deal under the covenant curses.
Entering Zion’s pain and counseling her to pray for help
That’s part 1—the author describes how thoroughly God’s wrath consumed Zion. But after the description, lady Zion doesn’t answer like she did in chapter 1. It’s as if the grief is too much. But that doesn’t keep the author away. Not only is he an eyewitness who looks and describes; he’s one who enters and counsels. He doesn’t leave her alone; he draws near and weeps with those who weep.
Verse 11, “My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, ‘Where is bread and wine?’ as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom.” The child asks mommy for food, but mommy has no answer. All she can do is hold her child while she dies.
The worst pain often comes when children suffer. It’s not that adult suffering doesn’t hurt. It’s that child suffering heaps painful questions onto the already existing pain: “What about their innocence? What about their helplessness?” It’s agonizing. He’s at a loss in verse 13, “What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For your ruin is vast as the sea; who can heal you?” Her needs are too great. They’re beyond his ability. He feels the helplessness.
His only hope and her only hope is the Lord. But she needs to see that. It’s not uncommon for people to turn bitter against God in suffering, even to forget him and seek other helpers. But he counsels her not to trust in the false helpers any more. Verse 14, “Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they haven’t exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.” The Lord sent them true prophets that exposed their sin and told them to repent. But they didn’t like those prophets. They liked the prophets who told them everything was okay, who said “peace, peace” when there was no peace. “Don’t turn to those helpers anymore,” he’s saying.
Also, don’t turn to the nations anymore. Verse 15, “All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem: ‘Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?’ All your enemies rail against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry: ‘We have swallowed her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; now we have it; we see it!’”
These were the nations Israel trusted to help them. God warned them not to. But they did it anyway. They wanted Assyria and Babylon more than they wanted God. So God handed them over to them; he showed them exactly what they’re like. That’s the point of verse 17: “The LORD has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes.”
Read Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 when you get home. God commanded in his word that every one of these things would happen to them if they rejected his word. From the nations overrunning them to the children dying in the streets—it’s all there. And the fact that it happened should remind her that God is faithful to his word. When they look at the destruction, the people shouldn’t see merely the nations defeating them at the earthly level. They should see God’s faithfulness to his word at the heavenly level: “The LORD has done what he purposed.”
These nations are but tools, in other words. Let them boast all they want. The true King behind these circumstances is your covenant Lord ruling by his covenant word; and he’s the one you need to trust. He’s the only one who can take away the judgment. He’s the only one who can remove the curse. So, cry out for his mercy!
That’s the idea; and that’s where he goes in verse 18: “Their heart cried to the Lord. O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite! Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches!” This is urgent, in other words. There’s no room for sleeping here![vii] “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street!”
Zion responding with a plea/protest for the Lord’s help
He enters. He counsels. He pleads. She accepts. We finally hear Zion respond with a plea for the Lord’s help. It comes out, though, as more of a protest, a complaint for him to act. She cries in verse 20,
20 Look, O LORD, and see! With whom have you dealt thus? Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? 21 In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity. 22 You summoned as if to a festival day my terrors on every side, and on the day of the anger of the LORD no one escaped or survived; those whom I held and raised my enemy destroyed.”
We thought we heard the worst of it. But we didn’t. Mothers commit a most inhumane act; they eat their children instead of starving. When God removes his gracious restraint, sin turns even the tenderest people into beasts. God warned them about this. This very act belonged to the curses of Deuteronomy 28:53. But they ignored it.
So, it’s not a matter of whether they deserved it. They did. They invited these things upon themselves when they played around with sin. But the shock of the suffering has sent Zion’s world spinning. To use the words of Christopher Wright, she “accepts the sovereignty of God.” “You have killed…you have summoned.” She also “accepts the righteous wrath of God” against “persistent, unrepentant sin.” Isn’t that what she confessed in 1:18, “the Lord is righteous.” He wasn’t wrong to hand them over.
But she also recognizes “that God’s judgment can operate through the agency of human beings who, in executing God’s judgment at the ‘street level’ of history, are themselves guilty of the most appalling wickedness and cruelty.”[viii] Yes, God used Babylon to judge Israel. Yet they will stand guilty for their crimes. Knowing this, she lays her protest before the Lord. “Should women eat the fruit of their womb…? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?” Of course not.
But only God can change that for them. She can’t change it. Her leaders can’t change it. The nations can’t change it. Only the Lord can change it. Only God can lift the curse. Only God can defeat their enemies. Only God can remove his judgment. So she returns to the Judge himself and says, “Look and see!” He has ruined her without mercy. But her cry is for his mercy.
Model your laments after those found in Scripture
Friends, what about you? When the Lord uses suffering to expose your sin; or when you see this broken world’s pain, do you cry to the Lord this way? We’re learning the contours of lament. Sometimes it includes a raw protest and complaint. Not in the sense of blaming God, or charging God with injustice. But in the sense of truly wanting things to reflect his righteousness in full; wanting all wrongs made right.
Some of the sufferings we experience send our world spinning. We won’t always be able to answer why they happen either. But God invites us to bring our questions to him; and turn them into prayers for him to act according to his character and will. Mark Vroegop writes, “Lament does not wait for resolution. It gives voice to the tough questions before the final chapter is written.”[ix]
Don’t we find such prayers throughout the Bible? Psalm 10, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 44, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, Lord?…Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” David in Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The martyrs in Revelation 6, “How long, O Lord, before you will judge and avenge our blood.” Model your laments after those we find in Scripture. As Christopher Wright puts it, “God has broad enough shoulders to cry on and a big enough chest to beat against.”[x] Bury your head in his chest and make your cries known to him.
Learn how to enter and weep with those who weep
Also, learn from lamentations how to weep with those who weep. Study the contours of grief described in Lamentations. See the loneliness and the long, agonizing nights. See what it looks like for someone to have no comforter. See how it became harder for her to speak when no one seemed to listen. See how true cries for help are intermingled with protest. See how suffering disorients.
Study these various aspects of grief to help you understand each other in your grief. And then don’t be afraid to enter and weep with those who weep. This person in verse 11 could be Jeremiah. We know him elsewhere as the weeping prophet. Whoever he is, though, he’s certainly an Israelite representative, who identifies with the people and takes upon himself their sufferings in chapter 3.
See, the vast greatness of her needs don’t keep him away. Why? Because he knows the God of infinite grace to meet every one of her needs. He points her to his Lord. We need to be doing that for one another. Enter each other’s sufferings. Look and see one another’s pain. Weep with those who weep. Counsel each other away from false helpers. Then turn one another to the Lord. Don’t let sufferings turn us bitter toward the Lord. Let’s help each other discern God’s hand in them; then patiently cry to him.
Rest assured that in Christ, God removes our judgment and restores his people
Finally, rest assured that in Christ, God removes our judgment and mercifully restores his people. As I studied, I was amazed how many times in the prophets God promises to reverse the very curses Israel was experiencing. For instance, in 2:1 the Lord “cast down…the splendor, or beauty, of Israel.” But in Isaiah 60:19 God speaks about the future glory of Israel and promises: “the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your beauty.” In Lamentations 2, God swallowed up Israel and its palaces. Same idea appears Isaiah 25:7-8, but now God promises to restore Zion. Guess what God swallows up for everybody in Zion? He swallows up death and wipes away their tears.
In Lamentations 2:3 God’s right hand worked against Israel. But in Isaiah 41:10 it strengthens them: “I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” In 2:3 again, God burned in Jacob like a consuming fire all around. But in Zechariah 2:5, God promises Zion: “I will be for her a wall of fire all around.” It’s a reversal: God’s holy fire would surround his people for their protection.
In 2:8, he stretches out the measuring line to destroy the city. But in Zechariah 2, God stretches out the measuring line to build a new city, an even bigger Jerusalem. In 2:10, the elders are humbled to the dust, young women can’t sing, children are dying in the streets. But in Zechariah 8, God promises a city where the old men and women sit in the streets to a ripe old age while the streets of the city are full of boys and girls playing.
In other words, when we set Lamentations in the bigger storyline of Scripture, the Lord answers lady Zion’s lament. He heard her protests and her complaints; and he responds with mercy upon mercy. Those merciful promises in the prophets then find their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Jesus is the one Israelite representative who identified with our sufferings truly. He then made our deserved sufferings his own, so that we would enjoy freedom from God’s judgment in a restored city. I don’t think it’s an accident that the nations in Lamentations 2:15 pass by and wag their heads at Jerusalem, mocking the one under God’s curse. The nations do the same to Jesus in Mark 15:29: they pass by and wag their heads at Jesus, mocking the one under God’s curse.[xi]
The big difference is that Jesus didn’t deserve it—unlike Israel, he was faithful to the covenant. He was suffering for their sins, not his own. The other big difference is that Jesus’ sufferings mean we can escape the wrath of God and know his forgiveness in full. Our curse was vast as the sea, but Jesus’ suffering unto death actually absorbed it in full to set us free. The other big difference is that Jesus, three days later, took up his life again to build that new Zion. The New Jerusalem is going up as we speak.
We see outcroppings of that new city in the church. The present Jerusalem is still in slavery to sin, but we who’re in Christ belong to the Jerusalem that’s above. We’ve been freed from our slavery to sin and forgiven. God’s curses for us are over. They’re over for anybody who trusts in Jesus. Even more: under the curse, God cut off every horn in Israel. Remember? But Jesus is the exalted horn of Israel. God has raised him up and exalted him; and right now he’s putting all our enemies beneath his feet. One day he will return to lay them low for good. Death will be swallowed up too.
That, beloved, is why we have hope in suffering. That is how we bring our laments to the Lord without fear of condemnation. That is what assures us in our vertigo that God is good and faithful and just—it’s the Rock when our world is spinning. The work of Jesus reassures us that God will work his purpose even through suffering to bring about our good. If you’re in Christ, the angry cloud of God’s wrath has lifted. The sunshine of his love is upon you. The broken world’s pain might keep you from seeing it some days clearly. But his word says it’s there if you belong to Christ. Cling to that word. Cling to his covenant faithfulness to that word. If he was faithful to his word of judgment, he will be faithful to his word of salvation for you. Let’s remember that afresh as we come to the Lord’s Supper.
[i]The experience is mine, but the idea of “vertigo” came from these words by Wright: “It is faith struggling with vertigo over the chasm between what it knows to be true about God and the realities of what it sees or experiences in this fallen world.” Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Lamentations, BST (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 39.
[ii]In part 1, the author describes how thoroughly God’s wrath consumed Zion (Lam 2:1-10). In part 2, he enters Zion’s sorrow and counsels her to seek the Lord’s help (Lam 2:11-19). Then in part 3, Zion utters another desperate cry to the Lord (Lam 2:20-22). Duane Garrett and Paul R. House, Song of Songs, Lamentations, WBC 23B (Dallas: Word, 2004), 375.
[iii]1 Chron 28:2; Pss 99:5; 132:7; Isa 66:1.
[iv]Regarding the loss of their “splendor/beauty” in Lam 2:1, see Ezek 16:38-39.
[v]Pss 45:14; 68:25-26; 78:63; Jer 31:4, 13-14
[vi]David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 121-22.
[vii]Garret and House, Lamentations, 392.
[viii]Wright, Lamentations, 39.
[ix]Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 96.
[x]Wright, Lamentations, 78.
[xi]Barry G. Webb, Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, NSBT 10 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 80.