Trying to Empathize with Lamentations

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630

In reading Lamentations I wondered how much we could empathize with the weeping over a destroyed Jerusalem. We are so less rooted to our geography in this culture and see it as a point of pride to be well-traveled. For some the goal of growing up is to get out of the small town you grew up in. Even the US taken as a whole isn’t all that old of a country and our history is hardly anything compared to the longstanding nations elsewhere in the world.

So if we were to imagine a hometown or an iconic city like Washington, D.C. or New York City destroyed, how would we react? Could our sorrow even begin to match that of what is read in Lamentations? Jerusalem was not only a civic center or place of worship, it was both those things and more. It was where that generation’s ancestors had worshiped the living God who made his dwelling place there, among all the places on earth.

Surely that destruction would cause questions and doubts. Where is God if his habitation is destroyed? Where is he if he would allow his people to be exiled? Who are we if we do not have our home or a place to gather and worship?

As we read Lamentations, take the time to imagine the devastation the author must have felt. Only once you have tried that then move toward the jubilation you can imagine when God’s people are returned home and this city is rebuilt. You can’t grasp the hope that comes in places like the end of Isaiah, dealing with Israel’s restoration, without first understanding the depth of despair that met the people as Jerusalem burned.

Catching Up a Bit on Hebrews

As I mentioned last week, writings on Hebrews were slow going as I didn’t want to skip over the difficulty of Hebrews 6. But now that we’re in to the home stretch of the book, I didn’t want to altogether miss out on the amazing passages I’ve yet to focus on.

Chapter six opens with the challenges passage that makes us investigate our security in God, but then it ends with wonderful verses on the certainty we can have with God. He is one who can keep all the promises that he has made to us.

13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear,he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham,having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose,he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.

Hebrews then goes on with a phrase that struck me so much when I noticed it a couple years ago that I have it written on a post-it and stuck to my wall. The certainty that we have in God is like a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. What a reassuring picture of the hope we have in God? When all the world rages on like a storm around us, we have a hope that is fixed, immovable because of the great work of God for us in Jesus Christ.

Beyond chapter six we get the mysterious character Melchizedek mentioned in chapter seven, showing how Christ, like him, is not a priest like any other. He does not depend on his lineage nor does his ministry come to an end. He is a priest forever, always perfectly interceding for us.

This continues the theme that what Christ has done and who Christ is make him the bringer of a new and better covenant. Chapter eight talks of how those old things were copies and shadows of what is real and they looked ahead to Christ’s coming. Jeremiah 31 is quoted to show they longing and to communicate that this future day Jeremiah spoke of has found its fulfillment in Jesus.

I think Hebrews is a wonderful book that helps us to couple Jesus Christ with phrases like “better than”, “how much more,” and “greater than” as we compare him and all he has done to everything that has gone before.

Welcome to Week 4 of this Fall Quarter

William Blake’s illustration of Job

If you’ve made it this far here’s what I have to say–Well done, everyone. Jeremiah was a long, full book and you’ve finished it. But if you were hoping for a short and light read to follow it, you’ve come to the wrong place. We get the ancient book of Job with all the challenging questions about suffering and God’s sovereignty. We’ll also begin Hebrews, which I’ve really enjoyed in the last few years. It teaches us, among other things, just how perfectly Jesus fulfills the Old Testament.

Don’t forget that this week we’re back into the Psalms, so get back out your third bookmark for this week.

Send your questions my way and enjoy the week.

The people’s failure to listen to Jeremiah

Zedekiah brought before the one who conquered Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar

You’d think after foreign powers have taken over Jerusalem, taking with them a great number of your own, you might then start to listen to Jeremiah. Jeremiah had been telling about the coming destruction and how it is the judgment of God. But no one listened. But Jeremiah was right.

I figured in reading through this that having shown his prophetic merit, the people would listen when in chapter 42 Jeremiah warns the remnant to remain in the land and not flee to Egypt. He says:

If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you.

But after all they’ve experienced, do they listen? No. Time and time again the people do not listen to God through his prophet, and ignoring God’s word is never a wise decision.

An Assault on a Promise to Abraham

For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the Lord. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Reading through the prophets you come across a long list of the sins of God’s people, a people who are called to be set apart from their neighbors, who are supposed to be a holy nation. To me, this one stands out among the rest. They have not only been guilty of evil, but they have done their evil in the house of God. They have built up Topheth for a horrifying practice, sacrificing their sons and daughters. These “sons of Judah” have sacrificed their own flesh in pagan practices by throwing their children into the flames.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel.

How much sorrow must this cause our God? He has many times seen his people turn away from him, which causes him grief. But here the sin of the parents is to destroy their own children. Judah is taking the lives of God’s people and in so doing, upending the promises of God. They are no longer cherishing the promise of God to Abraham and his descendants. Instead they cast the promised children into this Valley of Slaughter.

God promised Abraham offspring so numerous they’d be impossible to count and Abraham longed for a child. Children were an honor and a blessing. But here in Jeremiah as descendants of Abraham receive this promise, they mock God and his promises. It is evil in God’s sight as they slaughter their own kin–something so far from God’s mind.

This is a clear reason why Jeremiah comes to preach judgment, and good reason that he is known as the weeping prophet (Jer 9).

Exploring the Possibilities

Image of Folio 27v, with the four evangelist symbols from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old book.

I was in a group tonight that was reading the beginning of Mark. Probably for all of us there it was re-reading this gospel. But even though it is familiar to us, God always can speak. His word is fresh and needs to be approached with the expectation he’ll still meet us there. We’ll never quite have all the answers, rather we are constantly in a place of need. We should be humble and open to the leading of the Spirit.

If that is what God can do in a familiar passage, what do you think can happen with books of the Bible we know very little about? If there can be newness to familiar passages, what is there to learn from the more unfamiliar passages?

We can easily pick up Jeremiah and think, “I don’t know anything about this!” This can lead to our being discouraged. But how much better to respond with an attitude of excitement. If we don’t know much, how much is there to explore? What will God speak to us? How can it be stale if we’ve never passed through these texts before?

We may like familiar. We like what is known. Many really like routine and habit. But we need to have that adventurous spirit that gets excited when we encounter the unknown. Sure, we may feel out of our element with some of these books of the Bible, but that’s how we learn. Look at your Bible’s study notes (if you have them), search the internet for answers, call a friend and discuss, and even–if you’re desperate and grasping for straws–email me.

When you get into these books, like Jeremiah, be excited for a new word from God, be expectant that he will speak, and embrace the perspective of “what can I learn?”.

Before Jeremiah was a twinkle in his father’s eye

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We immediately get into a passage in Jeremiah 1 that is well known, at least relative to other texts from Jeremiah. In verse five we read:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…

In it we see God’s sovereignty over creation and time. We find comfort being known by God, and that he knows us before we ever have a chance to seek him. Before we even have the ability to turn to him, he knows us.

But it is great to look beyond this one line to see how this truth plays out. God wants his prophet Jeremiah to rely on God to fulfill his call. Jeremiah worries that he is only a youth, so how is he to be a prophet to the nations? But doesn’t he realize that God already knew that when he called him–he knew all things about Jeremiah before Jeremiah was even born. God says do not worry that you are young, for I will give you the words. Just follow my command. I will be with you. Verse nine even says that God will put the words in Jeremiah’s mouth. What then will he lack?

If he is worried that he’ll have to go it alone, all Jeremiah should do is look back–God knew him before he was formed. And he can look ahead–God will continue to be with him. God has not left his side and will remain with him making him capable of the great work that is prepared for him. There is no time Jeremiah can think of or imagine in which God is absent from the picture.

In a similar way that Jesus talks of Abraham in John 8, God could say here that before Jeremiah was, I am. God was by his side before he even had a side, before he had a body. Therefore Jeremiah can rely on this God who holds these plans securely in his own hands. He need not worry about what he may lack and instead focus on all that is perfectly provided by God.