“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.”
If we read the first sentence out of context, we might be persuaded to think that it is describing most cities in lockdown nowadays, due to COVID-19. But what it describes is much more tragic.
This is the first verse in the book of Lamentations; a book that I’m sure a lot of you almost never reads or perhaps skims through very quickly. It is approached with the awkwardness of a stranger breaking down in tears in public – we don’t know what to do or where to look.
The context is the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC when the Babylonians invaded Judah. Christopher J.H. Wright describes it as “the most traumatic moment in the whole history of the Old Testament. Not only was there massive human suffering at every level of physical and emotional experience, not only the devastating demolition and incineration of their ancient and beautiful city, there was also the utter humiliation of their national pride as a small but independent nation that had a history in the land stretching back to Joshua.” Not to mention that they were God’s chosen nation; the God who promised inheritance and blessing to Abraham; the God who gave them His law; the God who promised a King who would be on the Davidic throne forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
A few years back, when I was studying music in Norway, in one of our choir projects we sang a piece called “Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae” by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. Besides it being an extremely challenging piece of music over 10 minutes long, it serves as a musical tribute to the victims of the MS Estonia disaster of 1994. In a similar way, the book of Lamentations commemorates, in a series of poignant poems, the utter loss, devastation and sorrow of the nation of Israel, so that it may not be forgotten. Even when we know the rest of the story; that the captives would be set free and return to Israel after 70 years, it doesn’t lessen their suffering – just like Jesus’s resurrection doesn’t erase the suffering of the cross (Wright). In that sense we can already understand its significance in the Bible. It begs us to “look and listen, to remember and reflect”- similar to the seven days of silence between Job and his friends (Job 2:13).
While the nation of Israel as a whole is portrayed as the “daughter of Zion” throughout the book (except for chapter 3), the voice of God is never heard amidst the continuous weeping; “Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her…” (1:17). And yet Lamentations is a book in the Bible – the Word of God – so God must be speaking in some way.
It is naturally important that we first understand the book in it’s original context before linking it to anything else, but since we are only doing a small overview, I would like to draw your eyes to chapter 3 and it’s relation to Jesus. Jesus is after all the One who ultimately fulfilled the Old Testament and every book thereof points to Him in some way or another.
Contrary to the “daughter of Zion” in chapters 1 and 2, a man is speaking in chapter 3:
“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long.” 3:1-3
“…I have become the laughingstock of all the peoples, the object of their taunts all day long.” 3:14
It is easy to see similarities to the “Man of Sorrows” referred to in Isaiah 52-53, pointing ultimately to Jesus, our Saviour, on the Cross. He who was under the rod of God’s wrath for the sins of the world, who was driven into darkness when He was forsaken by God; who was mocked and taunted on His way to Calvary. The only difference between the man in Lamentations and Jesus, is that the latter was completely innocent.
May we remember amidst the suffering and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, that our God knows what it’s like to be human through His Son, Jesus. Jesus knew what it meant to be sick, to be grieved, to suffer, to bleed, and ultimately, to die. He suffered infinitely more than any of us ever will. May we be comforted in knowing that His suffering bought our healing; that His God-forsakenness made us children of God; that His death brought us life.
I end with the only words of hope found in the book of Lamentations:
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 3:22