Bible Study Commentary
Pastor Michael Falgout
October 2, 2019
When the book of Lamentations is read at all by Christians (being tucked away, well hidden among the books of the prophets in the Old Testament), it is usually read during one of the seasons of fasting in the church: the season of Lent, for example. Why? Perhaps because it’s message is bleak, as the title suggests: it’s laments, the moans and groans, complaints, or lamentations of the people of God. It’s a God-inspired collection of poems about Israel’s suffering after the destruction of Jerusalem--after the exile.
Much of the poetic nature of Lamentations, originally titled ‘ekah, the Hebrew word for “How?” or “Why,” is lost in translation from Hebrew to English. The book is composed in five chapters. Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 have exactly 22 verses, corresponding with the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Chapters 1, 2, and 4 are actually alphabetical acrostics: the first verse of each chapter begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, and so on. God himself does not have a “speaking” role in this book, as God does in most of the prophets. Instead, the word of God is here implicit, hidden in plain sight, as it were, in the human expression of pain and confusion--not unlike the final cry of Christ from the cross, “My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
But, the message of Lamentations isn’t all suffering, doom and gloom. It’s not just a brooding poetic expression of human pain. Chapter three is three times as long as the other chapters, and it contains the book’s transcendent message of hope in God’s redemption, expressed in the following God-inspired, but also very human verses:
3:19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
Gall is bile (gross!), and wormwood is a bitter herb, such as the kind used in the passover meal to represent the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. Here the inspired poet uses the familiar metaphor of bitter taste to describe the “thought” or experience of homelessness, or exile, and affliction. Perhaps also to remind Israel, and the whole people of God, of the connection between their present experience and the former suffering of their forefathers in Egypt...just before God acted in the Exodus to set them free! So, perhaps there is a hint of hope even in these bitter verses.
3:20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
Is it a sin to think continually of one’s own suffering? To throw oneself a pity party? To be so negative? If so, it is one the poet freely confesses in this verse. Observe: the life of God’s people isn’t all sunshine and roses. Often, it’s wormwood and gall. The Bible sanctifies the experience and confession of suffering without sacrificing hope on the altar of our emotions. It’s okay to feel bad, to be down, and express it. Even in our sufferings, we are called to bear our faith boldly and rejoice in our hope for God’s future.
3:21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
Our English translators clearly interpret this verse, and the “this” within it, as an introduction to the next hopeful section with the theme of God’s love and redemption. But, the original text actually calls for a pause at the end of this verse, and several formal elements suggest that it connects to the former verses (19-20), rather than the latter. Why does that matter? I believe the poet of Lamentations wants us to know it is precisely his experience and memory of suffering, mentioned in the former verses, that bring him hope. Perhaps he hopes God will reward him, and Israel, in eternity all the more for their patience and endurance despite persecution.
3:22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
This verse starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, signalling a new section in the poem that is this chapter. These words, and the next two verses that seem connected, are full of hope in God’s eternal, never failing love and mercy. They are the subject of many hymns and praise songs in the church. However, we should be careful to appreciate their context, here, in the midst of many lamentations--in the context of Christ’s own experience of homelessness and God-forsakenness for us and our salvation.
3:23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Sound familiar? The classic hymn, “Great is thy faithfulness,” echoes the same sentiment as these words. But, do those verses sound the same to us when we consider them in the context of this book/poem that catalogues so much human suffering?
3:24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."
Another metaphor here: a “portion” could indicate a measure of food, but more often in the Bible indicates a measure of land allotted to a person or family. If it is interpreted as food, perhaps this verse refers back to the bitter portion implied by the words “gall” and “wormwood” in verse 19. But, if the poet is talking about land (which I think more probable), perhaps he is saying that, even though he and Israel have no “portion” in this world, no clear sense of country or place to call their own, God himself is all the land they need. All they, or we need in this life is our soul’s hope in God’s never-ending love and mercies.
3:25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.
Another new section is introduced here after a pause indicated in the original text, and a new letter in the Hebrew acrostic. In Hebrew, the key word that starts this verse (and the next two verses) is the word “good.” The Hebrew word for “good” is sometimes interchangeable with “pleasure.” Thus, the poet may be saying that, even though he is surrounded by the opposite of good, by pain, affliction, and grief, God himself promises all the good, all the pleasure that the patient soul really needs.
3:26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
The poet seems to trust that the salvation, or liberating deliverance, of the Lord will surely come to God’s people and reward them who patiently wait for it (whether in this life or the world to come?), just as it did in the time of Moses and Israel’s suffering in Egypt. He seems to interpret God’s meaning in our present waiting. Not only will God’s greater good be revealed to those who wait for it, but they who wait for it do good and become good themselves, reflecting the holiness of Christ in themselves and shining in God’s likeness.
Questions for Further Reflection
1. How does God speak to us through the book of Lamentations? How does God speak in and through the human experience of pain and suffering?
2. What’s the difference between a healthy and holy expression of grief or suffering, such as Lamentations or Christ’s own words from the cross, and the kind of negative thinking, self-pity, or beating oneself up that is neither healthy nor holy?
3. What does “the Lord is my lot/portion” mean to you? How would you express that same idea in your own contemporary terms?
Merciful God, help us not to wallow in our sufferings, hide our pain from ourselves, or be discouraged by the troubles we experience, but to embrace your never-ending love all the more in the midst of affliction and hope in your greater good about to be accomplished in us, that we may also bring hope and light into the darkness and pain of others around us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.