Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
On the 17th of December, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a man from Tunisia, set himself on fire as a protest against government harassment. He later died of his injuries. But his protest led to other protests and eventually to the overthrow of the Tunisian government. And what happened in Tunisia spilled across the borders and became protests that have led to civil war and/or regime change in Algeria, Egypt, Oman, Jordan, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Syria. So the protest act of one man is now commonly accepted as the event that started what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. And since then, according to U.N. figures, more than 250,000 people have been killed, 11,000,000 have been forced from their homes, 4,000,000 are living as refugees in other countries, and 65,000 people have been arrested by government security forces and are now missing.
And included in those numbers are a group of people known as ASSYRIAN CHRISTIANS. They live in several of those countries. According to some estimates, 60% of all the Iraqi Assyrian Christians have fled their homeland because of ISIS persecution. One church leader said, It is “genocide – ethnic cleansing … They are killing our people in the name of Allah and telling people that anyone who kills a Christian will go straight to heaven: that is their message. They have burned churches; they have burned very old books … They are occupying our churches and converting them into mosques.” He said, “[Our people] fled their villages and houses [with] nothing but … the clothes on their backs … [It is] an exodus … Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat towards the Kurdish cities … the sick, the elderly, infants and pregnant women among them. They are facing a HUMAN CATASTROPHE.”
Well, the human catastrophe that is happening in the Middle-East today is half a world away from you and me. The closest we come to it is news stories on our TV screens in between stories about a silver medal at the Olympics or National and Labour arguing about interest rates, etc. So if it is hard for us to really understand the scale of the human catastrophe that is life in the Middle East for millions of people today, it is near on impossible for us to imagine the human catastrophe that was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity 2600 years ago!
But if you have been here for this short series of sermons on the Book of Lamentations, I trust you will agree that the author of the book has done his level best to help us see just how horrific this time in the history of the Jewish people was. But just in case we are not quite there yet, with the last of the five poems that make up this book, the author makes one last attempt to capture the horror, not only with his words, but also with the STRUCTURE of his poem.
I have noted this in the bulletin a couple of times, but each of the chapters in Lamentations is a complete poem. And each poem is made up of 22 stanzas of poetry. And this is because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. So stanza 1, in chapters 1,2,3 & 4, begins with A, and stanza 2 with B, and so on.
Well, here in ch. 5, we still have 22 stanzas of poetry, as indicated by the 22 verses. But that pattern is not followed; each stanza does not begin with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
And in addition, the poems have gone from having three-line stanzas down to two-line stanzas, and now, with this last one, just one-line stanzas.
Sometimes we talk about something that is ‘WITHOUT RHYME OR REASON.’ Have you heard that expression before? We use it when there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable explanation for something. We might say that He behaved like that without rhyme or reason.
Well, WITHOUT RHYME OR REASON? (question mark) would be a good title for this poem. In terms of how it is structured, compared to the first four poems, and in terms of its short and staccato descriptions of violence and crime and misery, and in terms of its ending, which seems to lacks any certainty, the question of the author seems to be, Lord, is all that we have suffered without rhyme or reason? Why has this happened to us? Is there any hope for us?
And those would be the types of questions being asked today by Assyrian Christians: Why has this happened to us? Will this ever end? Is there any hope for us? And every Christian who experiences a crisis or hardship inevitably asks similar questions: Has God rejected me? What is the purpose of this suffering? Is there any hope for me? So what answers do we get from this, the last of the 5 poems of Lamentations?
I. Well, while the first four poems have largely been description, this last one is a PRAYER. As we see, right from v1, where he addresses his words to God.
II. And it begins with a call to God to REMEMBER what has happened to Jerusalem and her people.
A. And that word “Remember” suggests that some time has gone by since the destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying of the people into exile in Babylon. And as each day and week and month and year, and perhaps even as each decade passes by, the author and the people are beginning to wonder if God has forgotten them and their distress.
1. If you read through the book of JUDGES, you encounter the following pattern. Again and again, it reads like this: In those days, the people of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord by worshipping false gods of one sort or another. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people and He handed them over into the hands of the Midianites or Amorites or the Philistines, etc, for 7 years or 8 years or 18 years, or in the case of the Philistines, for 40 years. But here is what you always read next, every time: “But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them…” And then we are introduced to Ehud or Gideon or Samson, etc.
2. So the author of Lamentations, who probably knew his Jewish history very well, with each passing year, and no rescue or restoration or redeemer, is concerned that God has forgotten His people.
B. So he reminds the Lord of all that has happened:
1. Verse 2 speaks of OCCUPATION. The Book of Joshua records the days when the people of Israel first arrived in the Promised Land. And the first thing that happened was that the land was divided up and each tribe and family was given a piece of land as its permanent inheritance. This land was not allowed to be sold. It has to remain with the family from one generation to the next. It was a symbol of God’s faithfulness. But all that is gone as the poet reminds the Lord that strangers now inherit the land.
2. Verse 3 speaks of BEREAVEMENT. One of the ways that God demonstrated His love for His people was in the special laws He put in place for the care and protection of orphans and widows. Well, says the poet, Look, Lord, we are all orphans and widows because so many have died.
3. Verse 4 speaks of POVERTY. Jerusalem and Judah were places of abundant and free water and wood. But now these basics of life must be bought and paid for.
4. Verse 5 speaks of HARASSMENT. The people are constantly pursued and they have to move around, to the point that they are bone weary.
5. Verse 6 speaks of DEPENDENCE. What is described there is the fact that those who remain in the land have to stretch out their hands to Assyria in the North and Egypt in the South just to get enough bread to survive on.
6. Verse 7 speaks of GENERATIONAL GUILT. Such is the weight of the disaster that has come upon the people, the poet recognizes that this must be, at least in part, because of the sin of previous generations.
a. Now, we have to be careful here to remember God’s special relationship with the OT Jews. He ruled them, directly, as their government, if you like. And His relationship with them had the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial law at its heart.
b. There may be consequences to sin that continue from one generation to the next today. We might think, for example, of fetal alcohol syndrome, or the poverty that comes into a family because a Father gambles away the family’s money, etc.
c. But it would be wrong of us, today, when we encounter severe suffering, to assume that there is some sin in our parents or grandparents that has brought this about.
d. You may remember in the days of Jesus that they bought Him a man born blind and asked him if the blindness was because of his sin or his parents. But Jesus replied, Neither! The son’s blindness was not a punishment for his sin or the sins of his parents.
e. But here in v7, we are reading about a specific situation in the history of God’s OT people.
7. Verse 8 speaks of HUMILIATION. The people who remain in Jerusalem are ruled by those who are only slaves themselves! How degrading for those who were once a military powerhouse in the region!
8. Verse 9 speaks of FAMINE. Verse 10 speaks of extreme SUNBURN. Verse 11 speaks of the horror of RAPE. Verse 12 speaks of EXECUTION. The rulers of Judah had been hung or impaled by the hands of the enemy.
9. And verse 13 speaks of the hard work of forced SLAVERY and sheer EXHAUSTION.
C. Now congregation, can you get a sense of the human catastrophe described here? Can you FEEL the desperate sorrow and grief and weariness described here? The poet has chosen his words to help us feel this moment. And this is reinforced with vv14-18, which describe the EMOTIONAL ANGUISH of the poet and his people – there is no music, there is no joy, and there is no dancing. There is a sickness of heart and complete barrenness and desolation. Jerusalem is destroyed; life is utterly miserable. It should not be possible for us to read this and be unaffected by the sheer weight of the human catastrophe described here.
D. But remember that the poet is speaking these words, first and foremost, to God, as a prayer. He is reminding God of the suffering of himself and the people. And here is the first point of application as we consider this prayer. You see, in Judges 10, where we have one of those descriptions of the cycle of disobedience and a deliverance, we read this, “And [the Lord] could bear Israel’s misery no longer.” Or literally, “His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel.” Isn’t that beautiful!? God is grieved by the misery of His people!
1. The God of the Bible is not some remote, unfeeling, capricious, uncaring deity, like the Allah of Islam. He is grieved by the misery of His people!
2. And in case you are thinking to yourself that Lamentations has made a point of explaining to us that God is the one who brought this judgment on the people of Judah because of their sins, let me remind you that we considered this earlier in the sermon series when we looked at Hebrews 12, which explains that the Lord does discipline His people.. But do you remember the language there? “The Lord disciplines the one He loves … God is treating you as sons … He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.” Even if our pain and suffering comes because of His Fatherly discipline, it comes, ultimately, because He loves us and He wants us to grow in our love for Him and our trust in Him.
3. So believer, in your suffering, pray to God. Turn to Him because He is the only one who is able to bring relief from distress and suffering.
4. And remember that when you pray to God, you are praying to your Father in heaven who grieves for the misery of His children.
III. But taking note of v16, where the poet says, “Woe to us, for we have sinned,” make sure that you are quick to turn to the Lord and acknowledge your sins and confess them. And we considered this just a couple of weeks ago when we looked at the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins.” All our sins have been forgiven and dealt with on the cross of Calvary by the sacrifice of Jesus. Hallelujah! But we continue to sin in the here and now. And God is displeased with our sin. So we should be eager to turn to Him, often, and express sorrow for our sin and to speak of our resolve not to sin.
IV. But as we come to the end of this prayer poem, we are reminded that GOD IS ALSO SOVEREIGN and that His timing is not our timing.
A. In chapter 3 of Lamentations, we took note of a moment in the third poem when the poet spoke of being utterly empty of happiness, endurance, and hope. He described his soul as bowed down within him. But in the very next verse we read this, “But this I call to mind, and there fore I have hope, the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The poet preached to himself; he reminded himself of the great truthes of God’s grace and mercy and love and compassion and patience, that the Bible is full of!
B. Well here he does the same but while the words from ch. 3 have become a very well-known hymn, it is pretty obvious why the words here at the end of ch. 5 have not become a very well-known hymn. The start is bright, “But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.” It is a declaration of God’s sovereign power as the eternal ruler of the universe. But then we read, “Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days?”
1. And you will here in those words an echo of the “why?” prayers in the Psalms and the “why?” prayer of Habakkuk.
2. And you can be sure this is an echo of the “why?” prayers of homeless Assyrian Christians today.
3. And some of you will be hearing an echo of your own “why?” prayers, for your suffering also continues and the Lord seems so far away and unhearing.
C. Well, the Spirit of the Lord has caused prayers like these to be recorded in Scripture so we know that times of suffering or spiritual dryness are not uncommon to God’s people. And it is OK to cry out to God in this way, provided you cry out to Him as your faithful Father in heaven.
D. Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
V. But the poet continues in v21, “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.”
A. In my research for this sermon I read that when these verses are read in Jewish homes and synagogues today, they read v21 again after they read v22. They refuse to let this poem end as it does here. Isn’t that fascinating!
B. But with that fact in view, let’s think for a moment about Jewish history. What we have seen has we have worked through this book is that it points forward to two things in particular, the return from exile but ultimately also to the coming of the Lord Jesus and His great work of salvation.
1. And we know that the Lord did bring the Jews back to Jerusalem. We are going to learn about that time as we turn for our next sermon series to the book of Haggai. And Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt.
a. But the glory of the Lord did not return to dwell in the Holy of holies in the temple.
b. The nation was ruled over not by Jewish kings but by the Medes and Persians, and then the Greeks, and then the Romans.
c. There were no prophets and no direct word from the Lord for 400 years.
d. And the same problems of injustice and immorality and idolatry continued.
2. And then, finally, the long promised Messiah was born. The one whom the people had been waiting for for 2000 years came among them. And what did these people who had sinned and who had been punished with destruction and exile for their sin, and who cried out to the Lord for a deliverer and deliverance, do to Messiah Jesus? They crucified Him. They did not learn the lesson that the human catastrophe described in Lamentations should have taught them. They remained a stubborn and rebellious people.
C. So what Lamentations reveals is that man is really, really bad. You and me are really, really bad. And God is exceedingly (or really, really) angry with our sin. But punishing us so that we learn the lesson and obey Him, does not work. It cannot work because our sin is so total and all-consuming. As Hebrews 12:1 says, It “clings so closely.”
1. So what God has done instead is to be exceedingly angry with Jesus so that He can be extraordinarily gracious toward you and me.
2. He chose to treat Jesus in a way that He did not deserve, so that He was free to not “deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”
3. He made it possible for us to become His children not through a human catastrophe that we must suffer, but through the divine catastrophe that Jesus suffered on the cross of Calvary.
So I hope that what you have learned from Lamentations is that GOD IS A JUDGING GOD. He cannot wink at sin. And He will condemn unrepentant sinners to the fire and loneliness and misery of eternal suffering in hell. But God is also a loving God! A gracious God! A merciful God! For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, Jesus, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. So the LAST WORD OF LAMENTATIONS; the place where we must end is that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is really, really powerful!!! Amen.