THE BROAD CONTEXT:
Assyria and Babylonia were located in Mesopotamia, the area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where Iraq is located today—400-500 miles (650-800 km) northeast of Israel. Babylonia (southern Mesopotamia) has surpassed Assyria (northern Mesopotamia) as the dominant Mesopotamian power. In 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia defeated Egypt at Carchemish, thereby establishing Babylonia as the reigning superpower.
In 598 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion in Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem, forcing Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carrying off “all the treasures of the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 24:13).
In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion by Zedekiah of Judah by again laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26 Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. The prophets made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for her sins.
The book of Lamentations was almost certainly written during the Babylonian Exile, which lasted from 587 B.C. to 539 B.C. when Cyrus of Persia freed the exiles. Lamentations consists of five poems, each of which comprises a chapter of the book. The first four poems are alphabetic acrostics—poems in which each line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first four chapters were probably written during the first part of the exile. The fifth chapter may have been written later—but still during the exile. The book as a whole serves as a funeral dirge for the nation.
Lamentations does not tell us the author’s name, but the authorship has traditionally been ascribed to Jeremiah. While some scholars question Jeremiah’s authorship, pointing to stylistic variations between the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, scholars are divided on this matter.
In the Hebrew canon, the book of Lamentations is found among the Writings rather than the Prophets. However the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) places Lamentations after the book of Jeremiah, and the Christian canon follows that model.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
Chapters 1 and 2 expressed lament for the nation—Judah, Zion, the lonely city. Chapter 3 is a personal lament—an expression of the pain that an individual experiences in the context of a national disaster.
LAMENTATIONS 3:19-20. MY AFFLICTION AND MY MISERY
19 Remember my affliction and my misery,
the wormwood and the gall.
20 My soul still remembers them,
and is bowed down within me.
“Remember my affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall” (v. 19). Wormwood is a desert plant in the daisy family from which people extracted a medicinal potion known for its bitter taste. Gall refers to the bile produced by the gall bladder—also quite bitter. Wormwood and gall appear together in Jeremiah and Lamentations as a metaphor for the bitterness of life (see Jeremiah 9:15; 23:15; also Amos 6:12).
The affliction and homelessness that seem so bitter to this author have to do with the devastation of his homeland and the forced sojourn of his people in a foreign land.
“My soul still remembers them, and is bowed down within me” (v. 20). The destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its citizens to Babylon have been such a catastrophe for the Jewish people that this author can think of nothing else. The thought of it burdens him and weighs him down.
LAMENTATIONS 3:21-24. THEREFORE HAVE I HOPE
21 This I recall to my mind; therefore have I hope.
22 It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses (Hebrew: he·sed) that we are not consumed,
because his compassion doesn’t fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 Yahweh is my portion, (Hebrew: heleq) says my soul;
therefore will I hope in him.
“This I recall to my mind; therefore have I hope” (v. 21). But now the author switches from despair to hope. There is no denying the terrible consequences of Jerusalem’s sacking and the exile in Babylon, but there is also no denying that Yahweh has redeemed Israel from terrible situations in the past—giving the author hope that Yahweh will redeem Israel once again.
“It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses (he·sed) that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning” (v. 22-23a). The word he·sed is has a rich variety of meanings—kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. Like the Greek word, agape, in the New Testament, he·sed is a word that involves action—kindness or love as expressed through kind or loving actions rather than simply kind or loving feelings.
The author’s faith is that Yahweh’s he·sed never ceases and his mercies never end. They are renewed every morning, so they remain ever fresh. Since that is true, Israel has nothing to fear. Its present circumstances might be terrible, but its future is assured. Yahweh and Israel are bound together in a covenant relationship, and Israel can trust Yahweh to be true to that relationship.
“great is your faithfulness” (v. 23b). This verse expresses the faith that Yahweh has both the will and the means to redeem every situation, no matter how grim.
These words inspired the title of the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which is based on Lamentations 3:22-23. Reflect on these lines from that hymn and consider their connection to these verses in Lamentations.
“Thou changest not,
thy compassions, they fail not.”
“Pardon for sin, and a peace that endureth,
thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.”
“Morning by morning new mercies I see.”
“‘Yahweh is my portion,’ (heleq) says my soul, ‘therefore will I hope in him'” (v. 24). Following the conquest of Canaan, Yahweh directed the division of the land into tribal portions. Their portion or tribal allotment constituted their livelihood––their means of sustaining life.
However, Aaron and his sons (the priests) did not receive a portion of the land, because “I am your portion (helq––portion or territory) and your inheritance among the children of Israel” (Numbers 18:20; see also Deuteronomy 32:9; Psalms 16:5; 73:26; 119:57; Isaiah 61:7). Aaron and his sons were dependent on Yahweh for their livelihood—dependent on the offerings prescribed by Yahweh in the Torah.
The author, then, sees Yahweh as his portion––his means of sustaining life. His spiritual heritage far outweighs his physical heritage (houses and lands).
The one who is dependent on Yahweh for his or her portion is truly blessed, because Yahweh’s “compassion doesn’t fail” and his faithfulness is, indeed, great. Therefore, the one who is dependent on Yahweh can place his or her hope in Yahweh and be assured that Yahweh will provide.
LAMENTATIONS 3:25-30. YAHWEH IS GOOD TO THOSE WHO WAIT FOR HIM
25 Yahweh is good (Hebrew: towb) to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh.
27 It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.
28 Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he has laid it on him.
29 Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope.
30 Let him give his cheek to him who strikes him; let him be filled full with reproach.
“Yahweh is good (towb) to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him” (v. 25). The Hebrew word towb is used in a variety of ways. It can mean “to be happy, to please, to be loved, to be favored, to seem good, to be acceptable, to endure, to be valuable, to do well, to do right” (Baker & Carpenter, 399). Here it means that those who wait for the Lord can expect that the Lord will show them love, mercy, and favor.
“those who wait for him” (v. 25). Throughout scripture, we find an emphasis on waiting for the Lord (Genesis 49:18; Psalm 37:9; Hosea 12:6; Zephaniah 3:8; Romans 8:25; Galatians 5:5). To “wait for” the Lord is to live in faith—to live in the expectation that Yahweh’s “compassion doesn’t fail”—that his mercies never come to an end—that his faithfulness is not only great but assured. To “wait for” the Lord is to live in the certainty that the Lord has the power and the will to bless those who are faithful. To “wait for” the Lord is to see beyond one’s present circumstances (such as the exile) to a future blessed by the hand of the Lord (such as the restoration of Israel).
“It is good (towb) that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh“ (v. 26). For a person who is suffering affliction and homelessness (v. 19), this is a profound statement of faith. While this verse emphasizes waiting quietly, it does not advise keeping a low profile to avoid punishment. Instead, it advises waiting quietly in the faith that the Lord will bring salvation.
“It is good (towb) for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth“ (v. 27). A yoke was a wooden bar or frame fitted across the necks of two oxen to make them a team. Fitted with a yoke, two animals could pull a burden (a plow or cart) as one—thus serving the purposes of their master. A yoke also imposed a measure of control. Neither animal was free to go its own direction, because its tie to the other animal served as a constraint.
Biblical authors used the yoke as a metaphor for other kinds of service and/or bondage (Genesis 27:40; Leviticus 26:13; Numbers 25:3; Deuteronomy 28:48; 1 Kings 12:10-14; Isaiah 9:4; 10:27; 14:25; 47:6; 58:6, 9; Jeremiah 2:20, etc.). The Jewish law was a yoke (Jeremiah 5:5). Yahweh permitted Babylonia to burden the people of Judah with a yoke of oppression as punishment (Isaiah 9:4)—but promises to break that yoke (Ezekiel 34:27).
“in his youth” (v. 27). Young people have lots of energy, and it is good for them to use that energy to serve the Lord. Youth is also a time when people establish habits and begin moving in directions that will affect the balance of their lives. If they serve the Lord in their youth, they will enjoy the blessings of good habits and positive directions.
“Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he has laid it on him” (v. 28). When the Lord has imposed a yoke, the wise person will suffer it in silence—will acknowledge his/her sin—will withhold counsel or protest. Their silence will acknowledge both the rightness of the Lord’s judgment and the certainty of the Lord’s mercy.
“Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope” (v. 29). Putting one’s mouth to the dust is a way of demonstrating submission. The oppressed person does so in the hope that the oppressor will acknowledge his/her submissiveness and thus lighten the burden and withhold the lash.
“Let him give his cheek to him who strikes him; let him be filled full with reproach” (v. 30). Giving one’s check to the smiter is another way of demonstrating submission. This phrase brings to mind Jesus’ counsel, “Don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). It also brings to mind Jesus’ silence in the face of his smiters (Matthew 26:62-63; John 18:22).
“There is a progressive severity in these verses: first, accepting the burden in silence (which is the easiest), then, burying the face in the dust but maintaining hope (which is more difficult), and finally, accepting physical abuse and disgrace for one’s faith (which is the hardest of all to accept)” (Huey, 474).
LAMENTATIONS 3:31-33. FOR THE LORD WILL NOT CAST OFF FOREVER
31 For the Lord will not cast off forever.
32 For though he cause grief, yet he will have compassion
according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses.
33 For he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.
“For the Lord will not cast off forever” (v. 31). The Israelites have suffered the destruction of Jerusalem and their temple, and they are now suffering forced servitude in Babylon. However, verses 25-30 expressed faith in the Lord’s goodness. Now the author expresses faith that the Lord will not punish Judah forever, but will redeem her (see also Psalms 30:5; 77:8; Isaiah 54:8; Jeremiah 3:12; 32:41; Hosea 6:1).
“For though he cause grief, yet he will have compassion according to the multitude of his loving kindnesses” (he∙sed) (v. 32). Yahweh is punishing these people for their sins, but the punishment has a redemptive purpose. Yahweh’s he∙sed guarantees that this exile will not last forever. Although Babylonia is so strong as to seem impregnable, Yahweh will find a way to rescue Judah from Babylonia’s heel.
That, in fact, will happen. Yahweh will raise up Cyrus of Persia to conquer Babylonia in 539 B.C., and Cyrus will prove to be an enlightened ruler who will not only encourage the Jewish people in their worship, but will also provide them the means to return to Jerusalem.
“For he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men” (v. 33). Good parents discipline their children when discipline is required, but they find no joy in it. In like manner, Yahweh is administering discipline to these Jewish people, but this discipline is only a means to an end. Yahweh’s purpose is to get the people’s attention—to cause them to turn back to the Lord—to bring them back into the covenant relationship established so much earlier.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Dobbs-Allsopp, F.W., Interpretation: Lamentations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002)
Garrett, Duane A. and House, Paul R., Word Biblical Commentary: Song of Songs & Lamentations, Vol. 23B (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000)
Guest, John, The Preacher’s Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Isaiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Longman, Tremper III, New International Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah & Lamentations (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008)
Longman, Tremper III and Garland, David E., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Jeremiah-Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)
O’Connor, Kathleen M., The New Interpreters Bible: Lamentations, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan