1 How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress. – Lamentations 1:1-3 ESV
Like the book of Job, Lamentations deals with the theology of suffering, but from a national, rather than a personal perspective. Written as poetry, Lamentations is a dirge, a song of mourning commemorating the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah. But the book is far more than a reciting of the sad state of affairs in Judah. It is a theological treatise on God’s justice, love, and sovereignty.
The seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are on display throughout the pages of Lamentations, and they are never fully resolved. Even at the close of the book, the unavoidable and inexplicable tension between these two truths remains.
The people of Israel had been given a choice by God. He had made a bilateral covenant with them that spelled out His expectations regarding their behavior. If they obeyed, they would be blessed. If they chose to disobey, the would experience the consequences, in the form of curses. The blessings and the curses had been covered in detail in the book of Deuteronomy.
“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV
“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV
The choice had been theirs. But God had made sure that the logical choice would be a clear and compelling one. There should have been no confusion or debate. God had promised that obedience to His commands would be accompanied by the benefit of His blessings on their cities, fields, flocks, agriculture, families, military exploits, business ventures, physical health, and financial prospects. They would enjoy status as “a people holy to himself” (Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV). And God assured them that this unique distinction would be accompanied by some significant implications:
“all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 NLT
But what if they chose to disobey God? What would happen then? God had made that outcome painfully clear. Everything He had promised to bless would be cursed.
“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.” – Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV
Their crops, cities, families, flocks, and fortunes would be cursed because God would remove His hand of protection and provision. If they chose to live in ways that were contrary and contradictory to God’s plans for His chosen people, they would experience the dire consequences. But again, the choice had been theirs to make. And we know from the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, that they ultimately chose to live in disobedience to God. They proved unfaithful to Him, regularly rejecting His will for their own. And while God had warned them repeatedly that destruction was coming unless they repented and returned to Him, they rejected the words of the prophets and followed the desires of their hearts.
A pattern of disobedience and unfaithfulness marked the history of God’s people. And it eventually resulted in the split of the kingdom, resulting in the nation of Israel in the north, and the nation of Judah in the south. And in 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians just as God had warned. And while the southern kingdom of Judah had watched the fall of its northern neighbor, they learned nothing from the experience. Because in 586 B.C., they would experience a similar fate, conquered by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
And here, in the opening verses of Lamentations, we read the somber words describing the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, the once flourishing capital of Judah. Jeremiah describes the city as a veritable ghost town. Its once-bustling streets are empty, its houses and buildings destroyed. The former glory of the temple has been reduced to rubble and the gates and walls of the city have been demolished. The book of 2 Kings describes the extent of the devastation.
In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. – 2 Kings 25:8-12 ESV
Jeremiah describes the fallen city of Jerusalem as a princess who has fallen on hard times. Formerly married and accustomed to great wealth and privilege, she finds herself widowed and reduced to a state of abject poverty. Her fortunes have been drastically and dramatically altered. Having formerly enjoyed the benefits of royal sovereignty, she is now reduced to a state of slavery.
But while her fate may leave us feeling sorry for her, it is not undeserved. Jeremiah goes on to describe Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife. She cries but finds no one to comfort her, in spite of her long list of lovers. Those whom she once considered her friends have ended up abandoning and turning against her. And in the book that bears his name, Jeremiah had warned Judah that all of this was going to happen, long before it did.
And you, Zion, city doomed to destruction,
you accomplish nothing by wearing a beautiful dress,
decking yourself out in jewels of gold,
and putting on eye shadow!
You are making yourself beautiful for nothing.
Your lovers spurn you.
They want to kill you. – Jeremiah 4:30 NET
Judah had made a habit of making alliances with other nations, seeking safety and security through treaties and military pacts, rather than trusting in God. When God had warned that the Babylonians were coming, the leaders of Judah had sought to stay off destruction through partnerships with pagan nations that were in direct violation of God’s will. But these “friends” would prove unfaithful and incapable of delivering Judah from the hands of the Babylonians.
Verse three paints a stark contrast between God’s preferred future for Judah and the reality of their current circumstances. As God’s chosen people, they had been given the land of Canaan as their inheritance. It was a rich and abundant land, filled with tangible expressions of God’s love in the form of orchards, vineyards, fields of grain, and abundant sources of water. They had lived in homes they had not built located in cities they had not constructed. They had enjoyed safety and security from their enemies provided by the hand of God. But now, Judah had “been led away into captivity, oppressed with cruel slavery” (Lamentations 1:3 NLT).
Instead of enjoying the peace and rest of the promised land, the people of God were experiencing the pain and suffering of exile in the land of Babylon. God had promised them that if they would only remain faithful to Him, He would ensure that they remained at the top of the food chain.
“…the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom.“ – Deuteronomy 28:13 NLT
But Jeremiah reveals that their choice to disobey God had produced a far different outcome.
She lives among foreign nations
and has no place of rest.
Her enemies have chased her down,
and she has nowhere to turn. – Lamentations 1:3 NLT
The people of Judah had made a choice, and now there were reaping the consequences of that choice. God had warned them, but they had refused to listen. He had pleaded with them repeatedly to repent, but they had rejected those calls. They had not acted out of ignorance, but out of pride and stubbornness. They had chosen to live according to their own ways, living in keeping with their own selfish agendas. And now, they were experiencing the error of their ways.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.