Are you having a tough time? If you are, there is a book designed especially for you. Ecclesiastes tells us that "it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better" (Eccl 7.2-3). There is no more solemnising house of mourning in the whole canon of Scripture than Lamentations.
This great elegy may be profitably approached in at least five different ways. First of all, we can read it historically. The fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC is one of the key events of the Old Testament, recorded four times (2 Kgs 25, 2 Chr 36, Jer 39.1-10 and Jer 52). It was both the collapse of a great city and the destruction of a kingly dynasty. But, whereas the historical narratives offer only an outside perspective, Lamentations enters into the very soul of the city's sufferings. One might say that it is to 2 Kings 25 what Psalm 22 is to Matthew 27. One of the striking features is its rigorous honesty. Unlike merely human documents, God's word doesn't censor or sanitise the truth in the interests of expediency. The Davidic monarchy was ingloriously terminated, for king Zedekiah, "the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord, was taken in their pits" (Lam 4.20) and, as a result, "the crown is fallen from our head" (5.16). There is no attempt to disguise deep national shame and sadness: "For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water … Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people" (1.16; 3.48). The book looks back to earlier demonstrations of divine judgment, insisting that Jerusalem's woes were even greater than Sodom's because the latter's overthrow happened "as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her" (4.6), whereas Zion endured a long siege. But there is also a warning. If Jerusalem was punished, wicked Gentile nations could be sure that they would not escape: "all mine enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that thou hast done it: thou wilt bring the day that thou hast called, and they shall be like unto me" (1.21). Past judgments prelude future ones – this rebel world is heading inexorably towards the outpouring of the great day of the Lord.
Second, the book may be viewed prophetically, charting the fulfilment of what Moses had told Israel on the borders of Canaan some 900 years earlier. Deuteronomy chapter 28 records the conditions for a prosperous occupation of the land: "all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God … But … if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God … all these curses shall come upon thee" (28.2,15). And what were the curses? Specifically, Israel would be "removed into all the kingdoms of the earth" and "go into captivity" (28.25, 41). Lamentations leaves no doubt that God kept His word. Three times in the first chapter we are told that the people of Judah have "gone into captivity" (Lam 1.3,5, 18) and that Jerusalem is "removed" (1.8). Even the prediction of a famine so dire that the inhabitants would resort to cannibalism (Deut 28.53-57) was realised historically in the unimaginable horrors of the Babylonian siege: "The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people" (Lam 4.10). But, wonderfully, that's not the end. The same book which foretells Judah's removal announces its repentance, as a result of which "the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee" (Deut 30.3). That's why Jeremiah could rejoice that "the Lord will not cast off for ever: But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies" (Lam 3.31-32). God is not through with the Jew.
Third, we should read it poetically. Its five chapters form five elegies which graphically take the lid off Jerusalem's anguish. Jeremiah often uses similes to portray pain. The once-thriving city has become "as a widow" (Lam 1.1) in its solitary, sad and defenceless condition; the royal family "are become like harts" (1.6), mercilessly hunted down by the enemy, while "as an unclean thing" (1.17, ASV1) Jerusalem is shunned by all. At the same time the writing is beautifully controlled. Each of the first four chapters constitutes an alphabetical poem, utilising all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet to offer a comprehensive A to Z of misery. Just as Psalm 119 celebrates God's Word using all the resources of language, so Jeremiah anatomises grief. But even the sequence of chapters is organised so that the first and last, second and fourth stand in parallel, highlighting chapter three as the centre. That is the great message of the book; at the very heart of Lamentations is hope: "This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him" (Lam 3.21-24).
Fourth, the book may be enjoyed typically. It is no accident that the Lord's Jewish contemporaries associated Him with Jeremiah (Matt 16.14), that great prophet who had faithfully urged repentance upon an unresponsive people. In Jeremiah's experience we glimpse something of the Messiah. Both were afflicted of God: "I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath" (Lam 3.1). Both were mocked by men: "I was a derision to all my people; and their song all the day" (3.14). Both were unjustly persecuted: "Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird, without cause" (3.52). Both expressed their distress in weeping for others: "Mine eyes do fail with tears … for the destruction of the daughter of my people" (2.11). Why not do some homework and find parallel verses relating these points directly to the Lord Jesus? In Jeremiah we see a little preview of the "man of sorrows" (Isa 53.3).
Finally, we must read the book morally, as an encouraging lesson in the gracious divine purpose behind chastisement. Though it was "the city which the Lord did choose out of all the tribes of Israel, to put his name there" (1 Kgs 14.21), nonetheless "Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed" (Lam 1.8). Great privilege brings great responsibility. As the Lord reminded Israel, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities" (Amos 3.2). That is perhaps why Jeremiah's elegy, unlike his prophecy, soft-pedals secondary causes and doesn't even name the Babylonians. They were indeed God's tool of discipline, but more important was to recognise that behind it all was Jehovah Himself. As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it, "whoever may bring an affliction, it is God that sends it". And that is the correct way to view all our circumstances, good or ill. If we do this we shall always long to talk to the Lord about them, knowing that He is in control of everything that touches us. What then should be the believer's reaction to the many inexplicable distresses of life? Jeremiah exhorted his people to "search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens" (Lam 3.40-41). Divine discipline is a mark not of abandonment, but of affection, "for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth", and although "no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (Heb 12.6,11). Lamentations teaches us to look for God's hand in the sorrows we endure that we might the more be cast upon Him. Are you going through tough times? Whatever the reason, it is good to "turn again to the Lord".