A Sliver of Hope in a Suffocating Tragedy
August 11, 2019 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: Lamentations | Weeping in Darkness; Waiting for Mercy
Topic: Suffering & Sufficient Grace Passage: Lamentations 4:1–4:22
I’ve been reading a book called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s a glimpse into the horrific suffering that millions experienced in forced labor camps under the Gulag of the Soviet Union. Lenin created them; Stalin made them worse. Not just criminals but anybody who questioned Stalin’s leadership ended up serving time in these camps.
Even Solzhenitsyn himself. For some letters questioning Stalin’s policies, he got eight years of forced labor. One Day is just that—it’s an account of what one day was like in these camps. There was the bitter cold—30 plus degrees below zero without sufficient clothing. The food was nothing but a slop of porridge. Hunger drove many to animal-like behavior. The forced labor was cruel. Grueling tasks in the cold with no rest. The guards forced them to work by intimidation. They threatened them with punishments in holding cells. If you were sick, too bad. Personhood gone—you’re just a number.
The whole account is just dehumanizing. It’s difficult for us to imagine what he and millions others suffered, especially with all our freedoms. But that’s why Solzhenitsyn wrote what he did. He wanted the world to know the cruelty. He wanted the world to see what he saw; to feel what he felt; to get in his shoes and look around at the suffocating tragedy that millions suffered under Stalin. “Remember them,” in other words, “Don’t repeat them. Don’t embrace worldviews that lead to them.”
Lamentations functions the same way for the people of God. As One Day shook the USSR, so Lamentations should shake us. We weren’t there when Jerusalem fell in 587 BC. Even when you read about it in 2 Kings 25, you don’t get a sense of its awfulness. You get the facts; but you don’t really feel. You do feel in Lamentations. The author walks you through his experience. He puts you in his shoes and walks you through the devastation. He utilizes poetry and color and tears and a structure that rises and falls and unravels to connect your emotions to the pain of exile.
That’s no less true with the suffocating tragedy outlined in chapter 4. God wants us to learn from this tragedy. He wants us to see how sin destroys people; how awful consequences come when we abandon God. Chapter 4 is the worst.
Like chapters 1 and 2, he utilizes the acrostic pattern. But at this point, he shortens it. Instead of three lines each verse as in chapters 1 and 2, he only uses two lines each verse. It’s as if he’s running out of breath; like the suffering is too much and he’s nearly spent. Only the last two verses give him any hope that God will act again; and it’s enough to give him one more burst of a prayer in chapter 5.
A Suffocating Tragedy
Before we get to that hope, though, we must sludge through terrible again. For twenty verses he outlines a suffocating tragedy. The setting is what the people experience under Babylon’s siege all the way up to when Babylon finally attacks the city and captures the king of Judah. Let’s break it into four parts.
The People Upended
First, the people upended. Verses 1-10 describe how the whole of their society gets flipped upside down. From top to bottom, every relationship suffers disorder and a reversal of what ought to be. In verses 1 and 2 the precious become worthless. Look at it: “How the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street. The precious sons of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, how they are regarded as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands!”
He begins with gold, pure gold, holy stones. All these materials decorated the temple complex. They became precious to the people as they signified the beauty of God’s presence and blessing. But notice the parallel structure. He uses that imagery to describe the people, the sons of Zion. When weighed against refined gold, the people were priceless. But now they’ve been scattered. Torn down like the temple. They’re no longer treated as precious people but like earthen pots kicked in the dust.
Also, the nurtures become cruel. Verses 3 and 4: “Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young, but the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness. The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them.”
Jackals often appear in contexts of judgment. They’re scavengers among the dead wastelands. Even these beasts nurse their young, but Israel doesn’t. They’ve become cruel like the ostrich. In Job 39:14 it says, “[The ostrich] leaves her eggs to the earth and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them and that the wild beast may trample them. She deals cruelly with her young…”
Zion has become that. The created order is flipped upside down. Man was supposed to rule over the beasts. But here they’ve become beasts, and in some cases worse than beasts—such that the tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth. This imagery appears in contexts where a person can’t talk.[i] Point being, the baby is worse than thirsty. She’s so thirsty, she can’t even cry any more.
Next, the rich become rubbish. Verses 5 and 6: “Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple embrace ash heaps. For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater than the punishment of Sodom, which was overthrown in a moment, and no hands were wrung for her.”
Eating fancy, elegant attire—the rich. Now they’ve got nothing but whatever trash they can dig up from the ash heaps; and even that’s not enough to keep them alive. The Man looks at this and says, “My God, this is worse than what happened to Sodom. At least Sodom didn’t have to keep suffering; they were gone in an instant.”
Next, the distinguished become destitute. In verse 7, the ESV begins with “her princes.” Other translations have “her Nazarites.” Either way, we’re talking about very distinguished—perhaps even religiously distinguished—people in society; and he says this about them: “[they] were purer than snow, whiter than milk; their bodies were more ruddy than coral, the beauty of their form was like sapphire.” That was a jewel often associated with the beauty of the Lord’s presence.[ii] They dazzle, in other words.
But “Now their face is blacker than soot; they’re not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood. Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field.” You know things are really, really bad when people prefer to be a casualty of war; when they call being a casualty of war good, happier.
Then, when you thought it couldn’t, it gets worse: the compassionate become cannibals. Verse 10, “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.” I don’t even know how to think about that. I don’t even want to. But it happened. God warned this would happen. This is straight out of the curses of Deuteronomy 28.
God told them this would happen if they rejected his word and worshiped the nations’ idols. His hand of blessing would be removed. The enemies’ siege would be so cruel that the most refined man and the most tender woman would fight over who gets to eat their children. It’s abhorrent. But this is what sin does. First and foremost sin separates us from God’s covenant blessings. Then it dehumanizes people. It turns society upside down. They knew the cost of their sin, and yet they still chose it. That’s slavery. That’s bondage—when you know what it’s going to do to your little girls, and you ignore God and choose it anyway. That’s slavery; and we ought to hate it.
The Leaders Condemned
That’s the people upended. The second part of the suffocating tragedy revolves around Israel’s leaders being condemned. Verse 11, “The LORD gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations. The kings of the earth did not believe, nor any of the inhabitants of the world, that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem.”
In other words, God’s judgment wasn’t a secret. He displayed his justice publicly. On multiple occasions, the nations watched God protect Jerusalem. Just this week I was reading in 2 Chronicles—how God sent an angel to cut off Sennacherib, so that Hezekiah was then exalted in the sight of all nations. But now they witness God judging Jerusalem. What are they to learn? That God will not tolerate sin. Yes, he’s rich in steadfast love, but he will not let the guilty go unpunished. That’s what he explains in verse 13, but he focuses on the leaders’ sins in particular…
13 This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous. 14 They wandered, blind, through the streets; they were so defiled with blood that no one was able to touch their garments. 15 “Away! Unclean!” people cried at them. “Away! Away! Do not touch!” So they became fugitives and wanderers; people said among the nations, “They shall stay with us no longer.” 16 The LORD himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.
These leaders were supposed to deliver God’s word and apply God’s word with wisdom. Apart from a few, the majority didn’t. As 2:14 said, “Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they’ve not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes…” And the priests—Ezekiel says they did violence to God’s law; they profaned God’s holy things. The elders too would hide in the dark and sneak idols into the Lord’s courts. And as go the leaders, so go the people. So the Lord’s wrath fell on Zion. God exposed the leaders. Innocent blood was on their hands. He cut them off from his assembly much like a leper would be cut off under the Law. He scattered them among the nations without honor, without a people, and without a home.
The City Overrun
Third, we find the city overrun. For months they hoped Egypt would somehow intervene. That some other nation might come and chase Babylon away like times before. But that proved to be a false hope. After an eighteen-month siege, Babylon finally storms the gates. That whole scenario unravels in verses 17-19.
“Our eyes failed, ever watching vainly for help; in our watching we watched for a nation which could not save. They dogged our steps [or hunted us] so that we could not walk in our streets; our end drew near; our days were numbered, for our end had come. Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the heavens; they chased us on the mountains; they lay in wait for us in the wilderness.” In other words, no matter where they ran, there was no escape. All of them were goners—even their king.
The King Captured
And that’s the fourth part of this suffocating tragedy: the king captured. Verse 20, “The breath of our nostrils, the LORD’s anointed, was captured in their pits, of whom we said, ‘Under his shadow we shall live among the nations.’” It’s talking about Zedekiah. You can read about it in 2 Kings 25:4-7. Zedekiah tries to flee. But they capture him, sentence him, slaughter his sons, put out his eyes, bind him in chains, and haul him off to Babylon. Why’s that a big deal?
He’s the heir to David’s throne! God’s promises are bound up with the king from David’s line. That’s why he calls him, “the breath of our nostrils.” The nation’s life depends on God fulfilling his promise to David’s house. It’s part of God’s steadfast love: a forever king from David’s line was supposed to come, sit on a forever throne, bring a forever kingdom, and bless all nations with a new world order in a new creation under the glory of God’s peace. But the heir was just hauled off to Babylon, and all his sons were murdered. That’s why it’s a suffocating tragedy. The breath of their nostrils is captured.
A Sliver of Hope
What now? Is hope even possible here? By God’s mercy, it is. It’s just a sliver, but verses 21-22 are the hope. Verse 21, “Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, you who dwell in the land of Uz; but to you also the cup shall pass; you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare. The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer; but your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will punish; he will uncover your sins.”
Two things become clear in verses 21 and 22: your enemies will be judged; your exile will end. First, your enemies will be judged. The prophet Obadiah is helpful context here. Basically, Edom has a terrible history opposing Israel. That was no less the case when Babylon ransacked Jerusalem. Edom took advantage of the situation. Not only did they stand aloof and not help Israel, they looted the city after Babylon finished them off; and it describes them as rejoicing and gloating over Israel’s distress.
That gives us some context as to why Lamentations 4:21 tells them to Rejoice. We’re to read it with irony—as if to say, “Sure! Enjoy the day while it lasts, Edom. Have all the fun you want. But your day is coming. You will drink the cup of God’s wrath.” Their enemies won’t get away with what they’re doing. God will glorify his justice by judging their enemies. He will right all wrongs. That’s part of the hope.
But notice the other piece to Israel’s hope: their exile will end. Verse 22, “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished; he will keep you in exile no longer…” Check this out. The Hebrew behind our verb “is accomplished” in verse 22 (“your punishment is accomplished”)—meaning, it has come to an end—the only other place that verb appears in Lamentations is in 3:22 but with a negative. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases [or, it never comes to an end].”
Anybody reading chapter 4 would come to the end and see not only their punishment ending; they’d be reminded of what never ends—God’s steadfast love. Even in and through the darkness of exile, wrath wasn’t an end in itself; there was a deeper purpose rooted in his steadfast love. His anger over their sins has an end; their suffering has an end; the darkness has an end; their enemies have an end. But God’s love for them—it never has an end! There’s hope beyond exile…
And we have the privilege of knowing the rest of that story. The breath of their nostrils, the Lord’s anointed, may have been captured. David’s heir may have been dethroned and disciplined for his sin. But in his steadfast love, God raised up another anointed King in David’s line who had no sin—Jesus Christ.
He is the true King to end our exile by bringing us home to God. How does he do that? By living the life we should’ve lived but couldn’t; then by becoming a curse for us. The curses of the exile teach us that God must judge covenant breakers. If you’ve broken God’s law, you deserve his wrath. As Galatians says, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal 3:10). That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:13-14). Jesus died to take away our sin—the sin that stands humanity on its head and destroys everything beautiful; the sin that warrants curse and exile and banishment. Jesus died—he was cursed, exiled, banished on the cross—to satisfy God’s wrath in our place and bring us home to God.
More than ever, God’s people can truly say, our punishment is accomplished. It has come to an end in the death of Jesus. Even more—now with Jesus risen from the dead, vindicated above every power in heaven and earth—we have a King who cannot be captured. He reigns in the Jerusalem that is above. Galatians 4 says that everybody who belongs to him belongs to that Jerusalem above. Hebrews 12 says we’ve received an unshakable kingdom. That’s true of us right now.
At the same time, we’re also waiting for the city that is to come. This isn’t our final home. Jesus is bringing a city (a New Jerusalem in a new earth) that cannot be overrun by enemies. They’ll be destroyed outside the city. But inside the city, his people will be forever restored; society will be rightly ordered beneath his lordship. Ashes will be traded for beauty. Weeping will be replaced with joy. The hungry will be satisfied. The prisoners set free. All our laments will find their answer in his presence.
As Exiles, How Then Should We Live?
But that day hasn’t come yet, has it? Jesus reigns over the heavenly Jerusalem now. He seated us with him now. Our curse is over now in Christ. But goodness these days still hurt. They’re still full of pain. We look around and still see the wreckage of Babylon and the darkness of this present evil age. How should the tragedy and the hope of chapter 4 impact us while we wait for Christ’s kingdom to come in its fullness?
1. Lament sin’s horrific consequences & abstain from the passions of your flesh.
Sin is rebellion against God in any form—word, thought, deed, affection. Lamentations serves us by not turning a blind eye to sin. It looks at sin’s horrific consequences and laments sin’s presence in the world and in our lives.
I was reminded this week that 1 Peter refers to Christians as exiles. 1 Peter 1:17, “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” But then 1 Peter 2:11 says this: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of your flesh which wage war against your soul.”
The tragedy of Lamentations 4 gives us plenty reason to abstain from the passions of the flesh. Sin separates us from God and his covenant blessings. Sin destroys relationships at every level. Sin upends the created order and turns people into beasts. Sin takes everything that’s colorful and vibrant and beautiful and turns it into an ash heap. Sin also has far-reaching consequences. Your sin doesn’t stop with you, I don’t care how hidden you think you’re keeping it. Look at what it did to the children here…and their children! Listen to Lamentations 4. Make chapter 4 one further motivation to be killing sin in your life, lest it be killing you and others.
2. Lament when leaders fail and pray for your leaders’ enduring faithfulness.
Second, lament when leaders fail and pray for your leaders’ enduring faithfulness. As a leader of my wife, as a leader of my children, as a leader of this church, I find verses 11 and 13 very sobering: “The Lord gave full vent to his wrath…this was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests.” They stopped correcting people’s sin. They let idolatry continue. They grew comfortable with their own idolatry; and God’s wrath came. I’m sobered by that. I’m not beyond what happened to these leaders. We need your prayers for enduring faithfulness here.
A couple weeks ago, Joshua Harris not only separated from his wife; he walked away from Jesus too. He was a well-known leader in the church. Many looked up to him. It is right to lament Joshua’s apostasy. Other leaders aren’t claiming to walk away from Christianity, but they’re trying to change its historical convictions about life, marriage, sexuality, gender, justice, personal identity. Lamentations gives us a language to speak when leaders fail like this and lead people astray.
It’s wrong to overlook the sins of leaders because “Hey, he’s my buddy,” or because “Hey, I do the same thing,” or because “Hey, it might shake things up,” or because “Hey, he has letters behind his name,” or because “Hey, we might lose the money and the popularity.” The right response when leaders fail is lament—lament for them and lament for how vulnerable we ourselves are to the same failures.
Lament not as an end in itself but as an expression of trust in the Lord. He is the one who leads his people. We never have to question his motives or whether his words are true. The Lord is always right. He is the one to lead and preserve his people. Pray that he preserve us. Pray for your leaders that he protect us and keep us faithful. If you’re a member here, participate in the process of discerning leaders—which elders and deacons should lead the church in a manner that pleases him. The sins of leaders have severe consequences on God’s people. Chapter 4 teaches us that.
3. Set your hope in God and not in earthly comforts, leaders, or nations.
Third, set your hope in God and not in earthly comforts, leaders, or nations. Israel grew way too comfortable in the Promised Land. Multiple times the Prophets say how Israel became full; their heart was lifted up—as if they didn’t need the Lord any more. Yet we see here how the Lord stripped every comfort away to replace them with himself. He was to be their comfort and joy and satisfaction.
Same with the leaders. They put an undue amount of trust in their leaders, to the point where it was the blind leading the blind. Yet God scattered the leaders to replace them with himself; to give us a true Prophet, Priest, and King in Jesus his Son.
Also, we find them setting their hope in political alliances with other nations. In verse 17, “in our watching we watched for a nation which could not save.” I couldn’t help but think of the way many people, even some Christians, watch for America to save the world. We should be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy. But never should this nation or any earthly political system become the object of our hope. Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Jesus Christ and his kingdom alone is our hope.
4. In the worst darkness, the Lord brings hope for his people.
Finally, in the worst darkness, the Lord brings hope for his people. You might be in the darkest moment of your life right now. Or maybe you know somebody in the darkest moment of their life right now. This is definitely one of the darkest moments in Jerusalem’s life. It squeezed the life out of them as a nation. The circumstances in your life might be squeezing the life out of you—whether that’s due to your own sins, or the sins others have committed against you, or just due to living in a broken world.
Yet what do we find in chapter 4? God meets his people in the worst darkness to give them hope that he would act to save them again. He is a God who meets people in the darkest places to bring them hope, hope of a new beginning, a new creation, a new life, a new love, a new obedience—and all of which he brings about through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has gone to prepare a place for us. And he will come again to bring us into it. That’s good news for us, beloved.
That’s also good news for your neighbors too, who may be battling suicidal thoughts, who may have just lost their granddaughter in a car accident, who may be sitting in loneliness every night not knowing where to turn, whose parents are drunk and abusive and they’re eyes are looking for someone to help. Our Father meets people right there to bring them hope in his Son. As his children we should identify with them in their darkness, weep with them in their tragedy, and share the hope God has brought in Jesus. Our tragedies will have an end. But God’s steadfast love never ends. That’s our hope.
[i] Ps 137:6; Ezek 3:26.
[ii] Exod 24:10; Ezek 1:26; 28:13.